The Garage Managing Team with CSULB Theatre Department Chair Joanne Gordon being honored as Outstanding Alumni in Fall 2011 (Photo by Tiffany Moon)

In today's "do-it-yourself" culture, more and more artists are turning to alternative means of working rather than the traditional audition and get hired approach. For new college graduates, starting your own theatre company can be a rewarding way to gain exposure while producing the work that you believe in. But it is far from easy. Organizing from the ground up requires patience, strategy, and a certain amount of luck. Not all companies will make it, so in order to discover some of the magic of what makes a start-up company successful, I spoke to Eric Hamme, Managing Director and Founding Member of the Long Beach theatre collective The Garage, about the challenges and rewards of building a theatre company from the ground up.

In fact, the conversation was so insightful, and the Garage's story is so unique, that I've split this post into two parts. This week, Eric talks about the beginning of The Garage, its roots and the challenges they faced in the early years, and next week will feature how The Garage went from a start-up, nomadic company to a Long Beach cultural staple.

TIFFANY MOON: How did The Garage come to be?

ERIC HAMME: I met Jamie Sweet at Orange Coast College in the mid-1990s. Jamie wrote a play - even back then we wanted to do something outside of school -and we produced it in our friend's garage, and it ran for two nights. We made posters, put them around town, and invited people. People brought their own lawn chairs. Then we came to Long Beach (Cal State), met a bunch of great people, and out of school we decided to put on a show. It was never a thought of, "Yeah, we're going to start a company, and this will be our mission, and here are our long-term goals, and here's our three year strategic plan." We were not that organized; it was really just, "Let's put on a show." And that took a couple of years to happen. We graduated in Spring of 1999, and our first show went up in February of 2001.

TM: How did you approach finding a space that would host you?

EH: I was sitting in a coffee shop one day and Jamie came walking by, and he was like, "I'm going to this meeting with these artists, do you want to come?" It was this underground art movement that was happening at the time called "The Xenophile Collective." They would pop up in the community, do an art exhibit in a public space, and then disappear. I started going to these meetings, and I'm not a visual artist and that's mainly what they were, but we came in and were like, "we do theatre!"

As part of that group we met a lot of people who were active in the arts community. We got put in touch with a woman who owned a church up on 9th, and she said we could do the play there. But the show we were doing was a play that Eric Bogosian offered royalty free to students and start-up theatre companies. It was grungy, underground, and fit our style, but eventually it came to the point where we had to break it to [the church] that the play deals with prostitutes and drug dealers. So she came to us one day and said it wasn't going to work, but that she had a couple of guys that rented a space from her, and we should go talk to them. Which led us to these guys on 4th and Elm, and it was actually a perfect fit. They were musicians who had this underground space that wasn't legal yet - they said it was going to be legal, which never happened - but they wanted it to be this multi-use art space. We walked in and said, "We do theatre, can we do a play here?" And we became their resident theater company.

But the problem was theater is different than underground music and parties. You've got to publicize it. By then we were thinking in terms of starting a company, and we wanted to build an audience, and we wanted press. The first show went off without a hitch, but they always told us, if you get any heat from the city let us know and we'll pull the permits. After the first week of our second show I got a call from the Fire Marshal, because a review came out in the Press-Telegram, and he said, "This space you're doing it in, what's the deal with it?" I told him, we rent it out, you've got to talk to these guys. Basically when the heat came down they kicked us to the curb, so after our first weekend we were out. I made a bunch of calls to a bunch of people I'd met through that artist thing, and we got hooked up with an organization called ARK - Artists Reaching Kids - at the Lafayette, which is now a bike shop, and they took us in. We never really knew where we were going to be next.

TM: What were some other difficulties you encountered?

EH: Financially it was tough, but that laid the groundwork for who we are today. Really the challenge was identity and organization. There were only three or four of us focused on the day to day of the company. And so I took on the business side of it, because nobody else wanted to. In 2003, we came to our first crossroads. I remember saying, "Either we get non-profit status and do the paperwork and get organized and really take this -whatever this is - to a more defined and organized level, or I think I'm done." Once we agreed that we were trying to start a company, then the conversations started happening - what kind of company are we? And we really didn't know. I hear about these other companies that are far more successful than we are. When I was in grad school, this guy came and he was talking about how they decided they were going to start a company, so they went on a retreat and they came up with a business plan and they made budgets and they came up with their mission and their vision and took care of all the business end of stuff, and THEN they went and put on a show. And they've been very successful doing that. We were the complete opposite. We didn't think about any of that, just put on a show and focus on the work. Two different approaches. So the whole identity of the company and what we're about has evolved. We knew what we didn't want to be, but we weren't sure what we were. I think we still don't know.

TM: Well it seems to me that if you start the way you did, produce the work, you might have an even better idea about what you're about.

EH: Yeah, and to us that's what it is. That's what it's all about. It's not how great your mission statement is, or how well you can balance a budget, it's the work. We always felt like if the work's good, people will show up.

Come back next week for the second part of the interview, featuring how The Garage finally found its home.