How Community Theater Can Survive & Thrive : Part Two

Liz Chirico

OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

My previous post discussed the various issues facing Community Theaters today. This post will attempt to offer suggestions to combat those issues. First, I suggest thinking of your potential audience in 3 tiers. Tier 1: die-hards who frequently grace the stage themselves. These folks will see anything on stage and money doesn’t matter. Tier 2: these folks love theater, probably participate in community theater. They attend shows their friends are associated with and might see something by a “good” theater company in the area if the price is right. Tier 3: They don’t work/participate in theater at all but they don’t mind going. If a good friend/family member asks they’ll see their show but they won’t seek out theater because they feel it’s expensive/would rather stay home. 

Tier 1 is going to your shows, they already like you. Tier 2 likes you too but has other interests vying for their disposable income so you can’t slip off your game if you want to keep their patronage. Tier 3 is the tough group. You might be able to turn some of them into Tier 2 folks but you have to give them an overall experience to enjoy. From the moment they think about purchasing tickets through the closing curtain. Now, let’s take a look at some of my suggestions to keep your Tier 2 folks and hopefully gain loyal followers from Tier 3.

Over Saturation. 

How much is too much? Can there ever be too much of a good thing? In the case of community theaters, the answer unfortunately is yes. With so many theaters in a limited space, competing for audience members, cast members, revenue, inevitably there will be casualties. As hard as it may be to stomach, some theater groups should fold. There’s only so long you can operate in the red. Before it reaches that point, some groups could and should merge. Rather than produce mediocre show, dive further into debt, stop looking at your fellow theater groups as competition and start looking at them as partners. 2 or 3 companies serving an overlapping market could potentially merge. They would have more resources to draw upon offering their actors and audiences better shows. 

Who’s Who?

I fully support having a core group. You need a core who embrace your mission, fully support your cause and are solid performers. But what happens when this solid core becomes burnt out, moves on to other activities or simply can’t assist? Your core group had to come from somewhere which is why you should always embrace new talent. Actively seek out new talent by keeping an open mind at auditions. It’s like the old Girl Scout saying, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.”

Didn’t I just see that show?

The classics are the classics for a reason. They work, they are timeless and people enjoy them. I’m a die-hard fan of the classics and even I have my limits. Can we all agree there needs to be a ban on Annie for the next 10 years at least? Good, (I really don’t mind Annie I’m using it to prove my point) now that’s out of the way, there’s so many shows to fill your season with that aren’t Annie. Yes, newer shows can cost more in upfront costs. However, they usually pay off in the end because you’ll attract more audience members. There’s plenty of shows that perhaps didn’t succeed on- or even off-Broadway ripe for the picking. Famous composers have productions from their earlier years that aren’t as well-known but still have value. For example, Jonathan Larson’s Tick Tick Boom isn’t as well-known as Rent but it still offers you a big name draw, and potentially less money outlay up front. There may even be playwrights in your area who would love to work with your group to have their show produced on stage. Endless choices besides (insert overdone show here). 

If you don’t feel you can take a chance on a new or different show for your group’s main production of the year, consider adding a production. Yes, it adds additional time and expense but it gives you the chance to try new things, bring in new people. If it’s a smaller or revue style show, the up-front risk is minimized which could result in additional funds for future shows.

Too expensive.

I completely understand the costs associated with producing shows. From securing the rights, to materials for sets, costumes, printing costs, nothing comes free. But things might come cheaper without sacrificing quality. 

First- think of the theater group as a business. Start cultivating and maintaining relationships with other businesses in the towns you serve. If there’s a printing company, tell them you’ll give them your program/flyer/poster business for the year and see if there’s a discount they can offer. Work with local restaurants and inquire about dinner and a show partnerships- someone pays to attend your performance then takes the ticket stub to said restaurant for a discount on their meal and perhaps said restaurant purchases an ad in your program book. Win-win. If you produce a season of shows, offer discounts to season ticket holders for buying across all shows upfront. Look into sponsorships- see if a local lumber yard will donate materials for the set build in exchange for an ad in your program book. It’s a lot of leg work up front, but the benefits down the road make up for it.

Pass on those savings to your cast members! If you must have participation fees, make them reasonable. After all the cast members are devoting valuable time to your organization in the form of rehearsals both scheduled and not. And give folks ways to work off those fees, something like sweat equity. Each hour spent on set building/painting equals $10 less on their fee or something. (Please remember to organize those set-build days, see my post from last year about how important it is to respect your cast from start to finish) If you know you’ll need their help finding costume pieces or props- say that up front. Nothing is worse than feeling nickeled and dimed as a cast member. Remember with so many theater groups in the area, odds are at least one doesn’t charge exorbitant fees, will supply costumes, etc. And that’s where all your good, reliable, talented folks will eventually go.

But Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon Prime or…)

So as discussed in the last post, competition is fierce. And it’s not merely coming from other theater groups.  Streaming services offer theatrical experiences at a fraction of the cost. So what’s a struggling theater to do?

There’s so many theater companies, all trying to fill the same need- the wholesome, family entertainment bubble. And we do need that, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. So theater groups- find your niche. If it’s truly the family market great. But if you’d rather be known for producing smaller, perhaps lesser-known shows do it. If you want to be known for pushing the envelope with edgier fare, do it. Whatever you do though, do it well. Otherwise your audience won’t come or pay.

I saw Waitress over the summer and I ate pie while I watched Jesse Mueller bake pies. Why can’t I do that at community theaters? And not just pie. Why can’t I have a beverage too? If your facility allows, why not try dinner and a show seatings? Partner with a local restaurant and have them cater, or encourage folks to bring their own food. It makes for a different experience and different can translate into dollars. 

Closing Thoughts

The suggestions and ideas I’ve posed are by no means the only ones out there. The arts are an integral part of our world and community theaters serve a vital purpose. My hope is these suggestions may spark conversations in our theaters so they can continue to thrive for months and years to come.

Photo: Inspiration Stage