Lauren London came to Ann Arbor with her husband, Zach, in the summer of 2001. A law student at the time, Lauren thought she'd be here for four years while Zach finished up his medical residency. But they fell in love with the town, with its inhabitants, and with its feel. Now, two children, a house, two jobs, and a theater company tie them here, and they do not mind.
After eight years as an attorney in private practice and a one-year federal judicial clerkship, Lauren is now assistant general counsel for Robert Bosch LLC, in Farmington Hills, Mich., where she handles an array of contracting and litigation matters. She also sits on the board of 826 Michigan
, Ann Arbor's superb student tutoring and writing center (and home to Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair).
Lauren's passion has always been theater. Growing up in Washington, D.C., she studied acting, opera and musical theater, and appeared in several regional productions. Once in Michigan, she was unable to stop and began to perform here, but found the resultant schedule rather grueling. Two years ago, out of a desire to balance law, theater, and family, she and six friends (including her husband) co-founded The Penny Seats Theatre Company
. The Penny Seats produce seasonal shows, focusing on outdoor theater in the summer at West Park. They are currently in the midst of a production of the Broadway musical, She Loves Me
, playing at the park through August 11th. A pre-professional company funded entirely by private donations, not ticket sales, the group keeps ticket prices low, offering picnic-and-a-show options for a casual outdoor theater experience.
If you weren't born a truly gifted marketer (and with some notable exceptions, few are), chances are you're afraid of fundraising. I am. And, I'd venture to say, I have good reason to be. It's terrifying to ask people for money. How dare we? How presumptuous to assume that people we know will part with their hard-earned cash just because we tell them to. And our fear turns to paralysis when it raises mindboggling questions: How great must an arts cause be to merit private funding? How great must our ideal be? Which of our plans do we share? What priorities do we make? And the showstopper: HOW MUCH DO WE NEED?
So what a comfort it was, two years ago, to happen upon an arts fundraising crutch: Kickstarter. Kickstarter.com
(and now its somewhat gentler cousin, Indiegogo.com
) is all the rage in tiny business proposals right now. For the uninitiated, Kickstarter is a website where you can post an awesome arts project you want to do, make a video about it that appeals to potential donors, and then publicize it to drum up the necessary funds. But it's an ingenious, public time-bomb: at Kickstarter, you state up front the amount of money you want to raise by a certain date, and you go out and try to get it done. But if you don't meet your goal by the deadline, you get Nothing. Not one red cent. No donor's credit card is ever charged, you are overtly hoisted by your own petard, and you don't get to do your project. It's a way to turn artists into responsible fundraisers and budgeters. And, I suppose, into realists. If the thing doesn't have legs, after all, you shouldn't be trying to do it. But the concept sounds a bit draconian. One pictures the dejected artist whose Kickstarter time ran out on him, snuffling sadly into his sleeve and hanging up his paintbrush with a heavy sigh.
(Alternatively, relating this, I'm reminded of that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
– the Gene Wilder version – when Charlie finally thinks he's won the year's supply of candy and Willy says, "WRONG, sir! WRONG! Under section 37B of the contract signed by him, it states quite clearly that all offers shall become null and void IF – and you can read it for yourself in this photostatic copy – 'I, the undersigned, shall forfeit all rights, privileges, and licenses herein and herein contained,' et cetera, et cetera... 'Fax mentis, incendium gloria cultum,' et cetera, et cetera... Memo bis punitor delicatum! It's ALL there, BLACK and white, clear as CRYSTAL! You STOLE Fizzy-Lifting Drinks. You BUMPED into the ceiling, which now has to be WASHED and STERILIZED, so you get NOTHING! You LOSE! GOOD DAY, SIR!" Thanks to Wikipedia.org for that fix.)
Of course, the whole point of the Kickstarter site is to create that dreaded image, and by it, encourage lively donation toward artsy projects. And it's worth noting that the hard-nosed rule of Kickstarter has been blunted more recently by more forgiving sites like Indiegogo, where you get to choose your type of fundraising: either you can keep what you raise, no matter what, or you can go the Kickstarter route. (To die-hard Kickstarter-ites, this "never mind, we'll take what we can get" approach must seem to defeat the purpose. After all, the yawning precipice ahead is what makes you go out and fundraise in the first place, right?)
Anyway, for a group like ours, Kickstarter was a great first-year fundraising step. We made a cute little video
with us holding lots of signs, and we invited donations. It was fun. And with the energy of our first year, there was no way we were going to fail. And yes, out of a combination of our own panic and cheerful fundraising efforts, we met our goal in just over two weeks. That's what happens when you scare an artist.
But the other ingenious thing about Kickstarter is the fact that it boots you out of the nest rather rudely, so you don't get too comfortable. Lest you rest on your laurels, the minute you get funded at Kickstarter you instantly lose a bunch of your money in the form of fees. If I have this right, you have to pay 5% to Kickstarter, and another 3-5% to its third-party processor, Amazon Payments. Ouch. Indiegogo charges 4%, but if you don't make your goal and choose to, uh, "keep" your money, you owe them 9%. These numbers can add up pretty fast. So fast that, for our second year of fundraising, we didn't think seriously about Kickstarter. Instead, we thought, "we can do better on our own." And we could. And perhaps that is the point of it all.
I didn't mean this post to become a love letter to Kickstarter – I really think their fees are pretty high – but I do love the idea behind it. At bottom, it helps you get over that hump of starting something I talked about last Wednesday. Once you've gone out and conquered that entirely reasonable fear of fundraising you've always had, you can go out and try the something you really wanted to do. There's real value in getting kicked out of the nest.
Everyone has a different opinion about going into business with your friends. Some take the consummate businessman's advice: A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.
– John D. Rockefeller. This is cute, but no one believes that, coming from someone whose name is synonymous with business. Some are more forgiving: All lasting business is built on friendship.
– Alfred Montapert. I'm sure this is true in most customer-salesman relationships, but its usefulness may suffer in the generalization. Some go for the pithy leather-glove-to-the-side-of-the-face: In business, sir, one has no friends, only correspondents.
– Alexandre Dumas. *Smack!* And some seem to have determined that the twain never should meet: It's not show friends; it's show business.
– Bob Sugar (from Jerry Maguire
). I'm very much hoping this last one isn't true.
We've heard it all before. Over the last two-plus years, our company has had a lot to think about in this regard. We were, after all, seven friends (now nine) who decided to go into business together. And yes, in the beginning we did all have that pie-in-the-sky excitement about forming the perfect little arts company. We did think, "we're all smart people. We're not hampered by an aversion to hard work or an inability to conduct business. We're business people, after all. We have business lives! We know how companies run. We know some law, and how to write things so they make sense, and how to treat people. We're highly adept, well-educated, cross-functional people. We'll break the mold of stereotypical artists' organizations that are only about the art." And we established some guiding principles, and knocked out the early legal work. We became a 501(c)(3) within a few months of existence (a choice I highly recommend, by the way). We held that first, cute Kickstarter campaign, celebrated our existence and each other, and started our work.
But inevitably, we learned that we had seven different ideas about what that company would look like. How it would be branded. What types of work it would do. How often it would do that work. Whom it would pay for what things. What kinds of partnerships it could agree to. What technology it would invest in. How it would spend the money it made. How fast it would grow. What we would print on the T-shirts. And, eventually, the questions got harder: Who would tell what to whom? How would we preserve our respective marriages/long-term relationships while doing this? What's our one-year plan? Our three-year plan? Our five-year plan? How do we want to be perceived? And things got complicated. Each board meeting now has its testier subjects. We have real disagreements. We've said hurtful things to each other. We've stopped having fun all the time. We've discussed our long-term differences and how they play into a long-term strategy for the group. No longer are we full of constant "yes" (see Post 2
But I submit – and sure, I could be wrong – that fights amongst people with solid friendships can save a young venture from falling apart. If the relationship is already strong, if you understand each other's outlook on life and you know the underpinnings of all of it – the family constraints, the time sucks, the reasons for this person's involvement, the priorities – you might actually give a darn what they have to say, even if you think they're wrong. And that makes it harder for you to just push back from the table, stand up, and walk away. You care about the venture, and your friends, and what happens. You can yell and pound the table and cry and say terrible, honest things. You come this close to quitting. But much as you might like to do so, it's pretty hard to make a clean break of it. And many times instead, you stay, and you get through it.
But yes, without question, the friendships change. And that's the hardest thing. You don't have the comfort of occupying a little, cute, shiny, untrammeled friendship niche in each other's minds anymore. You're way more complicated. You have issues that you can't suppress, and they all bubble up and everyone sees them.
So trying to run a small business is a little bit like being sliced open and picked apart in public. All your motives show. You're exposed as the social fraudster you've always been. But I think if you're trying to run anything, that sort of happens anyway. It happens whether or not you're in business with friends. It's a function of the business itself. Because you don't know the answers to all the questions that come up, inevitably your weaknesses show. And showing your soft underbelly to your friends is, at least, better than showing it to total strangers. When a stranger calls you out on a weak spot, you're much more likely to get defensive about it, harrumph out of the fight, and write off both the comment and the person. When a friend does it, you can still get defensive, but eventually you've got to own it and move ahead. You can't just go to the comforting, small-minded place of I'm-right-and-you're-wrong. So, you grow a little. And as a result, the issue gets addressed. The company gets tested, but usually it recovers.
For us, at least, so far, so good.
Many, many thanks to Concentrate
for having me this week. It has been wonderful. For better or worse, I'm not as scared of blogging as I used to be. And for more information about The Penny Seats, see www.pennyseats.org
. Our next project is a cooperative effort with 826 Michigan
, called "Five Bowls of Oatmeal". We perform a bunch of plays written by students in 826's writing programs. They are hilarious and fun and we love it. Watch for details and join us, Sunday, November 18th, at 2:00 p.m.
I may be wrong about this, but I've been saying a lot lately that I'm impressed with the value Ann Arbor seems to place on the social contract. Ann Arborites are such gamers. Social events really seem to attract interest here, in ways not apparent in some larger cities. Dancing in the Streets has its own festival day. So does a huge parade of papier mache puppets. So does shopping at night. Football is king on Saturdays in fall, but the other three seasons are full of people going out of their way to get together. We run in races, lecture each other, hold leisurely open-air markets, have concerts of every stripe, actually attend book readings, and have no problem blocking off Main Street many times a year, chiefly so people can mill about together for one purpose or another.
It's partially this sort of togetherness that made The Penny Seats ambitious enough to think we could start a new little arts company here. People come out for things. More that that: they actually walk around looking for things to do with each other. The Ann Arbor Chronicle
even has a little section (my favorite) called "Stopped. Watched." And the Ann Arbor Observer
enjoys a hallowed place in every household, a stalwart hold-in-your-hands paper that people keep for a whole month, bucking the cyber trend, just so that they can have something at the ready that will tell them what's going on in town on any particular day. Thankfully, these types of outings don't seem to have taken too much of a hit in the recent economic sadness.
Little local theater companies may owe their current livelihood to this adherence to socializing. Grant money – what there is of it – and well-meaning corporate donations wouldn't matter if no one came to see the shows. And I can wax a bit rhapsodic about how theater, in particular, counts on interactivity in ways things like movies don't.
But this summer, I learned that we benefit from AA's uber-social nature in other ways. Specifically, when you're looking for a way to get something done on a dime, and all you have to barter is an interactive event. People are willing to work with you here.
Over the years, many friends and mentors of mine have talked with frustration and malaise about the lack of cheap space to use if you're a small organization planning something in Ann Arbor. Small- to mid-sized rentable spaces are relatively few and far between, and their published rental rates may be out of reach for petite organizations whose annual budgets run in the low five digits and lower. For this reason alone, they may look outside Ann Arbor to set up shop, and as a result we miss valuable opportunities and ideas.
Optimistically, I think things are starting to change. While looking for space around town in which to rehearse and get organized and raise money, etc, we started to ask whether we could provide performance events to our rentee in exchange for a discount on space. And they agreed. Hallelujah. As a performer, it seems almost unfair to trade on performance. It's so fun to do; it's so the-reason-why-you-do-everything-else, it seems almost magical to get to put a monetary value on it in the first place. And to trade it for necessary services seems to be a good deal, to put it mildly. This year, it worked for us, and it helped us grow into this town, and get to know the business environment in a useful way. You get the services you want; they get to publicize a free show and attract people to their space. It works well. None of this is to say that rental rates aren't still too high. They're steep. But that doesn't have to kill the project. In a socialized town, interactivity can be a bargaining chip.
Finally, today, a quick plug: The Penny Seats' summer show, She Loves Me, closes tomorrow night! Tickets for tonight and tomorrow can be pre-ordered from www.pennyseats.org
, or just procured at West Park. Shows start at 7:00 p.m. sharp. Picnic dinners are available for pre-order also, and will be waiting for you at the park. Come down and see us; we're really proud of this one.
11-Year-Old You: "Hey . . . We could form a rock band!"
Zealous Friend: "Yeah! I could play the drums!"
You: "Yeah! And I'll slick my hair back and sing! Now all we need is someone who knows how to play the guitar and write songs!"
Your Mom: "Come ho-ome! It's time for di-nner!"
You and Friend: "Awwwww. Maybe tomorrow."
Zach and I met in college, on the first day of my sophomore year. I was getting a tour of my new dorm, and suddenly there he was, flying through the air, having leapt gracefully over a couch from across a room to land in the doorway where I stood. He stuck out his hand to shake mine: "Hi, I wanna meet you! I'm Zach!" he bellowed. If only all introductions could go so well. For months I thought his exuberance at meeting me must have been due to some instant attraction between us. That he somehow knew we'd end up together. That he'd felt some indefinable connection. But then I realized, he treats everyone that way. He's a zealous, just-do-it person. He jumps and hopes for the best.
For years, I've tried to emulate Zach's verve for, and trust in, life, and the unbridled directness with which he attacks it. He's a neurologist by day, a prolific composer and studio musician by night, an incredible dad, and once a year he throws the world's best party (which by rights will someday have a blog all its own). But most people, like me, are hampered by what we deem to be the insurmountable embarrassment inherent in surrendering to our silliness – the sense that we shouldn't be humoring ourselves with the inane desire to do those things we always wanted to do when we were kids. We tell ourselves that, now that we're grownups, we should take our lives more seriously. And aren't we more tired than we used to be? And don't our bodies hurt more? And what would people think of us? And the kids, what about the kids?
This kind of chatter ran around in my brain for years. For ages I'd thought about starting a little, casual, malleable theater company. One that would do cool, fun things on a shoestring, and focus on clever methods and cool people. But I was completely paralyzed at the thought of it. What a ridiculous idea, I thought. And selfish. And heaven knows Ann Arbor doesn't need more theater. How will you fund it? Who will take care of it? What if it goes under? What about tax filings? Annual reports? Bookkeeping? Don't you have two kids and a day job? What will your friends think of you? When something is just an idea without any hard documentation to back it up, it's so easy to instantly give center stage to talk like this and let it win. I'm being self-indulgent, I told myself. Someday it will happen, but life is too busy with too many other practical, regular things to do.
Then, two years ago, I realized that if I were Zach, I wouldn't think that way. After all, life is for trying things. And one of the advantages of living in Ann Arbor is that we're a small, approachable town. We're relatively friendly. We're fairly sociable people (of which more later). Small companies can incubate in creative ways here, even in a tough economy. And, just as with any big decision - when to get married, when to have kids, etcetera - there's no perfect time to do anything. You just do it, and see what happens. And if it fails, fine. It's not like the world will look down on you, sigh, and shake its weary head at your unfounded gumption.
Starting anything is the very hardest part: turning the nebulous cloud of thought in your head into something everybody knows about. It was really hard, particularly in the face of certain economic realities, to convince myself that I might actually be able to do the silly thing I've wanted to do since I was twelve. But really, wouldn't it be even more awful if it never happened at all? People do lots of silly, stupid things. But if they didn't, we wouldn't have anything to talk about. So, we jumped. I had six conversations, with six of my favorite people, and it turned out to be surprisingly easy:
Me: "Heyyyy, wanna start a theater company? Like, a real one?"
Six Favorite People: "Yes, absolutely! Let's do it."
Kids: "Mo-om, I'm hungry!"
Me: "Kids, I'm on the phone starting a theater company. Go ask Dad."
"For after all, the best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
So, I was going to make this blog a kind of daily progression about how The Penny Seats
got started, how our funding model emerged, and where we are today, but right now I feel compelled to skip to the end and comment on one of the most problematic aspects of our company's milieu – one of its occupational hazards – the weather.
We got rained out on Friday, and it was sad.
One of the coolest things about starting the company you've always wanted to start and working with some of your best friends is that at the beginning, you get to say YES a lot. Ideas flow fast, and everyone's got one. "What if we do casual outdoor theater in summertime?" YES! "What if we're 100% privately funded and only charge $10 per ticket?" YES. "What if we used the revamped West Park Band Shell?" SURE! "What if we partnered with a caterer and offer picnic-and-a-show packages?" ABSOLUTELY. What if we do a variety of shows for a varied experience? OF COURSE. What if we try an outdoor Broadway musical? WHY NOT?
Our company's tiny place in the local theater world took shape fast, and as we've grown and become a bit better known, we are figuring out how to handle many of the issues that go along with our business model: our vision and mission; our funding procedures; our division of production responsibilities; our yearly timeline; our recruiting practices. Handling all of these makes us feel like a grown up company, like we have the maturity to deal with issues in a civilized way.
But one good long rain shower or thunderstorm, or, as we learned a couple of Fridays ago, even the threat of a good long rain shower – reduces us to sniveling children, whining, cursing, and shaking our fists at the sky.
Outdoor theater can be magical, if it's right. The wondrous combination of evening light, a picnic basket, a park, an intrepid troupe, and maybe a pit orchestra, can be an utterly memorable, ethereal experience. But rain makes everything messy. The stage gets slippery and the set gets soggy. Rainfall on instruments makes them unplayable (and makes mad musicians). Rain can spoil good money spent on sound systems, mixers, microphones, and speakers. It makes the ground muddy and the actors unhearable. And it generally turns a relaxing experience into a stressful one.
Rain is a particularly frustrating experience for a young outdoor theater company because we don't get all that many chances to show off what we do, and when it finally comes time to do it, WE'VE GOT TO DO IT OUTSIDE. We rehearse for months with this unheralded, menacing elephant in the room: we don't know how many times we'll get to perform. We don't talk about it because, really, there's no point in doing so. We live under this Sword of Damocles every summer. And yet, somehow, I'm always surprised and disappointed anew whenever we have to cancel a show.
Our website says, "we aim to be hearty." We hope to live up to that. We schlep in tents for our sound system and musicians, and cute little umbrellas to tape to our speakers. But because we're still so small, and because we can't think of a better way to do it, canceling a show for weather is still a near-game-time decision for us. It's the one thing (okay, maybe not the One thing, but perhaps the most Prominent thing) we can't yet plan around, or solve. And it's frustrating. Someday, we'll rent indoor venues for rainout shows. But for now, all we can do is honor our rainout tickets at every other performance and hope we made the right call.
One recent Friday was sad. The sky looked dark and menacing, and as we set up our equipment, it began to pour. It was 6:30 p.m., and things looked bleak. We canceled the show and called all our patrons. And of course, at that precise millisecond, the sky cleared up and by 6:45 p.m. the sun was peeking through the clouds, smirking and winking at us. It didn't rain another drop all night. Oh, well.
But Saturday was magic. The weather cleared, our patrons filled the park, many came back, the mood was right, the play was strong, the music transcendent, and we had a blast. More than a blast. It was tremendous. And it reminded us why we do this. The good is so very good, a little rain can't stop it. Having your company's vision realized can do wonders for your spirits.