Beginning with Godot: Adventures of a New Community Theater

Elizabeth Stinnette

  • OnStage Virginia Columnist

Part 2: Show me the Money (and Audiences)

If you read my last article, you know that I’m one of a group of four college graduates who decided to start a nonprofit community theater in Loudoun County, Virginia. Our first play will be Waiting for Godot. Partly because it’s a great play, and partly because it’s cheap.

Community theaters start because of a love of the arts, but they keep going because of strong fundraising and publicity. However, money and marketing are somewhat of a vicious cycle. When you’re just starting out, you don’t have much money, and no one realizes you exist. But if you don’t have money to advertise and put on good-looking productions, you won’t bring in the paying crowds and attention.

This is one area where being a nonprofit helps. People like to encourage the arts in their community, whether by giving money or by volunteering. Because of this, we have several methods to help us get off the ground.

The first step for any new community theater is to think about the friend and donor bases you already have. Who do you know who loves theater? Have you heard about any friends of friends who might like to get involved? 

We had our network of friends, especially those who had been involved in other shows with us. They don’t always know people in the community. They are poor college students, after all. However, several of our friends in particular are enthusiastic and willing to volunteer. That’s one strike in our favor. We also know some parents of local students and arts-lovers who are connected to our college community. That’s even better—they can help share the news about us among their friends.

We also are taking time to network with arts leaders, journalists, and fellow theater companies. The arts are not like the business world. Everyone benefits when community members attend more theater—especially if your new theater is offering something slightly different from everyone else. At least in our area, other community theaters and artists have been hugely supportive of us. Many seem excited that young people are starting a nonprofit theater that puts on traditional plays, and so they have opened doors for us and helped us make even more connections. In return, we help them by promoting their shows and events through social media. 

Having a nonprofit status also makes fundraising easier. We have three options for raising money before the first ticket sale: funding platforms, donations, and grants. 

Kickstarter and similar funding platforms are a boon for small theaters like ours. When we were just starting out, Timothy and Keaghan held a campaign so people could help get Geronimo off the ground. Anyone could give any amount to help us pay for web hosting and other start-up expenses. This helped raise awareness about our nonprofit—and even the smallest dollar amounts add up!

Donations can come from anyone, but usually they come from individuals in the local area who want to contribute to the arts. These individuals like to know exactly where their money goes, and they often appreciate it when the theater gives them something in return. For instance, when we meet with donors, we usually ask them to contribute toward a particular project, such as building the tree for Godot. We also consider giving donors free tickets and signed posters. This builds donor loyalty—if you are considerate of your donors, it’s more likely that they’ll give in the future.

Grants are pools of money that businesses, individuals, or foundations will share with deserving nonprofits. Basically, it’s money just waiting for organizations like ours! Grant proposal writing is an article in itself, but suffice it to say that the time you spend is worth it when you get $5,000 toward your first season.

Because of these networking and funding strategies, Geronimo has gotten two summer camps, earned one grants from our local government, and set the dates for Godot at the local performing arts center—September 15-18, for anyone who will be in the area! 

Money isn’t everything, though. Without crew members or performers, we won’t have much of a show. Auditions for Godot will be next month. We’ll just have to wait and see who responds.