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So, You Want to Build a Theatre?

Theatre can happen anywhere, but it usually happens in theatres. This is both a burden and a boon. In Boston, where I live, it’s very much a burden. Despite condos mushrooming across town at a record rate, theatres are closing; workspace is limited; and artists are being pushed out of the city. It’s a once-in-a-generation urban boom, but the performing arts aren’t part of it. Urban spaces across the country are growing as quickly as Boston, and it is critical that theatremakers create space for themselves during this historic transition.

Right now, I’m part of a team that just broke ground on two theatre spaces ten minutes from the city—I do development and outreach for Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and we’re renovating two storefront spaces at our home in the Chelsea Theatre Works. I didn’t come into the building process with a background in construction, architecture, or anything particularly useful to the task of building theatres. However, I did have a willingness to learn, and lots of patience. I’d also like to encourage you to replicate what I’m doing.

I was ignorant going into the process, and I often find myself helplessly throwing my arms over my head and losing my cool. In an effort to hopefully save you from some of your own flailing about and lost placidity, I’m going to drop some knowledge and opinions on you to take you through what I learned in this process.

Before we talk about building spaces, we should take a sober assessment of the current situation. Why do I believe that artists should build theatres? The old theatre ecosystem is giving way, and I think what’s happening in Boston exemplifies that. At the beginning of this year, Boston was just getting over the closing of the small Factory Theatre, which was turned into a gym. Now, the Boston University Theatre, the Citi Performing Arts Center, and Emerson’s Colonial Theatre—some of our largest downtown houses—are all in jeopardy. Boston University is selling the BU Theatre. CITI Bank is pulling its sponsorship from the performing arts center, which includes two theatres. The Colonial is already dark, as Emerson College decides what to do with the space. These are all major venues that host Broadway tours and house our most respected companies—combined they total 7,700 seats. Yet these venues aren’t a perfect match for today’s performing arts market, which many of their owners recognize. The old forms of sponsorship and patronage are changing, and so the art palaces of the last century are disappearing as the demand for what a performing arts space looks like transforms.

Is there any hope to see new spaces among the new developments? Like I said, Boston is in the middle of a building boom. The city is slated to gain tens of millions of square feet of space in the next few years. However, most of that space is being developed by a handful of private developers. Developers want a return on their investment, and that means art spaces, which generally aren’t profitable, aren’t part of the new urban fabric. For example, a recent development in Boston’s Seaport District includes less than 10 percent of its square footage as “cultural, educational, and arts.” This doesn’t bode well for theatres.

Art needs a place to happen. You have to be the one to make the space for it. Let’s face it, if you’re reading HowlRound, you care a lot about the performing arts. You care the most, perhaps more than anybody you know. Mobilize that love, and create for yourself the space that you need.

To help make that happen, I’m going to go over three crucial steps in the process to build a physical space for your art to happen: conception, construction, and fundraising.

I’m not going to cover the whole process, and I’m going to leave parts out like the process of architectural design, which is an article on its own. What I’ve outlined are tips that would have been really helpful for me, and were not obvious (at least not to me) at the beginning of this process. I’m also going to take for granted that you already have a space to build your theatre. A storefront, a basement, an empty house, the back of a coffee shop, or a shipping container—any space can become a performance space. But I’m counting on your ingenuity to picture where your space is going to be, OK? OK.

Before a theatre takes up ground space, it should spend some time in headspace. To begin that process, spend some time envisioning how your space functions and who it serves. How will the theatre serve artists and audience members? Begin by asking other artists what they need.

Before a theatre takes up ground space, it should spend some time in headspace. To begin that process, spend some time envisioning how your space functions and who it serves. How will the theatre serve artists and audience members? Begin by asking other artists what they need. Artistic input is invaluable, since so much of what occurs in the theatre depends on workspace. This input will help with your design and planning, and help you create a space for several different art forms and art workers.

Aside from the artists and staff, the theatre should also be an inviting space for an audience. A theatre is different from a restaurant, or store; people come to the theatre to share a singular experience with strangers. The effects of that experience will vary depending on the show and the audience members, but the space is charged with a special kind of alchemy. The audience goes through the same thing at the same time, which forges a connection between audience members. From an architectural and visual standpoint, the theatre should be a place that fosters that alchemy. It is a social space, which is, I daresay, a little enchanted. How will what you are building, and where you are building it, invite and reflect that enchantment?

Outside of the immediate audience members, we should ask: how does the theatre space serve the local community where it is being built? As arts spaces, theatres have different responsibilities that other types of real estate don’t share. Theatres foster and welcome artistic experiences, and the dialogue that surrounds them. In other words, the space itself should be permeable like the art that happens within. But to be permeable, the theatre should be of the community. What is the theatre that you’re building doing for the community wherein you are building it? Consider the dialogue that will inevitably occur when an arts space is now the fabric of a neighborhood. Is it a space where the community feels comfortable? How will you foster community participation, and how will the space itself welcome the community? When people come to the theatre, or leave the theatre, where will they go? In other words, what is the mission of the theatre in its local community?

Finally, how does the theatre serve the wider artistic community? This strategy can be summarized by the business adage, “see a need, fill a need.” For example, Boston has a dearth of workspaces, and lots of small companies with limited resources. So our space is positioned as a co-working space, where small companies can share production resources under a common roof, including meeting space, rehearsal space, shop and storage space, and a black box theatre. How can what you’re doing fit into the wider arts ecosystem? What does the ecosystem need, and what can you contribute? Asking these questions can help you build the foundation for a vital arts space.

a theater under construction
The front space of one of the theaters under construction. Photo by  Joe Oulette.

Construction Planning
Construction isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. However, taking the time and effort to lay the groundwork before construction starts will make it a lot easier, and it will save you money. The process of construction generally goes like this: you find a space; you establish what you want to do with the space (see above); you draw up plans with an architect; and you hire a construction contractor. Then, you apply for permits; you work with the contractor and architect to build the space; you finish the space; and you open the space. These are all complex, iterative steps, and one of the best choices we made was to hire construction project manager to help us along the way. Finding somebody early on who speaks the language of construction and who knows the prices of local jobs will save you from hand-wringing and headaches. Though you probably don’t spend much time swan-diving into pools of gold coins, finding somebody who will work with you who knows the building trades is worth the investment. As in all things, know thy market, even if it means hiring somebody to know it for you.

Taking that into consideration, you should find out the actual price of the project very early in the process—the actual, contractor-quoted price. This is probably the most concrete piece of advice I can give you. With that number, you will have a picture of what you have to fundraise. I went into the process with a lot of great advice and plans we believed were in our budget, but we were myopic. The construction market is booming in Boston right now. Simple economics says that when demand outstrips supply, prices go up. There is more development planned in Boston right now than there are people to build it. Thus, construction is very expensive. Thus, our project’s contractor-quoted price was hundreds of thousands of dollars more than we thought it would be. We bounced back from this by cutting out the things the contractor would do, and making more of an effort to recruit volunteers. However, it probably added six months to our project, which was a drag. Save yourself the time and energy, and find out the price early.

When you’ve found a contractor, have them walk around the space. They will invite a few sub-contractors who carry out specialty trades the contractor doesn’t do and do the same. After a week or two, they will give you a price. This price will be higher than you ever imagined it would be. Has your dad ever complained about what plumbers charge for a simple repair? Well, show him the prices to install a few new bathrooms and watch his head explode—if yours hasn’t already. You’re going to have to find money to get this job done.

How to Fundraise
Where do you find the money?

Great question. To be honest, raising money is hard, but you can make it easier by recognizing and mobilizing people to your cause. Yes, it is about having and making the connections, but by knowing how to approach people, connections will come more easily. I’m going to cover three types of funders that I think a lot of people overlook: government, private, and in-kind.

When you go into the building process, it’s important to make a list of allies. In my experience, some of our strongest allies have been in the city and state governments, especially the city’s office of planning and development and the state development authority. Governmental organizations are interested in the cultural vitality of their communities. However, if you go after municipal money, state money, or even federal money, there are going to be strings attached. You have to prove that you will use taxpayer money responsibly. If you’ve already articulated your theatre’s place in the community, you have a much stronger case for going after local organizations.

If you are an established not-for-profit, or if you have business partners, you can rally donors and investors to the cause. One of the big advantages of private funds is that they’re easy to mobilize; however, private funds require private donors. Where do you find private donors? Another great question, but consider the people who are interested in the community you are creating, as well as the art you are committed to. The coup de grâce is to show off what you want to build. The best place to have discussions with donors is to take them to the space. Share your passion. Let them envision your vision. Stoke their imagination the way yours has been captured.

Alternatively, you can have discussions with donors the way that I have: on the phone in the back room of an Irish bar (true story). While it sounds a little Black Mass to make phone calls asking for money among the empty kegs and tattered Guinness posters in a Boston pub, it adds a sexy edge to the daredevil world of fundraising that makes you irresistible to donors.

Learning how to communicate your conviction is probably the most valuable fundraising skill you can develop, coupled with the courage to ask people for money. Alcohol helps, but assurance of purpose helps even more.

The point here is that when making big asks, you have to feel a lot of conviction, and be ready to deploy it at the slightest notice, even when a potential donor calls you at a cast party in a pub. Learning how to communicate your conviction is probably the most valuable fundraising skill you can develop, coupled with the courage to ask people for money. Alcohol helps, but assurance of purpose helps even more.

Your other allies are, of course, theatre professionals like yourself. How do you mobilize the support of the theatre community? Crowdfunding might work, and is of course a valuable tool to raise money for what you want to do. But a better idea might be utilizing people to do or to build concrete things. The work a group of well-led volunteers can accomplish in six hours can save you thousands of dollars. If your friend is an awesome carpenter, hit them up! Maybe they’ll be able to build you a cool bar, install a door, or three, or frame a wall. It’s amazing what can be accomplished in exchange for pizza and beer. It is important, of course, to have pizza and beer on hand for their effort, most important of all is that they, or whichever community builds it, feels ownership of the space that is created.

Hopefully, this advice, distilled from a year working to build theatre space in a city that sorely needs it, can help you do the same. We need real spaces to make unreal things happen. All art requires abstraction. Theatre, in particular, is the abstraction of human action. It needs a space, a concrete, committed space, for that abstraction to occur. I invite you to be part of that process.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Hi there Trip! I’d love to talk further with you. I’m currently eyeing up a space in which I hope to build a small theatre and some rehearsal/storage rooms for my business I started 7 years ago. It’s a drama school for children. Would you ever consider emailing me or responding with your email? Mine is [email protected]

Many thanks. Enjoyed the article!

Melanie Gillespie

I have a dream to build a theater. I have several drawings that I have made on graph paper...a marketing plan...a following from directing in several venues...but no money. How can I find investors to pitch my vision to? I'm 53 and this has literally been a life-long dream. It's truly my biggest bucket list item and I KNOW I can make it work artistically and financially. Any advice will be appreciated!

Very Much enjoyed this article. I am in the process of designing and building a second theatre (still keeping the first one). Even though I have learned a lot in the past 7 years of planning, designing, funding, building and then struggling to keep the doors open (let alone keep anyone happy...LOL). I ALWAYS take advantage of learning from others. This was good stuff. Its easy to be critical, but the biggest thing I have learned is it takes risk. It takes a LOT of hard work and sacrifice. It takes people who will join you in a crazy quest. And you have to be flexible the entire ride....willing to change your "preconceived ideas on how to make it work" and be open to your audience and cast to find what your community wants and discover what it needs. It would have likely been more helpful if I had read this article before I started -- and had the wisdom to listen to it. Great job -- it can be done people!

Would you be willing to talk to me via telephone about how you made it happen? I have a great vision that I know will market well in this area...but no start up money. I don't really want to post my phone number here...but my email is [email protected]. Please put "theater" in the subject line as I get a lot of email. Any help will be much appreciated!

Great article. I'm currently working on starting a "theater" in San Francisco. If you have any extra time I would love to chat over email with you and ask some specific questions about your theater. Feel free to find me on fb or private message me here.

Well-written and thoughtful - and, yes, idealistic, article. But it was inspiring and, like you said in other comments, you trust us to be adults and realize that this undertaking is HUGE. But to accomplish anything truly incredible, you must dream big and be idealistic, and then support that idea with tons of preparation and executive decisions. But as a poet myself, I need to be inspired on a deeper level if I'm ever going to take on these projects and ideas in my mind, and this article spoke to me. Thank you.

Does Apollinaire pay their actors and staff in pizza and beer?

I appreciate the spirit of this article, and I am all for non-traditional, affordable spaces that bring theatre to communities where they can add cultural value. But the physical act of making a theatre space is a huge undertaking, at any scale. This article dangerously over-simplifies things. We shouldn't be encouraging people to take on capital projects that they can't afford or don't understand.

Hey Reynaldi - this article is a distillation of some of what I've learned. I had to simplify or I'd be writing a book. And a capital project isn't something you go into heedlessly; I trust the readers to be adults and know if they have the capacity for such a project or not. And the fact is, people can understand a capital projects if they are willing and able to take the time, and if they have the right help. Building and managing theatre spaces is not something people go into heedlessly - but neither do they go into it needlessly. As our cities transform, I believe theatre artists should their own best advocates for making the space the art they create. I am trying to give people tools for their toolboxes in order to do that.

P.S. - Apollinaire pays their actors and staff in money.

I love how the author mentions that theatre can happen
anywhere, and in this deteriorating climate of the regional theatre and spaces
that are able to pay artists equity wages (let alone pay artists at all), we
need to “break the system” that we’re so stuck in when making theatre. In the
last few years in Phoenix, AZ, several theatres that were able to pay their
actors Equity wages have shut down. In many situations and markets it’s harder
to get audiences in the seats, and it’s much harder to keep the money flowing
from private and public orgs to the community and the arts. That’s why we, as
theatre artists, need to go to where the audience is, define/create our own
spaces (because theatre CAN happen anywhere), and create work that is socially
engaging and is what audiences want.

Although I think the consideration of creating new theater spaces is an amazing start to the diminishing availability of theater I do have one question that I would like to hear your opinion on. Do the modern formats of theater need new, classically structured spaces, or- considering the push away from old theaters and their funding- should theater be adapting to new types of spaces? I think the problem with creating traditionally styled new theaters, is that is continues to encourage the standard thrust stage separated by a thick fourth wall, when clearly that is not something that is valued enough to keep procuring interest. These are the theaters that are already being underfunded and demolished. While traditional theater is still vital to the growth and inclusion of theater in communities, I have to say we also need to encourage experimental pieces, found site and site specific performances, travelling companies, etc. Thanks so much for the intro!

Hey Kate - I think theatre can and should happen anywhere and everywhere. And I adore site-specific and found space performances. My ideal is a flexible artistic space that supports "traditional" and "experimental" definitions of a performance area. I think it is important, however, that communities have concrete spaces devoted to this art form.

Sr. Venturella- Alcohol helps. Alcohol also kills. This essay may have a few helpful hints about location, but asks the wrong question and arrives at a somewhat poetic but very weak solution. Maybe working in theater another year or two will change your perspective.
Good Luck Don Trip.

Hi, T rip- here's my suggestion for a better question: First: The need: a sustainable
North American theater is disappearing as the gentrification of
cities for the new rich becomes a reality; as the US government
spends billions on arms and munitions for war, there is little money
left for the arts as national priorities.
A better question would be
How can we establish aPublic National Theater, a live theater, fully subsidized by all
levels of government in order to provide full employment for all
theater artists of merit in the United States; meaning those that
have the training, experience, artistic skills and have a history of
bringing theater to the communities in which they live. Priorities,
thereby would be given to mobile theater troupes that represent the
communities they will serve, in ethnicity, language, traditions and
existential issues. Each program would have an educational component
as well.
Grants for capital expenditures will not exist, the emphasis will be on sustained full
employment for personnel working in rented or shared existing public
buildings to be used for rehearsals, office and storage; the way it
is now for many 501c3 non-profits.
Development in thisscenario will be re-defined as increasing involvement with the
community, based not on money, but the quality of the involvement,
artistically as well as socially.
For starters, a review should be made of the efforts in this direction by the Federal
Theater Project of the 1930's under Roosevelt to learn of its
successes and shortcomings.
I also highly recommend the late Herbert Blau's book, The Impossible Theater, an account of the emergence of the San Francisco Actor's Workshop during the mid
1900's and its run at Lincoln Center. I was a student member of the
Workshop in the early days when it performed in lofts and warehouses, before it went downtown or to New York. Both Herber Blau and Jules Irving were my teachers at SF
State College during this period.