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's Make a Deal

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, 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.