Growing the Garage
The second part of Tiffany Moon's interview with Eric Hamme, Managing Director of the Garage Theatre in Long Beach, CA.
Two weeks ago I introduced you to Eric Hamme, Managing Director of the Garage Theatre in Long Beach, CA, and we talked about the early days of the company and the struggles they faced as new college graduates defining and organizing their start-up theater (You can read that entry here.) The conversation continues as Hamme discusses the company's growth and plans for the future, and why he decided to go back to school to help make that all happen.
TIFFANY MOON: When we last left you, the Garage was just starting to find its structure. You call yourselves a theater collective, correct? ERIC HAMME: That's not an official thing, but what's different with us is we don't have an Artistic Director. There are six or seven of us that run the day-to-day operations of the company. We've known each other since college, and we're all really good friends. We understand each other so much, and we understand the company so much, that very little needs to be spoken. Because of that, the artistic decisions of the company are made as a collective. TM: How did you go from being a nomadic company to having your own space?
EH: We had helped out on a production for another theater company and helped them build their theater, and we were not treated well. After that, we were sort of fed up with building other people's theaters, and we decided to focus on getting a space.
The Found Theatre was in our current space for 20 years before us. I called Cynthia Galles (of The Found Theatre), because there were rumors that the city was building them another theater. She's amazing; she invited us down to a show and we hung out with them afterward. After that they said, "You guys are going to take over this space." They were adamant about it, and incredibly helpful - Cynthia was a beautiful, beautiful woman.
What was great was that the landlords wanted it to stay a theater, and they don't like a lot of turnover so they kept it really, really cheap. But there was this year where we didn't do a show because we kept thinking we were going to move in and then we couldn't. We didn't get it until December of 2004. That was a great day - the day we had the key and we all just stood in this building and were like - this is ours.
But then it became about, how do you run a space? We had no idea how to pay rent every month. We decided the first year we weren't going to announce the season - just go show to show, try to build an audience. We were so worried about making rent every month that we opened our first show in February, the show ran for four weeks, there were two weeks off, and then we opened the next show. And we did that, in the first year - we did eight shows in ten months. It's insane to think back on that. Then after that first year, I could then look at the finances. It wasn't until the second year that I created the very first ever Garage budget. I found we could do five shows a year, and we could take four or five weeks between shows, and we would be okay doing that. It was a learning experience. This whole company's just been trial and error. None of us knew what we were doing. TM: At what point did you decide to go to grad school? EH: After taking on the financial role with the theater, I found that I liked it; I liked numbers, I liked budgets. I always wanted to go to grad school, but I always thought that I would go back for directing. I didn't want to leave Long Beach, I didn't want to leave the company. So if I was going to go to grad school, it had to be local. So I went and spoke with Joanne (Theater Department Chair at CSULB). She offered a spot in management, and I thought it'd be a good fit. So I went for it. TM: Have you been able to transition into managing the Garage full-time?
EH: Working for the Garage full-time is not a possibility right now for various reasons. It's a combination of the size of our theater and the mission. We have 30 seats, so there's only so much revenue we can generate. We're not going to sell twenty, thirty dollar tickets. Our whole thing with the theater is to make it accessible to everyone. In the last couple of years, we've pretty much sold out every run, so we've reached that point where we've kind of outgrown the space. In the last eight years, we've pretty much doubled our budget - but our annual budget is still about one person's salary. Our biggest gap and weakness in the company is development. We don't have a fundraiser - we are terrible at that. Even though I went to grad school and got my masters in it, I suck at it and I never wanted anything to do with that part of it. But that's a big problem with our company that we're trying to figure out how to solve. Grant writing is done as a team, like everything else - so I'm sure there's stuff out there that would help us grow, but nobody has the time to look for it. If we could find somebody who could, that would be amazing.
TM: What would be your best piece of advice to new graduates looking to start a theater company?
EH: Try to have an understanding of what you want to do, what kind of theater you want to produce. What kind of identity you want to bring to the community, and stick to it. Be true to it. I think that's been our success, whatever success we have had has been that we knew what we wanted to do and the kind of theater we wanted to bring to the community. Not once have we ever discussed whether a show will sell a lot of tickets or not. We've never said, "this show will be a hit," or, "we don't want to do this show because it won't appeal to this market, or this aesthetic," not once. It was really always about the work, which is really always about the story. At the same time, we were never about doing work because it would shock people, or because it was provocative or would be offensive to people. We don't have those conversations either. We choose the work we do based on the story. I think that produces the best work, when you stay true to the work and it's not about trying to appeal or please. We're in a unique situation to do that because we really have nothing to lose. If your thing is Oklahoma!, do it. But stay true to your work.
For more information about the Garage, click here.