“Ever tried, ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail Better.”
This quote perfectly summarizes the path I took to launching a theater company, and I wanted to share some of the story with you.
I’ve wanted to launch a theater company for over a decade, maybe longer. I don’t really remember exactly when I first thought it would be fun. It might have been back in the Kids at Play days when I aged out and started doing tech work for some of the shows, which gave me a glimpse at “the other side” of theater, meaning the business side. “What can we afford, how much will it cost, where can we get it and how quickly” were questions that suddenly entered my world at 16. Of course, I wasn’t the one asking the questions, let alone answering them, but it was really some of my first exposure into the things a community theater thinks about from a financial perspective. The idea of putting the puzzle pieces together has always intrigued me.
So, what took me 10-20 years? In a nutshell, I have no experience or education in turning a group of humans into an awesome play, a critical step in opening a theater.
But the thing about passion is this… it never really stops picking at your brain. Every time I saw a play, read about a friend who was living their dream, experienced an old theater for the first time… for some reason I couldn’t stop trying to figure out how to make it happen.
My first failure was an attempt to mount a live production of the Rocky Horror Show. After seeing the movie on Halloween for the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time, and having spent a considerable amount of time at the pub next door both before and after, I mounted the courage to message an old friend about how to get it done. Embarrassed by my ambition the next morning, I quickly glanced at the reply, which I read to say “sounds fun.” As in, “good luck with that.” This was my first failure. But as I would discover, it was my own self doubt that failed me… not my friend.
My failure set me back 4-7 years. But it might have been the best thing that ever happened.
I put the idea aside for some time while I pursued more pragmatic projects, like keeping my full time job. In 2014, when my family relocated from Lynnwood to Olympia, where I grew up, I immediately started looking for someone to work with on this project. The problem was, I didn’t know where to start, or really even what questions to ask. I had to find a cast and director, not to mention a venue, just to mount a bare bones production. I figured if I ever got that far I’d find a way to pay for the thing somehow.
As the years went by, and I continued to work in Seattle, I started running out of people to ask. So from 2014-2017, very little was accomplished. Another failure. As I would later find out, there were people all around me who wanted to help… I just had to look a little hard, and give them a reason to believe.
In 2017 I finally got fed up and started looking for any opportunity to return to theater. Audition after audition came up, but nothing that fit my schedule, or that I thought I was ready for… after all, it had been over 20 years since I’d acted.
Then, Apple Tree Productions’ audition announcement for Hairspray popped up. People I already knew, doing a show I’d heard of in Olympia! Maybe I’d have a shot at auditioning! I worked up a few karaoke songs I felt comfortable with and showed up. To my amazement, they were actually happy to see someone like me get back on the stage after so many years. I didn’t understand why at the time. Now I do. Aging out of community theater is a real thing. Kids, jobs, and life get in the way. And most of us never come back.
I was cast, I did the show, and fell head over heels in love with the stage again. Through the process, I was introduced to a director who was interested in my idea for the Rocky Horror Show. We discussed some details, but the timing never really worked… we kept pushing it off, and finally decided it probably wasn’t a project that would fit both our needs and schedules. Another failure. But this time I failed better.
Throughout this process I learned about many of the moving parts that go into putting on a play, and got a chance to test out some marketing efforts to see how they worked. I was able to meet people who gave me an insight into the many “spinning plates” that go into putting on a show.
Emboldened by my new information, I set out into the greater community, determined to cold call every director, theater, and educator I could find. Someone in Olympia had to see my vision, and had to want to be a part of it… I just knew it.
Fail again. As it turns out, getting other people to see the vision of your passion project is not easy. I approached dozens of people about being involved… apparently people have their own lives or something… who knew launching a company could be so complicated? (you can read whatever you want into that last sentence)
In a desperate attempt to salvage my dream, I reached out to an old friend… probably the oldest friend I have in the theater community… Chris Serface, Managing Artistic Director of Tacoma Little Theater. I met Chris when he was 16 and I was 13, and he was starring as The Cowardly Lion (little known fact… L. Frank Baum actually had a time machine and wrote the character in the hopes that someday it would be a musical and Chris would play the lion… true story). My father introduced me to him as Chris had been a student of my dad’s.
Unfortunately, Chris was unable to commit to directing the show at that time, as his schedule was full. Fail again. But he DID give me a list of names to call… FAIL BETTER!
I was able to make an offer to hire my first director from the first name on that list. Rick Hornor, whom had recently retired from running a college program that he himself had built, was on board for my project! He agreed in principle to direct my first show, RENT! Win! But… ever tried…
I was unable to find dates that the theater was open which Rick was available for. We parted ways with a promise to work together if I ever got this thing off the ground.
Rick was willing to give me feedback on my vision, but he was on board simply to do what I’d asked of him… direct a show, and see if I could make something work. This is all I thought I wanted at the time, and was very shaken when it didn’t work out. But, because I refused to let “Broadway Olympia” die simply as a trade name I registered with the State, and nothing more. I pulled myself together and emailed the second name on the list.
I emailed Lexi and explained my belief… that the public wanted this, that I could handle the business side of things, and that high profile, high energy shows would fill enough seats to keep us going. I asked if she’d be interested in directing 2 shows, one of which I’d already acquired the rights to, The Rocky Horror Show. The other show was RENT. Lexi expressed interest in RENT, but I was still left looking for someone to direct Rocky Horror.
On a hot spring morning in Phoenix, I took a call from Lexi while sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store, in my rental car (there was bad reception at our hotel). The conversation went well, and after learning we shared a lot of the same views on theatrical productions, Lexi agreed to take the leap with a stranger, and direct RENT. WIN WIN WIN!!!
Then Lexi started asking questions. Lots. Of. Questions.
One of those questions, and the answer that followed, changed the direction of this company forever…
“Why aren’t you launching a full season of 5 musicals and promoting them all at once? It’s more cost efficient and lets people know what you have coming.”
The simple answer was “I don’t know if I’m personally able to hire the creative talent to fill a full season, and I can’t make that financial commitment without knowing what the hell I’m doing. I’ve never run a theater before.”
Through dozens of phone conversations, emails and texts, Lexi shared her vast knowledge of the theater world, including her exposure to the business side of it. She was so convincing, that finally, one day, I called up Lexi Barnett and said:
“I want to do the season. But I can’t do it without you. There are too many blindspots I have, and too many connections I don’t, for me to pull this off myself. But I’ll do it if you do the whole thing with me.”
I didn’t really know what I was asking, I just knew that she was on to something. And I knew that even though I couldn’t figure out how to launch a full season with her, we could figure out the rest along the way. For some reason, which I may never understand, Lexi agreed to take the leap.
So we struck out on this venture, and I requested rights to about a dozen shows. All I knew is we were opening with RENT, and doing Rocky Horror on Halloween Weekend. Lexi provided advice on he selection of the shows, as well as their timing. She had directors in mind allready.
Did you know RENT is coming to Seattle soon? And that when that happens, community theaters don’t get awarded licenses to produce it? I certainly knew the second part, but not the first, and when the rejection email came through, it tanked the entire plan.
No, wait, no it didn’t, because Lexi already had 2 contingency plans, and the second one, Legally Blonde, worked out!
Today, we sit 3 weeks from the opening of our first show, Legally Blonde The Musical. We have no idea if we’ll sell enough tickets. But we know how the community has respond thus far. We know that we were right, the community DOES want this. The actors who showed up for auditions proved this to be true. I know that we can do great work. I’ve witnessed this first hand in only a few rehearsals.
But here’s the kicker… I went back and looked at that Facebook message from 2010. The first failure. The one where I thought I’d been rejected before we ever got going.
In response to my request for help putting on Rocky Horror, my friend had replied:
“Yes. Sounds fun.
It really was my own self doubt that caused me to fail in the first place. I didn’t even give myself a chance to believe in myself.
And when it’s all said and done…
Ever tried, ever failed. No Matter.
Never stop trying, learn from your mistakes, and leave a big damn footprint in the world when you’re done.