Sunday, June 22, 2008

What it takes

What it takes, originally uploaded by tberrongkc.

So Keith made a funny about getting me drunk enough to open a theater. (That photo up there is the page in my scrapbook with the mailer we used to find our first theater. We sent out between 50-100 of's been so long I don't remember.)

There is not enough Gold Label Southern Comfort in the WORLD. 

I know a whole lot more about how not to run a theater than about how to make one work. Lighten Up's run was a lot of fun and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but having an improv theater means that the last thing on your to-do list will always, always, always be improv. 

Here's some of the Running An Improv  Theater To-Do List (and this was a poorly run one—imagine how much more would be on the list for a successful one): 

  • Check voice mail and answer phones (all day).
  • Sell, sell, sell—your shows, your corporate workshops, your improv workshops, your private gigs. Send e-mails and direct mail, make cold calls, follow-up leads.
  • Send press releases and update calendar listings; keep website and online presence up to date.
  • Schedule and staff shows. 
  • Make sure all licenses and permits are up to date. 
  • Pay bills—rent, utilities, leasing (beverage cooler, copy machine, water dispenser), credit cards (Home Depot, CostCo), 
  • Keep books up to date—ticket sales, food and beverage, private/corporate gigs, paying players, bills. 
  • Inventory, purchase and stock concession stand—CostCo for food, 4-5 different distributors for beer, soda and coffee.
  • Make sure drawer has enough cash/change for shows. 
  • Clean theater, office, lobby and green room—sweep, mop, wipe down, dust, vacuum. 
  • Prep theater—arrange tables, chairs, set and booth. 
  • Maintain space—repaint, replace stage lights, decorate lobby, fix props/set pieces, clean curtains, etc. 
  • Plan, schedule and sell programs—workshops, high school leagues, shows. 
  • Plan and lead rehearsals; teach workshops. 
  • Work the bar, ticket office or booth or do notes when you can't find a full staff. 
During the periods of time when my business partner was off doing something else, I didn't do much stage time—unless we were short staffed. I would host, or sell tickets, but being in show was my lowest priority—and usually, I just couldn't get in the right frame of mind. 

Because here's what you worry about...
  • Will my cast continue to work without pay? 
  • How am I going to run a show when I'm 3 cast members short? 
  • Will an audience come? 
  • Will we make rent? 
  • Will the private show be good? 
  • Will I be able to figure out the permits and licenses we need to stay open? 
  • Will we pass the safety inspection? 
  • Will people take my classes?
  • Will the show be good? 
  • Will the players stop bickering? 
  • Can we afford to buy beer? 
  • Will we have to cancel? 
  • Blah, blah, blah...
So. If I were to give advice to someone who wanted to open an improv theater, it would be this: 
  • DO. NOT. BUY. A. SPACE. Rent. You do not need or want to own a building.
  • Even better, rent in a space with common services. If you can, find a place with a big load of common bathrooms you don't have to maintain and clean. 
  • Start off slow. Find a place or places—a theater, a restaurant with a party room, etc.—where you can pay for just show, workshop and rehearsal time on a regular schedule. Start with maybe one night or weekend of shows a month; throw in a weekly workshop. When you're selling out both, add another night. 
  • Figure out your expenses for leasing and running your own space. Double or triple that. When the money you're making in your temporary space equals that amount, it's time to open a theater.
  • Create a business plan, and get a successful non-improviser to look at it. Do not skip the boring parts you don't understand. If you don't understand something in a high-level strategic plan, you will hate or suck at it in real life. 
  • Sign contracts with your partners. You will think, "Hey! It's improv! We trust each other!" Fuck that. Sign a contract that details all responsibilities and expectations and what happens if  things fall apart. Get an attorney to look at it.
  • Have experience with and be good at the not-related-to-improv side of the business. My partner had managed a bar. I worked in PR for an arts organization, had corporate experience (for our gigs) and knew marketing. 
  • Make sure you have access to health insurance. At some point, you will suffer chronic stress, which will lead to clinical depression, and you will need to be medicated. 


  1. Some of that sounds like very good advice.
    Some of that sounds like you're reacting solely to how you got burnt.

  2. The stuff I learned by being burned--sign a contract with your partner(s) and have health insurance--is probably the best advice on the list.

  3. Just sounds like plain old great advice to me.

    If people never got burned, how are they suppose to learn? School? Sheesh.

  4. I was going to post a response to this, but evidently this was a button just waiting to be pushed. What a great topic.

    I had to post a whole blog about it. I'd love for you to read my response at

  5. Amazing post, John.

    A. Yep. All of it true.
    B. Zoning. OMFG, zoning. We moved into our first space in September and opened in April—all because of some obscure zoning issue we never could have anticipated.
    C. I should have said in mine, "Don't open a theater unless you don't have to make money or support off of it."

    There's a reason community theaters are NFP organizations with boards and donors.


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