Thursday, August 12, 2010

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant: Economic Revitalization Report Card

We are now at the end of the 18-month period that Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant spent in the ERPA program. The timely award came at the beginning of 2009, when we were a little over two years old, and allowed us to fully experiment with building an artist-driven ensemble theatre company using the financial model of a food service business. So, how did we do?

The implementation grant provided us funds to invest in one-time costs, such as kitchen equipment and service items, so that we could operate our kitchen with greater efficiency and capacity, host longer runs, and spread out the overhead costs of our temporary restaurant. More profoundly, though, the grant has furthered our process of self-determination by giving us the means to try out different ways of existing – self-producing, participating in theater festivals, hosting private events, and partnering with club venues. First, we were able to test our ticket pricing model and to expand the length of self-produced runs in our developmental home, the Bushwick Starr, a theater space where we have access to a residential kitchen. Second, we were able to increase visibility by mounting our logistically challenging at Joe’s Pub, Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory Festival, and the American Repertory Theater’s club theater space in Cambridge, OBERON.

Ticket Income: B+

We price our theater tickets according to the model set by the food service industry: at four times the food and beverage costs. The payment for the theater is in the margin, and it is more than we are used to getting from ticket sales in the not-for-profit theater. Our goal is to cover all production costs with ticket sales, and we usually sell out our self-produced runs by carefully managing the frequency of our performances and cultivating a loyal return audience base that has grown slowly from word of mouth.

Restaurant 101 teaches you to keep the ratio of fixed or overhead costs (rent, insurance, etc.) low relative to the costs of doing business. Because, as a traveling ensemble, we incur a new set of fixed costs for each event, the longer we run, the better we are able to spread out these costs over multiple performances. In the two self-produced runs we held during this period at the Bushwick Starr, where the fixed costs of a run were well-known, we raised ticket prices and increased the run from 2 nights to 3. By doing so, we were able to cover the event costs completely with ticket sales.

When you take the show on the road, this is nearly impossible. At Joe’s Pub we did not make food and the ticket split for our huge cast meant that we did not pay artists. With the added costs of transportation, housing, and a new, unknown audience, we were unsuccessful in selling or meeting our costs with ticket income at OBERON.

Cost-Control: C-

Restaurant 101 also teaches you that, because it is a business with limited distribution (you can’t do better than sell out), profitability is all about cutting costs. We translated this lesson by budgeting backwards as much as possible from 85% capacity. Since the restaurant industry goal of controlling the cost of labor directly conflicted with my personal goal of paying artists, our remaining course was to keep food and production costs down.

After articulating this goal, we promptly and intentionally broke it. As opportunities lined up for us to gain visibility, garner press, and reach a larger audience, we knowingly spent more money than we could make in ticket sales because we felt it was a necessary leap to make in our growth. We added designers and a design, brought in more performers, and incurred significant new costs such as travel and housing.

My instructions to cut food costs also came at a time when I was being indoctrinated into the Slow Food movement. As we became more sophisticated, principled, and experienced in food service, we sourced premium, locally grown, more expensive ingredients. We did not decrease food costs but we did keep them steady (at approximately $10/head), while at the same time improving quality, by managing quantities better and planning menus more carefully.

Artist Fees: B

A nice fee for a cater-waiter clocking in at five hours including setup and strike would be $120 per event. We have not yet achieved this. For our last self-produced run in Bushwick, all participants—actors, designers, stage manager—continued to be paid at $50 per performance. At OBERON, the actors were paid $100 per performance.

The ensemble never pushed for fees, but I wanted to acknowledge the costs of doing this work. I began paying actors fifty bucks a show when we did our second performance on New Year’s Eve Eve of 2007. Although “paying” is the wrong term … more like: “the least that I could ethically offer to any actor in recognition of the hidden costs of participating in any rehearsal and performance process, such as on-the-go meals and the occasional cab fare.” I vowed that I would not raise fees until I was confident that we would be able to sustain them. I hoped that that would come at the next show. It came exactly three years later. Most of the artists in our ensemble have already solved the problem of supporting themselves in some way. They are here because they have creative ownership of the project. More important than fees were better costumes, strong sound, lights, and set elements, spending more time in rented rehearsal spaces, improving our food service, spending on test meals, site visits, marketing, hiring a production manager to help us manage time, bringing in a design team to further our vision, and finally bringing in an outside director to streamline our process. My wage-earners are also the artistic decision-makers, so, following their interest, I paid them less and added production costs in the only available area we had to cut. Keeping the staff happy actually meant paying them less and providing a more satisfying artistic vehicle for them.

I have purposefully separated the writer from the performer in this compensation equation. Performer fees are tied to event income with us. We do not compensate for writers’ meetings, which are voluntary, but which are the heartbeat of our company. We are in the process of putting together a collaborative writing agreement and figuring out a licensing agreement so that if any compensation were available for our multiply-authored work in the future, there will be a channel already established for delivering such compensation. In our company, the actors perform the functions of writers and cater-waiters (granted, cater-waiters who deliver food with a certain signature charismatic flourish). My goal is to compensate each function appropriately, according to its income source. Writing is a product with unlimited distribution that cannot be paid on the clock. Performing and delivering food within a given period of time can be charged for by the hour.

Basically it boils down to some choices we have made. We chose visibility over compensation this year. We chose growth over sustainability, and as a result our show has been picked up for another out of town run, where artists will be paid competitive fees.

Sustained Inspiration: A-

Since starting this project, the individuals in our ensemble have had four weddings, several major surgeries, a new tenure-track teaching job, a Broadway debut, an acceptance into graduate school, and we now have a baby on the way! This December 2-18, we are taking the show to the Cleveland Public Theatre, with a group consisting of our full production staff and half of the acting company. As in the past, generosity and flexibility are what afford us sustainability.

We will use our knowledge and experience from the past three and a half years to write new content, explore new characters and new relationships between characters. I am very excited about it personally and feel that it is completing the gesture we have worked towards in terms of growth, visibility, and bringing the show to a wider audience. It will combine the two greatest tests of endurance we have had to date: the one-night a week, month-long marathon at OBERON and the four-night, week-long sprint at the Ice Factory Festival last summer. I will, out of necessity, explore new ways of partnering with local vendors and restaurants and integrate them into the piece. I am particularly excited about contributing our energy to the burgeoning Slow Food movement in Ohio.

After Cleveland, I look forward to settling into a more lucrative structure for Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, focusing on sustainability rather than growth, with a rhythm of 2 shows a year in December and May. It is still my goal to do longer self-produced runs that will pay actors cater-waiter equivalents in the years to come, and I do think it’s possible even with higher production values. I think we are narrowing down the optimum frequency and format for the show that allows for freedom within it. Several individual company members have projects brewing that will involve the group, and I think we are ready to codify the way we run Conni’s, and explore fresh material separately, with fresh financial models that are fitted to their own forms.

Lately I have been asking myself the question “who does a play (or an idea) belong to?” This project has been contagious. It belongs to whomever is most passionate about it, and as founders we are now in the position of choosing to let go, to share, or to hold on tight to what we have already made. At Conni’s, we base our economy on the idea of abundance, not scarcity. And somehow, unbelievably, there is always enough for seconds.

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