A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Spring 2017

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Bringing Live Theater to Your Community — a practical guide to starting and running a local theater company

By Candace Brown

 

 

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show.    Photo by Steve Amos

 

Murmurs from an eager audience cease as the lights go down and the curtain opens on the first production by a community’s new theater company. Will it turn out to be a grand spectacle, with a complex set, high tech lighting, and perfect period costumes? Or, is there no curtain at all, and audience members sit on the grass in a park? Does the production involve only amateurs or well-trained professionals, or some of both? Are cast members paid or do they volunteer? Do the volunteers include some with theater training?

Answers: Any of the above situations, and others, can describe the thousands of theaters across the country created through local initiative. Such theaters come in many forms and each has its own creation story and relationship to the community. Through the words of three people who are involved in the theatrical arts in three different ways, we will look at how communities can create and support live theater.

Elizabeth Ripley serves as artistic director for Drama Dock, a non-profit, non-equity theater company on Vashon Island, in Washington. She has over three decades of experience in theatre arts production and arts education and a resume’ that reflects her expertise.

Photo by Casey Gripp

 

Ty Boice co-founded Post5 Theatre in Portland, Oregon shortly after graduating from the Portland Actors Conservatory. He is both artistic director and actor. Post5 presents Shakespeare outdoors, using paid actors, but at no charge to the public.

 

Julie Crawford is the executive director of the American Association of Community Theatre, an organization that offers resources and networking for community theaters nationwide and sponsors competitive festivals.

 

 

Different approaches and perspectives

The motivations behind forming and perpetuating theater companies vary as much as the individuals and settings involved. Sometimes, amateurs start a theater company just for fun. At the other end of the spectrum, the originators might be serious artists with professional training, motivated by the desire to present material that is not being presented elsewhere, or material that educates or challenges the audience intellectually, or other goals.

 

Drama Dock

Drama Dock’s mission statement reads, “To experience, enrich, and express our community through the creation of theater on Vashon Island.” And although this theater serves and draws actors from, a small community with well-defined physical boundaries, the vision of Artistic Director Ripley seems bound only by practicalities.

I aim for the highest production values and the best possible talent, because I want the best possible theater that can be produced,” Ripley said in an interview. When asked, she explained that the term “production values” refers to the lights, sets, costumes, props and more.

Ripley’s resume’ includes the following: Artistic Director Drama Dock Theatre Company since 2010, Pacific Northwest representative of  The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, NYC, Certified Meisner Acting Teacher, Stage Director for Theatre & Opera, Musical Director, Vocal Director, Production Coordinator, Project Development, Producer, Italianate Vocal Technique Instructor, Stage Manager, Actress, Operatic Coloratura Soprano, Broadway Belter. Her union affiliations include CAEA AGMA AFTRA. Theater is her life’s passion.

 

Post5

Ty Boice lives in a place called Milepost5 in Portland, Oregon, which refers to itself as “a community for creatives.” It is a huge live/work building that takes up an entire city block in a neighborhood that has had a reputation for crime, prostitution, and homelessness, but is improving, or “reimagining itself,” according to Boice.

“In the middle of this big building,” Boice said, “is this wonderful courtyard that creates a beautiful esthetic. And of course there are some acoustic benefits to being in a courtyard. I went out there one day and fell in love with it. It was like an epiphany. I could see in my mind this opportunity in a community that needed it, that was underexposed to the performing arts.”

Boice called his friend Orion Bradshaw, a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. Combining their theatrical educations and experience, they began Post5, named after Milepost5, with the building’s courtyard as the venue for their first production—Romeo and Juliet.

“This show was kind of a project, but we decided this was something we wanted to continue doing,” Boice said. “If we keep on pushing, keep our foot on the gas, what could this be? Portland is a wonderful emerging scene.” (Click here to meet the company—video.)

 

The Last Kiss.    Photo by Janet Lourey

 

American Association of Community Theaters

Executive Director Julie Crawford believes A.A.C.T. performs a great service and offers a wealth of benefits, even though she acknowledged that the term “community theater” can have a negative connotation. There is nothing wrong with a theater being non-profit, all volunteer, and with board members drawn from the community, but in small communities with fewer potential volunteers, where perhaps none have formal training, productions can suffer.

Some community theaters have professional staffs,” Crawford said. “They don’t hire professional actors, but they have professional directors and designers. And those professionals help train the volunteers.” Some volunteers do have formal training, but approach theater as an avocation instead of a vocation.

 

 Kindertransport.  Photo by Dina

 

How a theater defines itself often depends on the climate in the community. “In some places it’s really important that they have ‘community’ in their name,” Crawford pointed out, “because the community supports them and they want to give back. They’re providing a service to the community.

“There really are a lot of community theaters that do high quality work,” Crawford said. “We encourage and foster that. One of the ways we do that is through our festival program. We start with state festivals, and the winners of those go to regional festivals, and we conduct a national festival every two years.”

 

Adjudicators give their feedback to competing companies during Alabama state festival for AACT - Fest '12

 

So you want to start a theater. Where do you begin?

 

“The first thing you want to do is get a 501c3 and put together a board,” Ripley said, in reference to non-profit community theaters. “You have to set that up, make those decisions, and write up all that documentation. You can’t just go out there and do a show.”

When dealing with an agency that rents scripts for plays or musicals, on the issue of rights and royalties, or with the government, on the issue of taxes, you must show you are either non-profit or for-profit, so it is important to file the paperwork.

“And then you have to decide what kind of a theater you want to be,” Ripley added. “Some community theaters do only musical theater. Are you a Shakespeare theater? Do you do only drama/mysteries? Some are dinner theaters and can affiliate with restaurants.”

Then there’s the matter of funding. “When you first start out, it’s virtually impossible to get any kind of grant funding, even though you’re serving the community,” Ripley said. “Most companies that are 501c3 need to be in existence for several years before they qualify for grants. You have to show them what you’ve done.

“If you can’t show them what you’ve done—and you can’t show them consistency of having done it for a while—then a lot of the granting agencies are like, ‘That’s nice. Go away, because we have all these other people who have been writing grants for the last ten years, and have existed for ten years, and that’s where all the money’s going to go.’

“And of course if you have support, you’re more likely to get support. That’s why forming a board is essential. It’s a requirement of a 501c3, and you do have to function following certain rules and regulations, like any other company that has a board.” Examples of those rules and regulations are such things as using Robert’s Rules of Order, having a certain number of people on the board and a certain number of meetings per year.

“Fund raising and grant writing and gifts from the community are how you keep going,” she said. “Or, you can also have no production values. You can do everything in modern dress in a parking lot.”

Another challenge for community theaters is setting ticket prices and determining how much people are willing to pay. “You have to have a certain amount of income unless you choose to do it for free,” Ripley said, “and if you do it for free then how are going to pay your bills?”

Post5 offered their first production free of charge and the company wants to continue this practice. “It was incredibly well-received, not only by the media, but in attendance,” Boice said. “We don’t charge for tickets, so we saw a big jump from opening night to closing. Each show more people came. We averaged 140 people per show.”

If you want to do a show, you must find a venue. “Will it be indoors or out, in a barn or a church? Ripley said, “The simplest thing is to do what the theater in Portland did, and go to a poor neighborhood and set up minimum sets in a parking lot. Or do Caesar in the park in a natural amphitheater, because the cost of producing theater, the cost of renting a space, is so high.”

Boice took advantage of the courtyard, and he looked to the theater community in Portland for advice. “We’re actors and not theater administrators by design,” he said, “so we just asked a lot of questions. We’re proud to be part of the Portland theater community which has been nothing but inviting and supportive of us and what we’re trying to do.”

Crawford said, “We have a section on our website on starting a theater. And joining A.A.C.T. is a really good way to get into a network, finding people you can ask. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s an exciting thing to do, starting a theater, but it’s also a lot of work.”

 

Will your theater pay actors?

Crawford said most community theaters use volunteer actors, but not all. “Occasionally, they might pay some actors on certain things, like they might bring in a guest artist. Some may pay for a little gas or some babysitting money.”

Ripley said, “Some pay nothing to anyone who participates. Some of them pay. Some even pay their actors minimum wage. Some give gifts, gift certificates, or cash gifts.”

She pointed out that if you take in a certain amount of money, you either have to pay a salary or give a gift certificate. “If you’re not giving enough money to pay minimum wage, then you’re breaking the law,” Ripley said. “So you have to be very careful around the issue of paying people.”

Post5 pays their actors. However, Boice said, “They are paid pennies on the dollar for the work they do. We’re hoping as we grow we’ll be able to pay folks more and more.” He considers his to be a “professional” theater in that he hires professionals with experience and training. “We’re in a quandary, because someday we do want to provide union contracts. We do want a theater of the highest quality.”

 

Sherlock's Veiled Secret.  Photo by Casey Gripp

 

 

 

Other Challenges

Ripley is highly organized, capable of multi-tasking, and has excellent skills when it comes to human resource management and problem solving. And she needs all those attributes in order to meet the many challenges of her job with Drama Dock. They include:

  • choosing productions
  • scheduling rehearsals
  • building sets
  • storing sets, costumes, and props
  • working with the board
  • inding and keeping volunteers

 

Many factors affect a theater’s choice of a production. What will it cost and what does it need? Can you cast it with the pool of people who audition? How will you advertise? Rights and royalties limit the choices too, and some decide to do only those productions in the public domain, those at least 80 years old.

If you do a production that requires numerous period costume changes, you must attain those costumes. You must find a place to build your sets and if that place is not the theater, you must have a way to transport them. Then you need a place to store all these sets, costumes and props.

Ripley said, “You need people to get those things, to build those things, and someone who actually knows what they’re doing with a power tool and is going to build something that isn’t going to fall over and kill your actors in the middle of a performance.”

You need a lot of volunteers for all kinds of jobs, like lighting, sound, stage management and stage crew. “Generally speaking, you’re not drowning in people who want to be involved in non-paid-for theater,” Ripley pointed out. And they need to feel appreciated. She brings her hardworking tech staff offerings of pizza and bakes them brownies and makes sure their names are in the program.

Working with the cast requires diplomacy and can be frustrating. Some members take a less than professional attitude. After hours and hours of planning a rehearsal schedule, you might have volunteer actors decide at the last minute that they have conflicts they never mentioned before. Or, you could plan an audition and have no one show up for it.

Sometimes people in the cast don’t get along. Sometimes the board has issues. Ripley noted that even if it was your idea to start the theater, and you formed a board, if the board does not like what you are doing, you could be out.

 

Ripley offers advice

“Start small,” she said. “Don’t have big ambitions. Don’t start with Beauty and the Beast, if you’re a musical theater company. There are a lot of productions that don’t require sets. But again, what is your goal? What is your charter? Why do you exist as a company?”

Some of her most important advice has to do with simple human kindness and respect. It might seem obvious, but Ripley points out the importance of meticulous manners.

“You can’t just put on a production; you have to also be aware of the people involved and how to say thank you,” she stressed. That includes giving thank you cards on opening or closing nights and thanking businesses who support you. “Turn your membership meeting into a party or performance or something, so you’re always giving people something for the time they’re giving you.

“You have got to thank people, and appropriately,” Ripley said. “Have real relationships, getting to know your people on some level so they’re not just cogs or drones and realizing as an organizer that the people building the set are just as important as the people who are performing.”

 

Hard work and rewards

What I do is develop others’ talents and try to support and create opportunities within a community to develop talents and abilities,” Ripley said. “That is why I teach and why I direct for the stage to show an individual they have greatness within themselves! The teacher does not get the applause... and rightly so! I know I have succeeded when the student does not need me anymore.”

She also finds satisfaction on the personal, artistic level. “If you’re someone who is an artist and your art happens to be in theater, then the rewards are in the productions. Some people do community theater because they just want to have fun, and it isn’t the art. I do this to create the product. That is my art. If I were a painter, I’d be painting on canvases. I require people and a stage and lights and a set in order to express my art.”

Concerning Post5, Boice said, “We have had a direct response from the community in which we live. It’s been wonderful and exciting and that’s something we’re going to keep working hard to develop.” (Click here to view an emotionally charged video of cast and crew, prior to the closing night performance.)

In Crawford’s viewpoint, community theater brings people together, including families.

“One thing people enjoy is seeing people they know on stage,” she said. “It’s a place where families can do things together. If you have a youth program in a community theater there are often parents involved with that.

“And those parents may then get involved with other shows at the theater. A community theater may have opportunities for youth to perform with adults in a show that’s cast age-appropriately. It can be a family affair.”

 

Godspell.    Photo by Casey Gripp

 

 

Taking the leap

Next time you see the curtain rise on a theater production in your own community, remember how much work, time, and dedication went into what you are about to see, and let your applause show your appreciation. Maybe you will get the urge to try it yourself.

“Doing one show is easy,” Ripley said, “but to get a group of people who really want to see it happen, having an ongoing entity that survives, that’s not so easy.” But after a decade of doing this, she keeps at it and somehow makes it look easy. Learning more about what goes on behind the scenes causes one to gain a great deal of respect for her and everyone else who brings this art form to their communities.

“Usually, in order to start up a new theater company there has to be someone who is insane and is willing to put in massive amounts of work,” Ripley joked. “Even in an ongoing company, there is someone who is insane. I happen to be that person right now.”

Welcome to “show biz.”

 

 

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show.    Photo by Steve Amos

 

 

 

 

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