Artists with dreams have crowdfunding to thank for their chance

Indiegogo hosted more than 9,000 theatrical and musical campaigns last year, and music projects are the single biggest category on Kickstarter, as artists crowdfund projects and performances

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 August, 2015, 12:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

If you've ever had an idea, a dream, that you're sure would be a hit but that you couldn't finance, now you can do what Karin Ringheim did.

Ringheim had been waiting for almost 30 years for the congratulatory email she got in the spring. A well-regarded theatre festival in New York had selected the musical she has been writing, polishing and marketing since 1988.

But then came the big question: festival organisers wanted to know how she planned to pay the estimated US$20,000 cost of the 10-actor, three-musician show.

"I'm looking around, thinking: 'What can I sell on eBay?'" says Ringheim, a 69-year-old public health consultant from Virginia.

But a lot has changed since the era when producers called potential backers on a landline. Instead, she went to an organisation that raises more money for artists than the National Endowment for the Arts. Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website that directed US$251 million into arts-related projects last year, has allowed dozens of Ringheim's friends and family to chip in as small-scale theatrical angels.

By the time of its Kickstarter deadline, 134 donors pledged US$20,802 and it looks as if Ringheim will actually see her project, Welcome to the Hard Luck Cafe, come to life on a Manhattan stage next month.

"I had pretty much given up on it," she says. "Crowdfunding has been a game changer."

Thousands of playwrights, musicians, filmmakers, choreographers and others have done the same, finding a new lease of artistic life through sites that match fundraisers with donors. Amid pitches to invest in hot new products and heart-tugging appeals on behalf of cancer patients, singers are funding their CDs, playwrights their stage shows and bands their tours.

Across the performing arts, "Let's put on a show!" has become "Let's get everybody we know to give five or 10 dollars", says Star Johnson, 32, a fledgling playwright from Maryland.

Johnson was able to collect US$2,510 in small pledges to mount a production of her first musical, How to Quit Your Day Job, at this year's Capital Fringe Festival in Washington.

Since seeing the first performances financed through the sites about five years ago, Fringe Festival organisers now incorporate crowdfunding strategies in the orientation they give to all the artists accepted to perform. This year, about 10 of the festival's 125 shows relied on some kind of crowdfunding.

The most talented artists aren't always the most capable online fundraisers, so Fringe staffers advise them to start their campaigns early, push hard on the gifts - including show tickets and backstage access - to donors and to think well beyond just friends and family.

Regardless, artists have been flocking to crowdfunding sites. Indiegogo hosted more than 9,000 theatrical and musical campaigns last year. That number has more than doubled each year since 2011, the company says.

Music projects are the single biggest category on Kickstarter, where more than US$1.63 billion has been raised for almost 91,000 endeavours since 2009.

But few artists have had a path to fulfilment like Ringheim, who nursed her play through child rearing, a long career in global health and hundreds of rejections. Most of the time, she heard nothing at all from the theatres, producers and festivals she tried to interest in her script.

Ringheim was a graduate student in 1988, with no musical training beyond a few years of piano, when inspiration struck her on a Minnesota motorway. Her mind was flooded with the plot, characters and even some of the music for a story of recovering addicts running a diner. Addictions have plagued more than one of her relatives. "It's a subject that's meaningful in my family," she says.

She bought a used pink piano and music composing software. By the mid-1990s, she had a copyrighted text and some rough recordings of the songs. Then came two decades of hoping to actually see it staged. "I was really losing hope," she says. But at a recent Dramatists' Guild meeting, she heard a panel hailing crowdfunding as a breakthrough.

She submitted her play to the Thespis Theatre Festival in New York. After two weeks of rehearsals in a sublet flat, Welcome to the Hard Luck Cafe will have three performances at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. "It's off-, off-, off-Broadway; I don't know how many offs," Ringheim says. "And that's fine."

The Washington Post