In 2005, after doing a couple of shows at the Altarena Playhouse, I was invited to serve on their Board of Directors, ostensibly because as a computer science professional I might be able to help the theater in non-artistic ways as well.
Ever since, I've been learning "the business of show" as it applies to small nonprofit theaters, both on Altarena's board and through formal and informal relationships with other small theaters. [Update: as of June 2013 I’m no longer on the Board there, but I’m still involved as an Advisory Board member.] Altarena is in a good place now, though along the way mistakes were made, angst endured, and organizational churn weathered—and though every theater's circumstances are somewhat different, I was inspired by Jim McCarthy's similar-in-spirit blog to write about what I've learned so that maybe someone will get something useful out of it regardless.*
It's no revelation that the economic environment for the arts has never been great, but for small theaters I think it's particularly tough. We have lots of volunteers, yet there always seems to be a shortage of manpower, in part because the tasks involved often require specialized skills or continuity of commitment. There are lots of audiences out there, but also lots of competition (especially in places like the Bay Area where I live), so getting butts in seats is a never-ending endeavor. Most theaters with budgets under $500k/year already rely on fundraising for 50% or more of their income, so raising money is high on everyone's agenda, but with so many arts organizations clamoring for money it can be hard to be heard. And in all these categories, there are seemingly so many "opportunities"—grant programs, publicity channels, discount-ticket outlets, "free" advertising—that it's easy to get carried away only to realize you've now taken on even more work for which you have insufficient manpower.
At Altarena we struggled with this like everyone else. Altarena is very strongly a "community" theater: it had been in Alameda for nearly 70 years, and had a subscriber base comprised largely of loyalists who had been with the theater for decades. When I joined the Board, our subscriber base had eroded from a high of around 700 a few years before to a low of less than half that. Subscribers were aging and not being supplemented by younger theatergoers, and the theater had acquired a reputation as the kind of place whose material appealed solely to the older generation and whose lobby décor was correspondingly dowdy and dated.
Much has changed since then, but I think in retrospect a key to turning things around on the business side was to really understand our "brand"—what it is we do differently and (IMHO) better than other comparable theaters that keeps people coming back. This sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it took us awhile to figure out how to make it concrete. And once that was done, we needed ways to stay in touch with those people and move them along the "patron lifecycle", that wonderful process by which someone who went to your theater on a lark because of a free or discount ticket eventually becomes a subscriber, donor, and even a Board member within a year of their first visit to the theater. (This really happened to us.)
Anyway, what you can expect if you keep reading is some details about what we did right (and wrong) in the process of making that happen, in hopes they might be useful to you. Stay tuned.
*(Full disclosure: one of my contributions to the theater is Audience1st, a backoffice/CRM/ticketing system designed specifically for the needs (and budgets) of small theaters. This blog isn't "advertainment" for Audience1st, but it's fair to say that the stories and experiences I relate are directly responsible for its features and design.)