Jennifer Decker, founder and artistic director of Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, says she's never taken a salary, subsisting off her other gig as a full-time professor at Houston Community College. Artists get a stipend, but she admits it's not quite a "living wage." Until last week, they shared space with another theater company. But even after scrimping and economizing, the group recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise what Decker calls "an emergency amount of money."
There's an added urgency to this push after last week's announcement that Mildred's co-tenant, 4th Wall Theatre Company, would be closing its doors following an abbreviated season. It's a worrisome sign in an uneasy local economy, and Decker says the theater scene in Houston is simply flooded with too many new, small companies for the non-profit model to support.
Since 2001, Mildred's Umbrella has been Houston's only group dedicated to work by, for and about women, hiring only local actors and producing plays about issues such as abortion or teen pregnancy—"not in an after school special, preachy way," Decker says, "but a real way that encompasses that issue." Just in time for this year's Super Bowl, they produced The Johns, a work that raised awareness of Houston's notorious sex trafficking problem.
The company has always succeeded in spite of the business model, where 2 percent of arts organizations—made up of large organizations such as the Alley Theatre—are known to receive 60 percent of contributions. Smaller players such as Mildred's Umbrella, 4th Wall and others have to fight over what's left.
Decker says their traditional call for donations earlier this year failed to bring in the target amount, and a patchwork of grants only provides limited and unpredictable support. Short of a a corporate sponsor, this Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign was the go-to option. "It’s important to our survival as a company," Decker says, adding that the campaign, if successful, gets the company through the end of the season. Between now and then, they could find more funding, or consider scaling back to fewer productions in a smaller space.
"We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing," Decker says. "We just don’t know what the circumstances will be."