Five essential rules for startup storefront theatre companies

New storefront theatre companies pop up in Chicago like reality TV shows on Bravo. It seems once every month or so I get a press release from some new company that I’ve never heard of before. I applaud their initiative, but there are a few simple rules that I think many of these companies could benefit from.

Now, please note that this list comes from my limited perspective as an avid theatre-goer (and a communications professional). And I’m aware that I’m glossing over some pretty essential things that should happen first, like developing a business plan and philosophy, building the team and organizational structure, etc.

But those are behind-the-scenes things.

This list merely reflects my casual observations of some recently established storefront theatre companies in how they present themselves to the press and to the public.

1) Think long and hard about your mission: This is so important. How does your theatre company stick out from the rest? What new perspective(s) or idea(s) do you want to bring to the saturated storefront Chicago theatre scene? Why are you here? Make it clear, make it distinct and make it resonate. If you can’t effectively describe your theatre company’s mission in a single breath to a friend in a crowded bar, then you need to rethink it.

2) Choose a compelling name: I think the best way to choose a name is to FIRST develop your mission statement, and THEN choose a name and visual identity that evokes that mission statement. I’m sure there are companies that have done the reverse, but that’s like putting the cart before the horse. You may get there eventually, but there’ll be a lot of bruised knees.

3) Your productions should then align with that mission: If you have a compelling and distinct mission, don’t dilute it by doing work that doesn’t fit into what you’ve set out to do. Worse yet, don’t just create a theatre company as a platform to simply produce the cool plays you’ve always wanted to do and have them star all your awesome friends. If that’s the case, your theatre co’s mission should be: “to be yet another vanity storefront theatre company that will last about three years at the most after everyone in the company loses interest once their wish list is fulfilled and/or ignored.”

4) Do your research when planning your season: Yes, I’m sure there’s a bold new way to stage The Cherry Orchard, and your new theatre company is the group that will set out to prove it. But, to be frank: it’s been done to death in Chicago, and an audience gets fatigued by seeing the same titles. Look around at what’s been done in the market and choose works that are new and exciting.

5) Don’t assume that “you build it, they will come.” If you’re really serious about this, marketing your theatre company and your upcoming work is a major undertaking. Don’t just assume your work is so awesome that all you have to do is send a press release out and the buzz will follow. Low on funds and experience? Think creatively: turn to a university’s marketing school to use your theatre company as a case study in developing a startup marketing plan, for example. Or, reach out to an experienced arts marketing individual and pick their brain. At the very least, don’t send your press invites three days prior during the peak of the spring theatre season when there is literally a show opening nearly every day of the week. Because, seriously?

And then, there’s the whole thing about doing quality work. But simple things like the items above seem to be overlooked when establishing a company.

Anything to add? Is this advice crap? Tell me what you think in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Five essential rules for startup storefront theatre companies

  1. In this economy, new companies and old companies should collaborate! Surviving the arts crisis is combining forces in unity. Even the warhorses like Steppenwolf and Goodman look to partnering on projects from a funding and a ticketing standpoint. Also, build a solid board of creative and business folk to establish vision.

  2. I think you nailed it, B. As someone who was once part of a start-up theatre company, knowing what the stuff you’re going to produce is key. When I see companies that haven’t figured this out, I’m prone to think they’re doing shows purely because members of their company have always wanted to play such-and-such role or direct such-and-such piece, which is all well and good, but… hardly a compelling reason to make an audience come see a show. Unless it’s their mom.

  3. Perfect. In fact, I think some older companies 10+ years, could benefit by referring to #’s 3 and 4. Sometimes I wonder if they are just on autopilot…

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