So You Want to Start a Theatre Company?

Natalie Osborne 

  • OnStage Columnist

I’m not going to try to stop you. I know better, because I’ve heard it all before too. Don’t start a theatre company. Get more experience before you try to build your own non-profit. Wait. Be patient. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll be in way over your head. Don’t push the giant red button in the middle of the room. Don’t push it. DON’T! 

Guess what I did? I pushed the red button. 

It seems as though more and more theatre artists are pushing the red button. Recent graduates want to build spaces for themselves to create the work they’re passionate about, and playwrights want to produce their own work instead of wading through an endless submission process. And yet, there are so many theatre professionals, articles, you name it, that warn against this path. 

So I won’t be one of them, because you’re going to push the red button and come hell or high water, most likely nothing will stop you. Good for you. You might fall flat on your face or you might create something amazing, but you won’t know unless you try. 

I’m not going to try to stop you from starting your own theatre company, but I will tell you what I’ve learned from a year of running my own. 


Maybe you live in a town that doesn’t have much of a theatre scene. Maybe your town has a few good community theatres and art spaces, but needs more diversity, or a venue for new work, or a theatre that focuses on science fiction and fantasy. Find out what your local art scene needs, and whatever it is, fill it! NOplays mission is to promote and produce works by underrepresented voices in the American Theatre, specifically emerging female writers. Less than 20% of the plays produced each year in this country are written by women. We’re the only theatre company in southern Connecticut whose focus is on new work by female playwrights. That’s something that gets theatre-makers and audience members excited about our work. 


Your first production does not have to be a twelve person musical extravagance. Please don’t make yourself go through that. Just because your production is small and simple doesn’t mean it won’t be spectacular! Plus, you’ll still get to eat three square meals a day and get a full nights rest. You’re not going to be able to take care of your theatre if you’re not taking care of yourself.


That means lots and lots of paperwork. I know, it sucks, but it has to get done. Of course, there’s paperwork you have to get done before you can do the real paperwork, and by that I mean research, lots and lots of research. Are you going to start off as a sole-proprietorship and then switch to a non-profit status? Do you live in a state that will allow you to change status or would you have to close down your sole-proprietorship and register your business all over again (yes, I said business, because that’s what you are now, a small business owner)? You’re also going to need to open a business checking account, find one that’s free. There’s no sense paying for something if you don’t have to. Make sure that’s your theatre is registered at the town, state, and federal level and that you know how to fill out taxes for each. You don’t want to be that producer who gets a letter from the state of Connecticut saying she forgot to fill out a form that is overdue and might be fined. Trust me, I’ve been that producer. It’s not fun. Consider getting advice from an accountant or lawyer (or both) to help you figure this all out. 


Speaking of local businesses owners, ask for their help! When NOplays produced our festival of new works this past April, less than half of the money from the production came from ticket sales. About a forth came from crowdsourcing, and a large portion came from selling ads in our program to local businesses. I was touch by the amount of support we received from our community. Organizations who couldn’t donate money gave gift cards, and we were able to use them as door prizes for audience members. The Silk Road Art Gallery allowed us to use their space to put on our show (for a very low rate). Koffee, the coffee shop across the street, donated food and beverages for both nights of the performance. The New Haven Theatre group donated folding chairs. Minuteman Press in Milford gave us a discount in exchange for a free ad in our program. 

It’s important to give back when you can. Thank you letters are a must, but take the extra step! Shop local, go eat out at the restaurants who donated food, see a show by a fellow theatre, talk up their businesses and organizations to your friends, and do everything you can to make sure these businesses know how much you appreciate their support! 


Odds are, if you’re producing a new play written by yourself, an emerging writer, your audience is going only your friends and family. Let’s say you bill your play with two other emerging writers for an evening of ten-minute plays, and their friends and family come, and your directors’ friends and family, and the actors’ friends and family, and some friends of friends? Whelp, then you have your audience! When NOplays produced our festival at the Silk Road Art Gallery, we had three new plays by three emerging writers. Although the plays complemented each other (they were all about famous historical women) the writers each had their own unique style that stood out from the other plays. Teaming up with other local writers and artists who share your interests (and making the evening about them and their work as well as your own) will not only get people in the door, it’ll create more creative diversity on your stage, and that means a better show!


You’ll get more people in the door through word of mouth than through billboards or postcards. We also live in the age of the Internet, where you can spread the word for an event to hundreds or even thousands of people though social media platforms. Local newspapers will offend offer you a spot in their arts bulletin for free. Consider exhausting every free option before spending money on a marketing campaign. You can use that money for a more important investment…


As artists, we’re lucky to get paid for our work, and that’s not going to change anytime soon unless all of us as a community do something to change it. You can start by paying your people. Actors, directors, writers, graphic designers, all of them should be compensated for the work they do, weather it’s through a stipend or by giving them a percentage of whatever your theatre earns on opening night. This might seem like an impossible task, how can you raise money for your set, costumes, etc. AND pay everyone? When I told local businesses that all of our artists were being compensated for their work, they were impressed. I think one of the reasons we raised as much money as we did was because people knew that some of the money was going directly to the artists involved. Investing in the artists made the artists more invested in the production. The truth is, you can do a play without a set or costumes or lightening, but you need people to perform the work, you need people to lead the actors and write the plays. Invest in your people because they are the ones who will make the show great. I think one of the biggest problems in American Theatre today is that we invest more money in equipment and promotional material than in artists who make the work. 


One of the hardest parts of producing is letting go. You’ve raised the money, cast the play (or plays), and spread the word. Now, you have to trust your fellow artists and their artistic visions. Take a step back and let them do their work. If you show them that you have faith in their talents and ideas, they’ll have faith in themselves and faith in your abilities as a leader. 

You need to have faith in yourself too, because at some point in this process (at least once), you’re going to want to quit. You’re going to have doubts in your abilities, and it’s going to seem as though your production is never going to be ready. Don’t give up. If you’re that worried, good, that means you care enough about what your doing. Just remember that everyone feels this way because producing is HARD! It is one of the hardest things you will ever do. 

The last piece of advice I can give is to be kind, have a plan, and stick with it! You can do this. I believe in you. Good luck pushing your red buttons my fellow producers!

  • Photo: Arizona Theatre Company