Teaching theater to those who have forgotten what its like to play


Flashback Theater Co. | Let’s Play! February 2016

I see a lot of reluctance in younger people to test the waters of creativity. Without step by step instruction, they are frozen by the inability to carry on. In theater, you must be willing to try new things. You cannot rely on how something has been done before. Collaboration is reliant on everyone taking risks and expanding their creativity. And theater is a highly collaborative activity.

In my mind, Let’s Play! fights the urge of our newest generation to only do what is already expected. It heightens the need to think on the spot and deliver a creative product because it is being performed in front of an audience in real time. There is no rehearsal, no plan to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Participants quickly learn the “Yes and…” rule because there is no safety net.

Hosting Let’s Play! one night a month doesn’t seem sufficient for combatting the underlying issue though. Just last week, I was talking with a mom who said she knew a child who was punished for failing the CATS arts test by taking away access to the very resources that would improv the score. Recess turned into practice testing for this child, and they were banned from the “extracurricular” classes including (you guessed it) music and art.

Having worked with a couple of high school aged students who have been conditioned to think in the testing mindset, I have no doubt it is one of the factors that contribute to the need for step-by-step instruction and the inability to think creatively. Not only that, but drama is no longer seen as a worthwhile course in high school curriculum. Some schools have tried to maintain a drama program through clubs but it can hardly have the same educational effect on students as meeting on a daily basis.

My high school drama class was a lot of improv and creative thinking. It was a class I eagerly looked forward to every day. I enjoyed the challenge of it but also the freedom and empowerment to create my own stories. I convinced my best friend to join me and despite her reluctance to speak in front of crowds, she was able to later admit she had a lot of fun in the class as well.

So how to translate my positive theater experiences into future learning opportunities for others?

Let’s Play! was a concept I dreamt up in the middle of the night. The initial event allowed people to cast, rehearse, and perform a 10-minute play in the space of just two hours. It was open to everyone and was free to attend. About two dozen people attended – with most choosing to stay in the audience. Since then, Let’s Play! has been held with various themes in mind: Improv Games, Storytelling, Mock Auditions – but the initial thought of creating a space to come and play is still the same.

As a child, I very easily slipped into games of pretend. Whether it was “playing house” or “cops & robbers” my siblings, cousins, and friends had favorites to act out over and over again. The basic concept of playing house might have stayed the same but the variations of storytelling kept us entertained for hours. As I grew older, I adapted theater games into party games. I distinctly remember a New Year’s Eve party as a teenager where we played improvisation games for hours. (I might add this party was at the house of the aforementioned best friend who reluctantly admitted loving the drama class.)

My desire to create Let’s Play! stemmed from those memories of play-acting and improv games. But what once came very naturally to me as a child now needs constant effort to keep the storytelling juices flowing. And I think its the same for many others. Where there are a few that can jump up and deliver a one-liner with perfect comedic timing – some of those who come to Let’s Play! opt out of the acting part entirely. The most successful Let’s Play! to date has been Storytelling, where stories are read from books and acted out. I believe it is successful because it gives participants a bit of a crutch to lean on – but there is still plenty of room for creativity!

Practice makes perfect – so over time actors who return to Let’s Play! on a regular basis  get better at improvising and storytelling. After about a dozen Let’s Play! events, I can see more confidence in one of the actors who initially waited for suggestions from stagemates.  I believe Let’s Play! has proven that you can teach theater to those who forgot how to play – it just takes consistent reassurance and practice.


Programming a mission-centric season of productions

Earlier in the summer, I was brainstorming ideas for blog posts and a dear friend suggested I do a post on season planning. I thought it was a great idea and drafted the post but thought I would hold off since I had already gone through the season announcement for the current season. But now I am beginning to consider Flashback’s next season and, conveniently, Howlround started a series on season planning so now seems like a great time to publish. The Howlround series is really fascinating and has Artistic Directors from all over the country in the line-up so be sure to check it out!


Each year, regional theaters all over the country announce their upcoming year of productions (usually in the spring or early summer). This year I got to join the tradition with Flashback Theater Co. and I couldn’t be more excited for the current season. The funny thing is: I did not realize how much time and work goes into scheduling a season in advance until I went through it. Here is how I did it:

1. Set the logistical requirements for the season. There were several questions that had to be answered to give me an idea of the shape of the season.

  • How many shows does the board want to program? I offered my board some options for when we could produce shows, and they decided to produce 4 plays over the next year. The one at the end of this summer is technically in the current season so in the future, our seasons will include 3 shows (if we follow the same schedule). In addition, my board and I decided to fill in the rest of the months of the year with our free event, Let’s Play!, but I won’t go into detail about that here.
  • How many cast members will I be looking for? Thinking about the available performance spaces over the next year and the budget constraints I would be under for the purposes of hiring performing artists, I knew the casts had to stay small. At the same time, Last Train to Nibroc was recent enough to remind me that 2 person shows are tough and having minor characters can help keep things on track.
  • Likewise, what design limitations will we be under? Space and budgetary constraints come into play here as well, although not as much considering you can do practically any show with stools, a table, and a few hand props. My audience in particular expects some degree of reality in sets and costumes so I had to keep that in mind.
  • What seasonal considerations should we take into account? I made sure to look at the holidays happening around the same time as our desired show dates to see if we could tie into anything specifically. Christmas is the big one that everyone programs for but Valentine’s Day is a date opportunity so something a little more romantic in that time period wouldn’t be amiss. Besides holidays, I wanted to keep in mind the season of a play’s setting so I could schedule it during a time when audiences (or actors!) wouldn’t feel disjointed.

2. Set the mission requirements of the season. How will I articulate our mission through the shows we produce? This is the most important requirement of all because this is how I (as the artistic director) tell the community why Flashback Theater Co. is important. (Staying true to the mission is also necessary for maintaining status as a 501(c)3, so that’s an added bonus…and is surprisingly overlooked by some organizations during their programming.)

Flashback Theater Co. Mission

The mission talks about our past and present as a community and our world but also about theater that speaks to the soul, so there is a lot of room for programming. I definitely wanted a play that was tied into the local community: either by a local playwright or about a local event or person. I also kept thinking about our role in educating the community about theater – so I was looking for a play that would give the audience some perspective of the process of theater and its production. Finally, I wanted to make sure we addressed “the world” part of the mission by choosing a play that was set somewhere outside of the US.

3. Decide which scripts I wanted to order and look at. Knowing what to look for did not make finding potential plays easier, but it saved me from reading scripts that were definitely not going to work, so in the end it was worth it. This was the most tedious part of the process, because it was a lot of searching through play catalogs online, and learning how each site worked and where to look on each for information like cast and set requirements.

(I must say the site with the best search options and user-friendly interface was playscripts.com. They also allow you to download a pretty lengthy preview of most scripts which is really helpful, since descriptions and character lists can only go so far. Reading the first scene can go a long way to knowing whether the play is a possibility or not and I appreciated that I was saved from purchasing a few scripts that were definitely not going to work.)

4. Put plays into the scheduled slots. I would choose a couple of scripts to order, wait for them to come in, read them, and decide if they were a possibility. If one was a yes or maybe, I would write the title on a post-it note and place it in a schedule grid on a sheet of paper. This let me move things around as I filled in the blanks, and has given me a bit of a start on the next season too, since there were some shows I liked that didn’t fit into the current lineup.

5. Inquire about & obtain performance rights for selected dates. Once I had my ideal line up I had to contact each licensing company (with the exception of The Importance of Being Earnest, which is in the public domain) to ask if the rights were available for our area on our dates. I didn’t anticipate this being an issue because the shows I chose are not the big popular favorites, and it wasn’t.

6. Plan budgets for the desired season and get approval from the board. Knowing the desired titles were available for performance opens the way for building a complete budget for each show. This is also the basis for the organization’s operating budget for the upcoming year – so it is a vital part of getting the board’s approval. I can’t program a full season of shows that I expect to lose money, but I can justify programming a show that will likely lose money if it is strongly tied to our mission. This season, that’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. It ties beautifully into the “exploring theater” part of our mission but is a new play that the Somerset audience is going to be challenged by. Again – that’s part of our mission so I didn’t back down from programming it. My board was very trusting of my programming decisions for this year. After we experience the results of the risks I took in this season, I think their feedback for next season will have more direction. And that’s just part of starting a theater company in a city that hasn’t had a lot of non-traditional theater before.

7. Announce the season! After all the work of researching, budgeting, and deciding, the best part is actually announcing the season. I did this at a special Let’s Play! with a slate of performers doing monologues and vocal selections from Broadway numbers. This stayed true to the spirit of Let’s Play! and our mission and was met with positive reactions from my audience.

There are about a hundred little steps to make up each of the above steps. For me, these were the major milestones. The mission has served as the perfect guiding light for our season, and will allow us to continue talking about our mission throughout the year in the context of each show. That is what I consider a programming success. Now…to do it all again!


Are you a playwright with a script that fits Flashback Theater’s mission? Email me with a synopsis and list of characters. I am always looking for Kentucky based plays to read.

Reconnecting to Somerset this year and my surprising encounters

Somerset, Ky downtownWhen I decided to begin Flashback Theater Co, there was never a question of where. My little Kentucky hometown of Somerset isn’t so little anymore, and while it has matured in the areas of business development, tourism and selling alcohol, the arts have pretty much stayed the same since I left in 2007. (The old library was converted to an arts center in 2008, but considering the county took out a block of buildings including an art gallery for the new judicial plaza I’m considering that a wash.)

Still, as much as I knew about Somerset before packing up my car in January – there have been some surprises.

The Talent – I can’t believe the depth of talent that has been hiding in my little hometown. I knew there were people who had some experience with community theater and children’s theater but very talented people with professional training have been finding me too. My cast for And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth popped out of nowhere. These actors are ready to work, and have a good mix of experience levels. They are willing to be challenged, and are rising to the occasion at every rehearsal. The same was true for my Nibroc cast in February. The opportunity to hone their skills is being met head-on by each and every actor and I have the honor of pushing them as a group to make productions come alive.

Pricing Mindset – There is a skewed version of pricing in Somerset that I haven’t quite come to terms with. I’ve had this conversation with a few other people who have moved to Somerset from larger towns and have also had to adjust, but it still astonishes me. What people will pay for housing rent in Somerset is almost the same as in Cincinnati – except in Somerset, the place will be in notably worse condition. And small expenses don’t make sense either. Some lunch spots will charge $10 for half a sandwich, chips, and a drink – an order I regularly would get in Cincinnati for $5. I can only imagine its so the business owner can make enough money to cover the over-inflated rent, but its still a bizarre pricing structure for a place I thought would have lower living costs.

As for theater tickets: the college theater department charges $6 for their shows and can pretty easily fill their 120 (or so) seat theater for a one weekend run. The presenting series at the Center for Rural Development charges about $35 for a show, and comes nowhere near to filling their 750 seats. At the Star Theater in nearby Russell Springs, tickets range from $8 – $12 for adults, depending on if the show is a play or a musical. I settled on charging $12 for FbTC’s adult tickets, but with the odd pricing everywhere else, only time will tell if this is the right position for us.

Opportunities for Collaboration – I have been pleased to find several opportunities to expand the reach of the theater company through collaborative efforts and partnerships. Some of those opportunities are still being explored but I am confident most of them will come to fruition. Flashback is filling a niche of the performing arts previously unaddressed in Somerset, and I am looking forward to connecting with as many other organizations as possible to strengthen our community together.

What has been most surprising -funny enough- is that other people are surprised when I am willing to work with them. I guess its something that makes sense to me but the standard reaction to a proposed partnership is fear. Fear of not being in complete control of an event or fear of losing audience members stops otherwise interesting and productive collaborations in their tracks. Although in my experience you can only gain more art lovers, as they typically will support more than one organization.

When I made the commitment to stay here, I did not know for sure there would be talent and partnerships. Now I know they are here, and I hope to keep running into them at every turn.


Flashback Theater Co. is a producing theater company with the mission of exploring the world, our past, and theater. Learn more by visiting the website http://www.flashbacktheater.co

BFF Blog Post: TCG Conference Reactions

TCG at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, OH

Last month I attended the TCG 2015 conference with Sara (my arts admin grad school sister). I am still processing a lot of the information from those (really really jam-packed) days, but I loved it and wanted to share it with you. This was also the first time in almost a year Sara and I got to be in the same city so we decided to do a BFF blog post in honor of the occasion. We came up with some questions related to the conference and answered them independently. This is our way of comparing notes after having some time to think everything over.

Sara Kissinger is the Development Operations and Membership Coordinator at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

What was your favorite conference topic?

SARA: I was surprised to find that a lunch salon entitled “How Theater Makers Manage Family Life” was one of the most enlightening sessions I attended. We in the performing arts are givers – really. We give and give, in order to make others feel and react and reflect. We aren’t very good at taking – taking our lunch breaks, taking time off, taking care of ourselves. The discussion was a tapestry of flex time, parental responsibilities, family care, and overall wellness which illuminated a real need for attention to these areas of our lives. Be well, arts friends.

SOMMER: Burnout to Babies was probably the most engaging topic for me. Part of it is just coming out of grad school and seeing my peers struggle a lot with wanting to further their careers but also build a family. Our program was small but we had several different family circumstances, from already married with almost grown children to planning a wedding to having a baby during or immediately after the program…to single or in various levels of dating relationships.

Despite a lot of discussion in our grad program about career planning, how to manage a family within our career plans was never the focus. It was very much about which jobs to look for post-graduation, how to interview, how to negotiate salary. So actually discussing how to manage working from home and the idea of getting flex time for working late events gave me something to chew on. Those are actual strategies that I can use in the future as a manager to make sure employees are not forced to choose between working in theater and having a real life outside of it.

And there is life outside of working at a theater. There has to be, because if there isn’t how do we create relevant theater for our communities?

Why did you attend the conference?

SARA: Sommer brought the TCG conference to my attention, and I thought, “hey, that might be fun.” Best friends, theater nerds, Cleveland – what’s not to love? But when I started to think about what I might write in a quick essay to make my case for volunteering, it occurred to me that it was bigger than that. My inner philosopher and arts advocate wondered what I could learn from a few days of theater-world immersion that I could bring back to share with the classical music section of the arts sphere. Certainly there were things the disciplines could learn from each other, right? And that’s how an arts administrator currently fighting the good fight for classical music ended up at a fabulous theater conference.

SOMMER: Mostly, I miss theater people. They are my people. Connecting back into the theater community helps me to recharge my excitement for the work I do – because I see other people are excited for the work I do. Everyone that asked about my company gave me well-wishes and was intrigued by the mission. Not to say that is the only reason I attended, because my initial reason was to make sure I am keeping up with the current trends and topics relevant to other theaters, but that inclusion will certainly be the reason I go back.

What do you look forward to at future conferences?

SARA: One thing theater does especially well is bring to light issues of race, equality, and accessibility in ways that people feel safer starting to discuss them and better equipped to start to take action. I’d love to see more of this in ways that other performance art sectors can apply – I’m calling you out, classical music world. Dance has been doing an okay job recently (merde, Misty!), but let’s see more cross-disciplinary collaboration around this. Let’s get together. One of my favorite quotes from the entire conferences was this gem from Rhodessa Jones: “Politics don’t work. Religion is a bit too eclectic. But art… Art could be the parachute that carries us all.”

SOMMER: Assuming I get to return, I really look forward to continuing conversations and delving deeper into topics that are just beginning to be accepted as appropriate. Theater has always been at the forefront of change in our culture through exploration and discussion, and it is important to me to be a part of that discussion through my work at Flashback Theater Co.

What themes/trends did you take notice of because of the conference?

SOMMER: First, the trend of recognizing our culture’s tendency to excuse racism for some but not all. Second, there was an underlying theme of recognizing our individual privileges and looking for ways to use them to help those without the same privileges. (This is an overwhelming topic so I will save my expansion for another post.)

What struck you the most about the conference culture at TCG (as opposed to other conferences/networking events)?

Sommer and Sara at the GE Chandelier on Playhouse Square.

Sommer and Sara on Playhouse Square

SOMMER: It was surprising to me how easy it was to connect with people at TCG. It was so easy to introduce myself and all too often budding conversations were cut short by the next session beginning. Perhaps that is the result of finally being at a conference where I feel like I fit in. And TCG’s affinity groups helped that a lot. Having the opportunity to meet with other managing directors of small theaters was especially great. It was one of those “Finally! Someone gets it!” moments that I wanted to hold onto for as long as possible.

Submissive Language: Pledge to recognize it and stop undermining yourself!

Pledge to Recognize submissive language and stop undermining yourself

I’ve seen THREE articles in the past week or two about language women use that automatically puts us in a position of submission. Here are links:

New York TimesWhy Women Apologize and Should Stop – This article explains that women’s apologies are usually passive aggressive attempts at making someone else feel sorry, but rarely has that effect and often creates an inverse of the situation due to the unclear communication of the problem.

Business InsiderGoogle and Apple alum says using this one word can damage your credibility – The use of “just” by women is our way of asking permission. Permission to be included, to ask a request, or to make an apology for butting in to begin with.

Howlround Journal: Women Directors: Language Worth Repeating – Women directors often follow a note with an immediate undermining question such as “is that ok?” or “Does that make sense?” We think we are giving an opportunity for clarification but we are really giving the actor/designer an option to discount the note.

A friend also pointed out she recently read an article about women nodding at all things, while men only nod when they agree. Hmm.

I have already stopped apologizing in emails for things that I have no real reason to apologize for. It was hard at first – I had to go back and read drafts a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t apologizing or excusing myself in some way inadvertently. And trust me, ladies, you will see you do it to yourself a whole lot more than you think. And in ways that aren’t necessarily “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Giving reasons for why this or that happened in a particular way is not needed, especially if they were out of your control and the client/partner/whoever has no idea that it didn’t happen according to plan anyway.

As for the “just” article – I know I am guilty of this one. In fact, I’ve even used it in a joking manner blatantly because I realize that its exactly how I would say something to apologize for saying it WHILE saying it. And I continue to use it anyway. “I just work here.” “I just wanted to ask..” “I’d just like to see the draft of this before I’m asked to sign it.” It creates a meek encounter and its no wonder there are few results with this language. And it sets up follow ups to be apologetic in nature as well. How much more submissive could I be?

The Howlround piece really struck a chord with me, since it is about women directors in theater specifically. Am I guilty of undermining the notes I give to actors? Probably. But I am not going to apologize about it. Instead, I will tell you that moving forward I am going to be more conscious of the direction and instructions I give verbally. I encourage other women to do the same. We cannot continually undermine ourselves with our language (verbal or not)! Not only does it send mixed messages to the people we should be communicating most clearly with but it gives them easy outs.

In fact, as we adjust to our more powerful communication stance, keep in mind that what you say is what you are. (And you always thought it was what you eat, ha!) Check this out: Words can Change Your Brain

Talk to me in the comments! Have you inadvertently been using submissive language? What words or phrases have you found to put you in a position of power instead of submission?

Top 3 reasons performing artists should be paid

Street performer waits for change

I used to be very involved in community theater. I loved it! It was awesome! I had so much fun twice a week…for three months of rehearsal. So you can imagine my surprise when I got to college and suddenly rehearsals occurred every night for three to four weeks straight! Suddenly, it was a job. Everyone was held responsible for being at rehearsal, on time, every night they were scheduled. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Going straight from a day of classes to a night of rehearsal, then repeating everyday for three weeks – it was hard to imagine anyone could ever choose that life permanently. Throw in the fact that you may not even be paid a decent wage – and I was O U T. That was when I decided acting was not for me! But now I am founding a company, and I want to make it very clear why I firmly believe actors (and all performing artists) should be paid for their work.

Reason #1: Performing artists do not typically hold standard “9-5” day jobs.

Since my initial induction into the world of fast-paced production schedules, I have experienced several rehearsal processes. My time spent shadowing rehearsals at Know Theatre of Cincinnati and The Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky was primarily at night, while rehearsals at Arena Stage typically began in the afternoon, and the ensemble at Cincy Shakes rehearses during the day and performs at night.  The biggest difference? The size of the organization. Arena can pay actors enough to make it a “day job.” (At least until the performances.) Shakes uses the ensemble model so they can have the same actors contracted throughout the season as full-time workers, freeing them up to rehearse during the day. Know Theatre and The Carnegie, on the other hand, have a pay scale that only supplements whatever other income the actor has. Many performing artists (in Cincinnati, at least, which has been the bulk of my experience) cobble together a variety of jobs to make rent: teaching, waiting on tables, receptionist work, and baking seem to be very common. Usually, these ventures are unreliable for a predictable income, so every paying performance job they can book is a sigh of relief – and gives them a little security cushion.

Reason #2: Performing artists have to hone their craft, even when they aren’t being paid.

Without consistent work, performing artists become…shall we say…rusty? This is especially true for musicians, as they must constantly practice to maintain the flexibility, strength, and agility to play their instrument. So – even if they don’t get a gig for a month – they still need to practice several hours a week to maintain the quality of their work for when they DO get a gig. I like Cincy Shakes’ ensemble model for this very reason – the acting company members are always honing their craft because it is their full-time job, and it shows onstage. The actors at Shakes always do a remarkable job. They could do an entire performance in paper sacks with no set design whatsoever and put on a captivating performance in which you wouldn’t even notice the bizarre costumes and lack of set.

Reason #3: Performing artists put their heart and soul on the line for every performance.

We, as humans, look for ways to relate to each other. No technology will be able to replace the feeling of having a shared, in-person experience with dozens of other people. If you don’t believe me, just think about the difference of seeing nudity in a film vs. seeing it onstage. Many people don’t think twice about seeing a film rated R with a nude scene – but if its a live performance, the same people balk. I’m certainly not advocating for or against nudity on stage but you as an audience member realize there is a certain level of intimacy involved when you know that person is really there, in front of you, living out a story. Often, movie stars don’t even know the final plot line of the film they are working on until they see the premiere. So much work happens after their job is done that stories can change drastically. This is not so with a live performer. Every night, the same story is lived out. And it is the performer’s job to tell it – without the safety nets of editing and dubbing to fix their mistakes.

When you go to a performance, the artists are providing you a service. You are being reminded of your humanity, challenged to acknowledge why you think, speak, and behave the way you do. You may be entertained during the process but if you talk to any performing artist, they will tell you that they perform to make people feel, not just to entertain. It is that human connection we buy tickets for – and is the reason we should pay our performing artists enough to focus on their art and continually challenge our expectations of the world.

Giving to an Indiegogo campaign

FbTC 1st Ever Production Indiegogo Campaign

As you likely know by now, I am in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign for Flashback Theater Co.’s 1st ever production! There have been a few questions about giving so I thought I’d take a few minutes to share a little more about how the campaign works. As always, though – if you have other questions please let me know! Comment, email or post to FbTC’s Facebook page – I will get back to you as quickly as I can.

Ways to give

There are two options to give your chosen amount. You can pick a “perk” which is a set amount and will get you some special access to behind-the-scenes content about the production. During the checkout process, you will have the option to add an additional amount to your perk amount so if you want to give a specific amount, you can pick a perk lower than that and add on the difference.  Alternatively, you can click the “Contribute Now” button and choose the amount you would like to give without receiving any perks.

Does sharing on Facebook or Twitter really help?

YES! It is especially important for you to share after you’ve contributed so that the people you share it with see that you value the campaign enough to give to it. Would you buy something from someone if they hadn’t bought one themselves? Probably not – and the same goes for donating.


Because FbTC is a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, we do not lose any fees to Indiegogo. (YAY!) However, Fractured Atlas does take a 7% fee for processing the donation – which includes the credit card fees, which are typically in the 2-3% range. (If we were not a fiscally sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, Indiegogo would take a similar percentage.)

Where does the raised money go?

Fractured Atlas holds all funds raised for us, until we need to make a purchase (or be reimbursed for one.)

logoFlashback Theater Co is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of Flashback Theater Co must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.


If you have other questions, email them to me at sommer@flashbacktheaterco.org, or post in the comments below!