This Time It’s Personal

Once again it’s been over a year since I posted to the blog on this website. What can I say? I’ve been very busy growing New Britain Youth Theater into an organization that now serves nearly one thousand children and teens each year. Much of my consulting work has been through the Peer Advisor Network program of the Connecticut Office of the Arts. And I’ve been directing more. In addition to scenes for share day performances, I co-directed Secret Santa at NBYT in December 2012. This month I directed Schoolhouse Rock Live Jr. at my own daughter’s school. It was a special experience for me not only to direct, but also to work with her, and to direct at my own elementary school alma mater (kind of, it’s a long story).

To keep this blog updated more frequently than once a year, I’ll begin adding posts about personal projects of my own—like directing Schoolhouse Rock Live. Who knows? With a few family and personal posts, I might even qualify as a “dad blogger” again. Until then, I’m happy to be known as “Producer and Director, Teaching Artist, Consultant, Husband & Dad.”

Here are some photos from Schoolhouse Rock Live Jr.

“IT’S POSSIBLE” with the Magic of the Arts

The following article appeared in the January 9, 2012 edition of  The New Britain Herald. I wrote it as Executive Director of New Britain Youth Theater to highlight NBYT programs and promote upcoming auditions for Cinderella.

Our Christmas play last month, I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas, centered around a group of young friends visiting the North Pole where they met roughly three dozen elves, eight reindeer, and Santa himself. Programs for the coming summer will include the musical Seussical and the magical characters of Dr. Seuss, including Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, Gertrude McFuzz, the Whos of Whoville, and more. And the next NBYT production, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, is possibly the most magical fairy tale of all. (Both Cinderella and Seussical even have songs titled It’s Possible!)

As a story about a sad girl and her magical transformation, Cinderella exists in thousands of different versions and folktales around the world. (And the main character isn’t even a girl in all of them!) The story has been told by generations of families, written and rewritten, and adapted into plays, musicals, operas, ballets and films. The Cinderella legend is a story the world never grows tired of hearing.

But aside from a fairy tale, does Cinderella mean much to us anymore? Very few of us go to balls or ever have the chance to meet a prince or princess. And we don’t believe that a fairy godmother can magically appear and change our lives with the wave of a wand. But there certainly are things that can change our lives for the better. The arts are one of them—especially for children.

When researchers working with the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts studied several different children’s programs and activities, they found that young people working in the arts during their out of school hours are four times more likely to have won school-wide attention for academic achievement; they are being elected to class office within their schools more than three times as often; they are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance; and they are over four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or a poem (Americans for the Arts, 1998). By participating in artistic activities and programs outside of their education, children learn to become leaders and responsible members of their communities, of the organizations they take part in, and of their own families. They learn discipline, respect for themselves and others, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Participation in theater especially teaches children and young adults to be both creative decision-makers and team players working together to reach one goal. Another study found recently that students who participate in arts education programs are less likely to drop out of school than students who do not participate in the arts (The Center for Arts Education, 2009). By inspiring their creativity and giving them a way to express themselves, the arts reach the students who might otherwise become drop-out statistics. And if that’s not magical, I don’t know what is.

Good Growing: Read This Before Hiring Anyone

Recently I’ve spoken with managers from a few small theaters who are adding (or considering adding) employees to their management staffs.  This is something that any successful business eventually considers.  New employees mean more payroll expenses of course, but at some point continued growth demands it.  When a young theater company begins producing more shows or working on more projects, expands its marketing or development efforts, or moves into a new space,  often more work is created than its founding members and volunteers can handle.  They begin to wonder whether they should hire a managing director or general manager, a production manager or technical director, a business or finance manager, maybe a marketing or development director, or even a consultant to do or help with any of these things.

When I encounter theaters at this point in their growth (and especially if they’re already financially stable) the opportunist in me sometimes wants to shout, “Me!  Hire me!”  But, as a consultant, I lean toward making them question whether they’re really ready to hire anyone and who that should be.

Certainly a new team member—whether a consultant, contract employee, or staff member—can help in many ways:  in carrying out more ideas from directors and board members that time constraints might limit; in contributing new suggestions and systems of marketing, sales, development, or production; and in providing more staff consistency and permanence than volunteers might be able to provide.  But, some ground work and careful thought needs to be done before hiring anyone.

When I speak to theaters about hiring new managers, I always recommend creating a formal job description for the position.  This document helps to reveal whether a new position is warranted, it creates a list (whether specific or general) of requirements and expectations, and it serves as a tool to establish and continually develop the relationship between a new team member and existing management.

A job description, of course, is not a static document, but evolves as an organization continues to grow.  As a starting point, however, I always recommend making three lists.  The first list should include management items that should be done, but currently aren’t due to time constraints or other factors.  The second list should include jobs that current directors, employees or volunteers are performing, but that should or could be delegated to another person.  Finally, the third list should include any additional projects, systems, ideas or goals that the theater would like to implement either soon or as it grows (for example, online ticketing, group sales, or new fundraising events or campaigns).  In this last list, some items may be long-term goals, but others may be realistic projects with additional management help.  The three lists can then be combined—and edited—to create a workable job description.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be in any particular format, just clear to anyone reading it.  In addition to responsibilities and requirements, the job description should also show whom the employee reports to and who reports to the new employee.

Once a document exists that outlines the requirements and goals of a new management position, a theater will be best equipped to decide whether it would benefit from hiring a consultant, contract employee, or staff member.  And, with the new job description as a guide, the transition for everyone involved will be all the better.

There Are No Small Parts

Researching facts and figures prior to starting my consulting business, I learned several things about theater in Connecticut that I hadn’t know before. Read on even if you’re not in Connecticut—this applies to you too.

Obviously one of the first things I looked for was potential clients. I found quite a few web pages with theaters around the state listed and linked. When I started looking closely and combining those lists though, I realized that there are over one hundred theater companies in the small state of Connecticut. (There are only one hundred sixty-nine towns in this third-smallest state.) And that number of theaters doesn’t include many children’s and summer theaters or most of the theaters at colleges and universities. It certainly doesn’t include theater programs at high schools or middle schools or many other drama conservatories or clubs either. A large list of professional and community theaters in Connecticut is now located here at this website. (If you know of one that I’ve missed, please comment or email and let me know.)

I also learned, from a December 2006 study released by the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, what a significant economic impact the arts have on the state. As a whole, the arts (which includes dance, music, opera and visual and literary arts as well as theater) provide more than 27,000 jobs in the state and support a total of 44,000 other jobs. The gross state product generated annually from the arts is more than $3.8 billion including $2.6 billion in personal income. Combined with other cultural sectors (film, history and tourism), cultural jobs account for ten percent of the state’s labor force and $14 billion in economic activity. That’s more jobs created and more gross product generated than by either the aerospace or the pharmaceutical industries in Connecticut—both of which have a significant presence in the state—but not as significant, apparently, as the arts.

Putting all of this information together, it’s clear that the great economic impact that the arts have on the state of Connecticut doesn’t come only from bigger organizations such as the Long Wharf Theatre or Hartford Stage. It’s not coming only from Yale University art museums or the Wadsworth Atheneum. It’s a combined effort of the hundreds of arts organizations—both large and small—that operate, employ, and culturally and economically impact Connecticut.

Certainly, these facts and figures aren’t unique to Connecticut. In New York, the Alliance of Resident Theatres has long noticed that the fastest growing sector of its membership is smaller theaters with budgets under $100,000. And New York is definitely aware of the economic impact that the arts have in the state as well. Across the country, theaters and other arts organizations are generating income, paying employees, encouraging patrons and volunteers to spend money in restaurants and shops, and circulating those monies in their communities.

Why is this important for every theater to know? Because it’s the information that donors and sponsors and patrons need to hear—that they’re not only supporting culture and a few hungry artists, but that they’re contributing to a significant economic impact in their communities as well.

So, if you’re not in Connecticut, go find some comparable facts and figures for your own state.  In any state, mention these facts in a few marketing materials and funding applications. And congratulate yourselves for having made such an impact.

Promoting Past and Current Seasons

The following article appeared in the August 29, 2011 edition of  The New Britain Herald. I wrote it as Executive Director of New Britain Youth Theater to highlight past season accomplishments and promote the coming season.

Happy New Year!

No, I’m not four months early or eight months late. It is an odd month for New Year wishes, but for many performing arts organizations a new year is just beginning. Summer programs and performances are over, and a new season of events will soon be underway.

At New Britain Youth Theater, the new season coincides with the start of a new school year. NBYT in-school and after-school programs will be held at as many as five New Britain public schools this academic year—which is NBYT’s second season. Theater programs will return to Smith Elementary School, Jefferson Elementary School, and Smalley Academy. New programs are being planned for Gaffney Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. American Savings Foundation has contributed partial funding for school programs, and additional funding is being sought to cover program costs.

Also in the new season, NBYT will add new programs and expand already successful programs. Performances will include the world premiere of a Christmas play, I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas;  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magical musical, Cinderella; the whimsical world of Seussical; and Teen Company productions. The Greater Hartford Arts Council has provided partial funding for these performances. Drama classes will be offered on additional days and hours, preschool classes will be added, homeschool and after-school programs will explore new scripts and activities, and new school vacation week programs will be scheduled in February and April. Demand has also risen for outreach programs in new venues and towns.

Of course, any good New Year celebration includes a look back at the year ending too. In its first season, New Britain Youth Theater produced three plays at Trinity-on-Main—A Children’s Christmas Carol, Babe the Sheep-Pig, and I Know I Saw Gypsies (an NBYT Teen Company production)—for a total of nine performances. Year-long programs in three New Britain elementary schools ended with performances of scenes based on folk tales, fables, and legends. A two-month program at Roosevelt Middle School led to a staged reading of Romeo and Juliet. Back at Trinity-on-Main, eight-week Drama Classes and Homeschool Enrichment Programs also concluded with “Share Day” performances. Summer programs included five weeks at Jefferson Elementary School open to all children, five weeks at Smalley Academy for incoming students, and other outreach programs throughout Greater New Britain.

Over the past year, NBYT held a total of twenty-five performances and share days, directly served over 400 participating children and teens, and entertained over 1800 audience members. Children and teens in NBYT programs came from eighteen different towns in Greater New Britain, Greater Hartford, and throughout Connecticut. Much of the audience attended performances at Trinity-on-Main—bringing many new visitors to downtown New Britain.

As a new NBYT season begins, we’re also making New Year  resolutions. We promise to continue the mission of NBYT: “to enrich the lives of children and young adults by encouraging creative thinking, fostering self-confidence and self-esteem, and developing general life skills through involvement in low-cost programs in the performing arts.” How about you? Will you resolve to make the arts part of your or your child’s life in this new year too?