Thursday, July 15, 2010

How to save community theatre

I experienced a collision of worlds today, and from that debris I’ve got a half-baked idea that I want to get some feedback on.

Eastern Mass. is flooded with community theatre groups, advocates, participants, and audience members. Inside route 128, it seems as though each significant town has its own theatre group (or two), and each group has its own identity and set of core members.

The last few years, however, have not been kind to some of these groups. Each has suffered various levels of attrition as their most senior members have retired from active roles and the economy’s trouble thinned the numbers of audience members. But some groups have suffered more than others. There are several theatre groups out there that are getting left behind due to a lack of resources and manpower, and there are several theatre groups in danger of folding.

Community theatre isn’t about survival of the fittest, though. If we can save these groups and help restore them to a level at which they can sustain themselves again, and renew the promise of old glorious productions, we, as community theatre devotees, should do what we can.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been contributing in a substantial way to the redesign of the public image of one particular theatre group. We’re conceptualizing a new, more modern logo, creating a stronger and more helpful website, and coordinating an all-fronts PR campaign. The team undertaking these tasks has evolved quickly into a well-oiled machine that seeks out candidates for individual jobs and manages all of them to rejuvenate a company’s image in a short period of time.

Why couldn’t that become a freelance gig?

Assemble a team of “stage ringers” whom a struggling theatre group can contract with. On this team are several consultants who each have an expertise in one particular facet of a theatre rejuvenation project: a website designer, a PR guru, a social media whiz, a graphic designer, a nonprofit manager, a fundraising expert. This team adds the group’s president (a community representative) to their team for the duration of the project, and together they decide on a direction of the redesign and go to work.

What’s more, each of these consultants is a theatre advocate, so the groups with which this team would partner can trust the experts to have the group’s best interests at heart, and the instincts of an old stage friend.

Because this is a freelance group, and because this is a passion for each of the members of this “crack team”, each consultant would accept a discounted fee for their services. This would make it more affordable for the groups interested in the project. And if even that proved to be too much for the group to afford, the consultants who could afford to work pro bono could do so and the others would pass.

It seems to me like a win-win situation: this crack team gets paid for work in an area they love, and the group gets a low-cost redesign that can rejuvenate a flagging group. But I’m sure there are steps I’m missing – what are they? The more I think about this, the more I wonder if it’s doable.


  1. If I had the PR know-how I'd make it my mission to be on the Theatre A-Team.

  2. It feels like you're describing a consultancy that's uses a model somewhere between a discounted rate and a pro-bono arrangement.

    Organizations already do this with non-profits, so I suppose, in that sense, it already works.

    BUT, the idea sidesteps a bigger, and in my mind, more important question: Why community theatre? How is it relevant? What social good does it serve? How can it be more effective? Why community theatre as a strategy over some other?

  3. @Becca The model could certainly be applied to any number of organizations, as you note. But that very fact might, in part, illustrate one reason to apply it to community theatre: nobody's doing it there.

    I'm not saying community theatre is any more deserving than the many organizations that work every day toward more noble causes. But those organizations frequently are full-time jobs and have associated full-time consultants. Community theatre is, by its very nature, an elaborate hobby. This concept would be an extension of that, a group of that hobby's enthusiast enablers.

    The short version is I gear for community theatre because I think there's an opening, a need, and the resources (time, manpower, and will) to accomplish it. Applying this formula to nonprofits takes much greater amounts of two of those three ingredients. That doesn't (and shouldn't) preclude this concept from being applied to them, but it might take greater organization and different skills to accomplish.