Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company

When I was a little girl – maybe 6 or 7, I was thrown into a church Christmas production at the last-minute because someone dropped out. I wasn’t in the show originally because my mom thought I was too young but desperate times…the show must go on..and well you get the idea.

That was my first experience in theater. I loved it. A few years later, I heard an announcement at school about auditions for a children’s production of Beauty & the Beast at the local community theater. I remembered my earlier performance experience and the feelings of excitement and accomplishment at the end of the show. I knew it was time to take the stage again. I begged my mom to take me to auditions and she warned that I might not get a big part – or even cast, but I insisted and ended up with the role of  Spoon in the Beast’s castle. I played my part well. When the Beast yelled, I shivered with fear. When Belle entered in her gown, I “Ooohhed” and “Ahhed” with amazement. I was rewarded for my emphatic reactions with a part in the next production…and so my “career” in community theater began.

Sommerrenae as Bertha Mae

Bertha Mae “Virgil and the City Slickers”

"Wizard of Oz"

Scarecrow “Wizard of Oz”

When I left for college, I thought I would pursue acting. That lasted about two months. Many of my friends have heard the story of a professor describing walking into a café and ordering hot water to mix with ketchup, making it a free meal of tomato soup…but they heard it in the context of how it made one of my best friends leave the program to pursue engineering instead. What they don’t know is that it also changed my perspective of what I wanted to do. No longer was acting an option for me because spending days auditioning and eating watered down ketchup was not my idea of a great life. I added a minor of Entrepreneurship to my Theater degree. 

You can’t get a degree in theater without working on productions – so I took up costuming. The costume shop was a perfect environment for me. I already had some sewing and craft experience from my aunt and granny as well as spatial reasoning from my dad so learning how to put patterns together was a piece of cake. When I designed for shows, I had to learn to manage a budget and costume crew members. Plus, I was able to get experience in the inner workings of productions – how directors work with designers, stage managers, and actors.

In 2010, I attended the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Lexington, KY. My friends were there to audition and interview for jobs – I was there for the experience. In the conference’s program, I saw an ad for a graduate school that had a program for “Arts Management.” The proverbial light bulb went off. I didn’t know anything about the program but I knew that was my next step. After some research, I found I lived within a stone’s throw of one of the top arts administration programs in the country, at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

Everything was falling into place: studying theater and entrepreneurship prepared me for the arts administration degree. Back in my home town of Somerset, the downtown area was growing and renewing: a new judicial center was built, the old library became an arts center, restaurants were opening, and the county passed a measure to begin allowing sales of alcohol. Soon both Somerset and I would be ready for a new theater company.


This is Part 1 of 3 in a series about why I am founding a theater company. Come back next week for Part 2!

Learn about Flashback Theater Co.

 

Open Door

an open door

My favorite part of Ireland was: Castles! I could not get enough of them!

Specifically, I love the craftsmanship that goes into them. Doors are one of the many features that show this off – its so easy to just rush into the next room to see what new secrets await but once in awhile I would just stop and look at the door. The hardware, the size of it…some doors (like those in this picture) were much taller and wider than typical – some were so short I would have to duck to go through them. No standard size when these doors were hung!

5 Reasons to Make Seeing Art a Habit

art should be a habit

I love theater. I try to see a play or musical at least once every month. If I could afford it, I’d go every week! The first year of grad school, I didn’t go at all. By the end of that year, I was questioning why I was getting a degree in Arts Administration…but then I worked at Arena Stage for a summer and saw a few productions while I was in D.C. Suddenly I remembered how passionate I am about theater, and committed  to seeing something – anything – every few weeks to keep that passion alive.

Not everyone is as passionate about an art form as I am about theater, and that’s okay. But here are a few reasons to encourage you to make seeing art a regular part of your life.

5. To challenge yourself.
Art often asks questions we have never asked ourselves. Finding your answer to challenging questions makes you grow as a citizen of the world. It helps you see issues you may have ignored or just never even knew existed. There was an Edinburgh Fringe show a few years ago about human trafficking. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it but the concept was really amazing: The show started at a street corner. The audience would load up in a van and ride with an actor playing the part of a recently abducted woman who would be sold as a prostitute. The van took them to a warehouse, where the woman was abused and kept prisoner. The audience had no choice but to follow the story as they were now a part of it themselves. You can bet the audience never forgot the feeling of being in that van, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be there. Suddenly, human trafficking is real to them and not something they can easily ignore.

4. To open a dialogue with others.
Art is an easy topic to talk about with a stranger. You can compare what you see or hear with what they see or hear, and it can help you make new connections with the people around you. Yesterday I was waiting for my carry out order at a restaurant and another customer stopped and asked me why I looked so tired. This led to a conversation about how much he loves classical music and the symphonies he has attended because I told him I work for the conservatory. He immediately felt connected to me because he loves art and my job is to make art happen.

3. To commit ourselves to an in-person experience.
How often do we stop to experience a moment? It gets harder and harder with each new technology that comes along. Buying a ticket to an arts event – a play or an exhibit or a symphony concert- commits us to being in that moment. Investing in something with our hard-earned money makes us value and prioritize it.  It would be silly to buy a ticket to an exhibit and then sit on a bench answering messages the entire time. You can do that for free without spending cash on a ticket!

2. To give us a topic to post, text, or talk about later.
Taking a break from internet, texting, and emailing helps me to remember what life is about: experiences. Yes, it is great that I can stay connected to people who live far away but I honestly can’t remember what my last Facebook post was about ….and what’s the point of talking to people if you have no new experiences to talk about? (And it won’t hurt my feelings if your excitement for an exhibit encourages new people to come to the next one! ;) )

1. To see amazing art.
I am constantly in search of the theater piece that takes my breath away. There is nothing quite like it. I go to see theater because I don’t want to miss the next production that leaves me speechless. Ensemble Theater Company’s Next to Normal, the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera, a production of Bye Bye Birdie my college produced. These are part of a collection of memorable experiences that I will always strive to add to. If I weren’t in the habit of going to theater, I would have missed these. For every show that stands out there are 10 shows that don’t. But seeing the not-so-great shows is so worth it when you find a masterpiece!

Diversification in Arts Funding: Calling to Question our Basic Assumption

arts funding diversification - roll of the dice

A large part of learning development over the past couple of years was an emphasis on “Diversify, Diversify, Diversify!” Even when I recently interviewed for a devo job, my interviewer’s main development goal moving forward was to diversity sources of contributed revenue. But what if this basic assumption is just that – an assumption?

This week I came across an article on Nonprofit Quarterly which challenges this very basic tenet of the development world. Summary: Whether you should diversify seems to depend on the size and type of your organization, but more importantly: the niche you fill in the world. For example, a funder may only grant to $2.5 million orgs that serve three-legged cats. If your org falls into that category (and you are likely the only org that falls into that category), you will receive the funding practically by default. Wouldn’t that be nice? And if that is the only funding you need – why bother trying to get more?

My devo teacher, Sydney, will probably come after me for saying this…but I do not see any reason to diversify just for the sake of diversifying. If you have a team member who can go out and secure every dollar you need for the budget purely by charming individual donors into parting with their hard-earned cash – and this team member is not so great at writing grants – why put them through the misery when they can more efficiently raise money elsewhere? I was told over and over in grad school to “play with your strengths.” Presumably, it is a waste of time to try to improve a weakness. So if you have the rare staff member who doesn’t have a weakness, by all means Diversify! Otherwise, let your staff efficiently raise the money you need by playing to their strengths, then send them on a much-needed vacation so they don’t get burnt-out.

Some of you (Sydney) may argue with me, pointing out that if Donor #1, who provides 99% of the annual budget, suddenly dies (or maybe not so suddenly), your org will never recover. But here’s a thought – start a planned giving campaign and get Mr. #1 to set up a charitable trust for your org, supporting you for a certain number of years after his death or even, dare I say, indefinitely? Imagine the budget where you could reliably count on that income! You will actually be able to budget year to year on what you know will happen (as opposed to what you expect or hope to happen up until you have a check in hand)! And it is much easier to get the same donors to say yes in a new way than to get new funders to say yes at all. 

There are plenty of reasons to create more work for ourselves – diversifying funding sources can be useful, and should certainly be tackled by organizations with the capacity to do so. (Capacity meaning board and staff with the right skills, connections, time, and magical touch with funders.) But it’s also important to take advantage of your org’s position in the funding environment. So….if anyone has $2.5 mil and a few three-legged cats, give me a call.

——- And Just for Fun ——–

Another entertaining argument against diversification of funding through grants is made over at NWB: a jolly discussion of how funders sometimes make it impossible to be funded (in a meaningful way).

Summer Reading with PaperBackSwap!

Last summer I was interning in DC at Arena Stage and staying with family members in Virginia. There were a lot of things to do but it was the first time in a long time I had any time to read for leisure. So…I found a website that is a trading marketplace for used books called PaperBackSwap. I was really excited…until I realized I needed to list some of my own books to get started (which were back home). But this summer I stayed home to work and so I have used PBS to order books – and get rid of a few too. Here’s how it works:

Sign up (cite me as a referral or use the button below when you register and I’ll get a credit!) and list ten of your own books to receive 2 initial credits. You can order a book from another member for 1 credit. That member will pay to ship the book to you. (In turn, when someone orders a book from you, you will pay to ship to them and receive a credit when the next person gets the book.)  You can pay for and/or print shipping labels right through the site.

Its a nice way to recycle books you will never read again while also receiving books that might have been on your reading wish list for a while. Not to mention: PBS lets you search for books and add to a wish list, notifying you by email when the book is available for order.

Trade Books for Free - PaperBack Swap.

Beautiful Writing from Ireland

Irish writing

At a museum in Ireland, I was struck by the beautiful writing found in a journal. The picture is blurry (taken through glass with a handheld video camera..) but you can still see the care that was taken to form each letter. Even the spacing is perfect. Typing isn’t the same – I often type, delete, type, delete. Forming a well thought sentence and putting it down to paper is not something we do anymore. I remember my high school English teacher telling me to just sit down and type, leaving mistakes and not deleting any of the original thoughts. I argued with him about that a lot – I wanted to get the thought right to begin with and so to this day, I type and delete. I wonder if, in a different time, that process would have occurred entirely in my head.

Classical Art: Entertainment or Preservation?

Ballet shoes preservation of artA couple months ago I was in a meeting about creative disruption. The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the differences between commercial art forms and educational art forms.

One thought was that some art organizations are really “museum” type organizations, desperately trying to preserve art forms that are no longer commercially viable. With so many symphonies, opera houses, and dance companies struggling, it might appear that the support for these art forms is dying. To me, it seems that the audience just wants to experience these art forms on their own terms. Last year, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Lumenosity proved that people are willing to hear an orchestra perform. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance has been on the air for 10 years, introducing people to the powerful storytelling capabilities of dance. SYTYCD has featured tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, contemporary, and probably 20 more styles of dance.

What is the real purpose of arts organizations today? If they are not for profit, they fall under section 501(c)3 tax code purely because they are educational, as there is no category for arts and culture. But does this mean they should be relegated to preservation purposes only? Of course not!

Should we abandon art forms such as opera, ballet, and classical music because audiences are now less interested? This is where it gets harder to answer and begins to contradict itself. So much of the art that is now popular – contemporary dance, for example, has basis in the more traditional forms. Would we have contemporary dance as we know it today without the talent that came out of classical ballet? Probably not. At this point though, students are trained in contemporary without starting in ballet. Perhaps a ballet foundation is helpful but I will leave that to a dancer to answer.

Once again, my post has become a series of questions without satisfying answers – but these are the questions plaguing the next generation of arts organizations. I like to think we are slowly finding answers – putting classic art forms into the context of today seems to be part of the answer. I have a feeling that at some point classical arts will succumb to the pressure and go the way of Latin – taught only in classrooms as a basis for understanding our current language. I certainly hope this does not happen in my lifetime though!