Monday, April 26, 2010

Ford Tough


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Jonathan Reuning.

Last year, because the mortgage market collapsed and it seemed our country was facing the next Great Depression, many theater companies stopped producing shows and started producing fundraisers. Some trimmed their expenses by showcasing work in festival venues that offered brief but less expensive performance opportunities. Some abbreviated their regular seasons while others suspended operation entirely to wait out the recession. Some took a gamble and charged up their MasterCard and took advantage of industry discounts. A year later these combination of strategies allowed ailing OOB a chance to rebound.

I recently read how Ford Motor Company’s reputation for fiscal conservatism was popularly ridiculed for being out of touch with the day’s risk rewarding financial strategies. Of course we now know that Ford was the only US automaker able to decline government bailout money. Their reluctance to outsmart their own balance sheets rewarded them with a huge advantage over their crippled competition. What’s more, instead of being complacent at the top of a shifting heap Ford heavily promoted the value of their products. Some experts believe that Ford’s momentum will keep them dominant for decades.

“OOB and the recession” is my guest blogger topic which sounds pretty ominous but I’m excited to explore it. I think there are probably some lessons to take away from our experiences. It is hard to imagine any small venue theater professional unaware of the negative impact the economy has had on small (and large) theater companies, but you know….It might surprise some to learn that during these most challenging 12 months there were some companies that did more than survive. They flourished. I can’t talk about specific US clients but I’ll say it again, many companies brought in record audiences. They maintained or increased their financial stability during our worst economic year in memory.

How were they able to stay in the game? Did OOB companies that also operated as fiscally conservative businesses take leaps forward? How much luck is involved vs. strategic planning? Aren’t Indie companies supposed to be art smart but maybe a little business-stupid? Possibly, but I’ve never seen it. Would love to hear how you are outsmarting the recession. Also, what you would have done differently if you’d had a year or two with advanced knowledge of the economic downturn.



  1. I can't say for sure if Retro Productions has exactly flourished (that implies a great leap in audience and funding at the least), but while our fundraising has suffered visibly from the recession, our audiences have held steady. This time out (THE DESK SET opens in 2 weeks) we've seen a bump up in online TDF ticket sales, which I mostly attribute to the median age of the TDF patron aligning very nicely with the choice of play at a time when TDF has made it easier than ever to purchase tickets as a member. Or it might be that we got some really lovely notices for our last production, HOLY DAYS.
    If I'd known... hard to say, I may not have chosen THE DESK SET (the largest production we have ever attempted, in both cast size, design and budget) but I'm not sure we would have seen the boom in sales if I hadn't. I probably would have gone for some four character/four costume no set sort of thing instead and who knows? maybe that would have been the end of Retro Productions!

  2. Heather, it helps that your productions are consistently outstanding. Your audiences are building because you continue to do remarkable work. Keep it up and you will see both the flourish in your audiences and your fundraising.

    Jonathan, it is my humble opinion that due to the rising costs of Broadway and Off Broadway, OOB may have seen an increase in ticket sales to balance their loss of funding. Also, organizations like ART/NY, LIT, NYIT and TDF helped to create awareness to the bumpy financial road OOB was about to face. This awareness helped create some meaningful relationships with key political figures in NYC which should continue to benefit OOB long after the recession is over. Fingers crossed.

    As far as the art smart business-stupid comment, I think all of us in the industry don't feel OOB is business stupid but are making big things happen with very little resources. We tend to focus on getting the production up and neglect certain things like marketing. It is just low on our list of priorities so we tend to use the same marketing channels time and time again keeping us from using our creativity to discover new possibilities.

    With that said, I think we all stepped out of this recession with a new word. That word is partnership. Find a company to partner with, use each others resources and succeed together. Build and strengthen the community together, not as individuals. Those who developed these partnerships had a much easier time surviving and the practice should not end because we can again stand alone.

  3. Robert, thank you for the lovely compliment. I like to think that each Retro Production is better than the last. So far, anyway, I believe that has been true.

    Although I will say that what I've seen is RP has been forced into ever larger budgets not just by the material we choose but also by this economy. Rights went up $15 a performance last year and space rentals continue to climb. I think friends and family have less to donate and are getting fundraising fatigue. It's a bad mix.

    I agree with you about marketing, there are many things I might do, including marketing and advertising, if I had more money. But me, I'd start by paying my actors. Isn't that a lovely dream? How lucky have I been that so many talented and lovely people have wanted to do the work for the sake of the art and not a paycheck? I am deeply, deeply indebted to them.

  4. Robert, loved that you mentioned the political part of the equation to help OOB/OB not just survive but thrive. I'm crossing my fingers with you that the political will to recognize the value of NYC Theater doesn't fade with the recession.

    Heather, you gotta love where David Pincus and the community boards are going in terms of giving tax breaks to landlords to keep the theater rent down. i know they're focused on breaks for non-profit companies but I hope somehow it is also extended to for-profits 'cause I know plenty that make great art and could use the same breaks.

  5. Well, screw that. The blog just ate my comment.

    I'll try to reconstruct: I think the recession has made companies more choosy about the work they produce. If they've only got ONE shot in a season, then they have to bring their best. And, times are ALWAYS tough in off-off. Unless you're funding a theater yourself because you are independently wealthy, it's ALWAYS about going hat-in-hand to donors and using your brains to make the best of whatever you get when you decide to go into production.

    The other thing that I've noticed happens during a recession is that there are more empty spaces around to be occupied & pioneered by companies (which of course they'll lose when the economy gets better!)

    And, when times are tough, I've noticed more risk-taking, as if "what have we got to lose? Not our funding!" And movements can and do make great leaps forward when people are hard-pressed to make something of the bad times.

    Kathleen W.

  6. Kathleen, AWESOME insights. I love that the same recession that can knock us out of spaces perhaps offers new opportunities to negotiate new spaces. My friend Paul Adams of EAT used to (or maybe still does) habitually tour neighborhoods for unoccupied spaces - not just performance spaces but store fronts etc - looking to get a home for his company. we was successful too. Over a decade and a half EATs had many homes but has never been homeless.

  7. Kathleen, it just ate mine too! Or maybe it is on delay. Anyway my comment was very profound - you'll have to trust me. No, i was just saying how I love your comment about the recession offering ops to find fresh spaces and perhaps landlords open to lowering rents to improve the quality of his property and neighborhood.

  8. I manage the American Bard Theater Company. Artisitc Director mary Riley and I created the company in June 2009 as a response to economic downturn. We assembled a group of like-minded classical actors with additional skills (some can sew, some can build sets, some have a knack for PR, some can balance accounts, some have friends with deep pockets...)and we set out to procure performing opportunities for ourselves. We are currently performing our 2nd show -- Much Ado About Nothing -- until May 1 at the CSV Center. It's great to meet you all. Heather: I have received a postcard for "The Desk Set" in the mail. I love the design. I wish you all the best in your upcoming run!

  9. Erin, Yeah, I was passing through the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center recently and snuck a peek at your set. It looked great. Such a HUGE playing area. My acting days rushed back to me and suddenly I was dying to do Shakespeare again. Now if only I could only bring back how to remember lines again. And your description of how American Bard (Great name) got together may ring familiar with a lot of performance groups. I have to say also that "Friends with deep pockets" is probably the most beautiful sentences in the English language to a young (or establish)company.

  10. Hey J,

    I know you asked me to write a little about our work at Jimmy's and how we started to work there to try to find a way to bust the constant worry about money thing and the recession in the face a tad and turn it into a positive, so here's some thoughts on that hopefully and sorry if this sucks cause I always feel like an idiot with these things. Thanks so much again though man and hope all's great.

    D :)


    With the rising cost of producing in the city and the downturn in funding I found that we were all doing a lot more fundraising and money stuff than actually getting to work together producing new plays. I became very sad about all this and wanted to find a way for us to be able to do new work for a lot less money that let us focus on creating theatre and not fundraising. I know it probably sounds stupid and simple, but for us it was just a mind shift - we wanted to find a way to create the highest quality theatre we could for as little money as possible.

    Since we started working at Jimmy's we've done almost no fundraising and produced 10 new plays in the last few years. We have almost no budget and have just taken that mindset into everything we do, more or less as a really fun and unique challenge for us all. We figured that for the most part we've all been lucky enough to be able to make our living as actors, directors, playwrights, etc. and that at least in some part of our lives as theatre artists we didn't want money to be such a dominant and prevailing thing. The main way we've done this is through our work in the small back room space at Jimmy's No. 43, where the space itself serves as the foundation for the all the plays that we do there. That way we have a wonderfully theatrical environment that all the plays are commissioned for, and are born out of, that also serves as the set, the lighting and almost another character in the plays. We go out of our way to try to be grassroots and innovative about everything, and at the end of the day almost all of our costs come down to insurance, paying the actors’ transportation for Equity, a few printing of flyers, and some other extra odds and ends. This has led us to all have a chance to be on equal footing and have the home base in between other jobs that we all wanted so badly and to focus on actually getting to make theatre and not constantly having to worry about raising the financial minimum to do a single play on the showcase code. I realize that this approach is absolutely not for everybody, or for the type and scope of work that many companies want for their theatres, but for us it's worked really well and helped us get more creative and turn the increasing problem of funding and the recession into an immense plus. It’s also most importantly put the simple joy of doing storefront, basement theatre in New York back into our work again.

  11. Daniel, I knew you'd have something incredibly interesting to say. (Amazing playwright and actor, this guy.)I don't know if Rising Phoenix Rep is ultra Zen or ultra conservative or both with its ethos of frugality. In a Zen way you're looking at everything around you as one big resource to help you express your art. You run your company as a conservative business in that you use your available resources to the max while not exposing it to financial risk. Perhaps the way your company is most like Ford (sorry, sticking with the theme of this blog post) is your belief in your process and product and your pride in offering it to the world. Hey, and by the ultimate and most important standard, your own, your company and art is thriving. You just gave me an idea for my next post. Thanks man!

  12. Daniel, I'd love to know what kind of money Rising Phoenix Rep is spending. I haven't had the pleasure yet of seeing one of your productions, although I am aware of you guys. The bulk of any Retro Productions budget is space rental... I just find rehearsing in a rehearsal room gets a quality production and is worth the expense when you see the final outcome, then of course rental of a theater, which for the types of theater we generally do, is something we can not do without. We did the Chashama storefront on 42nd for our first production, but there is no way we could have done most of our productions that way.

    When you look at a typical Retro budget and then you look at the productions, I think most people would be shocked to discover that approximately 60% of it went to rental, 10% to rights, 5% to AEA stipends, and 10% to administrative and printing costs leaving only 15% to the physical production! Occasionally a company member will ask me (usually when it's time to fundraise) why we don't do less costumes and scenery to save money. First of all I tell them if we did that it wouldn't be a RETRO production... I believe in the collaboration between designers, directors and actors. Second of all I tell them, so that saves us, what, maybe a grand in the long run? And that is if we literally do no scenery, pull costumes out of actors wardrobes and have not props whatsoever. And, oh, by the way, we do all period work, so costumes out of the actors closets isn't usually an option beyond maybe a pair of shoes or a string of pearls.

    It's that 60% (sometimes more!) in rentals that kills us... Daniel, how does Rising Phoenix do it?

  13. Heather, Daniel, this is an important conversation. Please check out Mercedes Rules and continue...

  14. My Friend Julian wrote this comment and e-mailed it to me. He's promoted theater in the UK and is currently promoting Rock and Roll band: J you know my experience is based on co-producing plays in England and Malta years ago. Not really relevant in these times or is it? With these postings I'm impressed with the initiatives shown, with the nimbleness, with the business creativity, with the concern for the product presented, with the cost cutting measures and with the survival instincts. Really impressive to say the least.

    I have only one observation having re-read these comments over again. I can't find any mention of the theatre goer. The paying customer. How to attract them in down times with little or no money available. One small example In a previous life.... we used to welcome the customers when they arrived. Asked them if they were enjoying the show at half time and saw them out at the end thanking them for coming. We all know the value of getting good word of mouth comments when our paying customers talked to their friends the next day.

    I can't remember when any big theatre or small theatre welcomed me when I arrived or wished me well at the end. I think on the occasions you and I have been to OOB productions this has been the exclusive preserve reserved for friends and family. Or theatre people thanking theatre people. But heck I could be wrong.

    I do know that on Broadway I have yet to meet a friendly theatre reservations person. Many of the ushers must have been hired from the body that issues parking tickets etc. The only time Broadway reaches out to touch the regular audience is that time when after the performance one of the stars of the show gives a witty and concerned speech on behalf of actors less fortunate than her or himself. Then on the way out there is audience interaction when a paying customer puts some money in a collection jar for this deserving cause and in return gets a smile and a thank you from a supporting cast member.

    There might be a lesson tucked away here somewhere.......perhaps a lesson that's not star dependent. One lesson might be..... that if you haven't won it in the streets you haven't won it. Certainly in the rock music biz these day which has gone through and is going through tumultuous change it's all about creating a following fan by fan from the bottom up. Now the fans have the power not the labels. No more " the people shall have not what they want but what's good for them " to quote Oliver Cromwell.

    Jonathan keep up the good work my friend. Got to get back to my never ending band endeavors. J

    PS Of course Alan Mulally CEO of Ford knew the value of a satisfied customer and built this into his turnaround plan.

    On February 2, 2009, WOOD-TV News in Grand Rapids, MI reported that Mulally personally called Michael Snapper, a customer who recently chose to purchase a Ford Fusion Hybrid over the Toyota Prius that he originally intended to buy. He left a voicemail on Michael's mobile saying a personal thank you from the CEO.