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The Business of Doing Theater

Tiffany Moon explains the business structure of non-profit theaters. logo

The door of our management office. (© Tiffany Moon)

So, what exactly does a theater manager do anyway?

Imagine that you've been rehearsing a play for weeks. You've spent endless hours exploring the characters, assigning your beats, blocking the script, acquiring the costumes, building the set, designing the lights, and creating a production that is sure to be a success. You get to the theater on opening night, and it's dark. The gorgeous lighting design is useless because the utilities haven't been paid. You wait, expecting the audience to arrive, but no one is coming because there was never any marketing done and the tickets haven't been sold. You go to get the paycheck you've been counting on, but it doesn't exist because there was never any money raised and there was no one to sign the check. And, worst of all, there is a cease and desist notice waiting for you because the script royalties have never been paid!

These are just some of the things essential to producing theater that managers handle and artists rarely have to think about. A theater manager is there to support the artists and keep the theater running. It is a sometimes thankless job, without the glamour and the immediate gratification associated with performing, but it is extremely rewarding and essential to the continued survival of the theater. In a perfect world, artists and the managers are symbiotic, each contributing a unique point of view to further the theater's success.

Non-profit theater is governed in a very similar way to any other business. There is a board of directors, an executive team, and a support staff. In publicly traded companies, there is also a group of shareholders that is at the top of the hierarchy. Of course, if we're talking commercial theater, such as Broadway, the shareholders would be the investors in the production, but I'm focusing on non-profit theater management in this blog.

The executive team of a theater is usually divided into two positions: The executive director and the artistic director. The executive director handles all financial matters of the theater, such as budgeting and financing, and the artistic director oversees creative matters such as season selection and ensuring the theater is fulfilling its mission.

While we're at it, the mission statement is extremely important to the structure of the theater. Mission is everything. A mission statement presents to the public the guiding principles of the theater and its artistic goals and should inform every decision that a theater manager makes. As an example, the mission statement of California Repertory Company is:

"We are a theatre company dedicated to the art in theatre and the theatrical in art. We celebrate the innovative, the provocative, the poetic. We are a theatre of image, word, and gesture. We seek texts that are issue-driven and inventive. As a theatrical laboratory, we explore, engage, and examine. As a theatrical training program, we nurture and challenge the theatre artists of the future. Cal Rep is committed not only to the survival, but to the evolution of theatre."

When researching theater companies to work with, the first place to look is at the mission statement. As managers, it is our job to support the artistic vision of the theater, so make sure that your vision fits in with the place you work.

Because theater managers face challenges that are different than those of other business managers, I chose to pursue grad school rather than jump into the field in order to have a better understanding of the industry. Particularly because my entire background has been artistic, I knew that this was the right path for me. The great thing about the CSULB/ Cal Rep program is that we do gain practical experience by running a professional theater company while taking classes in both the theater department and the business school. Also, graduating with an MBA in addition to an MFA can never hurt. Having this kind of well-rounded background will allow me to manage more effectively after graduation.

Next week, I'll go into a little more detail about the various departments that make up a theater, with a special focus on marketing and the role of social media in promoting the theater. Stay tuned!


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