Playhouse Owner The Buzz


Running a playhouse requires a love of theater, enough money to purchase a building and a great deal of time and energy.

To run a successful playhouse, you need management skills, good business sense and the ability to prepare and analyze budgets. It's also important to be comfortable delegating tasks to staff and volunteers.

The day-to-day running of a playhouse is very hectic. Sets need to be designed, constructed, set up and dismantled. Scripts need to be read. Costumes need to be designed and fitted.

It's important to always maintain your composure. This can be a challenge when faced with all the problems that can come up in a mainly volunteer-driven organization.

Pat Beyer owns a 152-seat playhouse in Delmont, Pennsylvania. "You have to be a people person, a problem solver and you have to be comfortable approaching people who can donate services or supplies. You need to be able to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse."

Beyer emphasizes that "when it comes to budgeting, you must know what you're talking about."

Technical skills are also required. Although you may not operate the lighting and sound yourself or design and build the sets, "you need to use the same vocabulary [as] your staff," Beyer says. "You need knowledge of set design to discuss it with directors."

If you are involved in the production of plays, you must read the scripts to know what sort of props you need. You also need to adjust the script to work within the limitations of your stage and facility.

Jack Sheriff owns a 75-seat playhouse and arts center. For him, running his playhouse "began, and remains [today], basically an amateur or community theater project."

Sheriff has never considered his playhouse a business. He has rarely tried to make money from it. He is more concerned about keeping admission prices affordable for the entire family and keeping theater accessible in his community.

His goal is to break even and not lose money. He hasn't profited from buying the buildings, but he breaks even with each show. He runs the playhouse for the love of it.

Sheriff developed his love of theater in high school. He continued acting through university. He decided that teaching was a logical way to earn a living, and drama was his hobby. After retiring, he bought the playhouse with the money he had earned as a university professor. He also bought an opera house and an art gallery that he now runs.

Sheriff has always had a passion for theater. "Other people buy cars; I buy theater buildings," he explains. "When people come into the building to buy a painting and say, 'My, that's expensive!' I reply, 'Cars rust, but art doesn't.'"

He works seven days a week but insists that it is effortless. He starts his day at 9 a.m. working at his art gallery. There, he finds plenty of time to write plays and write his novel. In the evening, he rents out the theater and books the shows. If there is a show at his playhouse, he will be there until 11 p.m.

Sheriff says his reward is "the satisfaction and fulfillment I get from providing people -- children and adults alike -- with opportunities to express themselves onstage. Equally as important is the satisfaction I get from providing culturally relevant entertainment and exposure to the arts in general and theater in particular."

Sheriff advises young people interested in running a playhouse to work in a theater group to learn the ropes. "Small theater groups rely on you to do everything," he says.

"Don't expect to become a star," he adds. "Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds. Be realistic, don't expect too much, but that shouldn't stop you from dreaming. It's not all glamor."

Beyer also runs her playhouse as a labor of love. Twenty-one years ago, Beyer became involved as an actress with the playhouse she now owns. The previous owners of the playhouse approached her to buy the financially-troubled theater. They continued to negotiate with Beyer over the years. Finally, in 1981, she decided that the price was right and that she wanted to dive into a new project.

Beyer's goal is not to make a great deal of profit with her playhouse. Rather, she wants to break even with each production. She would also like to continually improve the playhouse and its equipment.

Beyer's main responsibility is to make sure that the playhouse has the staff (both paid and unpaid) and the materials that they need for each production. She employs a business manager, a part-time personal assistant, a box-office ticketing agent and a house manager.

Her playhouse runs an apprenticeship program for sound and lighting, costume design, set and prop construction and stage management. When necessary, Beyer will design and make props and costumes.

Beyer's networking skills have helped her to form relationships with other playhouses in the community.

They lend each other props as needed. She also spends a lot of time combing the want ads and visiting yard sales, flea markets and antique auctions looking for props.

The biggest cost of owning a playhouse is buying the theater. Building costs vary with the local real estate market and the condition of the building. If Sheriff were to purchase his playhouse and arts center today, it would cost about $138,000. He did a fair bit of renovation to the structure. His main cost today is heating the building during the winter months.

Beyer bought her building 21 years ago for around $30,000 and immediately made much-needed renovations. She worked on a shoestring budget, mortgaged the building and fixed it up to meet building code standards.

Because it costs so much to buy a theater, it's rare to have only one person as the owner. Most playhouses are owned by nonprofit organizations that receive government grants.

That's the case for another community playhouse and arts center. The playhouse is owned by a nonprofit umbrella organization. Four different theater companies banded together to create the organization in order to buy the playhouse. It's run by a board of directors appointed by the theaters.

Jean Malavoy is the executive director of a 152-seat playhouse. He has been involved in the arts community for 25 years. He's worked as a government grants trustee and as the manager of a cultural center.

Malavoy believes that the skills necessary to run a playhouse are similar to the skills needed in most small businesses. For him, good relationships with his staff and the board of directors are key.

"When you are in show business, you have a very visible position, like an ambassador," explains Malavoy. He feels that his theater is very well respected in the community.

Malavoy's arts center relies heavily on an excellent relationship with the community. The theater was bought with the help of the community. The building cost $2 million, and a quarter of that money came from the community. Individual community members donated $300 or $500 each. Seats in the playhouse were sold for $500 each.

Malavoy says that working in the arts community makes you vulnerable to the unpredictability of politics. That's because arts funding is not as high a priority as other things like health care and education. Half of his arts center's operating budget is funded by government grants.

Malavoy says that running a playhouse is the "greatest job you could find. It is tremendous doing a job associated with the arts," he says. "You cannot live without culture. Culture makes sense of your life. Becoming an independent playhouse owner will give you the opportunity to fulfill that goal."

Links

American Association of Community Theater
A national organization representing community theaters

American Theater Web
This site has information on Broadway shows, musicals and theaters

Playbill Online
A magazine for theater buffs