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

Chapter 16: Finding Your Where

Let’s refresh our memory of Peter Brook’s definition of an act of theater:

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

There are three parts to Brook’s description:So far, I’ve been focusing on the second element—who are the artists, what are their characteristics, and what are the expectations connected to their involvement? To summarize:I think it is time to explore the questions implied by the first element in Brook’s definition: where is the space, how is it arranged, and what is in it? This topic has many subtopics: geography (in what part of the world is your company located?), performance space (where will your performances take place—indoor/outdoor, rented/owned, traditional/nontraditional, neutral/site-specific, online/in-person?), shape of the space (proscenium, thrust, arena, flexible, digital, audio), and what is in the space (which elements of performance—actors, scenery, costumes, lighting, props, multimedia, sound—are emphasized, which will be minimized or excluded entirely?). I will not explore each of these elements in this chapter, but they need to be considered as you move forward.

It is important to reiterate that each decision has both aesthetic and economic ramifications. For instance, the decision concerning the shape of the space can affect what kind of company members you include and what your budget will be. An arena stage, for instance, traditionally (a dangerous word, so turn up your crap detector) puts more emphasis on costumes and props, whereas a proscenium traditionally puts more emphasis on scenic elements and lighting. That decision might influence the primary skills of the company members, or the type of storage space you need, or how you will achieve your goal of reduced resource use. It also will have some impact on the plays you choose. For example, some types of farces require doors slamming, closets to hide in, surprise appearances of characters, and other requirements that might pose a challenge. (I have yet to figure out how Noises Off could be performed in an arena configuration, for instance.)


The geographic location of your theater has a huge effect on all elements of your company. If you think that a theater must be in an urban area to be financially viable, you first need to see that “must” as a red warning flag requiring close attention and deep questioning. It is built on an assumption that theater will only appeal to a small percentage of the populace, and usually buried deep inside, unspoken (and ahistorical), is an assumption that theater requires an educated audience and cities have a greater percentage of college graduates. On the other hand, the cost of living in an area will have a major impact on how much money the company members need to survive, and that will have a major impact on your business model.

Circle Stock

Let me give an example from theater history to illustrate how geography can influence every aspect of your company. As I mentioned in the chapter that discussed the rise of the Theatrical Syndicate, it was by owning the theaters in the small towns that they assured their dominance because the “jumps” between urban areas were too long to go without making money. So companies would have an extended run in an urban area, then do several one-night stands in a handful of small towns between the previous urban area and the next one. The Syndicate achieved dominance by buying up the theaters in small towns, which made touring unprofitable for those who refused to join them.

What happened later, however, is that once the Syndicate defeated the actor-managers who resisted joining them, and once the rail system began to make travel faster between urban areas, the small town theaters became expendable and the Theatrical Syndicate sold them off, leaving the rural towns to fend for themselves as far as theatrical entertainment was concerned. This opened the door for different business models, one of which was called “circle stock.”

In Circle Stock Theater: Touring American Small Towns, 1900-1960, Landis K. Magnuson describes how these companies operated as “a wagon wheel with spokes.” “The basic formula,” Magnuson explains,

“involved a circuit of six towns (seven if the company played on Sunday)….One town…served as the ‘base’ or ‘headquarters’ for the troupe. Here company members established living quarters—in hotel rooms, in rental apartments, or occasionally in entire houses, complete with hired help who performed light housekeeping.
     “Having established a base, the circle stock companies toured to outlying communities arranged roughly in a circle around their headquarters….The system established in a circle stock provided each outlying community the opportunity to see a performance by the company on the same day of the week on a weekly rotation of the circle. Because the one-way distance from the base to each venue normally ranged from only 20-40 miles and rarely over 50, the company could return each night to its headquarters following the performance. With such a ‘one-week circle’ established, the company performed the same bill six or seven times in a week, each night in a different town, while rehearsing a new show for the following week’s rotation.
     Circle Stock became particularly important during the Depression, when the number of productions out of New York plummeted and performers became desperate to do anything to make ends meet. Maude Gentry, a performer who did circle stock in the 1930s, explained why they turned to circle stock: “Simple answer—to eat. It was Depression time and we were not trained for much else….Get six people or so together, with a few scripts, a car and a circle usually paid our expenses. We loved what we were doing, so that is all we needed.”

The point is not to suggest that Circle Stock would be viable today (although who knows?), but rather to show once again that breaking out of preconceptions about what is “possible” can open up new ways of making a living. If Gentry had stuck with the preconception that the only way to make a living as a performer was to be in NYC, then she and her company never would have ventured out. Instead: “We loved what we were doing, so that is all we needed.” What a great philosophy!

How much is it true for you? Is it really important to you that you be located in New York City? It’s not impossible to start a company there, but it’s a pretty big nut to crack. If you were somewhere with a lower cost of living, more reasonable real estate prices, less of a glut of theater options, and you were doing what you loved, would you be content? There is no “right” answer, only what is “right” for you.

How did the circle stock model affect every aspect of the company? As Gentry said, the company had six people, and each member had multiple talents and had multiple tasks. In addition to performing, they were writing or finding the scripts; building, loading, and unloading the scenic elements; and building and mending the costumes. In addition, everything including all members of the company had to fit into one or two vehicles. Backdrops were usually painted muslin drops so they could be rolled up and transported in tubes attached to the side of a vehicle, and they were not specific to a particular play—remember, they were doing a new “bill” every week. The bill was what we would now call a variety show: short plays, skits, monologues, songs and musical numbers, juggling, magic, you name it! All adapted to the talents and skills of the company members. Of course, there were no advance tickets, you just paid at the door where one company member took your money.

Let me provide another example of how the choice of geography can influence every aspect of your theater company—and provide another success story as well!

Barter Theatre

It’s 1932, and a young actor named Robert Porterfield is on the train back from a national tour of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Walter Hampden, one of the last of the great actor-managers as well as a kind and generous human being. Porterfield, who had been playing a bit part at Equity minimum, is staring glumly out the train window knowing that, when the tour was ended and he returns to New York City, things were going to be tough.

The US economy had crashed, and the number of unemployed had climbed to over twelve million nationally. Porterfield remembers, “The American standard of living which had fattened on luxury dropped suddenly to the sharp edge of necessity. Banks were closing, savings were disappearing, and on every street corner in Manhattan people were selling apples for five cents apiece….Farmers watched land they had labored all their lives to own disappear on the auctioneer’s block as banks foreclosed their mortgages.” He himself was on the edge of ruin: the night before being cast in Cyrano, Porterfield had returned to his apartment to find that everything there, from bedding to knives and forks, had been taken in lieu of rent. Things were not looking good for him, and he wasn’t looking forward to getting back to the city.

Porterfield had grown up on a farm in a small town in Virginia, and had gone off to New York City to be an actor. He had been cast in bit parts and as an extra, and like most actors he knew, he was struggling to make ends meet by doing day jobs like running elevators. (Sound familiar?) But even these sorts of jobs would be scarce when he returned from tour.

As the train made its way through tiny towns and farmland, Porterfield was struck by the “rich-looking fields and grazing cattle and crops piled outside of farm doors.” Unlike in New York, food here was abundant, but there was nobody to sell it to. “Prices on farm crops had never been lower. I think it was said that the price of wheat was lower than it had been since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. It was piling up and rotting away…because nobody had any money to buy it with.” It was then that he had an idea.

“To anyone who ever grew up on a farm, or to any boy who ever traded jackknives for marbles, the idea comes naturally to swap what you can’t buy. It occurred to me that we had something to swap, too—culture, entertainment, spiritual nourishment for bodily nourishment.”

He went to see Mr. Hampden and explained his idea: “Mr Hampden,” I said, “people aren’t buying tickets because they haven’t got the money. Why don’t we let them pay for their tickets in farm produce, things we could eat—vegetables, eggs, corn, turkey, ham—” Hampden heard him out, then politely told him that, while his idea was novel, it was impractical.

But he didn’t give up. When he got to New York, he continued to try to figure out how to make his vision happen, despite being told repeatedly that his idea was crazy. He went to the Stage Relief Committee, which was made up of a group of some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the theater at that time, and described his idea. His plan was to take a company of actors back to his home town in Abingdon, Virginia (pop 3,005) where he had gotten permission to perform in the old opry house that was now the Town Hall, a space where Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson had once performed back in the day of touring actor-managers. Abingdon also had a school, the Mary Washington Female Seminary for Women, which had closed down due to the Depression. He had gotten permission to use the school building to house the actors. His plan was to acquire the rights to a handful of plays royalty free, perform them, and let the farmers pay for their tickets using produce, which would then be divided among the actors. What he needed from the Committee was the money to transport the actors. The committee members huddled together for what seemed a long time, and then—told him no.

Nevertheless, several individual members of the Committee were intrigued enough by his enthusiasm that they tried to help him on their own. They helped him negotiate with the Authors Guild so that he could use farm produce to pay for royalties (George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, wasn’t exactly thrilled with his royalty payment of a Virginia ham); a famous actress gave him a silver satin cyclorama she wasn’t using; and gradually things started to come together. He started looking for actors willing to take a chance on this new idea, which was easier than usual given the economic situation in New York. He ended up taking a company of 22 (!) to Abingdon, most of whom hitchhiked to get there, and most of whom were out-of-work seasoned professionals.

The rest is history—the history of what came to be known as the Barter Theatre. The section of Porterfield’s unpublished memoir that Todd London published in his must-have book, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, is charming and filled with funny stories about the first year of the Barter Theatre, which is still doing well (although without, alas, the produce exchange) over ninety years later.

So what do I think is important about this unlikely origin story?

First and foremost, Robert Porterfield picked himself. He looked around and saw a theater system that was failing to provide employment to many, many talented people, including himself. The Depression looked as if it was going to get worse before it got better, so instead of standing in soup lines in New York hoping for things to get better, Porterfield tried to figure out a new model. And he himself took responsibility for making that new model happen. He didn’t have monetary resources—he was living on a quart of milk and a box of graham crackers a day—but he did have resources nonetheless: talent, a vision, enthusiasm, knowledge of how another culture worked, and connections to that culture (it was his hometown).

He realized that what you didn’t pay for was the same as income (we'll explore this more fully in Chapter 22: Income). He arranged with a few sympathetic playwrights to do their plays for free, he arranged to use an empty theater space for free, he arranged to use an empty college building as housing for free. And one of the reasons he was able to accomplish this was that he was a local boy—he was part of the town. He had what is now referred to as “social capital.” And he recognized that cash wasn’t a necessity if you were able to barter for staples.

In addition, Porterfield ignored conventional wisdom. Authorities repeatedly told him his idea wouldn’t work, and that people in a tiny town wouldn’t support a theater, but he thought otherwise. “There were two kinds of hungering,” Porterfield asserted, “hungering in the body and hungering in the soul. I wanted to bring together the actor who was hungry in the stomach and the people I knew best, the people of the Virginia highlands, because I had a hunch that they were hungry for the spiritual nourishment the theater could bring them. I thought they were hungry enough for it to pay in the vegetables and chickens and jam they couldn’t sell.” He turned out to be right.

Instead of being blinded by “the way things should be done,” Porterfield looked at the situation with fresh eyes and searched for alternatives. He used the magic phrase “what if” to crack open a new way of doing things. He thought there were people in small towns that lacked cash but had more food than they could eat or sell and there were actors who had talent but needed food. What if they could swap food for tickets? What if artists didn’t have to be paid in money but instead in the things they would normally use money to buy!

He also wasn’t stuck geographically. He didn’t think that his work was less important because it was being done in a small town six hundred miles away from the Great White Way. He just wanted to act! He cared about the work, not the prestige.

Nobody in the company was getting rich, but at a time of financial challenge they were housed and eating very well, while doing what they loved to do. Eventually, the Barter Theater became established enough to provide more than room and board, and eventually many of the actors went back to New York (they were not owners, alas), and eventually, as noted, they stopped accepting food for tickets. But as they were getting off the ground, they were surviving during hard times!

Robert Porterfield stands as a terrific example of the kind of creativity that is needed today, when things are awfully similar to the situation he was facing. What crazy ideas do you have that might create a new model? What “what if” needs to be said to release those crazy ideas? And how long can we forget what we know in order to see our creative life with new eyes?

Performance Space

Another issue you will encounter right away is finding a space to perform. Are you going to rent a theater? Convert a nontraditional space? Take your performances to the audience? Buy a space? Borrow one? Build one?

This can be a bit of a conundrum. Theater artists often think they want to perform in a traditional theater because they believe it gives them validity in the eyes of the audience, who might be reluctant to venture into nontraditional places. And depending on the characteristics of your audience, that may be true. The problem is that landlords who own theater spaces know that they are a scarce commodity, and they tend to charge accordingly. Like, way accordingly. Renting such a space tends to create a pretty large hole in the budget, and if you are thinking in terms of an ongoing company with many productions and performances, the space may not be available every time you need it.

There are established theater companies in some towns who will allow outside companies to use their space for a share of the box office revenue plus a smallish per-performance fee. This reduces the risk for you, since a flop reduces the overall amount you pay to the other company. Usually, you will need to rehearse elsewhere and load in during the week prior to opening. Again, you will be working in between the productions of the host theater, but it is an option if you’re lucky enough to find a existing theater willing to consider the deal.

In my opinion, you don’t want to undertake such an expense until after you figure out whether you can identify an audience for your work and whether that audience is big enough and interested enough to make your business model sustainable.

We haven’t yet gotten to the process for answering the questions about “customer identification” and a sustainable business model. At this stage, let me suggest that what you are looking for is a small space that can accommodate a small audience while you test out your ideas. If this could be a place that was free, it would be a bonus. The Steppenwolf Theater famously began its life rehearsing and performing in a church basement in a Chicago suburb. Political theater in the United Kingdom often has performed in rooms of pubs—in fact, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater began performing on the rooftop of a Lincoln Park pub. 

In other words, don't immediately jump to renting a traditional theater without considering alternatives.

Double Edge Theatre

The world-renowned Double Edge Theatre provides a fascinating example of how the cost of space led to a change of venue and that ended up opening many possibilities. According to their website, Double Edge Theatre started in 1982 “as a feminist ensemble collective by Stacy Klein, with co-founder and emerita ensemble member Carroll Durand, and several other women, in Boston, MA.” Twelve years later in 1994, Double Edge left Boston and moved to the small town of Ashfield, MA.

“This move was precipitated by the absolute economic impossibility to pay exorbitant Boston rents and to house overseas guest artists for long periods. The Ensemble had seen and participated in examples of barter in Central Europe and determined that sustainability might be easier found in a rural environment. The dream of living in Ashfield and maintaining performance space in Boston dissolved by 1996 — after two years of traveling three hours back and forth to Boston with young children in the car; and, of equal import, being shunned by villagers who could not imagine a theater that did not perform, and facing a doubtful Ashfield community, who wondered if DE was some sort of commune or cult!

1997: A year later we opened our first performance space in Ashfield—the Barn. The impact of the move to the Farm was so far reaching that it can be said that if the Ensemble had not moved, as serendipitous and tenuous as that move was, Double Edge more than likely would not exist today."

Today, Double Edge Theatre has a permanent company and a strong following of Ashfield residents. They are active and respected members of their community, and they are recognized nationally and internationally for their creative and powerful performances and rigorous training program as well as a variety of artistic collaborations. Conventional Wisdom might have said that their experimental work would be better appreciated in an urban area with a “more sophisticated” audience, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to develop their distinctive style without the space provided by the Farm.

They were able to buy the Farm because real estate was vastly more affordable in Ashfield than in Boston, and they eventually renovated and built additional spaces for company use. They also have created a production each summer that is performed outside on the grounds of the farm, using the pond, trees, even the pigsty in their performances. The audience moves from place to place to see individual scenes. Tickets for these performances sell out very quickly.

Transcendence Theatre Company

Another example might be the Transcendence Theatre Company. In 2010, a group of young dancer/actors with Broadway musical credits left New York on what they called the “Project Knowledge Tour.” They spent sixty-nine days on the road, driving more than 10,000 miles, meeting with over 70 theater leaders to receive insights to help them build their dream to find a home where they could build their company and share their talents. Soon they decided to focus on Sonoma, CA where, in 2011, they received permission to create a summer season outside in the ruins of an old winery in Jack London State Park, which originally had been slated to be closed. The following year, they set a goal of raising $250,000 to convert the winery and the field in which it was located into a stage under the stars.

They succeeded, and since then they have become an award-winning theater presenting Broadway under the Stars performances, and running a youth program where local youth do a show with seasoned Broadway and Hollywood performers. They have committed to being a part of the community, and performed at the “Sonoma County Day of Remembrance” following the devastating wildfires of 2017. In 2020, they were named “Theatre Company of the Decade” by Broadway World San Francisco. They now perform in a variety of indoor spaces across California, including with the Santa Rosa Symphony and with guest artists like Ben Vereen. In 2021, they were awarded the10th Anniversary Certificate of Recognition from Senator Bill Dodd for enriching the arts and culture of Sonoma Valley for the past decade. Because Artistic Director Amy Miller and co-Executive Directors Stephan Stubbins & Brad Surosky were willing to consider non-traditional spaces, and were willing to team with nonprofit and governmental agencies, they have built a viable company and business model that provides them an opportunity to live their dream.

Des Moines Social Club

Another example might be Zack Mannheimer, who I wrote about for American Theatre Magazine in 2015. As I said at the time:

As the summer of 2007 rolled around, Zack Mannheimer found himself at a crossroads. For seven years, he’d been artistic director of Brooklyn’s Subjective Theatre Company, whose mission was described as “producing a wide range of politically and socially relevant theater and presenting it at no cost to the public.” The company’s mission statement went on to say that the company intended to “create work that consistently challenges and entertains our audience while inspiring creativity and social responsibility within our community.”
     But Mannheimer was finding that goal increasingly difficult to attain, and for a possibly surprising reason.
     “There can be no real discourse and debate when everyone you surround yourself with on a daily basis tends to agree with your positions on whatever issue,” Mannheimer says. “My main problem with creating art for an audience in [New York City] is that the majority of the people I create art with and those who come to see it agree with my viewpoints before they even walk in the door to create or to witness the creation. I am helping to provide reassurance to these people; I am not challenging them on an intellectual level or a primal level. Art creation has, for me, become nothing more than masturbation. My company and I have enjoyed many successes, good reviews, a loyal audience, and so on. But no change in what we preach is occurring.”

So on June 1 of that year, Mannheimer set out on a cross-country tour of the United States in search of a new place to open a theater and a restaurant. His criteria for the town where he would settle were:After making his 18-city tour, Mannheimer chose Des Moines, IA. He arrived knowing nobody and with $100 in his pocket. Eight years later, after “laying the groundwork and winning converts to his vision,”

“Mannheimer is the executive director of Des Moines Social Club (DMSC), an arts and entertainment venue located in downtown Des Moines in an historic Art Deco firehouse Mannheimer had renovated for $8 million. It opened a year ago, with an opening address and performance by David Byrne for more than 4,000 people. DMSC, Manneheimer says, “provides a home for local artists, offers unique programming spanning all arts disciplines, and brings people of every age and background together under one roof—all for the purpose to use the arts as a catalyst to create unprecedented community engagement.”

A few months before I wrote about him, Mannheimer announced that he was stepping down to pursue other interests, turning over the Des Moines Social Club to another group of leaders. “It’s been eight years, and [the club] needs some new blood,” Mannheimer told the Business Record. “But if I’m going to hand it off to someone else, I want to do it when we’re doing well…It’s not for lack of ideas, but we need to keep pushing the envelope.” (Speaking of pushing the envelope, today Mannheimer is the co-founder of Alquist 3D, which is “printing affordable housing across the nation, starting with the first owner-occupied 3D home in the world in Virginia.”)

Zack Mannheimer had a list of characteristics of places he’d like to live—what might your list look like? And how might that translate into actual places? Stacy Klein, Amy Miller, and Zack Mannheimer founded their dreams in found spaces: a farm, a state park, an old firehouse.
What “empty space” might you want to consider, and where might you find it? There are no magic bullets for this step, except to say that it helps to think clearly about what you’re looking for beforehand, and what you're willing to pay for it.

You might end up renting or building a traditional theater space, and that is fine. Just don’t do it automatically.

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