6 Reasons Your Community Theatre is Failing

Chris Petrson

OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief


Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to work with many different theatre companies. I've seen some that have risen to great success and others that have failed miserably. While there isn't a guaranteed formula for success, there are certainly practices to avoid.

Sadly, I see too many theatres companies ignore problems until they're too late.  The economy isn't the problem, your audiences aren't the problem. Chances are, if your theatre company folds, you ignored the warning signs and let problems to continue erode your foundation. Here are five issues that are ignored way too much.

You've Become a Non-Stop Telethon Instead of a Theatre Company

We all understand that in order for a theatre company to thrive, it takes money and lots of it. So there has to be a constant effort to raise funds to keep the lights on. However, some theatre companies go about this better than others. And in some cases, how your company fund raises can actually damage your reputation.

Something that has always annoyed me is when I'm asked over and over again to donate to a theatre company, especially during the Front of House announcement right before show.

First of all, I'm already at your performance, I've paid for a ticket, I'm already supporting your company. Asking a paying audience for more money, at that moment, comes off as desperate if your house is half full and greedy if you're sold out. Secondly, stop telling your audiences that ticket revenue only pays for a small portion of what your theatre company needs. Even if it's true, when you do that, you're basically telling your audience that it's not really that important that they be there, but rather just send you a check each year.

There are certainly methods that your theatre company can use to raise money without looking desperate or greedy. Special benefit performances, auctions, getting sponsors from local businesses, all great ideas that don't put your company in a bad light.

You're Not Budgeting Correctly

You would think every theatre company would be overly cautious with their bookkeeping, but you would be surprised to see how many don't know what they're doing with their theatre's finances. 

I've seen theatre companies who charge too little or too much. I've seen them spend money on wasteful items and not opt for cheaper expenses. I've also seen instances where theatres put themselves behind with their show selection. For instance, if your company is barely staying afloat, opting to do an expensive musical isn't the wise course of action. 

You're Not Addressing the Faults with Your Facilities

No facility is perfect, they all have problems that need improvements. But if you're refusing to address these issues or fix them, then those holes only get bigger and those faucets leak more. I've seen too many theatres that ignore obvious facility issues like, lack of heating/air conditioning, seats that are falling apart, leaks in roof, parking issues, bathroom cleanliness. If you're ignoring issues like these, I hope your productions are better than anything else out there.

Facility issues should never deter someone from coming to see your show. There are theatres that I rarely go to because I know there will always be an issue with their facilities. Addressing these problems should be #1 on your priority list before each season. If you're not able to do the big musical with elaborate sets and costumes because you have to spend money on plumbing or fixing your seats, this should be a no brain decision. But sadly, I've seen the same problems with the same facilities ever since I started getting involved theatre.

You're Leaderless

If you theatre company is in danger of closing its doors, take a look at who's steering the ship. If the answer is no one, then you're really in trouble. In most cases, the biggest reason why I see theatre companies fail is because either they don't have leadership or their leaders are incompetent. You need good people in the right places to make your company succeed. You have to take charge and responsibility.

I was directing a production that was going through some space availability issues, if we had strong leadership at that theatre company, chances are, the production would have been fine. But the people in charge were so inept when it came to running a theatre company, the production was cancelled and the theatre company folded that same year. Theatre companies are no different from large corporations when it comes to needing the right people in charge. If you don't believe me, look at the most successful theatre companies in your area and look at who is leading them, then do the same for the ones you know that failed.

You Cast the Same People in Every Show

You wouldn't think it, but this is a larger issue than you might assume. I've spoken with many audience members who have told me that no matter how great John and Jane Smith are, they don't want to see John & Jane Smith in every single one of your productions. I always believe that the most talented people should always get the role. However I also believe that theatre is about inclusion and giving people new opportunities.

Giving your audiences new faces in a cast is a win win for the audience and your theatre company. For the audience, they get to see a performer they might have never seen. For the theatre company, you're able to sell tickets to new audience members who maybe haven't been to your theatre before. And if you're including new people in these productions, then you develop a reputation of inclusion that will bring new people to not only audition for your shows but volunteer behind the scenes as well. I can count on two hands the amount of shows in the past year that I have correctly predicted exactly who would be cast and for which role, that should never happen. Casting the same people over and over again is stale and causes more issues. If John and Jane Smith are cast in everything, it makes me wonder if they're being cast because of their talent or for other reasons. Why give your company that kind of reputation?

Your Shows Stink

Okay, saying a show stinks is a loose term because the quality of a performance is in the eye of the beholder. But we all can see when a show is unprepared or unfit to be performed. If you want money to keep coming in ,you must put an effort in your productions to make sure they are as prepared and polished as possible. You might be able to get away with it once in a season, but twice? Good luck convincing anyone to buy season tickets next year or come back at all. If you're not putting the effort and care into your productions, then all you're doing is stealing money.

I'm not an expert but I learn from my mistakes. If your theatre company is ignoring these issues, please come back and read this column again when your theatre company folds.