Blog: Lauren London

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.

Let It Rain

"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.