Part 2 - The Theater Biz
Like it or not, what you're launching here is
a business proposition -- you will provide a service, and you
will expect it to be self-supporting (eventually) so that you
can continue to provide it. To that end, you need to do your homework
just as you would if you were starting up your own business. The
first thing you must do is to determine your potential audience.
What kind of support is available for the arts in your area? What
are audiences asking for? What are they willing to pay for?
Audiences ask for theater by supporting existing
local companies and traveling productions. They may be asking
for more intellectually challenging theater if they give as much
support to dramas, mysteries, and plays that require some intellectual
stretching as they do for comedies and musicals. Do you know if
folks are traveling out of town to larger cities to catch challenging
professional productions not available in your area? Are theatrical
productions at nearby colleges or universities well-attended?
What about other cultural organizations in your area -- how do
ballet and opera companies or the local symphony fare? Are the
visual arts well-supported at gallery openings and shows? Talk
to representatives of other arts organizations to get a feel for
the type of audience support available in your community. Join
your local arts council, subscribe to arts newsletters, and gather
all the information you can to assess the needs of your community.
This should help you determine whether there's an audience for
your type of theater.
Theater techs can also be a valuable source
of information. If their services are in demand, they may have
worked for a number of local companies and will have insight into
what works in your area and what doesn't. Talk to them.
Above all, don't limit yourself to listening
to actors looking for a venue -- satisfying the needs of disgruntled
actors is probably the worst reason for wanting to start your
own company, and indicates a high probability of failure. Why?
Because self-fulfillment is only half of the theater equation
-- the other part is connecting with and communicating truthfully
with your audiences, and that's not possible if what's driving
you is ego. If your main reason for wanting to start your own
company is because can't get a lead with the local group and want
to mount the kinds of shows you can star in, forget it. Selfish
egotism creates bad theater, and nobody wants to see a bad show.
Theater Financing 101
As the founder you have to be interested in
how you're going to pay for it all. We've just made the case that
community support is essential. Why? It all comes down to money.
You're going to need money to mount productions. While you and
the others in your troupe may be able to scrounge together enough
to mount the first few productions by yourself, you'll eventually
need an audience to help you continue to function. The most common
reason for theater failures is that the new company fails to attract
an audience. There is no cash flow, debts mount, and the company
folds because they simply can't afford to continue.
So how much money does it take? Obviously that
depends on your location, the types of shows that you do, and
a hundred other variables, but a theater company without its own
space should take into account the following when putting together
- Scripts - both for reading in order to
select a show and for production
- Royalties - varies depending on the demand
for the show and the size of the hall
- Specialty props or consumables that you
- Rehearsal/performance hall rental
- Janitorial/security services (as required
by the performance hall)
- Utilities (as required by the performance
- Lighting/sound equipment rental, depending
on what the performance hall offers
- Costume construction, purchase or rental
(this can be a cast responsibilty)
- Set construction - lumber, paint, screws,
- Advertising - fliers and/or posters, possibly
newspaper or radio ads
- Playbills (print costs and possibly design
- Musicians' fees (for musicals)
- Storage (costumes, sets, props, etc.)
Before you start, research these items and figure
out how much it would cost to do a show in your area. Then figure
out where the money is going to come from. Don't plan on being
able to pay for everything out of profits from the show -- shows
do sometimes lose money! Starting a theater is a lot like playing
the stock market -- maybe you'll win big, or maybe you'll lose
your shirt. With that in mind, a cardinal rule is not to put any
money into this venture that you can't afford to lose.
Resources, Human and Otherwise
You need more than actors and money to run a
theater company; putting on a show takes a whole lot of folks
working behind the scenes as well. Put your plans for a new company
on hold if you've got a bunch of actors willing to join, but don't
have a clue where you're going to get:
- A director
- A stage manager
- A lighting/sound tech
- Someone who can design sets
- Someone who can build sets
- Someone willing to be in charge of publicity, including the
- A music director (who will probably expect to be paid) and
a choreographer (if you plan to do musicals)
- At least three people willing to serve as the Board of Directors,
or Steering Committee, or whatever else you want to call the
group that will take responsibility for running the company.
One of these should be willing to act as treasurer.
Likewise, you will need the following:
- A place to rehearse
- A place to perform
- A place to store costumes, props, etc. between productions
- A source for lighting/sound equipment rental
Taking stock of your available resources should be a big step
in helping you decide whether you have the basics you need to
put together your own company.
Next: Keep It Real, Keep It Cheap
to beginning of article