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FEATURES & INTERVIEWS

Joe Messina and Ashley D. White

Should We Start a Theater?

Introducing Square One, a monthly column in which Ashley H. White and Joe Messina chronicle their experience of starting a new theater company.



published Tuesday, September 12, 2017

NO CAPTION

 

Dallas — “We should start a theatre company.”

We’re not sure which one of us said it first, but it became a running joke for quite some time.

 

“We should start a theatre company.”

“Well, when we have our theatre company…”

“What shows will we do when we have our own theatre company?”

 

And so on.

It was certainly fun to talk about. And that’s what we did. At bars, at parties, at shows when we’d see each other…. For about two years we kept saying it.

“We should really start that theatre company....”

Everything changed when a mutual friend of ours sent us a link. An area theater was looking for a resident company and accepting submissions.

Could this be it? Did we want to do it?

Why the hell not?

We got together one day with a bottle of wine and set to fill out the application. We could DO this! We were excited and ready to make it HAPPEN.

We quickly figured out that the space wouldn’t be a good match for us (cost, audience size, location, etc), and that we were in way over our heads. We had no history, no funds, no board, no business plan, nothing.

We didn’t give up, though. Our focus just became more intense and it was time to get to work.

Everything picked up in speed significantly. We were talking all day every day, planning shows, picking seasons, talking about art and creating and how this was going to be incredible. We decided we were in this for the long haul. Our vision started to expand and to grow, the ideas were pouring in from left and right.

We were inspired and high on the possibilities in front of us.

We started to arrange meetings, did tons of research, did a competitive market analysis, met with lawyers… It was honestly a blur. Any artist can relate to the obsessive desperation that comes from a Shiny New Idea, and that’s where we were.

After a few weeks, we felt we had made some serious headway. We had a vision, we had a name, and we had buckets of enthusiasm… but these things do not a theatre company make.

 

Becoming a Business

Photo: Kris Ikejiri
Joe Messina and Ashley D. White

We realized we needed help. We had a vision and were ready to move forward, but the list of to-dos and considerations was growing faster than we could keep up with, and we were beginning to feel a little lost.

Jessie Wallace came on board as a founding member and company manager. Jessie is one of those rare humans who is both incredibly artistic and creative, but also has fierce focus and a business-oriented mind. She’s the best of both worlds. She jumped in and immediately provided structure and helped us in securing meetings, continuing research, and she started to look into grants and fundraising opportunities. We began meeting every Wednesday to plan.

We decided non-profit was the choice for us, secured our mission statement, and registered our name. We’ll write more about those things soon. For now, let’s focus on time and team. Because those are truly two things you must understand, appreciate, and HAVE in order to really do this. Theatre is a team sport — and you can’t mount a company alone or overnight. No one can. Jessie helped shift us from being two people with an idea to an actual team. What we weren’t prepared for what the impact and importance of good (and bad) timing.

We should probably mention at this point that this was all about two years ago.

So why did it take us until June of 2017 to announce the company, and then the season two months after that?

 

All in the Timing

Life Happened. Not just small moments that make up your day, or those medium moments that can influence your plans for a weekend. These were those huge, life-hanging moments. Miracles and tragedy. Moments that hit us and threw us off track.

Baz Luhrmann’s quote comes to mind: “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”

We were blindsided. And the timing was crippling. One of us was at an extreme high, the other was at an extreme low. When you and your partner both experience these events, you tend to refocus your life and what you are doing with it. That’s what we did. We reclused and refocused.

Unfortunately, IMPRINT theatreworks suffered from that refocus. We put off our weekly meetings until eventually they stopped being scheduled. Priorities were shifted and projects were shelved “for a few weeks” and then on. The mountain of to-dos was overwhelming and our personal lives demanded our full attention.

Eventually, we regressed back to the chrysalis stage—just talking about if we had a theatre and what we would do, but taking no action to get back to it. Soon even that stopped and the dream faded. It was once again just a joke brought up at parties.

 

One Little Spark…

You can attribute IMPRINT rising from the proverbial ashes to two things: A production of Peter and the Starcatcher (by Rick Elice) and car trouble.

We all remained very good friends over the next year or so. But IMPRINT seemed off the table. It became something we didn’t really mention. Until we found ourselves working together again, this time on a production of Peter and the Starcatcher at Onstage in Bedford.

Peter is a very challenging show that required the use of our full assortment of creative powers, as director and as an actor in the show. We found ourselves brainstorming, envisioning, and on fire once again with how our creative minds work together. How much we understand each other’s creative process, and how rare that shared language truly is.

A significant part of the story of Peter is about finding your home. It’s about finding your place in the world, meeting the people who will forever change you, and embracing your power as a unit. It’s ensemble theatre to the core and the script itself is a love letter to the art. It was a much-needed reminder of the power of theatre, the power of the ensemble, the power of family, and the power of home.

Theatre is our home.

During this intense creative process, major car trouble also had the two of us carpooling to and from rehearsal a few times a week. The distance of the theatre and our homes resulted in long car rides… and the long car rides resulted in long conversations…

 

“We should start a Theatre Company.”

We both quickly found that we still desperately wanted to do it. It was in us and it was special. We both felt the need within us and that it was the next step.

We started again (yes, there was more wine).

We called Jessie. She was all in before we even finished asking the question. She needed this, too. It seemed the timing was finally perfect.

 

Growing the Team

Something we knew we needed from experience, and now more than ever, was more people. The idea of our company was collaborative and ensemble based; we needed to follow that, build our ensemble, and begin to collaborate.

We also needed a president for our board. Shane Beeson was an obvious and easy choice. He’s a very successful businessman, has a long theatre résumé and understanding of how theatre companies work, and is a dear friend to both of us. We’ve both done shows with him as well, so he was familiar with our styles and work ethic. He accepted the position of board president in March of this year.

Now we were rolling.

Our next stop? Finding someone who could fill a business management role and work alongside Jessie on the administrative side of things. This was a harder position to fill. We wanted someone with some type of Arts Admin experience, an MA, or similar qualifications to truly take a business leadership role within the company. We needed someone to help with grants and scheduling, contracts and filings, among other things. We needed someone like Benjamin Bratcher, who accepted the position of business manager in April.

We later added a strategic development manager, Billy Betsill, to the team and he has been an incredible asset. In fact, he has truly rounded out our team in a dynamic and powerful way with his knowledge and experience spanning all facets of theatre and business. But for now, let’s focus on April of this year.

There we were… at what we like to think of as the second beginning.

Every beginning is so much more complicated than it seems, and ours was no different. The biggest lesson we learned through it all? Trust your given circumstances and accept that the right time is so much more important than the right now.

We’ve had this theatre company in us for years, but in order to do it right, we had to take our time in our preparations, assemble the right team, and make sure it was right for where we are in our lives. Life happens in a very strange and unavoidable way, but we all agree in looking back that none of us were truly ready in 2015. But we are now, and therein lies the difference.

 

Ready to Roll...

So there we were, last April, and we were ready to take on the world. We were going to do it. This was the moment. IMPRINT theatreworks was happening!

Now, the real work would begin. To borrow the last line from the show that changed it all for us:

Ready?

Set?

Go.

 

» Ashley H. White and Joe Messina are co-artistic directors of Imprint theatreworks, which begins its first season in January with David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.

» Square One will run on the second Tuesday of the month Thanks For Reading





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Should We Start a Theater?
Introducing Square One, a monthly column in which Ashley H. White and Joe Messina chronicle their experience of starting a new theater company.
by Ashley H. White and Joe Messina

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