Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Allow Me to Introduce Myself...

This is a special guest blog post written by Caroline Anderson. Caroline has worked in many theatres in the Bay Area. Currently, she works as marketing manager at PlayGround and box office manager at Cutting Ball Theater. She is also a communications and publications intern at Theatre Bay Area.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Caroline, and I am a new-ish intern at Theatre Bay Area. One of my main duties as an intern has been archiving old articles of Theatre Bay Area for the launch of our new website, Theatre Bay Area 2.0 (very creative name, I know).

As a member of the public who has infiltrated this top-secret organization, I consider it my duty to share with you some of the discoveries I have made. Discovery Number One, which came to me as I was working the check-in desk at the Glickman Awards Ceremony and talking to Lily, a Theatre Bay Area membership associate, was that Theatre Bay Area is not just a magazine. Now I know this may not come as a surprise to some, but it was a fundamental realization that had escaped me. Theatre Bay Area does so much more than produce a glossy monthly publication that keeps everyone in the theater world—excuse me, theatre world (Discovery Number Two was that in the world of Theatre Bay Area, the all-important “t” word is spelled in what I had previously thought of as “the British way”)—up to date on what everyone else in the theatre world is doing. In fact, I am still not sure about all the other things Theatre Bay Area does. This is the material for the rest of my discoveries.

In fact the Theatre Bay Area magazine, which had been my introduction to the organization, is only one of the programs offered by Theatre Bay Area. One such program is the Mary Mason Lemonade Fund. Although a relatively minor output of the organization compared to some of its other endeavors, such as its monthly postcard distribution, the Annual Conference and the all-mighty General Auditions, the Lemonade Fund has stuck in my consciousness since I first read about itduring my archiving endeavors. For those of you who don’t know, the Lemonade Fund is “a confidential resource for theatre workers with terminal or life-threatening illnesses who are in need of supplemental financial assistance to improve the quality of their lives as they deal with medical conditions.” It began when Mary Mason, the general manager of the Magic Theatre, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. Her friends collected money to help her achieve her lifetime dream of going to Nepal. When there was money left over, they donated it to begin what became the Lemonade Fund.
Although it makes sense why there would be a need for such a thing, especially since so many people who work in theatre can’t afford full health insurance, it kind of blows my mind that such a thing actually exists. Why would an organization provide such a service? This question brought me to Discovery Number Three: Theatre Bay Area's mission is “to unite, strengthen, promote and advance the theatre community in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

I think the reason why the Lemonade Fund has stuck in my mind, among all the other things I’ve read about as I’ve archived articles, is that it is a thing of such heart. It’s not the type of program you would expect large organizations with acronyms to create. But in its small way, it underlines what Theatre Bay Area is about: supporting the theatre community in a fundamental way that perhaps the community hasn’t even realized it needs. In spite of Theatre Bay Area's attempts to engage in dialogue with, and about, theatre on a national level, it is ultimately a grassroots, community-based effort.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Can We Really "Do Less, But Better, with the Same?"

Sasha Hnatkovich is the Communications Director of Marin Theatre Company. He has an MA in Community Development and Planning from Clark University and previously worked with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Church in the City of Boston and as a freelance writer. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Theatre Bay Area or those of his employer.

Can we really ‘Do less, but better, with the same?’
A follow-up to the 2011 Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference Plenary

During the Supply and Demand Plenary at the 2011 Theatre Bay Area Annual Conference, it took me a moment to realize just how misleading the advice of Ralph Remington of the NEA and John McGuirk of the Hewlett Foundation was. ‘Do less, but better, with the same’ was the gist of their statements. The suggestion was not to, for example, continue spending $10,000 on five shows, but rather spend $10,000 on four shows (or three or two), increasing the budget per show and thus, according to the speakers, increasing the excellence of the artistic product.

With further thought, I see two problems with this advice.

First, the advice of Remington and McGuirk was based in what is, in my opinion, false logic: Funding equates to excellence of artistic product. In other words: if more funding, then better art; less funding, worse art. I think we can all agree that we have all, on more than one occasion, seen quite the opposite: small budget projects succeeding because of creative solutions to having less and big budget projects failing because of uninspired excesses from having more. That is not to say there is not excellence being produced with more (or crap with less), only that it is impossible to support the claim that that funding is the sole catalyst of artistic excellence.

Second, the advice of Remington and McGuirk was based on math that did not account for the less-than-flexible variable of earned income.

Let us say that we run a theatre company and our budget for our 2010-11 season of five productions was $10,000 (we’ll roll the operational budget into the production to keep this simple). For the sake of easy math, let us divide our budget equally among the productions: $2,000 per production. That’s all we had to spend on each show.

Of course, we are fiscally responsible managers in our hypothetical example and our expenses are based not only on what it would take to accomplish our artistic vision but also our pragmatic revenue expectations. We don’t think running up a cumulative deficit year after year is very healthy, so we aim to earn at least $10,000 (or $2,000 a production) to balance the books.

Being a nonprofit performing arts organization, we tend to only earn about 50% of our income from ticket sales. We earn the remainder from donations and grants. So, let’s say we are able to recoup the costs of each $2,000 productions with $1,000 in ticket sales and $1,000 in contributions, like this:

$1,000 earned + $1,000 contributed = $2,000 x 5 = $10,000 total season revenue

Aren’t our auditors happy?

However, let’s say we were inspired by the advice given by Remington and McGuirk at the 2011 TBA Conference! If we decided to “focus on excellence” by reducing the number of productions (in this case, we’ll say from five to two) while keeping our budget flat, as was suggested by Remington and McGuirk, then we’d expect to get a model like this in 2011-12:

$2,500 earned + $2,500 contributed = $5,000 x 2 = $10,000 total season revenue


If you are or have ever been responsible for ticket sale income, you are probably hyperventilating. You’ve been squeezing blood from of a stone for years with your pathetic marketing budget just to sell $1,000 worth of tickets to each show. Now, you’re expected increase income by 150%?! In one year?! And this expectation comes with fewer chances to recoup losses (you only have two productions to earn your budgeted income) and a just slightly less-than-pathetic marketing budget. But wait, wait, you have capital-E Excellence on your side!

Edgar Allen Poe once said: “There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit.” A marketer knows this. He or she knows that merit is not enough fuel sales of a product. More often than not, sales of a product are related to consumer behavior, brand or product reputation, customer and business networks, price points, persuasiveness of messaging, accessibility to bandwidth (and so much more) rather than just excellence alone. In other words, our hypothetical theatre company will be lucky to pull this off in 2011-12:

$1,500 earned (a miraculous 50% increase from 2010-11) + $2,500 contributed = $4,000 x 2 = $8,000 total season revenue

Oh crap, we kept our spending flat at $10,000 and now we have a $2,000 deficit. But Remington and McGuirk's advice, to spend the same on fewer shows, in fact puts the burden of funding our artistic product on their organizations–the very organizations that they say are unable to increase funding to us. In the example above, contributed income would have to increase 40% (now the folks in charge of development are hyperventilating) to break even.

Does consolidating resources in fewer shows make for better shows? Can it even be done? Do you know of any examples to support this advice? Let me know in the comment section below. I’m hoping you’ll prove my logic exercise wrong.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Absolute Core Truths of Theatre Personnel Management

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

This season marked my 10th anniversary as artistic director of Impact Theatre, and my 15th with the company as a founding member. When I became Impact’s AD, I quickly became aware of the fact that there’s no AD boot camp. There’s no Handbook for New ADs. Some local people were very helpful—Patrick Dooley at Shotgun Players was especially generous. Now that I’m more established, people who are planning to start their own theatre companies, or who are in their first few seasons, come to me for advice and I do my best to pay it forward.

I always give a lot of practical advice—how to handle auditions, how to get insurance, why you should join Theatre Bay Area, how to write a playwright contract, etc. One thing that’s struck me recently, however, is something I’ve never discussed in these situations: How much time we spend in the theatre finessing personnel management. I’m sure it’s the same in every field, but since theatre is where my managerial experience lies, I’m going to speak specifically to that.

Here’s what I’ve learned are the Absolute Core Truths of Theatre Personnel Management. These are probably all already printed in some management book, so feel free to tell me if I’m boring you by repeating something you had to read in business school, and I’ll go back to the ranting and inappropriate jokes you’ve come to expect from me. Here’s what I learned in the School of Hard Knocks™.

1. You don’t buy loyalty with a paycheck. You earn it by treating people with respect.

This doesn’t mean complimenting their work. “Great job!” or “You’re so good at this” only go so far with your staff if you treat their opinions dismissively and if you routinely override their expertise. Your marketing director, your lighting designer, and your box office manager all know more about their areas than you do. It’s their job to know more about it than you do. Listen to their opinions. Allow them to disagree with you. Take their opinions very, very seriously, because if they’re disagreeing with you about their area of expertise, it’s almost certain that they’re right and you’re wrong. Respect their knowledge and experience, and they will reward you in 100 ways.

2. Give your staff ownership of the company and the work.

Allow your staff the freedom to make decisions. Don’t interfere with their decisions or their processes unless absolutely necessary. Does the set design violate fire code? Necessary. Does the rehearsal schedule violate the terms of your AEA contract? Necessary. Did no one tell the director the script is a comedy? Necessary. Do you think the backdrop should be light green instead of blue? Unnecessary. Do you think the sound designer should use “Bittersweet Symphony” instead of Sigur Ros? Unnecessary. Obviously you should make your opinions known, but putting your foot down and requiring a designer, development director, or stage manager to make unnecessary changes to their products or to their processes creates disgruntled, unhappy, underappreciated staff. Give your opinion or guidance, and back off unless the matter truly requires intervention.

3. Wear your authority with ease.

Nothing says “I’m insecure in positions of authority” like someone yelling at staff or refusing to allow staff to voice their opinions. A strong leader engages staff as equals, respecting their expertise. This doesn’t mean you should cede authority. Allowing your staff to make their own decisions and create their own processes doesn’t result in an authority drain. Step in when it’s necessary to step in. Put your foot down, respectfully, when it’s important. But have the strength to recognize when it’s important and when it’s not. And when mistakes happen or disaster strikes—because it will, trust me—blaming staff or yelling at people or otherwise losing your cool is the worst thing you can do.

4. Admit when you’re wrong.

Because they all already know it. Bluffing makes you look foolish.

5. Don’t be afraid to make the hard decisions.

Sometimes people need to be let go. This is the hardest thing for me personally and something I’ve bitched out on doing a number of times, hoping for the best. Learn from my mistakes. Be gentle, be respectful, but get rid of the people who can’t do their jobs. Again, everyone else already knows, and they’re sick of covering for that person.

6. Do whatever you have to do to keep your tech people happy.

While all theatre personnel are equally important, too often techs get treated poorly, blamed for mishaps, and left out of the glory. Happy techs make a show sparkle with awesomeness, like a magical lighting and sound unicorn flew over the theatre. Happy techs can build a gorgeous set out of popsicle sticks and coffee filters. Happy techs call 427 cues without breaking a sweat. Unappreciated, yelled-at techs will still do their jobs perfectly—they’re professionals—but they will withhold the awesome and take someone else’s gig next time around. Or worse—continue taking your gigs and talk shit about you in the community.

7. Relax. It’s theatre.

This isn’t brain surgery. No one will die if the director casts Actor X instead of the actor you liked best at callbacks. No catastrophe will ensue if your lighting designer went with a different gobo. It’s not fuckpocalypse if your marketing director thought one show was on the weak side. Breathe. Creating art is about both process and product. Don’t beat your process to death with your image of the perfect product. Nothing is going to be perfect, but it’s within your power to make it awesome.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Defense of Millennials

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

The dust has settled from the latest embarrassingly naïve post Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser slapped together for his HuffPo blog, but many in the theatre community are still burning with curiosity over how a man who clearly has very little understanding of the contemporary arts scene and even less understanding of young audiences has become the head of one of the most prominent arts organizations in the world and has been handed millions of dollars to program for Millennials.

If you want to see what I’m on about, the latest in a string of tone-deaf Kaiser posts can be found here.

You can read the best of the crop of eloquent, well-informed smackdowns here, here and here.

Michael Kaiser is, like me, a former opera singer. Unlike me, he didn’t leave opera for theatre, but for—what else?—business. He promoted himself as a “turnaround king,” taking huge, lumbering arts organizations on the brink of beaching themselves and making them profitable. Evidently, he’s damn good at it.

I have nothing against business people. My father ran a small business my entire life. I do, however, question the wisdom of allowing a business guy with little experience in the arts a national sounding board with which to discuss what is wrong with the arts. He displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the contemporary arts scene and the topic of young theatre audiences. (Need more proof?)

Apart from the boringly obvious—old guy popping off about what assholes young people are, an activity old guys have enthusiastically enjoyed since Ancient Greece—there’s a much bigger issue on the table here. Kaiser is asserting definitional authority over what is and is not important in our culture. And what’s playing at the Kennedy Center this season? Follies, at $45 - $150 a ticket. What else is playing there? I’m so glad you asked. Shear Madness. Wicked. Next to Normal. Uncle Vanya. Les Miserables. Billy Elliott. La Cage aux Folles. Memphis. The Addams Family. I’m certain these are all excellent business decisions. I know that many of these pieces are wonderful works of art that deserve a place on stage. But they are not, by anyone’s measure, comprehensively reflective of what’s currently happening in American theatre, nor are they reflective of what would be, by any theatre professional’s standard, critical for (ugh) “culture IQ.”

Do not define for me what we, as artists, should deem culturally important while simultaneously displaying, in multiple ways, your complete ignorance about the current state of the arts. Yes, opera is important, musical theatre is important, but so is the art that’s currently being created, in an explosive burst of creativity all over the country, by these very Millennials you seem to think need your artistic guidance. Stop talking and start watching. Their art is everywhere, and a lot of it is glorious, brilliant and breathtaking. All you need to do is look.

Here’s another idea: stage the Millennials' work! Put your considerable millions where your mouth is. Why don’t you pull one or two of the titles on your mainstage that everyone has already seen six times at a community theatre and replace them with a new work by a young playwright? You have the money. Why not take a risk and stage something new? If you purport to want to increase your under-40 audience, as well as foster the new generation of artists, why don’t you stage their work? Is Follies really more important for “culture IQ” than a world premiere by Steve Yockey, Young Jean Lee, or Marcus Gardley? What are those Millennial Project millions for? John Legend and OK Go? Really?

All of this begs the question: Why is someone like Michael Kaiser, who has likely never even heard of Young Jean Lee, being given a national media platform, a million dollar salary (no lie), control over one of the most prominent arts organizations in the world, and millions of dollars of federal funding? The answer is depressing, and simple: Because we, as a culture, think business people should be in control of every damn thing. This is their cultural moment. Eventually, it’ll pass, and we’ll put education back in the hands of educators, arts back in the hands of artists and music back in the hands of musicians, but it’s not going to happen while we’re listening to people like Michael Kaiser tell us what should and should not be culturally and artistically important.

There’s no shame in being a businessman who knows a lot about making an arts org profitable without knowing a lot about the arts. There is, however, a careening truckload of shame in standing on a soapbox to chastise an entire generation for being artistically ignorant when the real issue is your own ignorance.

Young artists: seize control of the narrative! In other words: Keep doing what you already do. There are many of us who see you.

Michael Kaiser: Leave your office and go to an arts event that doesn’t have valet parking.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

What’s a Theatre Company to Do When the Economy Crashes?

This special guest post was written by Pamela Rosen, a Silicon Valley-based business writer who moonlights in the theatre as an actor, director, and acting coach.

As we begin to emerge from the “great recession,” Bay Area theatre has a vastly different landscape than it did during the boom years. Well-established, respected companies have disappeared —victims, it would seem, of the terrible economy. Yet, there are plenty of theatre companies in the Bay Area that flourished during the recession. It makes me wonder: how did the successful ones do it? What caused others with solid audience bases to fail? And most importantly, what can struggling theatres do now to shore up their futures?

Keeping it real in good times

When times are good, it’s easy for theatre companies to breathe easy and focus only on producing great shows. But so many companies plan from year to year and not for the future. When ticket sales are good enough to keep a company afloat, who wants to go out and raise money? It’s hard to convince a Board of Directors to work even harder to raise cash when money is flowing in from the box office.

In 2008, our economy fell apart quickly, and not many even came close to predicting how severe the recession would be. Many theatre companies reacted by putting on traditionally crowd-pleasing shows they thought would draw big audiences. But splashy, family-oriented productions of Oklahoma and Annie couldn’t bring in the family if the tickets were priced out of the family’s budget. Incomes fell in 2008—but production costs didn’t. Without a long-term plan or a contingency in place, companies were simply not agile enough to adjust budgets or ticket prices.

One producer at the now-defunct Alameda Civic Light Opera (ACLO) explains, “We looked out into the audience during Annie and saw half-filled houses. Meanwhile, families were walking away from the box office after seeing the ticket prices, carrying crying little girls. It’s not like the audience wasn’t there, but the shows weren’t affordable anymore.”

With dramatic scenes like that, it’s unlikely ACLO would be have been able to recoup their losses with last-minute fundraising. The window of opportunity had closed. The board was too busy trying to pay the bills and keep the doors open and couldn’t take on the additional, now more difficult task of fundraising.

“The loss of ACLO is a huge void in the community,” says ACLO director Cary Litchford. “I miss the company terribly and they had a lot of heart and soul.”

Building Relationships and Raising Funds

Theatre companies fare much better if they have long-term 3-5 year plans and Boards of Directors with members who understand that their individual and group responsibility is first and foremost fundraising and community outreach. The Willows Theatre Company in Concord closed its doors in November of 2009 and moved operations to its smaller cabaret house in Martinez, but is now roaring back. How did they manage it? With the company’s closure, the surrounding businesses and restaurants also suffered a drop in business. The Willows had developed such close relationships with those businesses that the theatre had become indispensible. An outcry from those businesses, The Willows’ key stakeholders, enabled The Willows to reorganize and return. Because The Willows had been making money putting on smaller, lower cost shows during the depths of the recession, they were ready to move back in and operate again in two venues, each feeding the other. Today, they have a new artistic director and a solid five-year plan.

One for the money, two for the show

An upstart non-profit company in San Leandro, Curtain Call Performing Arts, arose as a direct result of the recession, with a goal to provide affordable theatre to everyone regardless of the state of the economy. To do this, the Board created a unique charter: raise the all the funds to mount a show before a production begins, then charge no more than $12 a ticket. They’ve mounted three productions this way, and even offered $1 tickets to children with a paid adult during a specified matinee.

Though this method currently makes it impossible to schedule production dates in much in advance, it’s an interesting model. The board is forced to continually innovate with creative fund raising and volunteer coordination. They’ve come up with clever ideas. “Our concert choir, Cantare, is one hundred percent volunteer operated,” says founding member Andrea Gorham. “Its sole purpose is to raise funds. CCPA partners with other nonprofit art groups in San Leandro to put on benefit concerts featuring Cantare.” Curtain Call partners with other arts organizations to share the profits and the audience. They’ve built an impressive audience base, and, through the choir, a large pool of volunteers.

Though it’s not a model that many companies will likely embrace, other companies could take a page from Curtain Call’s book. They might also learn a lesson from The Willows, which stayed in business in the middle of a recession by mounting smaller, less expensive productions and maintaining strong relationships with external stakeholders who revived The Willows' mainstage.

All over the Bay Area, theatre companies are still struggling. Those with a long term plan, an understanding that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and develop external relationships, that also have the flexibility to scale productions costs to swing with a volatile economy, will flourish. We’re not out of this yet. For some companies, it’s too late. But there’s still a chance for others to mobilize and heed the lessons of the last three years. What steps has your company taken to weather the economic downturn?

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Literary Adventures of Claire and Elana, Part 1

The Literary Adventures of Claire and Elana: Edition

ELANA rummages through the fridge at Theatre Bay Area, grabs a paper bag and pulls out her lunch, staring disdainfully at the stale bread and old apple that she packed herself in her sleep-deprived morning haste. Enter CLAIRE, who crosses cheerily to the water cooler to get a drink.

CLAIRE: So, I did it! I submitted a play to the Playwright’s Foundation for the Bay Area Playwright’s Festival.

ELANA: When was the deadline?

CLAIRE: I know, I know, I took my sweet time. Maybe someday I’ll get in a submission one or two days before the very second they are due.

ELANA dons her Judging Cap—a stylish porkpie, complete with feather.

CLAIRE: (sheepishly) I think I heard a quote somewhere that real playwrights wait until the last minute. Have you heard that one?


CLAIRE: Oh. Well. This year I didn’t even have to mail in my submission, so I was able to procrastinate more than usual. They're using this new website called Have you heard of it?



CLAIRE: Well, it was great! I just filled out an online form, uploaded my script, and that was that. I didn't have to print or mail anything. Did you submit a play this year?

ELANA: No...

ELANA rotates her Judging Cap to reveal the words “PLAYWRIGHTS FOUNDATION SELECTION COMMITTEE” written on the back. CLAIRE gasps and drops her water.

ELANA: So we meet.

CLAIRE: Well, technically, we’ve known each other for a few months, being coworkers and all.

ELANA: So we judge and judged.

CLAIRE: I didn’t realize you were on the selection committee!

ELANA: I didn’t realize you submitted a play to the Playwrights Foundation! Wait. Does this not strike you as odd? Two coworkers, standing around the water cooler for an inordinately long time, able to provide complementary views on a new online literary database and seemingly unable to talk about anything else?

(CLAIRE and ELANA make eye contact and slowly, suspiciously cast their eyes skyward, where a giant pencil eraser threatens to poke down from up above.)

CLAIRE: Elana, you’ve resorted to a metatheatrical representation of yourself as the playwright-slash-literary puppetmaster?! Thank god you didn’t submit a play this year, or you would’ve been the laughingstock of the local theatre community!

ELANA: Don’t look at me, I’m not the one pulling the metaphorical strings here!

CLAIRE climbs atop the refrigerator and peers into the left eye of META-ELANA.

CLAIRE: (Scrambling down) OH MY GOD. I can’t believe I’m in a play with a character named “META-ELANA.” Just being a character in this play is going to regress my writing 10 years. OH MY GOD! REGRESS MY WRITING? IS THAT EVEN A PHRASE??

(The giant pencil eraser starts to erase Claire’s left foot.)


(The eraser hesitates.)

ELANA: Claire, say something! Say something more about the database!

CLAIRE: Uhm….I totally didn’t feel all angsty about paying the readers fee, because I didn’t have to spend any money on copies or binding or envelopes or postage. Wouldn’t it be great if someday, in the future, this was the way all plays were submitted.

(The eraser starts to erase CLAIRE's right hand.)

ELANA: WAIT! Stop! She's given you what you wanted! She's talking!

CLAIRE: (Louder) Freelance dramaturges can also use it to - --

(The eraser erases CLAIRE's mouth.)


To be continued...

Will Claire and Elana escape from the water cooler unharmed? Will Claire get her mouth back? And just what *is* this literary database of which Claire and Elana speak so passionately, anyway? These questions and more will be answered in Part 2 of The Literary Adventures of Claire and Elana: Edition.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

How to Get the 18-40 Crowd to Put Down the Controller and Go to Your Theatre

This special guest post was written by Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at

“How do you get so many young people into your theatre? How can we do that?”

I’ve been asked these questions over and over and over. And over. The real answer is: I’m not sure. All I can tell you is what we’ve done, how we’ve done it and what I think you can do to better your chances of attracting the 18-35 audience. Will it work for you? I don’t know. Did it work for us? Yes, indeed.

Bear in mind that you need to do all of these things, all at the same time. This isn’t a pick-and-choose situation.

1. Do the kinds of plays young people want to see.
I am astounded by the fact that some larger theatres seem to believe young people should *always* be willing to translate, and blame self-centeredness, lack of interest in culture, lack of education and general boorishness when the 18-40 crowd don’t turn out in droves for a production of Dinner with Friends or Love Letters. Yet these very same theatres won’t slot a new play by an emerging playwright for fear of their subscribers’ reactions. They expect young people to translate, and heap condemnation upon them when they don’t, but they see older audience members’ potential lack of interest as their due. (P.S. Believe me when I tell you that 65 is the new 35. Many older Bay Area theatergoers are more adventurous than you think. TRUST. Moving on.)

While it’s always a good thing to have an active interest in the stories of people not in your age group (or ethnic group, or regional group, or religious group, etc), everyone longs to see their own stories, hopes, dreams, fears, realities and fantasies reflected in honest ways. Young people are no different. The key phrase here is “in honest ways.” A play by an older playwright with roles for young actors may or may not speak honestly to your desired potential younger audience members. Some older writers write very well for younger characters. Many do not. Large numbers of young people are not going to spring for tickets to a show that portrays them as mindless, boorish assholes. Find plays that speak honestly about the lives of young people in some way.

But how do I do that, Melissa?

I’m so glad you asked.

There are over 400 theatre companies in the nine-county Bay Area. We do more world premiere plays than almost any other region in the country—last I checked we ranked third. Yet it’s very common that staff from theatres who purport to want young audiences don’t come to world premiere productions at small theatre companies. How many emerging playwrights have you read this year? If the number is under 10, you’re slacking. Impact Theatre, my company, has produced a world premiere by, and/or entirely introduced to the Bay Area, these playwrights: Sheila Callaghan, Steve Yockey, Prince Gomolvilas, Enrique Urueta, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Liz Meriwether, Lauren Yee, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Joshua Conkel, Trevor Allen, Jon Tracy. This is a partial list—I stuck to people you’ve probably heard of. Most importantly, we’re a tiny dog on a very, very big block. There are a wagonload of companies doing precisely what we do. Find them. See their shows. Spy on the playwrights they use. Companies like mine are your R&D department.

Find directors who can make classic plays relevant and interesting—because they are. There are directors all over the country who draw loads of younger audience members into theatres to see Shakespeare, and a bunch of them are directing at these aforementioned smaller theatres.

2. Be realistic about your pricing.
It’s always annoying to hear people say, “But they’ll spend $60 on a concert ticket! Why won’t they spend $60 on theatre?” It’s like wondering why someone would drive all the way across country to be with her beloved but not drive just as long in the hope that she will meet a hot stranger in a bar. People drop bucks on concert tickets because they already know and love the artist and have every expectation of seeing a great show and having a great experience. Condemning those people for refusing to drop a similar amount of money on a show they may know little about that will, let’s be honest, likely bore them because it’s aimed entirely at someone else, is a bit much, yes? If you’re going to condemn the under-40 crowd for not dropping $60 on your play about middle-class, middle-aged white people and their midlife crises, you should also condemn Grandma because she’s not stocking her DVD collection with $60 of Robot Chicken.

So keep your ticket prices accessible. Some companies do an under-30 rate, which, quite frankly, I’m not wild about. That 30-40 crowd is young enough to need enticing into your theatre but old enough to be on the brink of having enough money to become donors and subscribers. You want them. They’re routinely ignored and that’s not going to pay off in the long run for your audience building. Make an under-40 rate if you must. Make some performances pay-what-you-will. Make your less attractive seating areas $20 for the first few weekends. Whatever you need to do, do it.

3. Market to young people.
If you’re not active on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be right now. Learn how to use these powerful tools properly. This isn’t a social media marketing post, so I’ll assume you can figure out where to get this info and move on. The blog on your website is going nowhere unless you’re pushing it with Facebook and Twitter, by the way.

Find ways to make your outreach to young people honest and, most importantly, unpretentious. One of the main things keeping young people out of the theatre is that they’re afraid they won’t fit in—they’ll feel awkward and out of place. As my friend’s dad was fond of saying, they’re afraid they’ll “stand out like a sheep turd in a bowl of cream.” You want to make them as comfortable as possible. A big step towards that is to use your marketing to make them feel welcome. Not pretend welcome, as in, “We want to sell you tickets,” but truly welcome, like “Come over and play with us! We just got a new toy!”

Theatre is not medicine. We don’t go because it’s good for us. We go because we think it’ll be awesome. Make sure you’re approaching your marketing properly. “It’ll be awesome” + “You’re totally welcome and will be comfortable” + “We’re not stuffy and pretentious” will go a long way. Make sure you’re delivering those goods onsite as well. Nothing drives someone away from your company forever as efficiently as an undelivered promise.

And that’s pretty much it. This is what I believe has worked for us over the past 15 years. I hope it’s successful for you as well. We all need to work together to build audiences for our future as an artistic community. There’s not a single one of us that exists on an island. We’re all in this together.

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