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.

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.