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.

You Want to Fly Who?! Avoiding Surprises in Production Costs

It’s probably happened to every theater producer.  You think your expenses are under control.  Ticket sales may be booming or they may need a kick in the seat, but production costs at least are manageable.  Then—like bad Shakespeare—expenses come out of nowhere.  Petty cash is nearly disappearing out of the box.  Receipts for reimbursement are piling high.  Your designers want to order ostrich feathers, moving lights, fog machines, and goldleaf paint—or they have already.  And your director is adding costumes, sets, cast members, and talking about flying characters that you never imagined leaving the ground.

How does a producer get back in control of expenses?  It’s possible, but it takes moving back a few steps to do it best.  Here are some ideas for managing production costs.

  • Read smart.  A producer should be able to read a script and estimate production costs.  It’s easy to count the characters and set locations, but there are dozens of other clues in a script too.  Is the show set in a specific period or location?  Anything other than modern costumes and common locations may cost more than expected.  Are there costumes changes?  Is any special make-up necessary?  Are there any unusual set pieces or props that may need to be bought or built?  How about special effects?  Even without plotting a light design, it may be possible to guess if any specials may be needed.  How about things like fog, haze, pyrotechnics or flying?  Each of these effects can drive up a production budget.  Knowing what costs to expect when first reading a script is the first step in avoiding surprises.
  • Get the director involved early.  A producer should have a good idea of what sets, props, lights, costumes and special effects may be involved in a production, but it’s the director who actually decides how the show will look on stage.  To ensure that a producer and director are on the same page (and have the same production in mind), get a director involved in planning and budgeting early.  Budgets of course may be limited or already decided and approved, but carefully reviewing a production budget with a director lets both parties know what to expect.  If the production budget is already set, give the director a copy and ask about any possible shortfalls.  Nine times out of ten, the director will say that it’s not enough.  In that case, talk about plans for casting, sets, lights, props, costumes, and effects and how the budget can best be used.  If possible, borrow from one production area to fund another—taking money from lighting for example to add to costumes.  Having the director aware of the budget, and being aware of the director’s vision, could save some conflicts later on.
  • Attend production meetings.  Meetings with a director and budget discussions shouldn’t stop after a first budget review.  Once designers and other artistic and technical staff are involved, part of regular production meetings should involve reviewing the budget.  If any new production elements are asked for or added, discuss whether the remaining budget will cover the cost.  If one element of production appears to be going over budget, discuss whether there may be savings available in another area.  Staying in contact with the director and designers is the best way to estimate how production costs may end up—and there’s no better time or place to do that than at production meetings.
  • Set—and follow—strict guidelines for petty cash, purchase orders, and receipt reimbursement.  Chances are that even with budgets set, reviewed and approved, someone will need, order or buy something unexpected that threatens to throw off the budget.  This is what rules are for.  The first production meeting should include a discussion of how petty cash is distributed, how purchases are to be made, and how receipts may be reimbursed.  If there are limits to how much petty cash is given at once or to whom, say it up front.  If purchase orders are required, emphasize that and explain the system—and (this is important) communicate to regular vendors when purchase orders are required so that nobody can go around the rules.  If reimbursements are made only up to a certain amount, say that up front too.  A producer shouldn’t be responsible for a team member who spends more that what was authorized and expects reimbursement.  Set rules and explain them—whether it’s that the guilty party must return the item, be responsible for the cost, or be reimbursed only if budgeted funds are available at the end of the production.
  • Go to rehearsals.  Like attending production meetings, going to rehearsals is one of the best ways to track and estimate costs.  If the director is talking about scene changes, costumes changes, or effects that a producer didn’t know about, bells and whistles should go off.  I don’t recommend confronting a director about this during a rehearsal or in front of the cast, but there should certainly be some discussion later.  Very likely though, if a producer has been meeting with the director and attending production meetings, there won’t be any surprises.  Going to rehearsals has other benefits too—it communicates to the director that you’re involved, supportive and available.  It sends the same message to the stage manager, designers who may be at rehearsals, and production staff, cast and crew.
  • Hold post-mortem meetings.  Whether everything has gone perfectly right and come under budget, or gone horribly wrong at many times the expected cost, a post-mortem production meeting is a good idea.  If there have been problems, everyone involved should discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it happening again.  The meeting shouldn’t be about finding or placing blame—it should be about finding solutions.  If communication was a problem, be honest about that and ask for input on ways communication can improve.  On the other hand, if something went especially right—particularly if some new problem was worked out or a new way to do something was involved—that should be discussed too.  In that case, you want to be sure that you can repeat what happened.  A post-mortem meeting is also a great time to thank everyone involved and to stay in contact about possible future projects together.

These are just a few suggestions for controlling production costs.  Obviously there are other ways—ways such as researching prices, buying things like lumber or paint in bulk when possible, borrowing items, or seeking out donations.  To keep the production team budget conscious though—and feel supported—frequent communication is the overriding suggestion.

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.

What Does the Employee Manual Say?

Earlier this year, I needed to spend many days dedicated to my family.  My mother was hospitalized and later passed away.  In the following weeks, I had to sort through her belongings, empty her home, and administer her estate.  As anyone who has dealt with a death in the family knows, these jobs can go on for weeks or months.  At the same time, I needed to be available to my school-age daughter for sick days, early dismissals, rides to ballet and swimming lessons, and time to just have fun together.  As a member of the “sandwich generation,” my time for personal business and even work was limited.

I’m not sharing this story for sympathy.  I’m sharing it because the time I needed for family this year made me wonder whether I could have gotten the time off if I were working full-time for an organization or business.

When my daughter was born, I took one month off under the Family and Medical Leave Act when my wife returned to work.  It was a decision to extend the time before my daughter would have to begin daycare, and it also helped to strengthen the bond between us and make me more comfortable caring for her.  It’s a decision I’ll never regret.  As a career move, however, I have no doubt that it hurt me, and one senior attorney in the law firm that I worked for at the time told me that outright.

At a theater I later worked at, despite having fifteen paid days off each year in addition to six holidays and unofficial “comp time,” I was made to feel uncomfortable whenever I actually asked to take vacation time or needed to stay home or leave early for my daughter or other personal business.  This was despite regularly working sixty, seventy or more hours each week.

Earlier this year, Commongood Careers, a nonprofit search firm in Boston, conducted a survey of 1,750 nonprofit employees and jobseekers and published the results as The Voice of Nonprofit Talent in 2008: Improving Recruitment and Retention by Responding tothe Needs of Nonprofit Employees and Jobseekers.  Because many arts employers are nonprofits, the findings might apply to theaters as well as to the social service organizations that the research actually focused on.  It might also apply in some ways to commercial theaters where jobseekers often take employment not for the salary and financial benefits, but for love of the work.

According to the research, nonprofit employees plan to have long-term careers in the nonprofit sector.  Eighty-four percent of the respondents indicated that “work is part of my identity, not just a way to make a living.”  But, the respondents also pointed out several factors limiting a possible long-term nonprofit career.  Among those were concerns about salary levels and work-life balance.  In fact, the non-salary benefits (other than healthcare) most often listed as important were vacation time and flexible working arrangements.

Over seventy-five percent of respondents believed that nonprofits have to change recruitment, employment and professional development practices if they’re going to attract and retain employees.  Commongood Careers CEO James Weinberg said, “To be competitive in recruiting and retaining the next generation of great nonprofit talent, organizations need to listen to jobseekers and pursue creative solutions.”  Relying on doing good work or having an appealing mission statement apparently isn’t enough anymore.

The study report suggests eight “strategies” for nonprofit employers to improve.  Among those are focusing on all employees’ careers, not only executives, and openly sharing information about the organizations “culture and values.”  One of the best ways to share information about benefits—and to communicate to employees that their benefits mean something to executive management—is to list and explain benefits in an employee manual.

Too often, theaters—especially smaller theaters—don’t have employee manuals.  These written rules and guidelines not only communicate benefits and terms of employment, but also help employers by setting down general rules and expectations.  Even theaters that rely heavily—or even entirely—on volunteer staffing should have written guidelines.  When dealing with volunteers, a handbook or manual can often indisputably be referred to for expectations, rules, benefits (such as comp tickets received for example), recognition, or the process of suspension or termination should that be necessary.  In my experience, employees and volunteers appreciate having written staff manuals or handbooks.

For employers, writing or revising an employee or volunteer handbook can be done with the help of a little online research to find examples, or—of course—with the help of a consultant like myself who has written both employee and volunteer manuals.  For employees, using that promised flex time or getting vacation days off may take a little more effort, but, if your theater doesn’t have an employee manual, why not bring that up as a first step?  It’ll be something you’ll refer to again and again.

Why Hire a Consultant?

Consultants today are hired by major corporations, small businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.  Often, the reason for hiring a consultant is a temporary and very specific need for specialized skills or expertise.  When they’re hired for a specific period of time or for a special project, consultants are also a cheaper alternative to hiring a full-time—or even part-time—employee.

Employees might sometimes consider a consultant to mean major corporate restructuring and downsizing; they might think that they’re getting an Office Space shake-up.  But that’s not always—not even most often—the reason or results of hiring a consultant.  Using consultants to supplement and support the staff for strategic planning or project management is much more common.  Sometimes, a consultant’s help may even involve only a couple conversations or one day’s work.  Consultants can help theaters of any size or type, because all theaters, no matter how large or small—and like any other business—face challenges in both management and production every day.

What are the benefits of hiring a consultant?  Here are just a few.

Consultants can offer a new perspective.  A fresh and objective point of view—from someone who’s already dealt with similar issues—can lead to creative solutions that anyone too close to a situation might not have considered or be too involved to suggest. Consultants can review anything from season programming to staffing to marketing and fundraising plans to offer feedback that adds ideas and presents all of the consequences—potentially positive and negative—that a decision might cause.

Consultants can motivate and inspire.  When consultants offer feedback to a theater, they’re not only giving their own objective opinion, but can motivate a theater’s board and staff to work harder and think more creatively too—the board and staff should even be inspired to work and communicate better on their own.  Even consultants working on new programs or initiatives can help boost staff morale throughout an organization.

Consultants can be quick and thorough.  Often, a consultant can complete a project more quickly and more thoroughly than a staff member.  This isn’t because the staff member isn’t capable or valuable—it’s simply because the consultant can focus full efforts on the project while the staffer probably has a workspace covered with other issues to deal with.

Consultants can handle unfamiliar situations.  Because theaters and other arts organizations depend so heavily on creative staff, they’re often organized without all of the management expertise they need to sustain them over the long run.  Even theaters with skilled managers can benefit from consultants when they face new issues such as unfamiliar contracts or agreements, board and staff development, long-range planning, or transitions.

Consultants add to the workforce.  Consultants might be hired for a special project, for review, input or motivation, or even as interim or temporary management during a transition.  In any situation, consultants add to your workforce and allow everyone to best focus on their own jobs.

So, why hire a consultant? Maybe you need some specialized experience, want a fresh outlook, or just have too much work to handle.  Whatever the reason, working with a consultant can have advantages you might not have even thought of.