Talking to Nathan Cooper

by Peter Davis

Nathan Cooper is an ensemble member and the new Artistic Director at Single Carrot. I have given Single Carrot many props over the last couple of years as an example of good branding. In an Ignite #5 presentation I used them as a case study for Theater as a Business Model.

I look for contrasts and contradictions in people and organizations because they are telling and often interesting. I find Single Carrot both earnest and elegant, and visionary and present. I admire how they are incrementally elevating their game as both artists and administrators of a performing arts organization. While most store front theaters are struggling to survive, Single Carrot may one day be to Baltimore what Steppenwolf is to Chicago: a true ensemble theater that made a name for themselves. Like the Wolves the Carrots have a strong belief system, a clear identity, and a creative process that never stops learning how to connect and create communities.

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Peter
Congratulations becoming the Artistic Director.

Nathan
Thank you.

Peter
How does a Carrot get to become A.D.?

Nathan
Through a very diplomatic process. Anyone in the company interested submitted their name and wrote a statement including their vision and what they’d like to do in the job. Three of us were interviewed by the rest of the company. The interviews were as if it were the first time I’d met the group.

Peter
What vision did you propose?

Nathan
I talked about being the person that has the ability to unify the vision of a group of people. I think it’s really important to allow ensemble members to have the ability to voice where they want to see the company go artistically. Just listening to everybody and considering their opinions, and all moving in line with what everyone wants to do. While that’s not possible, it’s what you strive for.

Peter
That’s more your leadership style. What was your vision?

 

Nathan
Two pronged:
One was the artistic development of the ensemble…training in some capacity. The second was play development. Another idea with a lot of ways to approach it. Does that mean we’re work-shopping scripts from scratch? Does that mean we’re developing new plays? And in new plays are we devising our own work? Or other artists’ works? My proposal wasn’t so specific.

I think in an ensemble the quickest way to box yourself out and to lose the confidence of everybody is to come up with a set direction without taking the pulse of everyone.

Training and play development—that is the vision. These are things I see us doing in the next 5 to 10 years, that are going to help us grow and to fulfill our mission,

Peter
What’s the most challenging aspect of leading an ensemble?

Nathan
The hardest part of leading an ensemble…there are two things to leading an ensemble. One is that everybody is a leader in the company. There’s not one person that leads the ensemble. The Artistic Director is in charge of specific tasks. Ultimately artistic excellence and artistic vision, and unifying the vision of the ensemble. That’s my responsibility. We’re all leaders of the ensemble.

Peter
Single Carrot brings in outside talent; local actors, visiting artists, and artists from other artistic disciplines. How do you attract the right people?

Nathan
We’re a professional theater. We have a high caliber of work. We have to ensure a guest artist will bring a certain caliber of work, in talent or ethic and dedication. Probably a combination of both.

We get a lot of people who want to work with us. We try to open our doors as much as possible. We’ve been consciously trying to do that from the beginning. When we moved here we had a reputation for being completely insular. Because we didn’t know anybody. We needed to get things done quickly and chose to do it all by ourselves.

Peter
I thought it was your strategy.

Nathan
Uhmmmm, perhaps inadvertently it was. It was certainly not something we consciously sat down and said, “It would be strategic if we didn’t invite people in because then x,y, or z will happen. It was out of necessity. Do we want to explain how we want something done or do we just do it ourselves?

We’ve been working to expand our ability to bring people from the outside in. Linus and Alora had the most guest artists we’ve ever worked with on one of our shows.

Peter
What’s the upside to diversifying the ensemble?

 

 

Nathan
When we bring in any guest artist it’s somebody who has a different set of experiences that led them to where they are, and we can take on certain aspects.

I think something our company has taken on as a strategy is to adapt. Every show we do we set the play, the seating, and the space differently.

Peter
Something I look forward to with each show.

Nathan
We’ve never been scared to take something on we don’t know how to do. We started a theater company and we didn’t know how to do that. From the beginning we’ve always taken on new challenges. We’ve used those challenges to propel our art, to make us better administrators and artists.

Peter
You called Single Carrot a professional theater. I’m interested in that.

Nathan
This is an interesting and touchy subject in the theater right now.

Peter
I’m curious.

Nathan
There’s a traditional conception that professional theaters are equity. There are numerous examples of theaters around the world and the country that are producing professional theaters that don’t fit that model.

Peter
Chicago is full of them. I call them storefront theaters.

Nathan
Equity is one way to show you’re a professional theater, but if you’re going to use an organization as the indication of professionality, then we’re a member of TCG (Theatre Communications Group). It only lets professional theaters into its network. If you’re going to use organization as the indication of professional theater, then why not use that one?

Peter
Can being “professional” be a mind-set?

Nathan
That’s where I’m going now. We believe that it is a mind set, an approach. It’s a dedication to putting out a professional product. It’s treating your artists and employees in a professional manner. It’s following all the rules of the IRS and the U.S. government. We’re in compliance with State and Federal agencies. There are these many things that make us professional.

But then on the other side, every time we come into the rehearsal we expect our artists to be at a professional caliber. We expect them to be putting in their time and energy in a professional manner.

Peter
So, to be professional you need the mind set, the business model-

Nathan
-yeah.

Peter
-the results-

Nathan
-I call it artistic excellence-

Peter
-what else?

Nathan
And regulations in some capacity.

Peter
What do you mean by that?

 

Nathan
I’ve never known a group of people to be exploited like the artists. And we are willing to work for less money, in worse conditions, longer hours…it’s important to regulate all these different aspects of these work conditions. We don’t have separate dressing rooms, but we do pay modest stipends to each artist. We sign contracts with everybody we work with. So, there’s regulations, right? It’s the system in which we run. Regulating the artistic process doesn’t necessarily fit with the business model because they are two separate worlds, but it’s important that the artistic realm has some sort of semblance of a business model. If we don’t have standards for how we work we’re not going to be sustainable.

I’m spending a lot of time focusing on making connections in the theatrical community in and outside of Baltimore for artistic advancement.

Peter
What does that mean?

Nathan
Think of professional development in an artistic capacity.

Peter
Sure.

Nathan
So, we’re talking to other theater companies to come in and do training with us. We’re talking to theater professionals to come in and work with us on certain projects. They’re all ideas that look like this (twiddles finger tips) right now.

Collaboration (with outsiders) makes sure the ensemble continues to grow. The ensemble is at the heart of the company. I believe part of the reason people come to Single Carrot is to see what the ensemble is up to?

Peter
Who gets to direct, who playing the lead, who’s running the box office?

Nathan
Yeah — who’s new?

We’ve started a fellowship

Peter
Explain.

Nathan
We have 3 Fellows this year.

Peter
What do they do?

Nathan
Much like being a full company member, you have administrative and artistic dealings for the season. They don’t have voting rights.

Peter
Where did the fellowship idea come from?

Nathan
We’ve lost people over the years. And we’ve realized we need to grow our capacity to successfully complete all the work administratively and artistically participate in the company, in order to keep that professional quality and good people. All of those responsibilities are impossible to balance with the group of people that we have. We need more help. We benefit by having more manpower. They benefit by having an immersive experience. It’s a one year commitment. The idea came from ongoing conversations of looking at our growth, and our strategic plan.

We want to grow our budget to $500,000 by 2015. Our budget this year is $250,000. We can’t do that with 8 people. There’s not enough time to do the administrative stuff and do the art.

One day we’re going to rehearse during the day.

Peter
That will be nice.

Nathan
That will be incredible!

Peter
Is there a show or an event this season that captures what Single Carrot is all about? Something you claim, “This is the most Us!”

Nathan
The last show of the season is our devised work piece. That’s the one…title to be determined. We’ll work on it for 9 months before we present it. It’s the biggest undertaking ever. We’ve thrown out everything we’ve ever known or done with a show and are starting fresh. No roles have been assigned, and we don’t even know yet what the show is about. So far we’ve just been talking about how to work.

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Nathan’s last line shows how Single Carrot’s ambition is driven by values…not money or fame, but process and collaboration.

Photos by Britt Olsen-Ecker