New York City is arguably the center of American theater, from the biggest Broadway venues to the smallest D.I.Y. spaces. But that doesn't mean most performers OR theater operators are raking in money—especially now, more than two years into the pandemic. Now, Super Secret Arts, a new theater space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is trying a fresh twist on the membership model, in hopes that it will help them pay artists fairly while keeping the lights on.
"You pay $25 a month and you can come whenever you want for free," co-founder Toby Singer told Gothamist. "And it's really for free. Like, that's the deal."
Singer’s pitch is to build something like Netflix or Spotify, where members pay an affordable monthly subscription fee in exchange for access to all the content they want. While there are a limited number of tickets per performance, Singer says members can sign up for any open spots and go to as many shows as they like, with no restrictions. That means that instead of strictly relying on ticket sales or donations, Super Secret Arts can put that steady income stream toward keeping the lights on, bringing in riskier work and even paying the artists.
One of those pieces is “This Soil, These Seeds…,” a performance piece by Bonita Jackson. A combination of dance and monologues, the show is one of the first to go on stage at Super Secret Arts. It’s a big change for Jackson, who debuted it several years ago in the auditorium of the Turtle Bay Music School in Manhattan, where she was working as an operations manager.
“Most of the things I've done in New York City have been free: collaborating for weeks, putting on a full-on production and getting paid maybe a stipend of $50,” Jackson said. “To say, 'Hey. I want you to do this piece and not for free, but you're going to be paid for your time. You're going to be paid for your art...'? That is huge.”
While there is a large range for what Super Secret Arts pays performers, depending on their production needs, Singer says the goal is to generally guarantee about $500 a night alongside technical support and rehearsal space.
"A more conventional theatrical environment might be hesitant to produce something, or hesitant to give it a platform, because it's not proven,” Singer said. “They don't know if their audiences like it. They don't know if their donors are going to like it. So our model essentially gives us a little more freedom to just program what we'd like."
This funding model isn’t entirely new for the industry, and is similar to how traditional non-profit theaters offer season tickets and membership perks for audiences willing and able to pay more up front. But Heather Shields, who teaches young producers how to navigate the commercial side of theater as a co-founder of The Business of Broadway, says traditional models were struggling even before the pandemic shuttered theaters across the city, and it's unclear whether those models are still sustainable or fair.
"When you don't pay people equitably and fairly, it immediately closes the door on people who are not of a certain privilege. Right? So how do I do that, but also literally leave the lights on? That's what excites me,” Shields explained. "They saw a problem, they're testing a solution and it's a solution that strikes me as something that would be inherently scalable if it works."
If it clicks for a small performance space like Super Secret Arts, Shields says it could work for a larger, more established theater. And finding new ways to pay for theater could mean performers have better access to audiences, and will worry less about whether they can afford to make their art.
Learn more about Super Secret Arts and its offerings at supersecretarts.com