Welcome to the official Hamilton Players blog: All the world's a stage...

Thoughts and ruminations on all things theater...and then some!

Friday, February 9, 2018

The volunteer conundrum

I don't know how it works at other nonprofit community theaters, but here at Hamilton Players we have only a tiny paid staff:  Executive Director (FTE), 2 box office interns (>.5 FTE), a house keeper (.25 FTE) and a handful of transient or "seasonal"  artistic staff that come and go; tied to a specific show.  Everything else is staffed by volunteers...which is amazing...and also difficult.

For years our organization has had a paradigm of very loose leadership for volunteers; if you want to volunteer, great!  Have at it! That worked well when Hamilton Players was a loose collective that came together to put on a show and then disperse.  But once the Players had a formal venue that required constant attention and upkeep, and expanded the programming to more than two isolated shows per year, AND became a corporation and nonprofit; the volunteer needs increased substantially and more often than not, the old-school "Have at it!" concept led to dissatisfaction for both Hamilton Players and the volunteer.  Projects would get started by one and then finished by another; leaving both frustrated and dissatisfied.  Information, or rather; misinformation, was passed along according to each individual's varying understanding of the situation.  The administrative learning curve for nonprofit and corporate legal requirements was steep and suddenly there were a lot more volunteers to keep informed and many of them were disgruntled to find that the way they had been doing things was no longer acceptable to the organization. Plus there was the added pressure of satisfying insurance requirements or face constantly increasing premiums. This led to a huge turnover in volunteers, a variety of unsafe practices, and a widely varying quality of experience for volunteers, patrons, and donors.  Dissatisfaction led to reduced volunteerism which in turn led to more work and responsibility being heaped upon volunteers, which led to more dissatisfaction and reduced volunteerism.  It was a slow, deepening spiral of negativity that was impacting the organization on all levels.

Fast forward to today.  2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the Hamilton Playhouse, Hamilton Players home venue.  It also marked the start of a newly reorganized volunteer committee with a commitment to growth and excellence.  By "growth" I refer to volunteer recruitment and by "excellence" I refer to both the experience to and from the volunteer.  Hamilton Players has made some mistakes in the past, but we are working hard to create an environment where volunteers are integrated into the day to day culture of the organization, given responsibility and autonomy, and are appreciated and rewarded.  We want volunteers to become a part of the fundamental structure of the Playhouse day-to-day activities. In the name of transparency, volunteers need to know that there will be some training up-front.  Policies and expectations will be clearly outlined as will the structure and processes of the organization.  Depending upon the position, there will also be periodic evaluations to help keep expectations - on both sides - in alignment. Sure, there are rules, but within that framework real magic can happen.  Change cannot happen overnight, but Hamilton Players is making a dedicated commitment to develop an organizational culture that is open and appreciative and values dedication, creativity, collaboration, and accountability - both from employees and volunteers. 

Hamilton Players invites you to become a part of the theater family. See what's new and bring your own special talents and strengths to work with us at the Playhouse!  We look forward to seeing you soon!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Make this year a win/win: goals for 2018

Back in a December blog post I talked about it being the time for"taking stock and setting new goals," but I never really got past the "taking stock" part of the post.  So today's post will look at the second half of the equation:  setting new goals.

As always, Hamilton Players will strive to produce high quality shows that entertain and educate. Our goal for 2018 season ticket shows is to increase participation/attendance by actors, volunteers, and patrons.   Part of the reasoning behind the selection of 2018's line up was to try to bring new faces to both the audience and the actor/volunteer pools.  So far this strategy has been working very well.  Chicago, the first show of the 2018 season, is in rehearsal and out of a cast of 22 actors, 11 of them are new to Hamilton Players!  The next show, Charlotte's Web, features a 1st-time director and we expect that the final show of the season, 12 Angry Men, will bring in another new group of actors.  Each actor new to Hamilton Players brings along a handful (or more!) of new patrons that will attend the show.  (Children's shows are particularly good at leveraging attendance as each child has parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, mentors, etc. who usually attend the show...and usually more than once.)

A second goal Hamilton Players is  working hard toward is to expand our volunteer program and recruit more volunteers.  We now have an official volunteer coordinator and are working to restructure and expand the volunteer committee.  The committee instituted training programs for house staff and general volunteers and is also actively recruiting volunteer House Managers to train for show nights. 

As far as non-season ticket programming goals are concerned, Hamilton Players is trying to expand the programming and bring in more participants. We are expanding the reader's theater program from 3 to 4 titles a year.  We are also adding a 3-day Haunted Playhouse event in October to augment the Mansion Murder Mystery and the Halloween Spooktacular.  We are adding another day to the Murder Mystery, so it will now go 4 days and we will be opening ticket sales a day earlier for a special "full table" event for people who are purchasing a full 8 seat table.  And we are looking for ways to market and increase the attendance of the Halloween Spooktacular - Hamilton Players' adult Halloween costume party.

The goals for fundraising are much the same as always:  raise as much money as possible to support our mission.  To that end, Hamilton Players is instituting a plan to do a fundraiser every September.  Every other year (starting last year) we will host a gala titled, All the World's a Stage.  On ATWAS off years, we will present a performance based fundraiser.  Our formal fall fundraising event this year will be Forbidden Bitterroot; a comedy roast and Broadway inspired musical parody. 

A final goal Hamilton Players is working towards is increasing awareness in our community about Hamilton Players and our programming.  We are partnering with several downtown businesses to have "Hamilton Players Nights" where employees and volunteers of Hamilton Players attend to meet the public and answer questions while the business donates a percent of the evening's proceeds to us. Currently the 2nd Tuesday of every month is Hamilton Players Pasty Night at MineShaft Pasty Co.,  and Tuesday, February 20 will be Hamilton Players Night at Pizza Hut (in Hamilton). 

As you can see, we have a lot going on all year long and the common thread throughout ALL of the goals is to increase participation.  The Bitterroot Valley an amazing community, full of talent and compassion, and right now participation levels have barely scratched the surface! Hamilton Players has so much to offer the community and the community has so much to offer Hamilton Players...let's just join forces, spread the joy, and make it a win/win for everyone!  See you at the Playhouse!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Anatomy of the Season Selection

Happy New Year!

We are a couple weeks into 2018 and already it's time to start thinking about the 2019 season line up. Different theaters have very different methods of selecting season titles.  Some have Artistic Directors that choose the season, others accept Director proposals, and still others have committees or Boards that make the decision.  Hamilton Players has tried several different methods over the years, with varying degrees of success, but has in recent years found a formula that seems to work.

Hamilton Players has a "Play Reading Committee" whose function is to read and assess plays and then come up with a season recommendation.  There are parameters laid out by the Board and the Executive Director regarding what the goal of the season is (usually ticket sales and community involvement), and the committee works within those guidelines to pick what they believe would be a strong, successful season for the Playhouse.  The committee consists of some Board members, the Executive Director, some long-time Hamilton Players (actors and directors), and some community volunteers.

There is a list of play and musical with about 220 titles on it that is generally considered.  Titles are added to the list whenever someone recommends a play/musical for the committee to consider.  Members of the committee read scripts and fill out evaluation forms that list the cast and show requirements and why or why not they think it is a good fit for Hamilton Players.  Some of the issues the committee has to consider are as follow:

RACE:  There are many shows that the Players would love to do (and based on word-of-mouth, the public too!), but due to a lack of diversity in our community, it just isn't possible.  Color blind casting aside, there are just some roles that require a person of color and whitewashing the role would be insensitive at best, if not outright racist or offensive.  Consider the musicals West Side Story or Once on this Island who's major plot components revolve around Puerto Ricans or West Indians;  or the classic, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, where it is plot-imperative that the fiancee be a man of color.  How are these to be cast in a community of 42,088 that is 95.9% white (according to the 2010 census/2016 update)?  There are approximately 50 adult actors in a given year who participate in Hamilton Players Productions.  That is .0012% of the population.  If 4.1% of the given population are persons of color,(1726 people), and .0012% of them participate that gives a grand total of 2 people.  And that doesn't take into consideration scheduling issues or just standard color-blind casting:  just because a show needs a certain ethnicity for a single role does not mean that is the only role an actor of that ethnicity can audition for!

ADULT CONTENT:  Historically speaking, the average audience member for Hamilton Players productions is averse to significant adult content.  And by "adult content" I refer to profanity - the f-bomb in particular, sexual situations, and overly risque costuming.  This is evident through the reduced ticket sales we see for shows with this content.  A show with substantial adult content is considered a "risk" show in a season and Hamilton Players must balance that out with a show that has a better than average ticket sales expectation (like Annie or Sound of Music).

STYLE:  Dramas are a very hard sell in this community.  Dark shows are too.  Sondheim is also a hard sell.  Shows that are complicated, dark, negative, or deal with sensitive issues do not tend to play well in this community.  There is definitely an audience for them, but it is a small audience, so dramas and the like are also considered "risk" shows.

NAME RECOGNITION: Again, historically speaking, the Hamilton Players' audience likes titles they already know.  New shows, original shows, or just lesser-known shows do not perform strongly in our community.  If the production is excellent (which we always strive for!), then ticket sales will pick up by the 3rd and final weekend because of word of mouth...but that is too late to make up for two weekends of less than stellar ticket sales.  Shows with little or no name recognition are considered "risk" shows.

HAS IT BEEN DONE RECENTLY:  Hamilton Players does not want to be in direct competition with other, local theaters.  It does not benefit anyone to play the comparison game of "who did it better?"  Arts organizations need to collaborate; not compete:  a rising tide raises all boats We need to help each other succeed, not sow seeds of conflict and dissension. Plus, theater audiences can get burned out; why should they by a ticket to a show they saw 6 months ago?  This is a weird and contradictory line to walk because there are a lot of theater goers who would buy tickets to The Sound of Music EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.   But the other half of this particular issue is found in the next issue to consider.

THE ACTING POOL:  Most actors like a challenge.  That means with the exception of a favorite role, they want to try new things.  And actors have egos that balk at criticism; especially when it comes in the form of, "someone else played it better."  When there are two productions of the same show in close proximity, inevitably there will be comparisons and someone will come out on the losing side.  Leaving a space of 5-10 years between repeating shows allows comparisons to fall into a mode of sweet nostalgia and the discussion becomes more of a comparison of strengths rather than a tally of weaknesses.

THE TALENT:  When selecting shows, the committee can only work with the information they have.  When it comes to actors, directors, crew and whatnot, they have to consider whether or not the necessary talent exists.  Even if it does exist, there is no guarantee that the talent will be available or even willing.  So the committee has to ask itself, "Does the talent exist in the community to pull this off?"  Take for example the musical Cabaret.  It may be well known, but it falls under the "risk" show category because of the adult content and dark themes. Add to that the challenging featured role of the Emcee (who's portrayal runs the gamut from asexual or sexually ambiguous to highly sexualized) and the committee has to ask itself, "Do we have someone who can play this role?"  Do we have someone who can direct this show and be sensitive to the issues that it will bring up?"  Can we do this show well?"  If the answer to these questions is "No" or even "Not sure," then they probably cannot risk putting the show into play.  Please do not confuse this with pre-casting; it is not that at all.  It is simple figuring out if the resources necessary even exist. 

THE MISSION STATEMENT:  In addition to all the above issues, the Play Reading Committee must also consider the mission statement:  Putting the spotlight on education, inspiration, and community through the performing arts.  The mission statement can offset a number of other considerations if the committee believes that a particular title is a fantastic mission fit and bring in new participants and patrons.  Conversely, it can also put a stake in a title if it is too controversial or divisive for a season ticket production.

As you can see, the committee has its work cut out for it.  But I am confident that they will, as they usually do, wind up proposing a stellar line up for the 2019 season.  If you have any titles you would like to see added to the list for consideration, please feel free to contact me at boxoffice@hamiltonplayers.com.

Friday, December 29, 2017

State of the Players 2017

The end of the year is just days away and for many that compels them to take stock of the current year's achievements and start plotting goals for the upcoming year.  I am no exception.  This past year at the Hamilton Playhouse has been full of ups and downs.  The beginning of the year was marred by the social media fiasco carrying over from November of 2016.  "What social media fiasco?" you ask?  In November of 2016, then Vice President elect Mike Pence attended a showing of Hamilton on Broadway.  The powers-that-be for Hamilton decided to offer a post-show message tailored to their unexpected audience member.  Now, this isn't quite as one-off as it may sound as it happened during the weeks of the Broadway Cares fundraisers where many Broadway casts do post-show curtain speeches to help fundraise for Broadway Cares/Actors Equity Fights Aids.  This time, however, the curtain speech was delivered to entreat not monetary support for the fight against AIDS, but rather to entreat tolerance, love, and dedication for upholding American values for all.  This was not well received by a very large group of Trump/Pence supporters and as far as we are concerned, it escalated rather quickly.  By the following morning, we were flooded with tweets, PM's, emails, and reviews that 1.) confused Hamilton Players, a small community theater in Hamilton, MT with Hamilton an American Musical, a global phenomenon on Broadway in New York, and 2.) were angry, accusatory, vile, and in some cases, threatening.  Our office (me) contacted or replied to every one to let them know that Hamilton Players and Hamilton an American Musical were two, separate entities. Once that information was clarified, MOST people were apologetic and a little sheepish.  They either removed their posts, posted retractions, or both.  Only a handful of people refused to acknowledge their mistake and those we had removed.  It was a rough couple of months in the internet world but eventually the hubbub died down and new "scandals" arose to draw the attention of the Facebook world and Twittersphere.  Not an ideal way to start the new year; but it could have been much worse!

We had 4 season ticket productions in 2017:  The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Love, Sex, and the IRS; She Loves Me; and Enchanted April.  Each production had its ups and downs; from little known titles, to new directors, to casting issues, to marketing setbacks.  But overall, the production value was high and we were happy with the final products. That being said, perhaps the community felt differently because ticket sales were down between 5 and 9% (depending on the show) from the projected values.  (The projected values are derived from a conservative underestimate of actual mean values from the last 3 most equivalent titles.)  Since the projected value is already an underestimate, to come in 5-9% less in ticket sales is an even bigger problem than it may seem at first glance.  Some of this can be attributed to the brutal weather we had during the winter production, but mostly we find it is because despite it being a solid line-up, none of the titles were old, standby classics.  While we love the old standbys, we try hard to mix it up for both patrons and performers, but run the risk of not meeting our bottom line when we do.

Our reader's theater program is really beginning to take off.  We had 3 productions in 2017 and plan to have 4 in 2018 (one per quarter-year).  3 will continue to be themed events:  International Women's Day, Halloween, and Christmas. The 4th production will probably be a high quality drama that would not work for us a season ticket production, but would be an opportunity for actors to really dig deep.  An example of this would be 2016's reader's theater of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  It was a pretty remarkable production that garnered rave reviews from the small audience that attended.  All of our reader's theaters are free to the public and are accompanied by a pretty stellar bake sale to offset the production costs and sometimes raise a little money.

The K-12 summer theater program is really going strong and we had our regular session 1 and session 2 programs in July and we added an "Introduction to Theater" week-long morning class for 3 and 4 year olds!  We didn't have enough interest to be able to hold our after school spring and fall classes (we need a minimum of 6 students), so those programs came in under the projections as well.

Our community/education branch of programming is growing.  We had a presence at Farmers Market each month, participated with an information booth at Daly Days and the Ravalli County Fair, on Hamilton Tonight 2nd Fridays we partner with Chapter One Book Store and the Executive Director reads aloud for a toddler story time, hosted a Halloween costume party with live music, and helped local schools with resources for their performance related events.  Our volunteer program is really taking off as well and despite the reduction in ticket sales we have increased our volunteer pool by nearly 5% this year.

Going into the 3rd quarter, Hamilton Players was down nearly $10,000 in projected income and our reserves were tapped out due to mix of emergencies, illnesses, and unforeseen circumstances.  This was going to leave us with a huge deficit to start the new year, and quite honestly could have been the straw that breaks the camel's back.  It could have closed our doors for good.  Luckily for us we had a major fundraiser planned for September 16:  All the World's a Stage.  It was our first, classic dinner and auction fundraiser event and it was successful enough to bring us current and make up for the ticket sales deficit.  And then we were visited by a Christmas miracle:  The Ryan Foundation offered up a $5000 matching grant to replenish our reserve fund!  This grant opportunity was presented to us on December 22 and as of today (December 29) we have raised $3475.  With only $1235 left to raise, we are really hoping to secure the entire $5000 match!

Auditions for the first show of 2018, Chicago, are underway and the cast list should be posted on New Year's Day.  We are all really looking forward to that production and it will be a great kickoff to what is promising to be a fantastic 2018!  As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at boxoffice@hamiltonplayers.com.  Have a safe and wonderful New Year!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Just started prepwork for our annual holiday show:  a reader's theater production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  For mainstream America, it's a pretty well known title and just about everyone has seen at least one version (if not more!) of it.  There are a lot of amazing interpretations out there (I think my favorites would be A Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged, starring Bill Murray) and all of them are fun in one way or another.  There are also, as it turns out, many stage versions as well.  But here's the thing about all of them:  They follow the story line and hit all the high points, but you really don't get to experience the full impact of Charles Dickens' remarkable and moving prose.  The reason for that is that all the descriptive narrative in the Dickens text is turned into visual production value. Consider the following text:

 "Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed."  (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, (c)1905 The Baker and Taylor Company)

It paints a picture for you, right?  That is Dickens' prose.  But instead of experiencing those words the artistic minds responsible for the movies and plays interpret that into a visual representation. So you see cold people warming their hands and you see frozen water, and you see shop windows decorated with holly and berries.  You probably even see people peering in the shop windows and the light being reflected off their faces.  And that's great; it's made for some stellar movies.  But you lose something in the translation from page to screen.  You lose the words. You lose the chance for your immeasurably and endlessly creative brain to paint its own picture.  The written word, like the spoken word, has a special and powerful magic all its own.  And Dickens' was a master of that magic.  That is why we have chosen to take the text of his original 1842 novella and adapt it into a reader's theater.  Instead of paring the story down into its dialogue and doing a stage version that presents the rest as a visual statement, we have left the narration in and formatted the show to have a staged dialogue section and a narration section.  So the structure of our show is that we have a contemporary clothed narrator sitting in a wing chair "reading" the story to the audience and then when we reach action or dialogue moments, the focus switches over the Victorian costumed stage actors who then perform the dialogue intereactively.  It's fun.  It has strong visual production value.  And you get the rare privilege of experiencing most of the original text.

AND as icing on the cake? Well, all the reader's theaters at Hamilton Playhouse are free to the public.  We offset the costs of the shows (costuming, props, tech, licensing, etc) by hosting a bake sale fundraiser at each event.  The holiday bake sale that accompanies A Christmas Carol is epic.  There are tons of delicious goodies that you can enjoy as a concessions treat or take home in bulk as holiday treats to be shared with friends and family.  So mark you calendars and get ready to experience A Christmas Carol in a whole new way!  Friday, December 22 at 7pm.  (doors open at 
6 pm; seating begins at 6:30 pm). See you at the Playhouse!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

End of year giving

Dear Friends,

It is difficult to think about the arts in the wake of the disastrous summer and fall we all just faced.  Storms, floods, fires, earthquakes, mass shootings, social unrest; there are so many pressing needs and so few hands and pocketbooks to fulfill them.  Geographically, Ravalli County, Montana is a relatively small community but we are still global citizens and as such, we have a responsibility to take ownership of the present and the future. So support the cause you believe in.  Help people who need help.  Give (food, clothing, time, money) to someone or something that you feel needs your attention.  Be a beacon of light and hope.  Make a difference.

While you are making a difference, don’t forget to celebrate.  Strong communities are defined not only by their shared difficulties, but also by their shared celebrations.  We need to celebrate successes, achievements, beauty, kindness, strength, perseverance, and much more.  We celebrate and grow together.  At the Hamilton Playhouse we put the spotlight on education, inspiration and community through the performing arts.  Hamilton Playhouse is more than just a theater; it is a haven where community comes together to make magic and memories…and celebrate.  When all is said and done, live theater provides respite, inspiration, and entertainment in a world where those things are increasingly difficult to find. 

Here at the Hamilton Playhouse, we strive to be a beacon in our community and Hamilton Players’ success relies on end of year donations.  And every nonprofit arts organization is in the same boat.  So while you think about how to make a difference this year, please don't forget the arts organization in your communities. Your tax deductible donation makes it possible to continue to celebrate and provide amazing artistic programming, offer special events, provide educational opportunities, and much, much more!  So celebrate the season in whatever way feels right to you and know that with the support and love of the community, Hamilton Players will be celebrating along with you.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

It's not quite 2018 yet, so it isn't a new year's resolution, but it is a resolution nonetheless.  Hamilton Players has had a blog for several years now and at best I've posted quarterly and at worst, I'm ashamed to say, I have gone more than an entire year without posting at all.  It's time for that to change.  Hamilton Players is a theater and a nonprofit and dang it!,  I have a lot to say about that!  So I resolve here and now that starting in December, I will post a minimum of twice a month for the next 12 months and we'll see where it takes us.  New content will begin next week!  I look forward to our journey together.