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Taking care of business

a crowd stands and applauds a performance

By Mike Lawler

Take a moment to think about the last time you visited a theatre to see a show. How did the adventure unfold? First, you probably phoned the theatre to reserve tickets for yourself and the others attending. You spoke to a person in the box office, who took the necessary information and booked your tickets. On the evening of the performance, you arrived fifteen minutes or so before curtain and parked in the garage across the street. In the theatre you probably milled around the theatre lobby, checking out the work of local artists on display or reading historical information relevant to the show you were about to watch. You might have strolled through the gift shop, perusing the T-shirts imprinted with the theatre’s logo before heading for the theatre to take your seat. Once inside the theatre, an usher took your ticket, handed you a program, and helped you find your seat. Looking around, you noticed how pleasant the theatre looked, how comfortable the seats were, and perhaps how many people were in full the house. And then lights down, curtain up. The show began.

two men in an office examine a chart on a computer screen
Charles Phaneuf and Paul Hengesteg review a spreadsheet showing actor housing accommodations at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Tselane Prescott)

From the first phone you call placed, you were strolling beneath the wide umbrella of the theatre business and those who manage it. The box office, the gift shop, the posters on the lobby doors, perhaps even the parking garage—and much more—are all handled by the administrative department of the theatre.

If you think about all the aspects that go into bringing you a satisfying theatrical experience, you’ll realize that at the foundation of professional theatre is a business. In order for a theatre to stay in business it must have people around that know as much (or more) about fundraising, ticket sales, and marketing as they do about putting on a show. While artistic directors lead the company with artistic vision, their business-minded counterparts, often called managing directors, are keeping an eye on the bottom line.

The managing director is commonly supported by a cast of characters responsible for such things as grant writing, ticket sales, fundraising, marketing and publicity, and the management of the facility itself. Take a look some time at the staff list of a large theatre organization. The number of those working on the business side of art can be staggering—but just what do all those folks do?

‘We’re not producing widgets’

As Duncan Webb explains in his 2004 book Running Theatres, arts organizations are not able to increase their profits by increasing productivity as many other types of businesses do, and are therefore often faced with chronic financial difficulties.

Webb writes, “Haydn’s The Creation still takes the same number of musicians and singers and the same amount of time when performed in 2004 by the New York Philharmonic as it did in 1798, on its opening night.”
But the same amount of everything costs a lot more now than it did two hundred years ago. This fact means that non-profit theatres cannot survive without financial contributions over and above the money earned by the business of putting on the show.

At Actors Theatre of Louisville there are more than thirty jobs devoted to sales, development, marketing, fundraising, and related areas. They include such titles as manager of foundation and government relations, subscriptions manager, manager of patron relations, director of finance, marketing manager, and media and publicity coordinator. Looking over these job descriptions gives the technically or artistically minded theatre professional a new appreciation for the work that is truly behind the scenes. After all, it is the work of such people that keeps theatres running in the black, audiences in the seats, and budgets reasonable.

“We produce everything we do,” says Jennifer Bielstein, managing director of ATL. “It requires hundreds of people to produce each production—everything is hand-made. We’re not producing widgets, where you can have machines produce them. Employing lots of people is a requirement of this art form.”

Woman in a blazer wearing glasses and smiling
Jennifer Bielstein, managing director of Actors Theatre

And people—skilled people—cost money. As a result, the financial burden for theatres is large, and requires that managers in Bielstein’s position spend a lot of time working with their communities to help fund the theatre’s operations.

“[We are] increasingly reliant on contributed revenues, because markets will only bear so much in increases in ticket prices,” she says.

The need to balance the theatre’s books with the interest of its audience can lead to a rather long list of people to please.

“It’s not really top-down leadership,” Bielstein says. “You really have to engage all of the constituencies, and give them some ownership, because you are reliant on the support of your board of directors, and of the general community of supporters, and of the audience, and of your staff.”

Supporting the artistic mission

Running a non-profit organization is much different than “for profit” or corporate management work. The first and perhaps most notable difference is the way money is made, as well as how that money is spent.

“People aren’t in this business to make a lot of money,” Bielstein says, and her statement encompasses the people that in a for-profit situation would be called investors, but in the theatre world are called contributors or donors. Theatres rely heavily on such donors to pursue their artistic missions.

According to Kevin Moore, the new managing director of Cleveland Playhouse, the single biggest difference between a non-profit theatre and a for-profit corporation is the number of stakeholders involved. He cites the board of directors, staff members, the audience, the creative artists, and donors as examples of the broad spectrum of people who have an interest in the success and mission of a theatre.

“Those are people to be taken care of, people to be encouraged and brought together.” Moore says. “We’ve got one mission and that is to do great theatre, and everybody has a role in it.”

The other difference comes down to the fact that in the non-profit theatre, the people who provide financial support must be rallied around an artistic mission rather than a profit motive.

“The art and the mission are absolutely the most important things,” says Charles Phaneuf, assistant general manager of Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. “We get direction from the art and it’s really all about that.”

Moore, like most managers, believes that, while the financial side of a theatre’s well-being cannot be ignored, the mission must come first.

“[The] mission involves a high degree of fiscal responsibility,” he says.

Part of the trouble is that it is very difficult to measure quality, and put a price on it, while producing art, rather than, as Bielstein noted, widgets. In other words, just how much money should Moore and other theatre administrators spend to produce theatre of high quality while remaining financially sound and responsible? This is the fine line that an arts administrator must learn to walk.

Departments within departments

When most people think of theatre, they think of actors, directors, designers, and technicians. They usually don’t think of the people running the business side of things, but those in the business office make up a large portion of a typical theatre operation.

If we closely examine the hypothetical theatre visit that began this article, we will begin to understand the enormous operation rumbling beneath the surface of theatres everywhere. You were probably exposed to it before you even placed the call to buy tickets: more than likely you got the idea you wanted to go to the show after seeing an advertisement, postcard, poster, or season brochure that was prepared by the marketing and public relations department.

Your call was taken by a staff member in the box office. Depending on the size of the organization, a box office staff can range from one or two people to a couple dozen. They will take reservations and sell tickets over the phone, interact with audience members in person on the evening of a show, and keep detailed information about sales.

If you drove to the theatre, you may have parked in a facility that’s owned and managed by the company. Actors Theatre of Louisville, like many regional theatres, owns a parking garage next door to its facility and hires an unaffiliated company to manage it. (The same is true of ATL’s onsite restaurant.) However, some theatres have facilities managers who run operations that lay outside of the bounds of normal theatrical endeavors. Even if they, like ATL, do outsource some facilities management, they must still factor such facilities in their budgets and other future business decisions.

Once we have parked our car (and perhaps enjoyed a meal in the theatre’s restaurant), we enter the lobby, and thus the front-of-house operations. FOH, as it is known, encompasses the box office, but also public safety, house staff and management, food service, and overall maintenance of the theatre’s physical plant. If, as in our example, a gift shop exists, it will fall under the responsibility of the person in charge of FOH operations. Before the usher (another FOH employee or volunteer) shows you to your seat, you once again encounter the work of the marketing and public relations department, which wrote, edited, designed, and bought the printing for the playbill (or worked in collaboration with outside designers and writers).

In the age of the Internet, most theatre companies have a website, which may be intricate or simply a single page with contact and show information. For many large regional theatres, a web presence requires constant attention. As a result, these theatres will frequently employ people whose sole responsibility is to maintain and update the theatre’s website.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company has a large staff to maintain its website because, according to Phaneuf, the site is a good way to reach a wide-ranging audience.

“We’re just really conscious of how that affects all of the work that we do,” he says.

That only covers the parts of the theatre administration that you can see. The managing director’s portfolio also includes development (that is, fundraising), financial planning and management, maintaining the physical plant, running the annual season ticket sales campaign, and labor relations.

Bridging the gap

“I fell in love with theatre in high school,” Bielstein tells me. “I just loved the way that producing theatre brings so many people together, in the collaboration that’s there.”

Moore describes his collaboration with artistic director Michael Bloom as a “spider web” of responsibility and interaction.
“The artistic director [is] making decisions that affect the marketing and the fundraising, whereas I’m certainly making decisions in the financial management of the company that affect his ability to select plays and produce them at the level that he thinks they should be produced,” he says. Since the work of the two leaders intersects in such a complex way, Moore believes that it “has to be a partnership in the truest sense of the word.”

The partnership necessarily has a give and take feel to it, with administrative and artistic leaders working together to form strategies. The artistic director, Moore explains, may feel it is important to stretch financially to do a certain play, while the managing director at times finds it necessary to suggest the play be done at a later date because the theatre’s resources are too limited at the moment.

“There is always a tension between what you can achieve financially in a fiscally responsible manner and the aspirations of the artist,” Moore says. “If you wanted one sentence about what it is that I do for a living, it’s trying to bridge that gap. Our job fundamentally is trying not to tell [the artists] no.” But then again, Moore observes, “great creativity comes from figuring out how to do things without money.”

Administrative work in the theatre can be, according to Bielstein, unpredictable. As a result, theatre managers also spend a lot of their time guiding employees, keeping the mission of the organization close at hand.
“It becomes a lot about helping to lead people in their work for the theatre, and also to respond to their needs to allow them to continue to be productive,” she says.

Heading up the business end of a theatre is, in fact, just as much about collaborating with others as is any artistic or technical specialty. It can be a challenge keeping such diversely skilled staff members—let’s say a marketing director and a technical director—focused on, and cognizant of, the idea that they ultimately share the same goal, but in the end it is a challenge worth taking on, says Bielstein.

“We’re all here to produce excellent theatre,” she says.

Paths to a career in theatre management and arts administration

Of those found toiling in the front office, most typically have either educational or professional experience in some other area of theatre. Moore, for example, has a degree in directing and came to arts administration only after several years of holding down a steady job in retail management while moonlighting as a director and actor. In his late twenties and looking to return to school to earn a graduate degree in directing, Moore happened upon a program he had never heard of: arts administration.

“I just knew that was the right course,” he says. Combining his theatre background with his years in management, he earned a master’s degree in arts administration. His work in the field initially led him to Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., where he oversaw years of growth before moving to Cleveland earlier this year.
Bielstein turned to arts administration because it offered the opportunity to connect to the creative atmosphere of the arts while also giving her the kind of job security not often enjoyed by actors, directors, or even technicians.

“I knew that my interests were more on the business side of theatre,” says Bielstein. “I need a job that’s more stable—I’m not the kind of person that can live the life that many artists have to live of continually looking for the next job.”

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bielstein picked up and moved to Chicago to pursue her dream of managing the business of theatre.

“I had to take a risk and decided that Chicago was a great city to live in and a great city to work in theatre.”
With no concrete prospects in her desired field, Bielstein set to work right away establishing contacts throughout Chicago’s theatre community.

“What I really found to be effective in terms of getting work was to set up informational interviews with people at different theatres,” Bielstein recalls. “I talked to anyone from a managing director to a marketing director to a development director and asked them if they would be willing to spend a half hour just talking to me about potential opportunities.”

Bielstein set up interviews with many of the theatres in Chicago’s vast theatre scene, sitting down with managers at the city’s smallest storefront theatres, as well as its bigger, nationally known companies.

“I talked to them about my interests and continued to keep in touch with them over a period of time until jobs arose.”

She also focused on volunteer work that would keep her experience in theatre management diverse, learning fundraising skills and sitting on the board of About Face Theatre. Bielstein’s Chicago plan paid off. After a number of years spent working in the marketing departments for such respected Chicago theatres as North Light and Steppenwolf, she landed her current top spot at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Now that she has found her dream job, she encourages young people who are interested in an arts administration career path to contact her.

“I am always happy to have a conversation with someone that is exploring their career,” she says. “For me, it’s great to be able to identify the future talent.”

Bielstein also believes that those searching out such opportunities demonstrate a passion and interest in the field, especially considering that the financial reward of such work is not particularly lucrative.

For the uninitiated young person, Bielstein also recommends pursuing an internship with an arts organization. “An internship really can be eye-opening, and help a person confirm that it’s for them.”

But perhaps most importantly, Moore advises the burgeoning theatre administrator to go ahead and set out on the journey that begins with a call to the box office. Buy the ticket, park the car, find your seat, and enjoy the show.

“Just go,” he says.

 

Mike Lawler is a theatrical electrician, scenic carpenter, writer, and founding member of the Wisconsin Story Project. This article is part of a series on design and production careers he wrote for Dramatics between 2005 and 2008. For more on backstage jobs, check out Lawler’s book Careers in Technical Theatre, which grew out of his work for the magazine.

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