Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 11: Addition

So far, I’ve been describing a process for forming an ongoing theater company that is comprised of theater artists who have each invested money in ownership of a for-profit business. But we haven’t actually added anyone to the company—it’s still just you using your imagination. No commitments have been made, no money has been deposited. This is good! Don’t get ahead of yourself. Most nascent theater companies rush forward, drunk on their own supply, and then are almost immediately flattened by the steamroller of reality. Enthusiasm is absolutely crucial—it is the fuel that makes everything else move—but unless you have a clear idea of all aspects of your project, the likelihood is that you won’t last.

At this point, there are a number of elements you could work on first—the order isn’t absolutely crucial—but you need to do all of them before you launch. Launch? Start-ups launch, and that’s what your theater is. For a tech startup, the launch is when the company has been formed and staffed, and the product has been conceptualized, programmed, tested, a customer base has been identified, and you are ready to release the product into the marketplace.

You’re nowhere near that.

You still need to:The reason you need to do this is because you are trying to create something that is sustainable, fulfilling, and that will last. I know you’re chomping at the bit to get going, but I promise you won’t regret having gone through this process.

You may remember from Chapters 8 and 9 that there were three rules for forming a company. Each new member must:We’ve also taken a sideroad to discuss the issue of non-profit vs for-profit. This chapter will talk about the skills of the company members.

Using the structure and terminology of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (shareholders, hired men, apprentices), the goal is to have as many of the “competencies” needed to start and run the theater covered by the smallest number of shareholders. The reason should be obvious: if the goal is to create a sustainable living for the shareholders, the more shareholders (and hired men, for that matter), the thinner the slices of income. If you’re generating $5,000 a week after expenses, there is a big difference between dividing it into five slices ($1000 per week) versus ten slices ($500 per week)!

And this is where many artists who dream of starting a company make it difficult for themselves. They resort to the model they’ve grown up with in, say, college: we need a director, performers, a lighting designer, a costume designer, a scenic designer, maybe a sound designer/multimedia designer, a music director, people to build the designs, a publicity designer, a box office manager and so forth. Each one of these are separate people with unique skills, and each one is a mouth to feed, so to speak, and so they end up requiring a large income stream to create a sustainable living for everyone. 

Let’s compare this to the famous start of Apple Computers, which was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. We all know the story—it’s been repeated about a million times: they had a vision for changing the way people viewed computers by making them user friendly and small and inexpensive enough for people to have them in their homes or offices. Jobs and Wozniak started out building the Apple I in Jobs' garage and sold them without a monitor, keyboard, or casing. Using theatrical terms, they had two shareholders (Jobs and Wozniak) with low overhead (Jobs’s garage) who conceptualized (vision of a user friendly personal computer) and built (production) a minimum viable product (no monitor, no keyboard, no casing) that they themselves sold (extending the living of the company) to a limited number of early adopters (finding audience) to find out whether there was a market for their product (analyze the market) and also to find out what elements people wanted (audience development and business idea testing). Today, Apple employs 164,000 people with almost $400 billion annual revenue, but in 1976 it was two guys in a garage.

Right now, you’re at the two-guys-in-a-garage stage. Mike Wiley spent years in this stage until his company could create a sustainable living for him. Only then was he able to expand. This is called “getting to scale.” Getting to scale isn’t about becoming a behemoth like Apple, but creating a sustainable business model that fulfills your personal and your artistic vision.

One way to create a sustainable business model is to limit the number of people who need to be sustained. The way you do that is by designing a team in which each individual can contribute in multiple ways. Remember Daniel Quinn’s newspaper? Hap was an excellent photographer (primary skill) who also sold ads (secondary skill). Shakespeare was a playwright (primary skill) but also acted and helped with administration (secondary skills). Each company member doesn't need to possess secondary skills at the outset (Hap didn't really know how to sell advertising), but they must be willing to develop them.

So let’s say that your primary skill is directing. Now you need a secondary skill (another artistic or business skill) that either saves the company money or brings money in. So maybe your secondary skill is that you know the basics of how to build props and scenery. That means the company doesn’t need to hire a carpenter. And you have an interest in developing the skills for creating and running online marketing and fundraising campaigns; these are your skills that extends the living of the company.

You need to do this with anyone you are considering adding to the company: evaluate how they extend the living of the company through secondary talents.

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