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Starting a theatre? Even more to think about...

Printed From: Community Theater Green Room
Category: Theater Administration
Forum Name: Running Your Theater
Forum Discription: General questions about how to make it work
Printed Date: 12/04/23 at 5:29am
Software Version: Web Wiz Forums 8.05 -

Topic: Starting a theatre? Even more to think about...
Posted By: davidmichaelmax
Subject: Starting a theatre? Even more to think about...
Date Posted: 7/09/10 at 6:37pm
(More from a letter to a friend on practical considerations of a theatre startup)

Hi Mandie!
I thought you might like to see a few of the things I write down and think about for theatre. It's a lot of stuff, and it takes a team of people to do it well. And it doesn't have to be done in as much detail as I have written about - it just depends on your own goals, finances, human and material resources, and vision of how far you want to take this train.

This first section is about how we started the theatre originally, and it's not complete by any means, but should spark ideas. Or maybe it will scare you to death, who knows!

Just keep in mind that the more specifically you can flesh out your vision before you jump in, the easier will be all the work that follows. Learned that thru the school of hard knocks...

I'm in the process of writing down basically everything I know about the entire process, sort of a mini-manual,  because I'm going to do it all again    this year.

I'm hoping it will also serve me as a "oh yeah, don't do THAT again" manual, as well as remind me without having to think too hard about what's proven to be important. It will hopefully be pretty complete, with a lot of things in it that I hope will help spark ideas or suggest ways forward that won't break the bank.

There are many, many areas to consider, things that most people don't consider until they get blindsided by them. That kind of learning can really hurt. I've got the scars to prove it. Most of it will be in the manual, so hopefully it will give you a leg up.

We funded the theatre opening with our own money. I had 15 thousand from a profit-sharing plan from my previous job, My partners had about ten grand. We all had a certain amount of expertise, in areas like advertising, marketing, writing, choreography, bar setup, sound, personnel etc.

We auditioned and interviewed locally for performers and designers until we had enough people to start, then added pro performers as we found them through regional auditions or actor recommendation.

Our most valuable asset when we first opened was, of course, the fact that the building had been open previously for a couple of years as a theatre, then closed, but left behind an audience that still wanted to go. It also had a building suited to its purpose, and a rent that was reasonable (about 3 grand a month).

The building had all the pews, bar, seating levels, and tables. It had a cold box, lighting raceways, decent bathrooms, drinking fountains, a box office, parking, something of a marquee and so on.

Everything was dirty and in bad repair, but we cleaned it all up, repaired what we could, and used the money from pre-sales of the first Christmas show to get everything else we needed so that we'd be functional by the time the doors opened for our first audience.

That was a real leg up in the beginning, because it's a lot harder to create a "brand name" than to assume one - I've had to do both over the years.

We tried to fulfill people's expectations when we opened, but had a fairly steep learning curve until we hit my Phantom of the Opera, which literally lifted the theatre into local prominence at a very crucial "do-or-die" period. We would have closed about then because we were too deep in expenses.

Phantom saved the theatre, IMHO. It's weird, but when I wrote it after reading the novel, and finished writing the songs, I just knew everything was going to be all right. And it was.

It had a great director , designer , subject matter with intense local buzz, wonderful cast, lots of humor mixed with pathos, audience interaction. I've produced that show five times since and it's always done well.

Find your Phantom if at all possible very early in the life of your theatre, and then try to identify and duplicate the elements of its success as often as possible ;-) I don't mean in a formulaic way, but in the sense that when a show is that successful, there are certain elements in it people are instinctively responding to. How can these things become part of the magic you create in ANY given show? Worth considering.

I don't know what flavor of theatre you are interested in up there, but no matter the variety,  my best advice is to do everything you can yourselves, trade out as much as you can for show tickets and bar food, look for performers, artists and designers who have talent but will work dirt-cheap, hook up and cross-promote with local dance studios, colleges and high schools to get access to costumes, talented young choreographers and dancers etc, get used lights and sound equipment from the web or borrow what you need from anyone willing to help you if you help them, and so on.

What you're doing is casting a net. Try to cast it often and widely.

Decide as specifically as you can what kind of fish you're going after, what they like and are likely to support. When you are clear on that, create a place for them that they will fall in love with and want to return to, bringing their friends with them.

I always felt I was at my best figuring out what people would consider to be fun. The theatre tried to aim at a very broad demographic, and that meant having fun in a non-offensive (morally), unpolitical (unless poking fun equally), very inclusive way.

Not too uptight, but nothing the average 12-year-old couldn't handle.

We wanted all ages to be comfortable, and tried to feature the old-fashioned-entertainment talents of the casts we had, at any given time, in the most prominent way possible (with varying degrees of success).

We looked for people we considered "triple threats" - acting, singing, dancing - and usually settled for two out of three. Sometimes one out of three...

And we often argued about which of the three talents was most important in terms of drawing an audience, but now I think what may be most important is a great director who can disguise a cast's shortcomings, and make them all look brilliant by creatively hiding the flaws.

And a cast with a great attitude and few "black hole" personalities helps immeasurably, too. More than once a terminally nasty or depressed or gossipy actor sunk the morale and motivation of the rest of the cast.

AVOID HIRING OR CASTING THEM. But if you accidentally do, and can't get rid of them, get really good at manipulating them.

Try to REALLY know what you want out of the cast, directors, and designers, and how you want to be perceived as an organization, the more specific the vision the better.

Stand back once in awhile and see if you're moving in the direction you really want to move in. If not, MAKE THE NECESSARY CHANGES.

Don't get held hostage by an "irreplaceable" actor if at all possible. That often happened at the theatre when we didn't take the steps necessary to increase the depth of our acting pool.

Don't make that mistake, even in the most seemingly peaceful of casts. Find backups, AND KEEP UPDATED LISTS. You'll thank me later. So will the audiences.

Know who you can call for an acceptable replacement if you have to fire someone on short notice. Or if someone gets sick. Or thrown in jail. Or decides not to show up anymore. Or oversleeps when you have a sold-out house. Or comes in too drunk to remember his lines.

All of which happened on more than one occasion.

Build in structure and discipline as much as possible without becoming leaden and inhumane.

The real reason for structure and discipline is to take the worry out of what to do when, and to provide freedom and time for creativity by not re-inventing the wheel for routine tasks.

Structure functions as a roadmap, without which things drift off course too easily. There are lots of enduring examples of usable structures in the Theatrical Community. Find one that seems doable and start there.

Find or be a GREAT stage manager, not just an okay one, because the stage manager is usually THE linchpin between the producerís desires and the interests of the actors. That one person can make life heaven or hell for everyone, so it is important that they be exceptional.

Sometimes the actors will take advantage of the situation if there is too much leeway. Actors can be REALLY creative when they want to just screw around or mess things up...

There's an old saying I like: "Rule by work, don't just work by rules". Give everyone something purposefully useful to do during "working hours".

That way, the organization will actually get something done. Everyone will feel useful and good about being there, and no one will feel their time has been wasted.

I learned most of the above the hard way, of course. I'm funny like that.

I know i keep hammering on this, but the snack bar if run well will provide half the income of a theatre. VERY IMPORTANT!

Don't let anybody steal the cash from Box Office or Bar, or eat and drink and comp tickets on "credit", because they WILL try.

Don't let anyone but the most trusted partners or board members (or yourself, if it's your theatre) spend money or sign checks unless PROPERLY authorized.

Because they WILL try. And without that money your theatre WILL die.

Instead of free everything for the actors, hold barbecues and special events for them, dinner at your house, movie tickets etc, things whose cost you can reasonably control. But make your box office and Bar off limits. The same with executive offices.

You'll know more about the strengths and weaknesses of the people in your organization as time goes along. Try to do the right things for the right reasons yourself, so you have no regrets or reasons to excuse your own conduct down the road. Setting example is of utmost importance. Something else I learned the hard way...

Some of your parameters will change too as you begin to understand a bit more about who is coming to see the shows, what they really like, what they want more or less of (Ask them, then give it to 'em!).

Try not to become too busy to really consider what is real vs what is wishful thinking. Measure progress and write things down. You'll stay in business longer that way.

Time and Talent applied creatively = MONEY.

Treat the theatreís interior like a theatre set - use cutouts painted by good artists, creative curtaining, fun props and objects highlighted in entertaining ways, anything that increases a sense of fun, romance, or whatever it is you think your audience will get a kick out of.

The idea is to NOT spend a lot of money, only to create the impression that you have. That means your using time, talents, and creativity instead of bank loans. In fact, try to never owe a bank or anyone else any money if at all possible.

Don't mortgage your house for the theatre if you own it - you may very well lose it. This is THEATRE we're talking about here, after all. Notorious for going down in flames.

Find a building you can afford, whose expenses ticket sales will actually cover. Make sure thereís decent restrooms, and on-premises or nearby parking. Work a deal with someone if necessary.

If you're in a Bike Town,  have safe bicycle storage for patrons and advertise it.

Become a non-profit if possible, apply for grants, etc. Free money is GOOD!

Ask people for outright gifts of time, money, materials, because you never know who will actually be willing. Help comes from the most unlikely places sometimes.

But you won't know if you don't ask.

Get the community involved helping you in some fun, memorable way, especially when you first open.

We did that by going to the newspaper and asking them to help get word out that we were opening, and wanted the people in town to bring us their old hanging lamps, of any age or style, because we were going to use them for overhead lighting at the theatre.

So people all over the county brought us hilarious and useful old lighting fixtures, some of them actual antiques, and we hung quite a few of them. It created a unique and genuine interest in what we were doing, in a very unusual way. You might try something similar. Use your imagination.

Beg, borrow, and if all else fails, steal (give it back after the show...)! But try to pay for things as you go along. Years down the road you'll be glad you did.

Get every book on guerilla marketing and advertising you can, and actually use the suggestions they contain. But don't get lost in just researching it - make sure someone is out actually DOING it.

Every dollar you don't have to give someone else is a dollar you can use to stay open until you're established.

Get prominent radio stations to co-sponsor shows, trade tickets for ad time and so on. Do as many promos as possible for community groups, service clubs, church groups etc. as is feasible, if what your theatre is offering is compatible with tastes of those groups.

Get politically powerful people interested in what you're doing. Make friends with anyone who can get the attention and cooperation of city and county government officials. Know someone who knows someone who knows someone who owes them a BIG favor. This alone can save your behind at times.

Do as much of everything in-house as you have the time, energy and knowledge to do in an acceptable, if not professional, way. Just make sure that the results have a high fun-factor.

The reason I started writing so many shows was to control cast size, costume and set requirements, royalty costs, audience interaction etc. I could tailor the shows to the talents of the cast I had. It helped that I had a good idea of what people liked and understood. If you're good at that, it's one way to save money, but it is very time-consuming, especially if you're writing and orchestrating the music too as I do. It also can sometimes fall into the category of re-inventing the wheel.

As producer I could try to make sure that things happened on stage that were as I saw them when I was writing them, although there were times when a great director took what I wrote and made it much better. Yay!

Mandie, I hope some of these suggestions are useful. They are the equivalent of a comma in the middle of a sentence in a paragraph of an essay on what I've thought about the last 25 years. There's always something new to learn. Hallelujah!

In any regard, I wish you much swelling in your bank balance, very little injury to your creative spirit, and of course...

All the best!

David Michael Max

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

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