Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stolen Chair: When a new business model makes you get better at your business

Dearest Entrepreneuristes (my terrible attempt at coining a term for artist-entrepreneurs),

Stolen Chair's ERPA project, the Community Supported Theatre (CST), has certainly kept us more than a little bit busy. We're now fully halfway through the pilot season of the CST and we can take this opportunity to reflect a little bit about the journey. One of the reasons we were granted implementation funds from ERPA was the tight link between our mission and our project. At its core, the CST simply transforms what was usually a major drain on our financial resources (new play development) into a revenue stream by opening access to the experience and sharing it with a small community of audience-investors. Given how closely aligned this project is with our general play development process, we have found it, therefore, surprising how very much the CST is transforming the way we approach our work. The monthly meet-ups with our CST members have forced us to improve in a skill-set critical to our artistry: curating audience experience.

In the past, we only really had the opportunity to interact with an audience during our self-produced runs of our new plays. These interactions were always under many different types of duress. Cramped in a space we had little control over, we would have a few minutes to usher hordes of people into our performance space, a harried interaction that might not provide the best opening act for the performance itself. While we certainly thought about the dramaturgy of the audience's experience of the play, we ignored how these other elements (front-of-house, intermission, post-show) might influence and likely detract from said experience.

Now, once a month--every month--we have to shape an entire evening of audience engagement in which only a very slender portion is our actual performance work. There is food, drink, lectures, q&a's, films, and lots of discussion. As a company, we have to have many many many conversation about how best to weave all these elements together so the experience is whole, the take-away is clear, and the event satisfies both our desire for creative feedback and our membership's desire for interaction. Beyond that, we've had to mobilize all of our organizational abilities to be sure that when our members arrive, they are entering a space that is ready to welcome them.

On the field trip we took to New Paltz during our ERPA r&d phase, I spent a lot of time thinking about how the drive up to the drop-off point of various CSAs was a major factor in each CSA's specific character (and in a town with the most CSAs per capita in the world, "specific character" is a primary selling point). While we can't do much to make it more appealing to travel to a midtown rehearsal studio on a Sunday night, 5 months of CST has helped us learn how to make sure that once our members step through the door, we can treat them to an evening in which they can relax into the experience of being sated with theatre, food, and conversation.

As an entrepreneuriste (not gonna work, is it?), how can you shift your business model so that it capitalizes on things you do well while also encouraging you to get better at the skills essential to your craft?

Jon & the Chairs

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