How do you make a go of a seasonal arts organization during a recession? Attorney and performer Lauren London, co-founder of The Penny Seats Theatre Company, writes about rainy day survival and the ups and downs of outdoor summer theater.
Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
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."