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Should You Start Your Own Theater Company?

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 a budget:

  • 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 can't borrow
  • Rehearsal/performance hall rental
  • Janitorial/security services (as required by the performance hall)
  • Utilities (as required by the performance hall)
  • 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, hardware, etc.
  • Advertising - fliers and/or posters, possibly newspaper or radio ads
  • Playbills (print costs and possibly design services)
  • Musicians' fees (for musicals)
  • Insurance
  • 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 playbill
  • 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

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