Nonprofit Theaters – Any port in a storm will do

Non-profit theater performances

Green means go for performing arts and non-profits

For ships at sea, a bad storm can be very dangerous. It is at such times they have to find shelter in any port, even one that they would not normally have entered. For nonprofit theaters, the Scottish proverb "Any port in a storm will do" aptly describes the search for an affordable venue. This edition of 'Green Means Go' examines three examples of nonprofit theaters solving the problem of keeping a roof over their heads.

Executive's note: With respect for your time, Green Means Go posts highlight the salient points and solutions from theaters and nonprofit entities.

Make A Scene

In the struggle to find a home, sometimes a nonprofit must simply state its case to the public in a clear, concise manner, that conveys the value and rationale for underwriting.

Andy Brodie has done just that by writing an OpeEd for the Press-Citizen called 'Downtown Iowa City In Need of a Home for Film'.

Brodie is the co-founder of FilmScene, a non-profit entity in Iowa that is widely considered one of the state's most valuable cultural assets.

The editorial makes the case for why FilmScene should be given various forms of state and municipal assistance in finding a permanent place for its operations. The new facility, The Chauncey, has gained its place among five finalists in a competition by the city of Iowa City. From Brodie's OpEd:

Our primary goal is to operate a full-time cinema in downtown Iowa City to showcase the best in contemporary cinema, including American independent films, foreign films and documentaries, as well as classic film programming. Other key FilmScene program areas will focus on community development and arts education...Without such a venue, Iowa City remains behind the curve, but FilmScene represents an opportunity for Iowa City to become a regional leader by creating a home for film lovers and filmmakers alike.

The frank and honest words written by Brodie are an excellent example of how any nonprofit can get public support for their endeavor. FilmScene has spent years cultivating its vision for a base of operations, establishing partners and reaching out to fellow nonprofit entities working in the same medium, long before this public appeal.

The OpEd ends with a call to action for the public to read in-depth about The Chauncey on the FlimScene website and judge for themselves what benefits the community may expect.

As of this writing the Iowa City city council has been holding hearings and taking into consideration the other four proposals. The story is still unfolding, but inspiration can truly be found by performing arts theaters and related non profits also in need of a venue to call their own.

Doth Protest Too Much?

Once a performing arts theater has a home, the long term challenge is keeping it. A recent ruling by a superior court judge in Washington D.C. has made that a bit more difficult for one nonprofit theater.

In Nelson Pressley's 'Shakespeare Theatre doth protest Lansburgh rent increase' we learn that the Tony award winning Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) lost its bid to not have the rent on their theater raised.

The hearing was described as "acrimonious" and the landlord's motive as "nefarious" but the harsh dollar amount that are the point of contention may give any theater owner pause. From Pressley's report:

The STC’s lawyers wondered aloud whether Lansburgh Theatre, the nonprofit “supporting” organization that the STC says isn’t very supportive anymore, is now trying to commercialize the theater space.

The theater is contesting a proposed rent increase and potential eviction from its longtime home from $70,000 to $480,000 annually...Lawyers for the LTI and for Graham Gund, the designer-developer and owner of the Lansburgh, claimed that the STC is using income from the Lansburgh to support the theater’s operations in its larger venue two blocks away, Sidney Harman Hall. They also charge the Shakespeare troupe with being unwilling to undertake millions of dollars worth of needed repairs, a nuanced issue that, like everything else, was contested Friday.

That huge increase in rent, if not stopped by the court proceedings will most likely cause STC to either move to another venue or be forced to increase ticket prices to an unsustainable amount.

Moving would not only be expensive, the disruption in scheduled performances would erode the public's trust and a downward spiral begins. The location in dispute has been an operational theater for the performing arts for 25 year and the satellite locations are being rented out serve as a source of revenue to fund future performances.

"The show must go" as they say, and STC will continue its fight to maintain its home while staring down the potentially disastrous rent increase. Theaters and nonprofit who find themselves in a similar situation can reach out to Shakespeare Theatre Company for advice and moral support. STC's contact information is one the website

Best Kept Secret

Dog Story Theater logo

The theater company responsible for producing performances is also responsible for operating the building. The clash of Art with pedestrian things like plumbing and construction work can dilute the cultural enrichment the public receives.

As a possible solution to the problem, one should look to the "pure facility" efforts of a nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Not a traditional theater "troop", in that members do not perform, Dog Story Theater operates only the physical venue itself, and has an ever rotating list of performers that they invite to use the space. The disconnect between venue and talent was recently recognized with a "Best Kept Secret" award.

Charlsie Dewey describes how Dog Story operates in an interview with the owners:

Recognizing a viable opportunity, the foursome opened Dog Story Theater as a nonprofit in 2007 to provide a venue for themselves and others with similar needs. “We don’t actually produce any work,” said Amy McFadden, Dog Story co-founder. “We are absolutely just a venue. We provide the space, equipment and box office services and some publicity. Basically, we are there so that other people can do their art."

After bouncing around a bit, Dog Story relocated to downtown a couple of years ago, and the move has paid off tremendously.

Dewey's article continues on with some real-world financials:

During its time downtown, Dog Story has quickly become an integrated part of the community-theater scene, with many performers taking advantage of the venue’s lower costs. During the past year, the theater booked 42 weekends, and going into 2013 it only has eight weekends that are still available, two of which are the Christmas and Fourth of July weekends. Attendance also has grown by 5 percent, which is the theater’s yearly goal for growth.

The variety of performance types held at the Dog Story venue is part of its success. By not being limited to any single genre or act, the theater always has that "newness" factor to it, which keeps the public coming back for more (and buying tickets!). The variety of entertainment is hinted at on the Dog Story website.

Dog Story works with companies like Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, PowerDiva Productions (featured image of this post), Playbox Media Group and Grand Rapids Dance Project. They have hosted the debut of the Rita & Velvet Dan movie and featured musical acts like The Interruptions and even hosted the Creolization live CD recording. Dog Story has been the home to [comedy] shows like Old Lady Monday, The Rita & Velvet Dan Show and is currently the home of The Pop Scholars.

Such a tapestry almost ensures a busy box office. It is acknowledged that it is not always possible for a theater to completely separate the building from the performers, but when looking to maintain long term success, such a disconnect should be at least be considered.

Having a roof over one's head is an on-going struggle for nonprofit theaters. The search for a home, like the examples in this post, strain the precious few resources available with no guarantee that ticket sales alone will cover all the costs. One way to lessen the burden is for a nonprofit theater to make the request for  donations part of the ticket purchase process.

ThunderTix has easy-to-use tools for adjusting ticket prices on an as-needed basis, plus we do not charge per-tickets fees. Better still we specialize in online ticket sales for theaters and nonprofits with features like custom reserved seating charts and nightly deposits. If your nonprofit theaters current ticketing system doesn't provide the tools to fine tune ticket prices to meet short term supply and demand as well as your long term business goals, allow us show you our solution by watching a video demo.

What is 'Green Means Go'? ThunderTix’s commitment to The Arts doesn't end with a sold out performance. We want to help theaters, big and small, meet their operational goals by sharing new ideas and best practices for accepting donations and increased ticket sales. 'Green Means Go' is a series for performing arts theaters and chronicles the latest developments in fundraising, event awareness and ticket sale technology.

The previous installments in this series include:

5 Big Funding Announcements For Performing Arts Theaters

Should Theaters Use Dynamic Pricing?

Green Means Go for Performing Arts Theaters