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Joined: 4/25/10
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bullet Topic: Big List of suggestions for theatre startups
    Posted: 7/09/10 at 6:06am
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This is another part of a letter to friends considering a theatre startup. Lots to think about, as you'll notice...hope it is useful.

Hi guys - A little bit about budgets, (whose figures can vary WILDLY) and various things you may need if you go as full scale as we did. You're not in CA so I can't comment on what specific costs will be because I don't know your state. There's a huge list of variables that differs with every show and every style of operation, so anything I might say would be irrelevant. But I'm going to include later in this letter some of the things we bought, rented or created out of chewing gum and candlewax...

Get out the calculator, make a list of all possible personnel, equipment to buy or rent, costumes to make or rent, props, utilities, rent, salaries, promotion, bar costs, building rent, etc that will come into play.

We often spend between $30- $40,000 a month at the theatre when weíre fully staffed, and itís always HARD to stay afloat. You can do it smaller (we seat 300), and cheaper (cheaper can work if you spend the money you DO have where it will show).

That's why you should strongly and definitely plan everything out to a gnat's ass, and do everything possible to keep costs down, by busting butt to do as much as you can do yourself, while begging, borrowing, or stealing the rest!

Your time and talent = money when you're not rolling in it, so think creatively to solve as many of these challenges as possible without paying out cash.. After you finish this letter you'll at least know what to start thinking about. Up to this point anyway.

Don't be intimidated by any of it - remember, I'm looking at the tail end of the parade; you, from the first marching band. I'm just listing out some of what I remember, so you'll know what's yet to come that you might love (or hate)...but this will help you make decisions that solidify your concept.

First, make sure you fill a need in the community. Do it better or different than what is currently available to the public - and let them know at every available opportunity.

Do something really unique and professional that has a high attractiveness quotient, or do community theatre that is attended and participated in by people who love the place because they feel like it's theirs. Either method is perfectly valid.

Community theatre often has a lower threshhold of talent, cost and quality expectations (of course, it can be done very well - bonus!) and there can be a lot of willing hands who will lighten the burden for the production team, if you know how to handle volunteers well. If you give volunteers something solid and specific to do, they will often amaze you.

Pro theatre takes a very high commitment to the art of theatre, as well as remembering that all these people you've hired who have spent years developing their amazing talents are BUSINESS PEOPLE. Acting, singing, and dancing is their profession, just like doctors, lawyers and Indian Chiefs.

They are paid to be there, and have to be managed to ensure that they are making contributions worth the salary you pay them. Many of them are indeed worth the money, and some of them are worth far more. But you need to be a careful manager of their efforts so that the costs don't sink you financially.

There are times, if you go the pro route, when the outgo far outstrips the intake. If you havenít built up a willingness in the company to do whatever it takes, then your theatre will go the way of all ephemera. Don't keep anyone who's too much of a prima donna or black hole - they will sink your best efforts eventually.

And now, a word from our snack bar...

Snack Bars can make half the money in any theatre. The snack bar area is vital because it pays the salaries of the pro performers, and must be handled extremely well to ensure its profitability.

THIS IS WAY IMPORTANT! And if you plan well from the outset, there is no reason it canít be done very profitably. Think it through carefully.

You can save a little dough on actor salaries if you mix pros with, ahem, ďcommiesĒ.

Sometimes a community player who is available, and works for free, can be just as good in a given role. You could try mixing a core company of six to eight pro actors and supplement with good local volunteers in minor roles. It takes a good eye for casting to make this work, and a good director who keeps things moving along at a professional speed during rehearsals.

Keep expectations high and people will rise to the challenge. Make sure the community actors get their lines memorized early, before rehearsals start if possible. Keeps the pros happy and frees up the director to work with them on style, pace, etc.

I've done it every which way. I liked all of it, except some of the petty squabbles that arose in the community theatre form. Iíve had that kind of thing nearly sink shows completely, so a word to the wise...

That being said, my next company will likely be a professional one, with high expectations from the producers and a constant search for exceptional performers at an affordable price. It takes a lot of time and total dedication to get it right. There's not a lot of breathing space, because when you have a paid staff, you need butts in the seats all the time, so producer and key staff burnout is very common. But when you have assembled the right group of actors and staff, there is nothing like it. It SOARS.

NOW - take a deep breath, pop your neck vertabrae and get ready for the BIG LIST OF STUFF YOU MIGHT NEED.

Each one is an area youíre going to have to flesh out for the type of theatre you hope to have. It is hard-won information, two decades worth of strategizing about the many arenas in which a producer battles.

Some of the topics may not apply to your current project, but Iíd be surprised if youíre not going to be faced with decisions and action on most of them.

Try to know what you really want, and whatís really going to be important to the audience, because you may want to jump right in but can only accomplish so much when limited by capital, time, personnel, etc. Some things you just have to grow toward.

And donít forget that strange law of the Universe that when a person has set a definite goal, the Universe conspires to help him...stay optimistic, and look for opportunities to get people involved and on your side. Theatre is nothing if not a people business. You'll be amazed at what an average person will do to help out theatre and the performing arts. Ask ask ask ask ask.

And be a harmonious and constructive person. Have patience and practice forbearance with your partners, and with anyone who wants to help. You will need each otherís help frequently, so come up with a way of averting anger and resolving conflicts that reminds you that youíre all on the same team.

Have no secrets if you can avoid it from the people you depend on most - no hidden agendas that will ultimately wreck your project because communication wasnít honest or complete.

I gave up everything else I was doing because I never believed we would fail. My personal motto was, and is, "whatever it takes."

You will definitely define yourselves and your futures by taking on a task of this magnitude, so really get specific. Plan well and follow through. Surprises are only really welcome on your birthday and at Christmas, so think things through from beginning to end. Try to see the future result of any key decision.

Observe what others are doing in similar businesses or theatres. Steal the best ideas! Adapt what will work for your own project.

Some producers donít quit their day jobs, and sometimes that is wise, because there are plenty of times when it looks like nothing is happening, and income is low.

But somebody does have to take the time necessary to nail down all these topics, get things done, make things happen, and basically, create a living, breathing entity out of thin air. The trick is to figure out how to interest the community enough to get your money from them, which they are temporarily storing in their pockets until they trade it back to you for little stubby things called tickets...

So make sure you meet their expectations when they come to the show. Hopefully, this list will point you in a usable direction.

So, what is basic and necessary? Just in terms of the performing space itself, youíll want to think about these things, to start with, in really no particular order since itís minimally categorized and off the top of my head:

Performance space; do-able show; auditions; a cast; management hierarchy; operational staff; employee manuals; clear job descriptions for staff and actors; actor, staff and management burnout prevention strategy; an audience; costumes; props; a stage; safety lights for stage; glow tape; stairs for coming off/onstage from audience area; roll drops; backdrops; procenium; wings, either soft or hard; plenty of electrical outlets; music; piano/synth; pianist/musical director; musicianís area; seating; curtaining; a decor theme; dressing room; mirrors; makeup lights; makeup counters and personal storage baskets; costume hanging areas; overhead personal prop storage; actor seating; electrical outlets that wonít blow with hair dryers and curling irons plugged in simultaneously; electrical system; stage lights; light board; dimmers that control both stage and house lights; air conditioning; storage for props, costumes and equipment; restrooms; parking; motion detectors and alarm system; outdoor security and lighting; strong lockable doors with deadbolts to discourage break-ins; sound system; cd player; mics if needed; mic stands; schedules; salaries or compensation; exterior signage; marquee; green room or smoking area for actors; hand tools; power tools; water; drinking fountain; landscaping; chairs (and pews, if wanted); seating layout; tables; fire extinguishers; spotlight; stage managers booth; overhead house lighting; first aid kits and whatever else...

Promotion; theatre logo and advertising style; programs for shows; ads in programs and on old-fashioned ad backdrops; community outreach; alliances with various media outlets and local businesses; posters; fliers; mailers; radio/tv spots; website; myspace and facebook presence; relevant email lists; lists of all high school and college theatre departments; list of all relevant phone numbers; and anything else you can think of that gets butts in seats.

Promotion and marketing is a BIG topic and Iíll address it in another letter, because they have to be done effectively to build interest without spending a lot of money. I have a lot of thoughts on this area. It is vitally important. Do not neglect it.

Box Office; phone system; cash registers; ticketing system; computers and necessary programs; printers; chosen season; reliable hours of operation; clear theatre directions for inquiring patrons; fliers; posters; mailers; interior displays; seating chart; season tickets; gift certificates; will-call window; visa/mc terminals and merchant account; daily accounting forms; message pads; answering machine system; alarm system; intercom from B.O. to Bar or Producer's office; "paid" rubberstamp; nearby bank; small safe; pencils and pens; paper clips; rubber bands; envelopes; stamps; season mailers; coin rollers; theft and robbery precautions; change for customers; wall calendar; clock; file cabinets; file folders; employee files; payroll system; bookkeeper and tax person; bulk mailing permit from US post office; and anything else you can think of relating to customer service.

Bar Area: necessary permits and liquor licence, vendors, chosen food items, refrigerators or coldbox, freezer, popcorn machine, beer taps, beer kegs, coke machine, ice machine, cups and pitchers, mugs, hot dog warmers, nacho cheese warmer, condiment containers, napkins & holders, straws, plastic utensils, various condiments, and tray liners, hot dog paper liners, foil, waxed paper, plastic bowls and nacho baskets, nacho warmer, wine taps, popcorn buckets, shelves for both display and storage, oven if needed (also entails oven hood system, fan, and fire prevention system), trays, counters...

ALSO cash registers, video camera system over all cash registers, food safety certification, knives and bar utensils, serving scoops, dishwashing equipment, three tub stainless steel sink, hot water heater, bar sanitizer, soap, scouring powder, pest control, equipment backups, small hand washing sink, hand soap, cleaning cloths, paper towels, sink plunger and snake, pipe wrench, CO2 dispenser for coke machine and a safe tie-down area for canister (they can explode), order pads for order takers, pencils, menu signboard, fun bar decor, bar line system, easy-to-grab snack items, counters for customers to put their food tray while they wait to pay, whether you want a single or double bar line and registers, tip songs, tip jars, someone to collect trays from audience tables, brooms, dustpans, hand blowers, vacuums, dust mops, windex, mirrors, fun things to look at while waiting in line and probably a bunch of other things I canít remember right now.

There are cheap ways to do, and have, a lot of these items Iíve listed above. Some of the stuff you can make yourselves or acquire as you can afford it, some of it can be rented reasonably, some of it can be done away with entirely. But all those decisions should be made with an intelligent rationale for doing it that way, and with good ideas for Plan Bís. 

Plan Bís will save your ass.

Been there, done that, and boy do I have the T-shirt.

More later,

David Michael Max

"It's never too late to be who you might have been..."
George Eliot
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