A Fresh Start…

So earlier today I went to a meeting of directors for the 2010-2011 season of Theatre Huntsville.  It felt a little weird.  I’ve had an on again off again relationship with Theatre Huntsville since 2000, and I guess that it is currently on again.

Over the past season, I’ve been fairly busy doing things for Theatre Huntsville.  Things like appearing in the 2009-2010 season opener “You Can’t Take It With You,” witnessing the drama (first hand and uninvited) to “Christmas Belles,” helping ever so slightly building the set of “Inherit the Wind,” designing and building the set of “To Gillian on her 37th Birthday” and stepping in as Tech Director for “The Sound of Music.”

Now I’ve even managed to get myself elected to the Board of Directors for Theatre Huntsville.  Again. After 5-6 years. That’s why I was at that meeting today.

It feels odd.  In so many ways, nothing has changed.  And what needs to change is still on everyone’s mind, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.  I redid the Theatre Huntsville website way back when, I’ve helped with the current season re-do as well.  Other continuing issues are Publicity, online ticket sales, lack of community, and negative politics.

I don’t know that anything I have will change any of it.  After a year on the board, the same issues may still be issues, not resolutions or progress.  But in a way, it seems a fresh start.  A chance to go back to something I care about and see if it can be made a little better for me being there.  While remembering that what I think is better, someone else may very well think is a whole lot worse.

So, for those theatre people who happen to read this… here are a few of my ideas.  And the reasons behind them.  Theses are a few things I’ll be working on over the next year, either by actively pushing them or supporting the people who do.

Building Community

For a group all about Community Theater, Theatre Huntsville doesn’t have much of a community.  We have a membership approaching 150, and elected our board with around 36 votes.  We’re constantly begging people to volunteer, and while that’s true in most volunteer organizations, Theatre Huntsville does a poor job of it.  There is a strong divide among the various disciplines… I have no illusion that I can eradicate the age old Tech/Actor divide, but I hope I can lesson it a bit.

Part of the problem lies in the way Theatre Huntsville is organized and maintains itself.  It is currently neither a production company nor a community group.  Instead, it is more like a friendly bank. It doesn’t so much produce shows as lend shows money, backing and insurance to put them on.  There is almost no board oversight into the production values, publicity or marketing of the shows that comprise a season at Theatre Huntsville… in fact, the policies of the organization prevent it.  As a result, a group of talented people are assembled for a show… then they dissipate once the show is over.  That does little to build community.

Ideas for building community:

  • Reorganize the board toward a production company rather than a bank
  • Focus the board on production and community
  • Learn to retain volunteers across shows
  • Build more to Theatre Huntsville than just whatever show happens to be next
  • Change policies that lessen board responsibility and input to shows
  • More parties/socials/get-together

Production Focus First

As I mentioned in Community Building, right now the board is not involved in the production of a show as much as the backer and lender of money for the show.  That needs to change.  Artistic Directors, the people supposedly hand picked by the board to make a show come to life, are giving god-like control over all aspects of their show.  This isn’t fair to either the Director or the organization.

This also puts a great deal of pressure on some very limited resources, causing some fairly significant competition both internal and externally for those resources.  Technical Directors are an example.  There are a half dozen to a dozen active, willing and able technical directors in town.  Of those available, several are wrapped up in specific organizations and are unlikely to work for anyone else.  Of those willing to work with Theatre Huntsville, they get pulled into doing more than one show a year and as a result they burn out and walk away.

My story here is not unique.  The artistic director of “Inherit the Wind” asked me to be technical director of that show.  I’d already committed to doing the technical direction of the following show, “To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday.”  I’m happy another member stepped forward and took over “Inherit” since I ended up technical directing “The Sound of Music.”  That would have been nearly 7 months without a break, and I can tell you right now I need one after only 5 months.  Yesterday I helped build  the set for “A Few Good Men.”  Today, I was asked by two directors to think about Technical Direction for their shows.  (I told both to wait a month or so and ask me again, now is a definite no… minds and times change)

Yet without keeping a stable of ready to work technical people around, you run a serious risk of wildly varying production values between shows.  Theatre Huntsville uses “producers” but the truth is found in the long standing joke, “The producer gets the keys, gets parking passes and gets lunch.”  That can’t continue.  Producers need to do the things that producers do.  Make sure the show is on track.  Make sure the set is up to snuff, the marketing is done on time, the venue is ready and that the actors are happy.  The board should be getting constant updates on all things relating to the board, and be ready, willing and able to step in at any point.

Artistic Directors have a big enough job to do putting together a cast, putting together a crew and putting on a show.  They don’t need the headache of all the additional overhead placed on them by the current policies of Theatre Huntsville.  All that needs to be pulled back into the board, and the board should be on top off them, well informed, and working toward not only the next show, but the next several.

  • Rewriting policy to give the board responsibility for the things that the company should be responsible for.
  • Making the board more responsive to technical directors needs
    • Cleaning out the scene shop
    • New tools
    • maintaining adequate supplies of screws, lumber and flats
  • Instituting technical workshops
  • Outreach to schools for more tech resources (people, students)

Recognition

Fantasy Playhouse has its pins.  Theatre Huntsville as voted on Noah awards.  But no one in town really does the recognition thing well.  I’d like to see Theatre Huntsville change that.

Don’t get me wrong.  I LIKE the Noah Awards.  There is also the Wings Awards, which are more community wide, but only the Noah Awards are voted on by season ticket holders, and I’d rather be judged on my performance as an actor and as a techie by people who go see plays than by judges appointed by the various groups.

But in the end, Noah Awards recognize one person in each category.  Never mind the gal who worked backstage in a non-managerial spot on 5 shows.  Or the guy who showed up to every show to usher.  Or the business that donated lunch to a crew.  Yea, some of them get an ad, or a nod in a program, but that’s not enough.

Instead, Theatre Huntsville should be actively working toward recognizing all those people who pitch in to help.  I don’t know exactly what that recognition looks like right now, but I know that thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars in volunteer man hours goes toward the organization right now that gets little more than a thank you for their time.

Ideas on improving recognition:

  • Cast and crew parties sponsored by Theatre Huntsville for every show, inviting all of Theatre Huntsville not just the cast and crew.
  • Institute a season ending/season opening gala of some sort that isn’t just about awards, but about recognition

The Board

The Board of Directors at Theatre Huntsville has always been a mess.  Even when functioning at 100%, something it has never done that I’m aware of, it isn’t optimal for running a theater production company or a community service organization.  Part of the problem is that in an attempt over the years of “getting the work done” the board has developed a system of compartmentalization, shuffling and policy driven actions that turn the board into a collection of figureheads and do-littles.  This isn’t intentional, and it isn’t an attack, just something I’ve noticed.

For one thing, what happens is the person at the top gets an inordinate amount of pressure to get things done leaving them with little real options to do it.  You can have a tyrant as president, or a compromiser.  Neither are effective.  A tyrant runs people off, a compromiser gets little done.  We’ve had both.

Instead, the board needs to be set up around committees, each focused on specific things.  Those committees should report to a board member who reports to the board.  The size of the board needs to shrink, board members should be required to submit reports not only to the board as a whole, but to the membership as well.  And long term positions within the organization need to be looked at evaluated for refreshing with new blood.

That last, I feel, needs looking into a bit deeper.  I can think of two board positions that are vital to the success of the organization that need to be looked at for fresh blood.  Both are fairly thankless jobs that have been performed by the same person for quite a while.  One is tickets, the other is house manager.

I’d not attack the job done by either of the current chairs of those two positions.  Both have done an amazing job in difficult situations.  Tickets, in particular, has had to put up with a massive shifting of the long term status quo in the past year, dealing with ticketing as we explore alternative venues to the VBC as well as move toward an online ticketing system.  In both cases, a carefully orchestrated and maintained ticket system went out the window, and frankly I both feel for and respect her handling of the massive changes.

That said, while I have no desire to replace either Tickets or House or any other position today, it sure would be smart for us to start looking for and training people to fill in for them tomorrow.  Because relying to heavily on one person is not in a volunteer organization’s best interest.

As for the organization as a whole, I think the board focuses on too many diverse duties without maintaining a focus on our fundamental purpose: putting on great plays.  And that’s not to limit the organization to just producing plays, I think great plays come from being willing to invest in workshops, education and community.  And I don’t think the board is currently organized to do that.

Reorganizing the board ideas:

  • Restructure the boards to focus on key areas
    • Production
    • Finances
    • Volunteer/community
  • Reduction in size
    • Combine positions
    • Increase committee and volunteer involvement
  • Work toward redundancy and replacement

Summary

To summarize, I think that Theatre Huntsville is a good organization, but has the ability to become a great one.  I hope that I can help it along that path by making suggestions where I’m able.  I’d very much like to see some significant changes but am not naive enough to think that those changes can be made easily or quickly.  I hope to see a renewed focus on community and production value, as well as a number of other things I think would be good ideas… such as a new venue (perhaps our own), a capital campaign to raise money, more involvement in the local political powers, and a more visible Theatre Huntsville in the hearts and minds of the valley.  These are all big, sweeping things.  Can they happen?  Yes.  Will they?  Only time will tell.

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5 thoughts on “A Fresh Start…

  1. And maybe the building is cursed. Or mildly haunted with a general miasma. I’m getting started with “The OC” (very excited,) but my first visit inside the building in five years was a big “Blah” vibe. Folks seem to be working hard to stay on top of all the stuff that accumulates, the place seems lest dusty/musty now that it has a new central air system, but the”decorations” have been around in the same places for decades. Maybe a rearranging of the stuff-too-nice-and-treasured-to-trash. Maybe a mural or two inside, an eye-catching color scheme outside (and don’t tell there aren’t TONS of paint there— I helped Nancy haul out 2 truck loads I think during your show.) With the new housing starts popping up to up-lift the neighborhood, the building should start to look more inviting. It’s got a good middle-of-the county location, and now it’ll have real neighbors. I’m hoping as the kids get older, I can do more, too. Good luck, Mike, you’re a good man for the community.

  2. You have a number of really good ideas in this email. I would love to see TH have a real cleaning and paint day this fall with a thought to repainting the building inside and outside (professionally). It would also be great to get a new load of rocks spread out front so that you aren’t parking in the mud/dirt. When there is a true break between shows, clean out the props and costumes. It is time to tag stuff with sizes and just get rid of some stuff. The better the building looks, the more likely you are to get people who want to come out there.

    I love the idea of committees. Would it be a bad idea to have a regular meeting with tech directors and people interested in tech and design before every show gets launched? It should give tech directors new and old to the organization an idea about what is available in the tech shop and for them to bring their designs and talk to other people about what they will need to build it. It really doesn’t have to be formal at all. If you meet someplace that is informal and has beer you can always get a better turnout. It builds the “crew” idea for the organization.

    Just a couple of other thoughts… 🙂

    • A little info for ya!

      The building is getting some long overdue attention. The current facilities person has hired someone who is slowly clearing the property of the overgrown weeds and is about to submit a proposal for parking. (you remember, for the parking that was supposed to have been settled back in 2003-2004) There is a group who is currently working on the costume loft. And there is plans underway to improve access to the loading dock. I’m not saying we are were we should be, but we are farther along than we’ve been in a long while.

      Ive talked with the President about other plans for the building, and I hope to formalize them more as I transition to the board. With the increase in traffic and residential out there, we need the outside to represent the quality of the shows we want to put on. The building is no longer in a forgotten part of town.

      Also, I’ve learned that the property is much more extensive than I previously thought. We have space I didn’t know about, and we should be looking at utilizing that space to our advantage, either through building or subdividing and selling. We’ve got options I was unaware of.

  3. Great thoughts, Mike. Change can be hard, but it takes change to create growth. May I suggest looking at other communities that have accomplished the goals you’ve suggested, and asking them how they did it? I know of several theatre groups in Florida that did manage to raise the capital to purchase buildings that were then transformed into rehearsal/workshop/venue facilities.

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