Scaling a Project: As Easy As Alpha, Beta, Charlie
As the CEO of American Records, a theater company devoted to making work that chronicles our time/work that serves as a bridge between people, scale is always on my mind and an important part of how we produce.
For your information, I’m the CEO, not the artistic director because American Records is an S Corp, not a nonprofit. We have the soul of a nonprofit in that every dollar we make we spend on artists and programing (i.e. we have no profit margin), which allows us to work under the fiscal sponsorship of Fractured Atlas.
This is a great partnership because being a corporation keeps us light and lean and able to work very quickly, and the fiscal sponsorship allows for grants for particular projects. Right now, our average earned/contributed ratio is 80/20 (80% earned, 20% contributed). We’re not the only ones pioneering this model. Rainpan 43 Performance Group and Universes are also S Corps with fiscal sponsorship. Other companies are pioneering the L3C.
I bring up our company structure because it is fundamentally tied to how we work on scale. The way we’re working on “going big” and the reason we have such a high level of earned income is because we tour. Our tours go to traditional theaters like Actors Theater of Louisville and Roundhouse and traditional presenters like The Hopkins Center at Dartmouth but we also tour to conferences, hospitals, lecture halls, and military bases.
Last year I contracted with the Department of Defense to take our play ReEntry to Army bases throughout Germany and Italy, where command used the performances as post-deployment training. ABC News covered the play as part of a larger story about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In marketing terms, you could say our productions are "longtail" in nature. ReEntry never had any single, huge audience (it’s very hard to sell tickets to a play about our current wars) yet over the last four years ReEnry has had hundreds of performances and residencies a multitude of theaters and military sites.
My goal is to give each of our productions this kind of longtail life. I want to take our plays to as many people as possible and I don’t want venue or cost to be a hindrance. So to that end, we design our shows to scale down in order to go big. Each touring production has three variations, each built, designed and marketed to scale:
1. An Alpha version, which is the full production with a big and beautiful multi-media design—this is the version that goes into traditional theaters. Here's a photo (featuring Sheila Tapia and PJ Sosko) from ReEntry at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE:
2. A Beta version loads in and techs in an hour—it's five actors, a stage manager, and two road cases with plug-n-play sound and video in any room that can handle PowerPoint, like lecture halls and conference rooms. Here is a photo from the Navy/Marine Corps Combat Operational Stress Control Conference presentation:
3. And last, the Charlie version, which is made up of actors, stools, and a narrator/facilitator. Here’s a shot from our performance in the Recruit Chapel at Parris Island Recruit Depot:
Allowing our productions to shrink and expand and to simplify as needed has been a vital part of our growth. This wasn’t easy, you can be sure.
As a director I take a great deal of pride in the pictures and sounds we build and my collaborators are great at making things look and sound incredible. When we first discussed the design of the Beta, it was hard for me to let go of some of the elements I was used to seeing on stage; but when I realized how many opportunities we would pass up by making a rider that the very places we wanted to go to just couldn’t support, my priorities shifted.
With the Beta and Charlie, the art is in the rigor it takes to make something that is strong yet simple. How to do as much as you can with as little as possible so that you can make contact with as many people as possible has become a guiding principle. This is not to say we settle for less—the Beta design is quite wonderful and the actors are so strong and their connection to the audience so profound that that in itself is enough.
One of my favorite things about the Beta version is that the designers and I can go back and re-tech sections without ever having to be in the same place. I’ll be at home in New Jersey with the company computers plugged into my home sound system and projector, Zach Williamson, our sound designer will be at his home n Vermont and media designer Alex Koch will be in Brooklyn; we’ll sync up via a web platform and I can see and hear their changes in real time.
Efficiency, staying light and lean and highly mobile, having flexibility and knowing when to scale down in order to grow…these are the things we’re kicking around at American Records.
We’re now onto a new project: a co-commission for Berkely Rep and CENTERSTAGE which will be all about the love of American football and it’s inherent risks, such as brain injury—based on interviews with professional football players. We hope this one has as long of a “tail” as ReEntry.