What Small Biz Owners Can Learn From Community Theater

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theatreWe don’t all live in New York City, San Francisco, or Chicago – which means many of us depend upon local small theater companies if we want to see a play. In a sense your customers and clients depend on your local small business in the same way. You not only provide customers and clients with the products or services they need, but provide this on a local basis.

Going to the theater and operating a business may not seem to have too much in common. But theater companies and operating a business definitely have commonalities. After all, a theater company IS a business.

Of course some local theater groups are more successful than others – and small business owners can learn from their success.

Leverage Local
Successful community theater groups know how take advantage of the fact they’re local. They use and promote local talent. They advertise in and create relationships with reporters from local papers. They put on local events to promote upcoming local productions. They partner with local businesses. They provide speakers to local organizations. They participate in collaborative advertising and social media campaigns.

Small business owners should take note that all the above work very well to do what community theater companies call “put butts in seats.” Your goal is to “get in front” of customers and clients. Your “local talent” is your employees (or yourself) – don’t be shy about ringing your own bell.

You may not get the kind of press local big businesses get, but make it your business to identify small local publications that cater to your customers. Advertising in these smaller publications is usually less expensive, target your niche, and it can be easier to establish relationships with journalists and contributors in small local publications.

Partnering with local non-compete businesses can be really good for business. Whether partnering with a non-related local small business to support a local cause, or cutting advertising and other costs by partnering with a related small business in a promotional campaign, it pays to partner.

Learn How to Paper
On opening night it is common for community theater companies to distribute “paper tickets.” You’re probably thinking “What else would they use to print tickets on?” Papering an audience actually refers to tickets that are given away versus purchased. The goal for papering an audience isn’t just to make the actors feel good that people showed up. Instead, they generate future ticket sales via a planned strategy for creating buzz about the production. Tickets are given out to the general public, but also to influencers as well as those the theater wants to create a beneficial relationship for the purpose of either promoting or providing financial support. Papering an audience also helps create a positive impression of the company to those who did pay for tickets as a packed theater creates the image of a successful theater company.

Small businesses can also “paper” as a means to promote their company and attract paying customers. This doesn’t necessarily mean not charging. For instance, if you are promoting a sales event you can send out valuable discount cards to repeat customers. If you’re selling a seminar you can provide a deep discount when tickets are purchased for one person or give discounts to those who purchase by a specific date. Any of these methods can produce the same great first impression as when a theater group papers and audience. People show up at your sale or seminar and find a busy and thriving business they are likely to talk about both on and offline.

Get Technical
The best plays appear to go off without a hitch. Like an Olympic gymnast, the actors and technical crew make it look effortless. But we all know Olympic gymnasts have put a ton of work into being able to give the most perfect performance possible – and so have theater companies when their production seems perfect. We all know actors rehearse, but there are different types of rehearsals known as “Tech Rehearsals.”

  • A paper tech rehearsal is true to its name. The various technical directors (such as light and sound) meet with the stage manager and run through all of their cues, which are then transferred to paper and kept by the Stage Manager in what is usually referred to as the “prompt book.”
  • A dry tech rehearsal is where the people in charge of the various technical components rehearse their “parts” in the play without the actors present.
  • A tech rehearsal involves the actors and generally is done on a “cue-to-cue” basis. For instance, the play opens with particular lighting; the actors say a few lines – and then we skip to the next cue. Making sure all costuming is complete and all props are present is usually a part of a dry tech rehearsal.
  • A Pick-Up Tech rehearsal is done on an as-needed basis. The purpose of a Pick-Up is to correct any mistakes or technical malfunctions. Pick-Up’s are also used if a play moves from one theater location to another.

When you want an event, program, or project to go off without a hitch at your small business you’ve got to “get technical” as well. Stage managers have prompt books, you need a written plan. You’ve got to run a dry tech and be sure that all technical bells and whistles are working. There’s nothing worse than showing up for a presentation and have “technical difficulties.” You’ve got to get people together as a whole to be sure that everyone knows their part, how things work, and have what they need to get their job done. Most of all, you need to correct mistakes or malfunctions in as close to real time as possible. Customers or clients will only accept “it’s broken but we’re fixing it” for very short periods of time – if at all.

Last modified: March 5, 2013
Annie Kile


This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: marketing, MPR Authored, Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners, strategies, tips

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