Dallas — Well, there we were. Our team was assembled; the timing was right—IMPRINT theatreworks was happening. The ultimate end game was producing a full season of theatre, but what were the next steps? Where did we have to go next to achieve these goals? Our next three moves were incredible learning lessons that were very necessary in getting us where we are today:
Every team needs a mission and ours was no exception. That didn’t make it any less daunting. We were forming IMPRINT’s identity that would be our calling card for the rest of our existence as a company. No small task… And we went through many iterations before settling on the identity we have today.
At first, we just wanted to do shows—our dream shows. We all have them and we can all immediately pull our personal “Bucket List” works to mind easily. It’s fun to dream—and while those shows should absolutely be considered (there’s a reason we are passionate about them), it’s easy and all too tempting to go down that path and not take the time to truly research and choose what you want your company to be. It was an early lesson for us.
The shows we looked early on at made no sense with each other, there was no through-line, there was no finesse, but they were damn good shows. And when we thought about who we wanted to be, the answer was just “a theatre company.” Not enough.
We went from too vague to way too specific fast. An early version of our mission statement and vision for the theatre focused on tying each piece we did with a work of visual art, a drawing, a portrait, architecture…the effort was to bridge the gap between the visual and performing arts. A cool idea and concept, perhaps, but we quickly found through planning that there was little to no longevity in tying ourselves to the task of matching every show we did to a different work of art. Joe said it best in one of our meetings: We were painting ourselves into a corner. Pun intended.
We finally found our identity of ensemble-driven, honest theatre that engages the community through producing pieces that are rarely, or never, done in the area, quite organically. We let it come to us. We started reading scripts nonstop, we researched other theatres across the country and talked about what we thought were dynamic moments in our own artistic journeys, and we just talked it out—a lot. We were able to shape a vision of IMPRINT theatreworks that was fresh, dynamic, and representative of us as artists without tying our hands together with overly contrived obligations. We let the works speak for themselves and have through-lines for each season.
The IMPRINT theatreworks mission statement: An ensemble driven company, IMPRINT theatreworks will dedicate each of their seasons to providing unique and thought provoking theatre while uniting and engaging the community.
It didn’t happen overnight, or even over a few nights. For us, defining our mission and our vision for IMPRINT was a long-term discussion and one we will continue to have as the company evolves over the years.
Another big thing to consider when becoming a company, is what type of company you want to be. You can be non-profit, an LLC, become incorporated, or many other things. For us, this choice was easy; we wanted to be a non-profit. Non-profit status comes with a lot of terms, a lot of rules, and a lot of standards that you must meet, but the benefits for us, were worth the work. They also reflected the type of company we wanted to become: an organization focused on the art and providing artistic opportunities for the Dallas area.
One area that can be overlooked when starting a theatre is the business end. We are generally artistic people and we want to get to the performing! Be sure to align yourself with a great team, especially those business-minded to keep that focus.
We started the process and sent in the paperwork. It’s amazing how liberating and exciting that moment is. You go from being an idea discussed with your partners to a full-fledged company just like that! Here’s where we ran into another learning lesson. We thought we had done it all correctly when we’d filed as a non-profit with the State of Texas in 2015, but we didn’t realize at the time that we also needed to file separately with the IRS. It was an application for a space (interestingly enough) and our desire to be a part of North Texas Giving Day alerted us to that fact. We were able to file the necessary paperwork in time for all the necessary items we needed, mostly thanks to our incredible management team. Like we said last month, it’s all about the team.
If you are considering filing for non-profit status, do it, and do it now. It takes time and more paperwork than you think. And there are so many things you are not eligible without that official blessing from the IRS. While we didn’t learn the hard way, we came awfully close. Lesson learned: dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
Well, there we were. We had a vision. We had a mission. We had our credit and our licensing. Next? Announce. We had to get ourselves out there.
This was by far the scariest step, and somehow, the most defining. While obtaining our 501(c)(3) status legitimized us on paper, and we were confident in our mission statement and vision, we still hadn’t told anyone about IMPRINT. Technically, we could fold up the papers, lock them all away, go about our days remembering that time we almost started a theatre company... and no one would have been the wiser, but we couldn’t do that.
We had decided early on that we wanted to do this thing big. We wanted to produce a full season our first year and come out fully established and set. We wanted strong marketing and to be bold in the way we presented ourselves. We worked hard to create a look and feel that reflected us and who we wanted to be, and our reveal was no different. We wanted to present ourselves as a well-rounded unit from the get-go... to be seen as a company, as IMPRINT theatreworks and not just Joe, Ashley, Jessie, Benjamin, and Shane doing some theatre (Billy had not yet joined the team at this point, but his role enters soon, we promise). We couldn’t announce our shows, yet, as the rights were still being acquired.
We were ready to share ourselves with the world, not focusing on any one show or season of shows, but on the theatre itself: the brand, what we stood for and what we were promising to bring to the area.
We were going to go BIG, because there was no going home.
For us, that materialized in the form of an announcement party we titled The Big Reveal. We held it on the night of The Tony Awards and invited nearly everyone we knew over for a watch party with amazing food, beer and wine, and “a very special announcement.” That got everyone talking and making their guesses. It was a very fun and exciting time. IMPRINT was quickly referred to as the worst kept secret in town.
Ten minutes before The Tony Awards, we stood in our Board President’s living room and announced ourselves to our friends and colleagues. We were nervous and thrilled, excited and scared. It was our defining moment and one none of us will ever forget it. We played the video and our hearts were pounding—we had crammed our vision and our dreams into a four minute clip, and once we hit play, there was no going back. After the video ended, everyone cheered and applauded (and we released the breaths we didn’t realize we were holding).
It was done. The secret was out!
Hugs, handshakes, and lots of excited conversations were happening left and right. We finished the announcement portion with a champagne toast to the future of IMPRINT and turned on The Tonys. Our team spread out across the house, like PR people in a Spin Room following a debate. We were answering questions, fielding opinions, and receiving heartfelt wishes towards our success. It was a magical evening.
This was it. The die had been cast, the wheels set in motion, the clichés were coming out.
However, Ashley said it best: “Now we really have to do it.”
» 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 runs on the second Monday of the month.
PREVIOUSLY IN SQUARE ONE
Sept. 2017: Should We Start a Theater?