The Anatomy of a Comeback

Whenever I am out and about, the first thing people ask me about is, “How is Blue Spruce doing?” and I always have to give them the same answer: “We’re still on hiatus.” What exactly does that mean?

Essentially it means that we’re not in a position where we feel comfortable producing a full-scale musical. We set aside a certain amount of debt that we want to pay off before we being producing again. The good news is that we’ve already paid off more than half. When we do finish paying it off, we have to make sure that we have a way to ensure that we don’t end up with that same mountain of debt we were left with before. So, how do we do that? We’re open to suggestions, but two ways immediately come to mind:

One: Fundraising.

This is one of two things that most small theater companies are worst at, the other being marketing. We cannot continue to produce the top-quality shows that you’ve come to expect without somehow paying the bills. Unfortunately, ticket revenue has historically only paid for between 1/6 and 1/3 of the total cost of producing a show. (I do think we can do better than that – attendance has been historically low to most of our shows, despite relatively low ticket prices and all the awards and outstanding reviews. However, we should assume that attendance will continue to be what it has been, as most small theater companies have comparable attendance to ours, and we only seat 90 at most anyway.) So, we’ll need to find some ways of raising revenue that don’t just involve getting so-called “butts in seats,” whether it’s a series of fundraising concerts, or finally going 501(c)3 and applying for grants. (The latter is a complex, expensive, and lengthy process with no guarantees of success, and therefore we’re reluctant to commit to that fully until we’re sure we have our house in order.)

Two: Cutting costs.

This is the thing that hurts. We already operate on a shoestring, for the most part, although we do pay our personnel (actors, musicians, designers). We don’t want to change that, and honestly, that’s not the biggest problem; the rights to shows and rental of performance and rehearsal spaces tend to be most of the cost. However, that’s unlikely to change much. So, there are a couple things we can do:

Shorter runs

This is a bit problematic, since one of the complaints we got when we produced The Last 5 Years was “if you only have a two-week run of a show, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to make it; if only you had done a third weekend!” Attendance was low, and we had fewer opportunities to make up for the first weekend’s poor attendance; by the time the reviews came out and word of mouth spread, we were about to close. So, we expanded to three weekends and added extra shows for our second show, Portraits: The Last Leaf / Still Life. This added cost and also added many more opportunities for people to see the show, but, as it turns out, it didn’t really increase overall attendance (and we ended up having to cancel several shows). So, one way we can cut costs is to cut our runs back to one or two weekends. This is disappointing, because we would like to give people more opportunities to perform after they spend so long rehearsing a show. However, I expect that our next show is going to run for only two weekends, and we may cut Thursdays and Saturday matinees – which is when the press typically comes, but few others.

Less expensive shows

With each successive show, our budgets – and our ambitions – have expanded. Each show saw additional technical challenges: our first show (The Last 5 Years) saw sophisticated lighting effects (water effects, spinning clocks); Portraits had the “leaf wall” (which simulated the falling of leaves in Johnsy’s bedroom) and featured new orchestrations including a harpist; Hedwig and the Angry Inch had projections and video and complex sound requirements; and 2010’s Once on This Island (our most ambitious and critically acclaimed project to date) had the largest cast, and the most complex costumes, choreography and set we’ve ever had to work with in The Black Box at the Arsenal Center. But all of that comes at a cost. We don’t want to start charging $70 a ticket, as no one would show up, so we have to somehow find simpler, more effective ways of telling a story without adding cost. Minimal set, minimal costumes, minimal lights and orchestra, without losing quality. That is probably our central challenge as we contemplate our comeback.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, first, people seem to be really curious about what goes on within a theater company, as that’s what most of the questions I get are about. But second, we want you all to know that we really are still alive, and trying to come back as soon as we can. Naturally, the shows we’re looking at are still ambitious, and we hope you will be pleasantly surprised at what we come up with when we do finally return to producing so-called “mainstage” productions. Meantime, we’re going to continue putting on small, intimate concerts, and maybe participate in festivals here and there where we can, so we can stay active. Please stay tuned – we’re not done yet, and we hope you join us when we do return, full tilt, with yet another ambitious and crowd-pleasing project.

Very best,
Jesse Strachman