I Started My Own Company, Failed Miserably, and I’m Eternally Grateful
It's so tempting for playwrights to want to self-produce in this day and age. This series seeks to show people how to run a theatre company into the ground so that they can learn from my mistakes.
In my last semester of college, I got the idea to start my own not-for-profit theatre company, Fronkensteen Experimental Theatre Company. I was young and cocky coming out of college and wanted to take charge of my career. In the small town where I was born and raised, theatre jobs were extremely rare and never dreamed of the fact that I was going to move. So I did what I thought any young artist with a Bachelor's degree in a small town should do. I took all my money and called as many friends that I could get and started a theatre company in the worst way possible way: put all your money in a pile, dig out all of your old plays from your undergraduate playwriting class, and keep producing them until the money runs out. I would be the artistic director and I would direct all the plays and produce any play that I, or one of my friends wrote. Little did I know that this journey that started off on the worst foot possible would lead me down a road where I made just about every mistake in the book (a book on theatrical production that I wish I had read before I started).
At the end of the two-year period, I had put on six productions, started two or three that had to be cancelled, sank multiple paychecks with no hope of recoupment, and lost countless friendships. Our nice little not-for-profit was disbanded by the government and my grandmother’s shed was full to the brim with old set pieces and props; her backyard was stained with paint from many frantic painting sessions in the dead of the night. I was financially and emotionally bankrupt. This company had failed and it was all my fault.
However, I realized that this lesson in failure had taught me more lessons than any class could have ever taught me. Over a two-year period, I learned everything not to do when producing a show. And learning what not to do is one of the most valuable lessons you’ll ever learn. I also learned that people respect stories about what you learned from failure way more than how you succeeded from blind luck.
Find more places where you can possibly fail. If all you do is pick places where you’ll always succeed, you’re not growing or stretching yourself. Know your limits, but don’t back away from risks.
I also learned something that every good scientist and academic knows already. Scientists will say that any experiment that lends data is a successful experiment. In the theatre what you learn is that any production that lends experience is successful. And it was that experience that paid out in spades in the start of my career.
I started the theatre company to give myself a job and to expand my resume. Not only did I get a good resume, but I also got a great quality and depth of experience. I found that even though I considered myself a failure, people wanted the kind of guy with that experience on his resume. With that resume I got my first professional job as a production manager. That experience paid off well when I was able to see the potential mistakes in the future before they were made and avoid them. And when I told the crew that they really shouldn’t go down a certain path they knew that I was speaking from a position where I had been there and done that and knew exactly the chaos that would happen if they did it. I wasn’t always listened to, but I knew that my opinion was respected. It was nice to know that if I told someone I knew how to do something, they could take it to the bank.
What I’ve learned is that the demise of Fronkensteen isn’t a personal failure for me. Theatre companies fail every day. But all of the personal and professional failures that I’ve encountered have been learning experiences where I’ve grown as a professional and as a person. Failure was not the impediment to my career it was the vehicle I drove in to get where I am today.
That’s what I’d encourage every young artist to do. Find more places where you can possibly fail. If all you do is pick places where you’ll always succeed, you’re not growing or stretching yourself. Know your limits, but don’t back away from risks. You’ll learn that when you look back on your experience that you’ll be surprised by the new skills that you've learned, and that you have the capacity to accomplish a great many things. And you would have never gotten there if you hadn’t have failed miserably at first.