Thinking Outside the Black Box
Forgoing grants and traditional fundraising methods, a plucky midwestern theatre zeros in on pleasing its patrons
By Eliza Bent
Challenge: To turn a profit to fund original work without artistic compromise.
Plan: Present sketch comedy, serve food and drink, please audiences.
Key players: Loyal volunteers and employees, loyal audiences.
What Worked: Specific branding, employee retention and constantly rewriting sketches.
What Didn’t: Ignoring fire codes and relying on others for funds.
What’s Next: Plans to expand from a 214-seat theatre to a 350-seat theatre.
Staff pages on theatre websites can give a remarkably accurate portrait of the style and configuration of an organization. If you only see five names, you know the operation is tiny. A larger institution might succinctly group names by department, pointing out who does what while providing a link to an employee's e-mail address. Shadowbox in Columbus, Ohio, does its who's-who a little differently. Despite having 60 full-time staffers, the company lists personnel alphabetically by last name, with no job titles in sight. Instead, informal résumés emerge, with categories like "hometown" and "hobbies." Under "one thing people should know about me," Stev Guyer, Shadowbox's founder (and the closest thing the company has to an artistic director) lists, "I'm usually painfully honest and direct. I hate bullshit!"
This succinct summation aptly describes the underlying beliefs of Shadowbox, which Guyer and friends started in 1988 with the aim of putting on rock operas. "I soon realized just how difficult it is to write and produce at a high level. That first production was awful," Guyer says now with a laugh. What's more, when he looked to traditional producing/funding models, Guyer didn't see any that resonated with him or his artistic aspirations. After a painful experience in which a producer who promised to raise project-specific funds didn't come through, Shadowbox decided to never rely on outside groups for funding again. "We decided applying for grants just wasn't for us. The whole process seemed to fly in the face of how we wanted to run our business, and it seemed to get in the way of our creativity." As a result, Guyer and his troupe began to learn the art of trades and in-kind services.
That kind of thinking also contributes to the group's aesthetic. "Columbus has a number of marvelous traditional theatres," says Guyer. "We decided, 'Let's not do what everyone else is doing.' Instead we chose to focus on short-form theatre like one-acts and monologues." Sticking with that original desire to create rock operas, they also determined they would use music as an integral part of every show.
In 1994 Shadowbox began to experiment with presenting comedy—sketch comedy in particular. "We figured we were a witty, obnoxious group of people, and if the people at 'Saturday Night Live' could do it, then so could we," Guyer boasts. At Shadowbox, sketches are rewritten so frequently and extensively that by the end of a run audiences can expect a different show than the one they saw opening night.
"Our main tenet when it comes to producing good work is: Will this please our audience?" asserts Guyer. But does pleasing the audience ever compromise artistic vision? "The idea that pleasing an audience is somehow too challenging or too unfair for an artist is absurd—I think that with enough creativity, you can please yourself and an audience. I think being unwilling to please the audience is lazy."
Willingness to please is a hallmark of the Shadowbox experience, and to that end audiences fill out reply cards after each performance rating comedy, music, food and service. Metrics are tabulated each week and feedback is taken seriously. If there's a problem, patrons receive a call. "Usually it's a communication issue. If someone didn't like the pizza, we ask, 'Did you tell your server?'" Guyer individually thanks theatregoers for coming after every show and encourages people to tell their friends about Shadowbox shows. "The number-one lesson we've learned is that nothing substitutes for word of mouth," he attests. "We give audiences a simple way to describe who and what we are: a sketch comedy and rock-and-roll club. That might not be the most accurate description," Guyer admits, pointing out that Shadowbox also produces musicals and rock operas—about three a year—but it gives patrons a convenient conversational handle.
One big aspect of Shadowbox's success is the ensemble nature of the company. "For the first seven years we were together, no one earned a penny," Guyer confesses. Initially the company operated on a volunteer basis. "Having the luxury of working with people over a long period of time enables us to understand each other's communication styles so that we can work quickly and efficiently." Guyer estimates that Shadowbox, which has a branch in Cincinnati as well, puts on about 356 performances per year.
Naturally there have been some hiccups along the way—and not earning money for the first seven years might be too much of a sacrifice for some. In an early iteration, Shadowbox was essentially squatting in a recording studio's building and attracted the attention of local fire marshals. "This was truly the ultimate naÏve mistake," Guyer admits. A similar lesson was learned when Shadowbox began to delve into serving food and drink. But learning the laws and acquiring a proper liquor license paid off. Today, Guyer estimates that food and beverage sales account for 50 percent of Shadowbox's revenue.
An Italian bistro opens 75 minutes before each Shadowbox show, and everything is handmade. (Guyer personally runs the ovens.) Audiences gather at tables of eight in the theatre. "Our audience is the most eclectic group imaginable," declares Guyer. "It's one of the things I am most proud of. Our age range is 16-to-70-year-olds. The ethnic make-up mirrors what we've got in Columbus and there are income levels across the board." Guyer describes a typical scene in which two grandmothers and a biker dude and his girlfriend are seated across the table from a dentist—"and they're all laughing at the same stuff."blog comments powered by Disqus
View our comments policy