Please note that none of these ideas are revolutionary. They are done to varying degrees all the time all around the country. And of course this is not the only way to start a theatre company. There are many different approaches, and like a buffet one takes and leaves what suits one most. In my view, the following methods and attitudes could be more successful than others for people that think like me. But it of course depends on what your goals and realities are. Which is a good place to start this brainstorm.
Goals and Realities
Anything that I would start, and probably anything that you would start, would be very limited by budget. So let’s say right off the top that my ideas pertain to those with little or no budget to invest in such an endeavor. The independently wealthy can do virtually anything they want in the arts. That is the reality. So let us move on to goals.
I have said many times on this blog before, any theatre endeavor should be performance/actor oriented. The mission of a community theatre company is not to turn a profit. (Which is why most are registered as non-profit organizations.) Nor should its mission be to become an influence peddler in its community, or to become the one and only destination for the arts in any given area. Nor is it to try to have the most toys that people will come to play with. I think any and all of these things too quickly become the goal of those who start a theatre company, and care should be exercised in not allowing that to happen.
I say the true mission of a community theatre is to, surprise, bring the magic, culture, fun, and potency of live theatre to the community at large. Whichever community that happens to be. This means to make it accessible to be viewed by the community, and participated in by the community. Everyday people with a passion giving something to other everyday people, and in so doing, increasing an interest in the company, and in the arts as a whole. That is the broad goal of a company I would start.
But “community” is only half of the term. “Theatre” is the other half. As mentioned, good theatre starts with the right actors. The “right” actors are those who love what they are doing, and remain committed to it, and to the mission of theatre as a whole, regardless of shortcomings they may run into. Actors who dig deep within themselves to pull out stories, characters, emotions, speeches, etc, that will make the production they are engaged in memorable for both those in it, and those who see it.
That dedication cannot be effected by lack of budgets, toys, fame, props or such. Those things may or may not be there any given time. But the human factor always is, and that is what I would base a new theatre company on. Human capital and passion. The “right” actors.
Notice I said “right” and not “excellent”. Here is where I differ from many theatre companies. It can’t be 100% about talent and ability on stage. I advocate instead a people based, passion oriented approach to theatre, and I’d screen those interested in joining the company, or any given play of same, for that passion to bringing theatre to life, regardless of the other accoutrement that may be available. Visceral, people based theatre. Not that I would ignore talent and ability. But I will admit that all things being equal, or even a bit less than equal, passion and attitude would for me trump pure talent. When people are in love with what they do, they can be led to wonderful things. Find that love, first and foremost, and you will have half the work completed.
Whether or not the right actors should be found on a play by play casting basis, or cast as a stable company of players I imagine is not quite as important, though I personally see the benefits of a stable company of players that casts outside of its circle when needed.
So, you have you group of dedicated actors. What should they perform? A lot of modern theatre is fantastic stuff. And with royalties a lot of it is expensive stuff. This is all well and good if your theatre can afford those royalties. But as I mentioned I am coming at this from the low-budget side of the spectrum. And where does that put us in regards to content?
Forget about scrounging around to find enough money to do a modern show for a limited run. Some would argue that even doing one night of a show that is the flavor of the week will get your company noticed more quickly, and lead to bigger and brighter things. “You have to fill the seats at first,” they will say.
Yes, you do have to fill the seats at some point. That is why you are in theatre. But the more your company presents to the public, the more chances there are for seats to be filled. And if you have no money to invest in royalties, you might limit how much you can present. Or how well.
Allow me to introduce you to the wonderful, uplifting, budget saving world of the public domain. Used books stores are stuffed with plays that belong to the public now. Why cash strapped companies do not make more use of such resources is mind boggling.
What a glorious thing the public domain can be! Shakespeare. Moliere. Sophocles. The music of Gilbert and Sullivan. Not to mention countless lesser known, or even forgotten playwrights from long ago that can be brought back to life by you and your actors. Not one dime has to be paid to anybody anywhere in order to put on any of these type of productions, yet it doesn’t happen much.
Yes, I admit, you will see the same 3 or 4 Shakespeare plays done at community theatres over and over again, but did you ever see the Town Players tackle Richard II? Or even Henry V?
Shakespeare still gets off easy, though. When was the last time a local playhouse did anything by Marlowe? Now I am sure it has happened, but not often, and I’ve been told why.
“Those plays are too hard to follow,” I hear directors say, “Too archaic. They will be lost on a modern audience.”
First, way to condescend to a modern audience. If something is good, people who enjoy it will come. And people understand more than they are given credit for. But put that aside and consider that if you think an older play may be harder to follow…adapt it!
An even better aspect of doing work in the public domain is that it can be altered, adapted, or edited for length without penalty. Change the order of a few scenes. Cut a line. ADD a line, it makes no difference. You are not out to be a scholar here. You are out to form a company and to move people. To interest them in drama. Do what you need or want to do with such a piece, and call it an adaptation. Then perform it. For FREE.
So, you find the right actors, and you give obscure public domain plays a try. You still need a venue, don’t you?
It is a loaded question. Yes, it is obvious performers need a venue in which to perform. But that does not mean they need their OWN venue. Finding a venue tends to be what sinks most companies before they get started, and I am declaring hear and now that it need not be this way.
To start a company quickly and efficiently on a budget, I propose to forgo the search for a venue of one’s own. At least for a few years. Instead, concentrate your efforts on finding a suitable space in which to rehearse. Many productions engage in half of their rehearsals or more in a space other than that in which they will be performing. All one needs to rehearse is enough room to block the scenes. No need for audience space, and no real need for back stage. Just a place where there is room to run scenes, and work out kinks. Such space is far easier to come by than adequate performance space. A garage can work. So, I would secure a reliable rehearsal space, and make that the HQ for a new company. A place to convene and perfect whatever public domain show you are working on at any given time.
Performing? I have not forgotten that.
Towns and cities of various sizes all have certain types of buildings. Rec centers. Community parks. Churches. Gymnasiums. Once in a great while sturdy and safe empty buildings that are currently between leases. Performances and ceremonies take place in these buildings all of the time. The key therefore is to find those that would be adequate for a performance, and take it on the road. Be a traveling company. At least at first.
Get someone in your company (with passion for the theatre of course) that is good with phones and marketing. Those who talk up things really well, and like to negotiate. Have them scour a 30 mile radius for different venues that could work for a one night only performance and try to secure same. Some may have to be rented. Others may belong to groups that will invite you to perform in their venue for free, if you do not charge admission. Or if you agree to split admission prices with them. The point is, if you rehearse and block a show in such a way that it can be performed in any number of generic spaces, you can take that show to several venues all over your area. Get to a new venue early and run the blocking, and you are all set.
Even if you contact 50 places and only 5 or so say yes, that’s about as many performances as two weekends would be in a traditional company anyway. Plus, given that each show will be in a different community, word of mouth can spread twice as fast. (If you give them something worth talking about.) If you are well received, the same groups will be more likely to let you return the following year.
Maybe you can find a semi-permanent venue in this fashion. But even if not, you get the benefits of a traveling show, which are under appreciated by those who put toys ahead of quality acting and story telling. Who wouldn't want to combine acting with road tripping?
“Traveling is the most expensive type of theatre there is,” I have been told. “It’s cost prohibitive.”
That is true once again, only if you are more in love with the trappings and glamor of complex theatre than you are with acting and producing memorable performance based productions. It is true if you try to take your show across the nation, instead of say, across your state, or part of your state. Again, set a radius here.
And as far as the difficulty of moving a production, you have the power to stage your plays with a minimum set. With minimum costumes. Few props. None, if you see fit. When you have total creative control over a play, (which you do when it is public domain) you can pare it down as much as you need or want to. If you don’t want your modern take on “Antigone” to have fancy costumes, don’t have them. Put everybody in black. Nobody said your Merry Wives of Windsor has to have furniture.The possibilities are endless. The point is the expense of a road show decreases in direct proportion to the decrease in the extra stuff you need to put on a great show. (Another reason for truly dedicated performers.)
You therefore have reduced your expenses to things like gas and rental. Tolls, depending on where you are going. Maybe some advanced advertising in the town you are going to. Just keep it simple.
Admission may make up some of the costs. But you may not be able to charge admission in some venues, and indeed it may be advisable to not do so, for a while, until word of mouth spreads. Get people into what you are doing by letting them see it for free in their own town. Then let them ask about following you elsewhere.
On a side note, don’t be so elitist as to ignore the value of pre-recorded music, if you want to tackle a musical. Many guffaw at the idea of singing with canned music, and would never attend a show without a live orchestra. Let them stay home. Live orchestras are great, but not practical in certain venues. And certainly not for a fledgling traveling company. But if you have a good sound person that can rig speakers through which to play music to sing to, go for it. People love to come see musicals, and companies love musicals that have no royalties. The folks in the next town should walk away remembering how great the voices sounded, and how delightful the characters were to them, not “they should have had a live orchestra.”
Then there are other general considerations. Such as how many shows to do. If you are a summer company, then picking one for the year, having your actors in place at the start of summer, and rehearsing while your marketing person gets to work on finding venues is a way to go. If you have people with freer schedules, you could perhaps do a show on a rolling basis for a few months. Pick a show, keep in rehearsal until a venue is found and then performing it. Doing pick up rehearsals between visits to different venues. Or if you are lucky you can do more than one show a year. Those to me are specific details that are best worked out with the individual company. My suggestions would apply regardless.
I think the gist of what I am saying has become clear. I advocate a theatre company that is modest in it’s beginnings, but built around highly dedicated actors that are committed to performing and moving audiences at almost all costs. I advocate having the courage to breath new life into older, less known works, and making them unique to the group performing them. I advocate setting aside the temptation to take over a building as soon as possible in favor of taking a brand of quality theatre all over the area that people will remember and talk about long after you the company has packed up and gone home.
I certainly advocate love for the art.
This sort of company does require a specific type of work. It is an unconventional approach that is not for everyone. But finding a venue, securing royalties, having fundraisers and spreading the word about a new more traditional theatre company is also hard work, if it is to be done right. Given that, I would rather focus most of my efforts on the show, and the actors, than on anything else. If that leads to something else like recognition, fame, or money with which to buy a permanent home, so be it. Yet those things should not be the goal of a company. Great performing should be.
Laurence Olivier said that it wasn’t the number of rehearsals of a play that mattered, but how long it has been in your heart. It may be the best thing he ever said about this world of theatre. And it is on that concept I would build a theatre company if I were to do so.