Aren’t the Good Ones All Community Theaters?

In the last fifteen years, I’ve worked with over two hundred theaters.  No, I haven’t been consulting that long.  And no, I haven’t changed jobs that many times either.

In the early 1990s, I was a Management and Program Associate at the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (ART/NY).  This service and advocacy organization for Off Broadway (which now boasts nearly 400 not-for-profit theater members throughout New York City) serves larger Broadway-producing organizations such as Lincoln Center Theater and Roundabout Theatre Company right down to start-up companies with no permanent space and budgets not much larger than the amount of change in the founding members’ pockets.

Serving roughly 200 theaters at the time, ART/New York introduced me to the production, marketing, development, financial and general management practices of all of these theaters.  When representatives from the larger theaters spoke at meetings or roundtable discussions, I learned right along with the smaller organizations.  When the smaller theaters gathered, I moderated seminars and discussions to share information and questions.  And, even with a theater degree from Columbia University School of the Arts hanging on the wall, I learned from these groups too.  I learned about their penny-wise practices, their efforts, their drive, their spark, and their goals.

Whenever I’d encounter a new theater company back then—or a friend or acquaintance would talk to me about starting a company—I’d recommend joining ART/New York first thing.  I didn’t get any commission or perk from the suggestion (maybe I got some kind of theoretical bonus points or an ‘atta boy); I did it because I honestly believed in the power of joining the group.

Theater doesn’t exist in a box.  (Okay, literally it can exist in a box, but that’s not the figurative kind of box I’m talking about.)   A grad school professor I had stressed repeatedly that theater is collaborative.  He wanted to encourage not only recognizing and working with the talents of other theater artists, but relyingon them.  In the same way, theaters should reach out to recognize and share talents and opportunities with their communities—and, yes, even rely on their communities for support in patronage, donations and funding if appropriate, volunteerism, and goodwill.  Sharing with other theater companies—either directly, through community or service organizations, or through consultants who work with several groups—can also save a theater enormous amounts of time and money whether through pooling resources or merely combining knowledge and experience.  Unlike most businesses that offer a service or sell a tool, theater benefits from competition.  Few arts patrons limit their theatergoing to one venue, and getting new patrons into a theater—any theater—will increase the chance they’ll keep going to performances and eventually come to yours.

Joining or becoming involved with a community organization—whether an arts advocacy organization, a local chamber of commerce, a local or state arts council, or a national service organization—brings a theater out of its box (both literally and figuratively) and closer to its community.  At ART/New York, the benefits of membership include access to resources, workshops, marketing and publicity alliances, mailing lists, low-interest loans, cash grants, and affordable office, meeting and rehearsal space.  The advantages of every service and community organization around the country won’t be the same as Off Broadway, but the benefits of community are at all of them.

My first advice to theater companies hasn’t changed in fifteen years.  Join up.  Invest some time in your community and in working with other arts groups.  The time and money saved, and the goodwill created, will be well worth the effort.

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