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
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
Pitfall #5 -- No budget for individual committees and
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
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
Pitfall #12 -- Having one person selecting plays for
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.