Joe Messina and Ashley H. White

Lessons Learned

In the sixth Square One column, Ashley H. White and Joe Messina list the top 10 things they have learned about starting a theater company. So far...

published Monday, February 19, 2018


It was a cool Fall evening.

We were sitting behind a table; excited, nervous, ready.

7:00pm. The first one comes in.

The moment was finally here.

Our first audition.


Dallas — We’re getting to the juicy stuff here … it was late last Autumn and we were having our first ever auditions! It was thrilling and exciting and terrifying and everything we’d dreamed about. But before we go there, let’s recap.

There is SO much that has to be done long before you get to sit behind that table and cast your very first show. We sat down and came up with our top 10.


(a producer’s perspective)


1. ASSEMBLE YOUR TEAM. DIVIDE AND CONQUER. We’ve said it over and over, and it remains 100 percent true. We could not have done this alone and it is only with the power of our incredible team that we are where we are. You have to find people who you work well with, but you each need to have different qualities and strengths. You have to define your roles and be confident and honest regarding your strengths and weaknesses. You have to build TRUST. And if you’re as lucky as we are, you actually like each other.  

2. KNOW WHO YOU ARE. This is not simply just coming up with your company’s name. This is deciding what artistic vision you have and what strengths you feel, as a Theatre Company, you can bring to your community. This is very important and can be very challenging. You can OVER-identify and paint yourselves into an artistic corner (like we did early on in our planning) or UNDER-identify, leaving yourself with no real identity on which to establish yourself. Think about who you want to be, and develop from there. Trust your gut. 

3. COME UP WITH A BUSINESS MODEL. “Do some shows” does not a successful theatre company make. This can be stressful and tedious but is absolutely necessary to succeed. A ton of resources are available online and it is important to define a process and organizational structure that best suits your needs and works for your entire team.  

4. INCORPORATE, FILE, AND MAKE IT LEGIT. To be a business you have to be A Business. Keep it legal and organized. Get those forms filed and in on time. Save the PDFs on your shared drives. You will thank yourself over and over again.  

5. BUDGET. BUDGET. BUDGET. It’s no secret that producing theatre costs money, but you may find it surprising just how much it costs. Secure your funds and have a strong plan on how you intend to use them, making every dollar count. Have a full budget for at least your first year laid out long before you embark on any show. Know costs of rights, locations, artists, absolutely, but also consider advertising, website, administrative, storage facilities, tax and accounting prep, filing fees... There is a LOT. Being organized from the very beginning will help you so much as you progress in your journey as a producer.  

6. LAYOUT YOUR ONE-, THREE-, AND FIVE-YEAR PLAN. This one was daunting for us. In fact, we pushed if off for quite some time… However what we found when we finally dug into it, was a deeper understanding of our identities and a clear path for moving forward. We expanded and developed, and then condensed into smaller action items that we could keep front of mind, creating benchmarks for the future. This has already helped to drive our focus and keep us on track. Oh, and lots of grant proposals ask for Five Year Plans. ;)  

7. RESEARCH AND DEFINE YOUR SEASON. OK. You’ve done One through Six. You know who you are, you have your team, you’re legal and licensed, and you have a plan for your budget and the future of your company. Now, NOW you can begin to put some focus onto what kind of Season you want to mount. Time to read some plays. And read more plays. And then some more. Get ready to be drowning in obsession for the next few months as you lay everything out. 

8. FIND YOUR SPACE — A UNIQUE CHALLENGE One day, when we win the lottery, we are going to build a huge Arts Complex with affordable spaces for teaching, rehearsing, and performing and share it with the entire community (unless you have $10 million you want to hand us right now ;-). Until then, this will likely be one of your biggest hurdles, and one of the most frustrating. You need meeting space, audition space, rehearsal space, storage space, and then, of course, PERFORMANCE space. It’s a struggle we all have and I wish I could say it’s easy, but it’s not. It is, however, EXHILARATING when you find your perfect home, and it’s actually available.  

9. APPLY FOR RIGHTS. GET REJECTED. APPLY FOR OTHER RIGHTS. GET REJECTED. RINSE AND REPEAT UNTIL YOU GET THEM. This is a process. But it’s a necessary one. It takes SO much more time than you anticipate (I think the Dramatists site suggests four weeks—it took us nearly three months to get rights from them for one of our pieces). I’d honestly say to back-schedule three to five months for this process, because if you get turned down for whatever reason, you have to start all over again. If you get them? Great! Then you can relax and - haha, you’re never going to relax again. But you CAN use that extra time to focus on other necessary action items. 

10. UNIFY TO MEET YOUR PRODUCTION GOALS. We all need to be on the same page. Organization is key. Mounting a theatrical production has several moving parts and you will need a top shelf team to handle all of the important aspects of the production. To ensure these parts are organized and moving in the right direction, everyone needs to be aware and agreed on the vision of the project. Artistic Directors, Directors, Designers and everyone will have a point of view. It is the job of the Director, in conjunction with the Artistic Director, to unify those views into a single collaborative concept for everyone to follow and be excited to work on. That can be daunting, stressful (there is that word again), emotional and rewarding. Focus is the key. Remind your staff everyone is headed to the same goal. And when you’re ready ... schedule those auditions.


For us, this process took nearly three years. Now, as we said in the past, a whole lot of life happened in those three years. But hopefully this skeleton will help guide future producers in considering all there is to do long before the fun begins. Now that we have closed our first show, we can confidently say that the prep is not only necessary, but imperative—and every bit was worth it.


» Ashley H. White and Joe Messina are co-artistic directors of IMPRINT theatreworks. This week is Imprint's inaugural First Impressions Festival for Local Playwrights, with readings of new works at the Bath House Cultural Center, Feb. 21-24.

» Square One runs on the second Monday of the month (although we moved it to third Monday for February).



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Lessons Learned
In the sixth Square One column, Ashley H. White and Joe Messina list the top 10 things they have learned about starting a theater company. So far...
by Ashley H. White and Joe Messina

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