Obstacles along the path to success are often produced in the minds of the creative people themselves, Heidi Van said.
“These obstacles are created from self-doubt,” said Van, Fishtank Theatre founder and artistic director. “If you actually looked closer and broke it down into action items, you could probably make a couple of phone calls and figure things out. I still have to tell myself this.”
Van — an actress, producer, director, playwright, creative consultant, entrepreneur and mother of two — launched her own venue and production company, Fishtank Theatre, in 2009.
It originally began as a studio space in the Crossroads for her to practice her craft, evolving into a performance venue for Van to showcase her work: experimental live theater.
“Once I got into this honest and fearless mindset, I realized that all I had was my word — I had to just do what I said I was going to do — in this case, produce a play or create a theater company,” Van said. “I had to keep taking baby steps. It takes really hard work, but I like my work, so that’s awesome.”
Since then, the Fishtank pivoted from a niche venue to more of a concept. In January, Van said goodbye to the Fishtank’s brick-and-mortar location and re-launched the company as a “nomadic theater experience” — meaning a production company that can be set up at multiple locations, she said.
Van’s vision for the Fishtank grew larger than the space, she said.
“The Fishtank has always pivoted,” Van said. “The beautiful thing is I get to focus on projects and our programs, now that I don’t have such a large overhead. This is a luxury and it is exactly how I always wanted it to be.”
Van has performed as an actress at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Coterie Theatre, New Theatre Restaurant, Unicorn Theatre, and American Heartland Theatre, among others in the area. A Henry W. Bloch School of Management’s E-Scholars graduate, she received funding from ArtistInc, ArtsKC and the Charlotte Street Foundation.
Filled with an entrepreneurial spirit, perseverance, gusto and passion, Van always knew nothing could stop her from creating art, she said.
“We all can make art, we can’t all be handed things. … Nobody will pay you to breathe,” Van said. “Money can hold artists back. They want people to give them money to do their projects, but in reality, you have to research how to get money. People have to be willing to invest their human capital into a project, there is no easy way to make money.”
Yet with degrees in theatre, political science and history, Van didn’t always understand business. When she was accepted to the E-Scholars program in 2012, she was a little nervous, she said.
“I was the lone artist in the room,” Van said. “I was very intimidated because there are a lot of things I did not know.”
To succeed, Van had to learn lessons outside her comfort zone, she said.
“The financial spreadsheet was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen,” she said. “But now that E-Scholars walked me through it, I love that thing.”
Most of all, she was thankful for the entrepreneurial mindset she adopted through the program, Van said.
“The thing I was the most nervous about in business school was asking for help and not being afraid to say what I did not know,” Van said. “Once I did, I learned to flesh out the entire operational model of how to launch an idea.”
Art that pushes boundaries
Theater is about experience, Van said.
“One of the things I am most proud of is that I created an environment and a company that produces work that is risky,” Van said. “And, I’ve curated an audience who will willingly participate in that risk.”
Van defines her work as “content progressive” and “risk-taking.”
“We want to take away some of the filters. Not necessarily profanity or explicit things like that, but a lot of projects serve as a vehicle for social justice,” Van said. “I feel that it is my responsibility as an artist to talk about what is happening in the world right now.”
In addition to featuring shows from dozens of local, independent playwrights, the Fishtank has set up shop in nontraditional locations. The production company is also progressive in the sense that it is constantly testing new ways to introduce audiences to theater, she said.
The Fishtank has produced shows outdoors, at retail shops and even through a window. For the “window shows,” chairs are set up outside on the street for attendees to watch a play happening indoors.
“It’s like watching a silent movie scored by live musicians,” Van said. “It was incredible. We set up the experience exactly the way we wanted it to be.”
Van is excited for the freedom and flexibility that pivoting to a nomadic production company will bring, she said. The Fishtank will continue to play host to five shows per season and will emphasize audience experience, she said.
“When you see the Royals play, whether they win or lose, you remember your experience,” Van said. “If you want people to go to the theater, there needs to be a unique experience to get them to come back.”
The Kansas City art community
Kansas City’s community of artists, theater and independent producers is growing, Van said.
“Kansas City, to me, is a really inspiring, pulsating city and the people here inspire me as a storyteller, a playwright,” Van said. “It’s been really fun to grow the business in Kansas City because Kansas City respects artists as entrepreneurs and business people and there are a lot of resources.”
She right. According to a recent report via ArtsKC, the art industry added a total of $276 million to the metro’s economy in 2015. The figure is a slight increase from the 2010 figure, according to a report from Americans for the Arts.
As the industry grows, Van is grateful that the Kansas City community continues to give space for both family life and career. She hopes young artists in the area believe in themselves, think entrepreneurially and create innovative experiences for Kansas City.
“Artists are competing with sports, bars and Netflix,” Van said. “There are a lot of young people producing right now, and that’s cool, because when theater is a viable option for entertainment, then it’s good for the industry. But we need to focus how to grow our audience, where to find them, and how to get people to buy a ticket.”
To stay up-to-date about coming Fishtank shows, click here.