Community Theater – Businessman in a Strange Land

#communitytheater #littletheater #amateurtheter

John J. Hohn

Executive producer! That’s my title. Acquired by default, I hasten to add. A little over three years ago, a theater buddy and I decided to start an amateur theater company. I was retired, had time on my hands, and lots of experience on stage. I knew nothing of managing a production, let alone a company. Should be fun, I thought. (Beat)

I love theater. I love acting. I love taking on a persona and letting it come to life on stage. That’s my starting place. I never presumed my experience as a businessman and financial advisor would serve me as I set out the help my pal get our little enterprise underway. We ran headlong into all the obstacles. Finding an affordable venue. Funding. Recruiting a board of directors. Months  passed before we could schedule our first performance. We didn’t get the rights to the first show. The weekend before we opened with an alternative selection, the leading man fell and broke his elbow. A last minute replacement performed the role script in hand. Next, with the Artistic Director in the hospital recovering from open heart surgery, the board lost its nerve and voted to cancel the third show we had scheduled.  Not an auspicious start.

Defcon 2 . . .

Our second year, a well-known-play with an experienced cast got things well underway. The third play on our calendar was a Shakespearean comedy calling for a large cast, serious costuming, and a challenging set – a mountain in our flight path. My friend and I worked throughout the summer to fill the five major roles, never mind the smaller parts. As the opening date drew nearer, my early warning system moved to defcon 2.

As a financial advisor, my discipline was to look well down the road for my clients. Anticipate the risks. Maximize the opportunities for success. We had eight weeks to go. Our show was not cast. “I’ve started rehearsals before without have a full cast,” my friend insisted by way of explaining.

Hardly a reason to try it again, I thought. I urged we drop the Shakespeare and pick something within our capacity to produce, only to be accused of not supporting the director. The board was divided. As one member put it, “This is theater. You go ahead no matter what. That’s just the nature of the beast.” Destiny intervened. The very next day, an actor cast in a major role withdrew. We chose an alternative.

The heroics of it all . . . 

Theater people think differently, I concluded. Risk is obviously a large factor in everything they undertake. Perhaps they protect themselves by being blind to it, by ignoring what strikes the layman as obvious. Therein, I’m guessing, lie the heroics of it all.

It was a lesson for me. I had been tagging along, minimizing my own judgment against those who knew better, and found myself estranged from my friend and co-founder and at odds with some of the members of the board. I was obviously out of step with the damn-the-torpedoes management style accepted in theater. Temperamentally, and by dint of my professional experience, I was going to struggle going forward.

Executive Producer. I wanted to be a disciplined, organized manager. So given the title, I came up with a few rules to guide my tenure for as long as the board and the Artistic Director would endure.

As long as the board would tolerate . . .

Commitment. Insist members of the company, board, and cast to commit to their term. Resignation is not a negotiating tool. It’s blackmail. Rarely would one quit a job simply because their idea was questioned. Yet in theater, escalation to an ultimatum is an instantaneous ploy. People too often identify with their ideas. Enough with the histrionics. Negotiate. Require it. It probably won’t work, but at least it defines your expectations and may have a dampening effect. Most folks don’t like going back on their word.

Optimize. All planning should be directed at making a production easily within reach of the company experience and resources. Stay in your comfort zone. A simple play done exceedingly well is much better than a challenging one done poorly. Audiences want to leave a show praising the performance, not excusing it as a worthy effort.

Minimize  Start early. Time is a resource. Use it. Have at least two seasons planned. Although it should go without saying, read all the plays under consideration. (Surprising how often this is not the case.) Isolate and define the challenges for each selection and go to work solving them. With enough time, most problems can be overcome. If not, be far enough ahead on your selections so that a change in your schedule is not an embarrassing public event.

Focus Chances are your company has competition. Differentiate yourself with a well-worded Mission Statement. Boards usually want to make mission statement as broad as possible. That’s the wrong way to go. Be as specific as possible. What you exclude is as important as what you include. If others are presenting predictable “community theater” fare, find a different niche. It means taking a risk, but risk also lies in competing against others who are established and doing the same thing as you plan. Help your audience grow in what to expect. They will follow. If not. better to go down proud of your effort than making excuses.

Plan Details, details. My daughter taught stage management after holding the position with several well-known community theaters. Nothing I ever had to do managing a client’s portfolio approached the attention to detail that went into a stage manager’s job as she showed me in her notebook. Get as far in front of every production as you can with casting, props, set, costumes, support crew, publicity, and marketing. “Good enough” is not a standard. Everything needs to be as well done as possible.

Presumption . . .

I admit to a degree of presumption in writing this piece. I have no academic training in theater. If what I have written strikes old hands as elementary, so be it. All has been news to me at one time or another over the past thirty-six or so odd months. It is more a measure of what I didn’t know when I began than what I have learned. I have no desire to continue indefinitely in my current position. But as long as I have the title and the responsibilities that go with it, the foregoing will be my credo. I expect to add to it. I have a lot to learn.

Break a leg.