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13 Pitfalls of Community Theater

Avoid these common organizational errors

By Mike Polo

Over time, we have received a number of requests asking for advice on setting up and running a community theater group. We have tried to reply to each of these requests individually, but many of them were rather open-ended, so we've put together a few organizational tips and suggestions for theater groups no matter their age. These are certainly open to discussion and debate, and we welcome your input.

Below, you will find a list of organizational "don'ts" based on observation and experience with a number of organizations, both theatrical and non-theatrical. Along with our list of "thou shalt nots," you'll find our explanations of what kind of problems these scenarios can generate and why you should avoid them.

Pitfall #1 - Too many board members

An ideal board for a community theater should be anywhere from 5-9 members, and always an odd number. More than that, and discussions and decision-making can get bogged down, leading to inaction.

Pitfall #2 --Too few board members

Fewer than 5 board members leads to perception problems. A board must have enough people to assure diversity of opinion and thought.

Pitfall #3 -- Too much detail dealt with at the board level

Committees should be used to spread the work around. If a board spends too much time dealing with minutiae, important decisions get short shrift. Let committees of members handle the arguments and details and, if necessary, bring recommendations to the board.

Pitfall #4 -- Unempowered committees

Make sure committees have enough authority to do their jobs without having to come to the board for every decision.

Pitfall #5 -- No budget for individual committees and shows

Budgets allow committees and productions to spend money without board approval, up to certain preset levels. This again allows the board to deal with more important issues than how much to spend on toilet paper for this month.

Pitfall #6 -- Non-member decision making

Avoid this one like the plague. Create a membership standard and invest the membership with certain privileges, such as voting for the board, borrowing items from the theater, etc. Make sure that members are aware of the rights and privileges that come with membership. Do not allow non-members to become a part of the decision-making process.

Pitfall #7 --Inactive members voting for board members

Be sure your bylaws spell out the voting requirements and make sure they go beyond paying dues. Require attendance at a set number of board or general meetings in order to vote. Require participation in other ways such as backstage or committee work. The privilege of having a say in how the organization is run has to be earned.

Pitfall #8 -- Inactive board members

If your board is composed of members of your theater company, a majority of them should be active members. A board composed mostly of people who no longer work on shows runs the risk of being out of touch with the needs and wants of the members down in the trenches.

Pitfall #9 -- Not keeping members and patrons informed

An uninformed membership tends to drift. They don't feel as if they're a part of the organization. The same goes for patrons. Publish a periodic newsletter for everyone, letting them know about important board decisions and upcoming productions and auditions. Make your board minutes available to the membership. Keep them involved in what's going on.

Pitfall #10 -- Policies shared by word of mouth

How does one get to be a director? What are the producer's responsibilities? Write 'em down and make sure they're available to everyone. Policies are not bylaws. the board has to have the flexibility to change them as circumstances change, but they should not be changed on a whim.

Pitfall #11 -- Non-member directors

Unless you import and pay for directing talent, this could spell trouble. An outside director doesn't know the unique situations within your group and yet represents your group to new members and to patrons. Make sure that your directors have experience with your group as participants, not just observers. Not only will they be more in tune with the members and the audience, you'll be more likely to keep them around.

Pitfall #12 -- Having one person selecting plays for a season

I know. that's how many groups with an artistic director work. However, it doesn't allow for more than one person's preferences and interpretations. I am familiar with one situation where a group's artistic director decided to do a season of "cutting edge art shows" and nearly put the group out of business. It was just too much for the audience. Put together a diverse playreading committee, with members who range from very conservative to very cutting edge. Don't forget the moderates. This committee should make recommendations to the board. and dissenting opinions about shows should also be presented to the board. Let the board make final decisions on the plays and the season. That's what you have one for.

Pitfall #13 -- Relying on government money to survive

Sooner or later, the Republicans are going to succeed in cutting the NEA's budget to the point where community theaters get left out. Don't use government money for general operating expenses. Use it, if you have to, to fund special projects that can be dumped if your funding is cut. Make sure that your budget is such that your main purpose, producing plays for the community, is self-supporting. It isn't impossible, even today. Work within your means and don't get too ambitious too fast. Budget, then check your figures annually.


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