Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Theater…

No, I don’t know everything there is to know about theater. But I do know where to find answers. You do too—because you’re already there.

When I first worked in professional theater about twenty years ago, every production management office had some form of a resource guide. These guides listed leads for finding everything from acrylic paints to zip lights. They were especially great resources for finding unusual props, set pieces, or costume materials. I spent a few years away from theater, and when I came back production resource books weren’t so common. In their place was—and is—the Internet.

The Internet may be more useful to theater and entertainment than just about any other industry. Theater productions are always incorporating new ideas and materials. Manufacturers usually take in one piece and produce another, but in theater there’s always a challenge to find something out of the ordinary or a new way to do something. Each production might call for some new or unusual effect, lighting equipment, set material, rigging, prop or costume.

Resources on the Internet are just as useful for theater managers, marketers and fundraisers. Here are just a few of the ways a theater can benefit from the Internet:

• Shopping and purchases. Theaters used to rely on catalogs and special orders for anything they couldn’t track down locally. Now, just about any item can be searched for and ordered online. This not only takes less time, but prices can be compared to save money too.

• Production resources, effects, equipment, and sound files. Production managers, tech directors, and designers can do more than just order on the Internet. New materials and equipment and ways to use them can be researched. Sound designers and engineers can even find sound effects available for download.

• Play directories. Not only are plays available to purchase and license at sites such as MTI and Samuel French, but theaters can also find many sites to search for plays in specific genres or with specific size casts.

• Press contacts. Marketing directors can use the Internet to find contacts at local newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations. Theaters might even search for press and media in an area and find some that they hadn’t remembered or known about before.

• Foundations and corporations. Development directors can research foundations, corporations and government agencies that might donate or sponsor programs at their theaters. Not only are giving histories and guidelines easy to find, but many funders now allow or even require that requests be made online.

• Service organizations and arts councils. Almost all theater organizations have websites now, including national organizations such as Theater Communications Group and the American Association of Community Theatres. Theaters can find local organizations and advocates to benefit from their programs and resources.

• Theater directories and rental spaces. Among the resources that some service organizations provide are access to their membership lists or directories of spaces that available for rent. Some rental spaces might even have virtual tours available online.

• Sample contracts. Not only might directories of rental spaces be available, but theaters can also find sample contracts for renting a space, hiring a consultant, licensing a play, booking a performer, or almost anything else an agreement might be needed for.

• Interns or internship programs. Searches can provide lists of local colleges, universities and even high schools to find contacts for sending internship notices. On the other hand, students can use the Internet to find local theaters and arts organizations for possible internships.

• Forums. If you can’t find answers anywhere else, post a question on a forum especially for theater producers and managers. You’re likely to find someone who has dealt with an issue before or, at the very least, you’ll find a good social networking site. Some good theater forums I’ve found are the AACT Forum, the Community Theatre Green Room, and the discussion boards at Musicals.net.

There are probably countless ways a theater can use the Internet—posting audition notices, researching union guidelines, and advertising job openings are just a few others. One more is reading theater blogs, which can be either official blogs of theater companies, reviews by professional or amateur playgoers, journals of theater artists, or articles and discussions by people who care about the future of theater. Check out the few that I’ve included in a new blogroll—each of them is a great resource too.

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.

Why Aren't You Blogging?

I write one, in fact I write for a few.  You’re reading one.

A blog or “web log,” as you probably know, is an online journal with regular updates written by either one person or a few, and usually allowing either blog subscribers or any readers to add their own comments and reactions.

Blogs evolved in the early 1990s from simple online diaries.  With the popularity explosion of websites in the later 1990s, not only personal homepages but also corporate websites included updated news sections.  Blogging spread with the development of software to simplify the maintenance of blogs and allow for readers’ commentary.  These software tools expanded blogging beyond those who had the know-how to draft their own web pages and blogging gained popularity.

By 2001, several still-active blogs had become popular by focusing on specific topics such as political commentary or specialized news.  The next year, popular blogs were receiving up to one million visits a day.  In 2004, Merriam-Webster declared “blog” as the word of the year, and politicians and celebrities were joining the blogosphere.  Bloggers and other contributors to websites with user-generated content were the reason for Time magazine naming “you” their Person of the Year in 2006.

Today, Technorati, a popular blog search engine, tracks more than 70 million blogs and many of them are recognized as legitimate news sites.  Even the Columbia Journalism Review now covers blogs and blogging, and Harvard Business School has recommended to all businesses that they have a blog.

Blogs have grown far beyond personal diaries and soapboxes for individuals.  Among the millions of corporations and organizations that blog are Fortune 500 companies in the tech industry (such as Dell and Google) and those not so techie (such as Nike, General Motors, Kodak, and McDonald’s).  Print and television media have blogs at their websites (such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show).  Respected schools and universities have joined the blogosphere (such as Columbia School of the Arts, Columbia School of Journalism, and Harvard Law School).  Even Internet networking sites include blogs in their pages (such as LinkedIn and Facebook).

Blogging hasn’t completely passed by theaters.  Some of the most established, most active, most creative, and “hippest” theaters are already blogging:  Hartford Stage; The Guthrie Theatre; American Conservatory Theatre; Trinity Rep; Arena Stage; Seattle Rep; and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Without a doubt, blogs are helping to sell tickets at these venues.  Concerned that your theater couldn’t possibly update a blog as often as these big players?  No problem.  A blog can be updated as often as you’d like, can keep readers involved in what’s going on “behind the scenes” during non-production times, and can give them “backstage” progress reports during rehearsals and performances.

Still not convinced that a blog is for you? Read on.

Blogging is a relatively cheap yet invaluable means of marketing over which bloggers have complete control.  If you knew a method of quickly and easily sharing up-to-the-minute news and information with members, subscribers, patrons, donors, volunteers and anyone who could potentially be any of these, would you use it to your advantage?  That’s exactly what blogging is.

Aside from the obvious communication and marketing uses of blogs, blogging has other advantages.  A blog can give a human voice to a website, whether it’s that of a theater director or staffer, an administrator or writer hired specifically for blogging, or a ghost writer—as long as the writer connects with the theater and the blog’s audience in a personal way.  Compared to traditional advertising and publicity, a blog should be personal, informal, and even quirky.  It’s an opportunity to have fun with your readers, to let them feel that they’ve read some “privileged” information.  Blogging will also make readers feel like they’re part of your company.  Especially if they comment on a blog post, they’re going to feel that they’re involved in what you’re doing, and be more committed to your organization.

Blogs can also provide some “free” market research.  Comments (which, by the way, can be moderated, deleted, or turned off and on) can let you know what your readers think and want.  Where else can you publish information that you’ve written and have responses and opinions come right back at you for free?

Last but not least, blogging—and making your community aware of your blog—will draw visitors to your main website on a regular basis.  They’ll return daily, weekly, or (through feeds or readers that notify them of updates) as soon as there’s new content to be found on your blog.

Have you ever tried to search for the website of a company or organization only to find out that the place doesn’t have one?  In 2007.  Frustrating, isn’t it?  It may not be long before consumers expect businesses to have a blog too.  Blogging may still be evolving, but it isn’t going away.  So the question remains:  Why aren’t you blogging?