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Helping theater help itself

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Crowdfunding was already a phenomenon among artists before Rob Thomas and Spike Lee's recent hauls on Kickstarter (respectively, $5.7 million in April 2013 and $1.4 million last week).

But it's the hidden price tags that keep surprising first-timers when they try to crowdsource funds: The cost of generating the swag your donors get at various levels of support (and don't forget the packaging and shipping costs). Add to that the 3-to-5 percent that companies such as PayPal and Amazon charge for processing credit card transactions.

Then there are the fees those online platforms charge for hosting your campaign. They range from 3 to 15 percent of all funds raised—and some sites double that fee if your campaign doesn't meet its goal.

"But most crowdfunding comes from people you approach personally," notes up-and-coming publicist and producer Tim Scales, whose Wagon Wheel Arts has worked with clients including PlayMakers Rep, Manbites Dog and Little Green Pig during its first year in business.

"Very, very little comes from just being on the platform. In effect, you're paying these companies a great deal of money to not really provide any more work than you do yourself."

That was the thought that led him to start WagonWheelCrowdfunding.com, a community-based platform that puts a couple of unique twists on the online fundraising theme. First, patrons can make nonfinancial donations—volunteering time as an usher, for example, or providing services and resources to artists in need. "I think that's really key; if you're reaching out to friends, fans and family, there are people who want to support you who can't necessarily give you money."

But the real eye-opener in this just-launched service is the fee it charges artists: zero. "It's a free service for the people in the community to use; a free platform," Scales says.

Wagon Wheel clients still have to pay the 2.9 percent-plus-$0.30 transaction fee the credit card companies charge.

"I figured there had to be a way to keep the costs down, keep the money and the focus in the local community," Scales says. He expects the site will generate business for Wagon Wheel Arts in the form of deals for personal, professional—and entirely optional—assistance in setting up, managing and promoting their campaigns.

"A lot of people are under the illusion that you can put a campaign up on Kickstarter and it takes care of itself from there," Scales says. "They see the hit campaigns that get a lot of press and take off from there. They don't see the ones where the people really fought their way to the goal.

"The platform is just a platform. You still need a traditional fundraising campaign behind it. And we can offer professional help with that, for those who want it."

Scales is putting his own projects where his platform is. The first campaign the soft rollout of his website featured was Triassic Parq, the modest musical his company produced last week at Kenan Theatre.

"I figured it was safe to work the kinks out on my own campaign," Scales says with a grin. "If I ran into problems, I wasn't going to affect anyone else's art."


Our fall theater highlights

Approximately 100 productions are slated between now and year's end, and two dozen have our particular interest. PlayMakers Rep starts its PRC2 season with Surviving Twin, the world premiere of a new stage work by longtime satirical folkie Loudon Wainwright III (Sept. 4–8). Jay O'Berski helms Thornton Wilder's Our Town—with an all-African American cast (Sept. 5–21). We'll also see the premiere of O'Berski's play about Scientology, Wall of Fire, at Branson Theater on the Duke campus (Sept. 19–21).

Burning Coal's season opens with the Richard Bean comedy The Heretic (Sept. 12–29), the same weekend Hidden Voices concludes three years looking into our state's school-to-prison pipeline with None of the Above, in various venues (Sept. 13–Oct. 6).

As usual, director Joseph Megel will be involved in multiple projects this fall. Streetsigns Center returns from near-dormancy with a New Works Initiative of concert readings at Chatham Mills (Sept. 15). His Process Series makes its eclectic way, presenting experimental instrumentalists and video artists INVISIBLE (Sept. 20–21) and a holographic video/performance work by Roxana Pérez–Méndez at Morehead Planetarium (Oct. 25–26).

Auteur Ellen Hemphill will intrigue us all with Archipelago Theater's latest work, The Narrowing, at the Shadowbox (Sept. 26–Oct. 13), and Duke Theater Previews returns from an even more extended hiatus with guest Sibyl Kempson's odd mix of James Agee and geographer Carl Sauer, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag (Sept. 27–28).

Devised theater group Haymaker continues its long pursuit of Elektra with the third of its intriguing "draft performances" (Sept. 23), the week before Manbites Dog plunges us into Mike Bartlett's bisexual triangle drama, Cock (Oct. 3–19).

In October, NC Theatre stages Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats (Oct. 8–13), before Artscenter Stage goes even further back for two Civil War-based dramas, The Whipping Man (Oct. 18–27) and Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas (Dec. 13–22).

In November, PlayMakers will mount rotating productions of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses and Shakespeare's Tempest (Nov. 2–Dec. 8), and we'll be challenged to cross the line from spectators to participants in a devised theatrical work on war, Measure Back, from Duke Performances (Nov. 6–9). Common Wealth Endeavors keeps the focus on non-American playwrights with Alice Birch's Many Moons (Nov. 7–16).

DPAC hosts the touring musical Ghost (Nov. 12–17) the same week Peace University stages The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Nov. 14–23) and a new troupe, Big Wig Productions, stages Diane Samuels' Kindertransport in Burning Coal's second stage series.

Before the holiday shows, the Little Green Pigs become spies in the house of gender with an all-female, all-drag version of The Man Who Was Thursday (Dec. 4–21), before Megel directs The Best of Enemies at Manbites Dog (Dec. 5–21) and Randolph Curtis Rand returns to stage a three-man version of The Tempest at Burning Coal (Dec. 5–22).

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