Karin Ringheim had been waiting nearly 30 years for an e-mail like the one she got last spring: “Congratulations!” A well-regarded theater festival in New York had selected the musical she has been writing, polishing and — futilely — marketing since 1988.
She only had to wait a few days for the next big e-mail: How are you going to pay for it? Festival organizers wanted to know her plans for covering the estimated $20,000 cost of the 10-actor, three-musician show.
“I’m looking around, thinking, ‘What can I sell on Ebay?’ ” said Ringheim, a 69-year-old public health consultant in Arlington.
But a lot has changed since she launched her project in the era when producers called potential backers on a rotary-dial phone. Instead, she went to an organization that raises more money for artists than the National Endowment for the Arts. Kickstarter, a crowdfunding Web site that pumped $251 million into arts-
related projects last year, has allowed dozens of Ringheim’s friends and family to chip in as small-scale theater angels.
With three days to go, 133 donors had pledged $20,142, and it looks like Ringheim will actually see her life 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 said. “Crowfunding has been a game-changer.”
She’s just one of thousands of playwrights, musicians, filmmakers, choreographers and others finding a new lease on artistic life through sites that match fundraisers with donors. Amid the pitches to invest in hot new products and the heart-tugging appeals on behalf of cancer patients and displaced families, singers are funding their first CDs, playwrights their first stage shows and bands their first tours.
“Oh my God, this has changed everything for us,” said Sean Chyun, 30, frontman of Bethesda-based band the DCeivers. After years on the bar circuit, his group had enjoyed little financial backing beyond what it made at gigs and the occasional gift of a used amp.
“Our parents aren’t millionaires,” he said.
But two years ago, the band raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter for its first studio sessions with a professional producer. The resulting nine-song CD pushed them to the next level, giving them something to sell at shows, boosting their rep with booking agents and forcing Cyun to hone his songwriting chops.
“It was a lot of pressure,” he said. “We got all these people to give us money, we better get this right.”
Across the performing arts, “Let’s put on a show!” has become “Let’s get everybody we know to give $5 or $10,” said Star Johnson, 32, a fledging playwright from Prince Georges County, Md.
Johnson was able to batch together $2,510 in small pledges to mount a production of her own first play at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival in Washington.
The novice playwright was recently sleeping on friends’ couches in New York in a more conventional — and disastrous — attempt to break into theater. She came back to D.C. and began writing a musical about four young people trying to break into showbiz.
Not only did she see her play, “How to Quit Your Day Job,” on stage last month, the show won an audience award and was selected for an extended run.
Since seeing the first performances financed through the sites about five years ago, Fringe Festival organizers 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 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.
“It’s not about, ‘Oh my god, I got 20 likes,’ ” said Julianne Brienza, the head of Capital Fringe. “It’s, ‘Okay, who are these people, and how can I get connected to the people they know?’ Not everyone is a natural networker.”
Regardless, artists have been flocking to the crowdfunding sites. Indiegogo, the site Brienza recommends to her participants, hosted more than 9,000 theater and music campaigns last year. That number has ballooned more than 110 percent each year since 2011, according to the company.
Music projects are the single biggest category on Kickstarter, where more than $1.5 billion has been raised for all kinds of endeavors since 2009. The site has hosted more than 30,000 successful campaigns in music and theater.
“It’s meant everything to me,” said Torrey Berry of the GoFundMe campaign that is letting him record his first album.
Berry had already traveled an impressive distance as a performer — and a person — in recent years, clawing his way from sleeping at Metro stations as a homeless person to singing at them as a popular street busker.
The 27-year-old has been playing guitar and singing since second grade, and writing his own music for about the last decade. But a string of setbacks and a messy breakup left him homeless for a few months two years ago. He spent a few nights outside the Rosslyn Metro station. Getting back on his feet has included at steady job at Jammin Java, a live music club in Vienna, and hours serenading the commuters at the Crystal City Metro station two or three mornings a week. A good day brings in more than $200.
“I enjoy it,” Berry said. “It’s good practice to be out front of people.”
With his own apartment and a job, Berry has raised more than $900 through crowdfunding to start recording some of his own tunes at a studio in Woodbridge. “Drinking Cold Coffee” is in the can, and he started laying down tracks for “Raindance.” It costs more than $300 for each song.
“I couldn’t afford it without the [GoFundMe] campaign,” he said. “I work to pay the bills, and I busk to buy equipment. There’s not really money left to record.”
But few artists have had a longer path to fulfillment than Ringheim, who nursed her play through child-rearing, a long global health career and hundreds of rejections. Most of the time, she heard nothing at all from the theaters, 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 interstate highway. Her mind was suddenly flooded with the plot, characters and even some of the music for a story of recovering addicts running a diner.
Addiction problems have plagued more than one of her relatives. “It’s a subject that’s meaningful in my family,” she said.
She scribbled down as much as she could when she got home, and then spent the next several years fleshing out the script and score, buying a used pink piano and, eventually, a software program for composing music. By the mid-1990s, she had a copyrighted text and some rough cassette recordings of the songs.
Then came two decades of hoping to actually see the thing staged.
“I was really losing hope,” she said. But at a recent Dramatists Guild meeting, she heard members of a panel hailing Internet crowdfunding as a breakthrough for frustrated producers. She decided to submit her play to the Thespis Theater Festival in New York. In September, she’ll sublet an apartment for two weeks of rehearsals and then three performances at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th St.
“It’s off, off, off Broadway; I don’t know how many offs,” Ringheim said. “And that’s fine.”