Heidi Van recalls a bit of advice she soaked up during her student days at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif.: If you’re not working, make work for yourself.
“At the time, in 2000, that seemed like a revolutionary thought,” Van told me. “Traditionally, actors wait for their phone to ring.”
But the phone doesn’t always ring. So, to make work for herself and others as well, Van branched out into directing, producing, writing plays and theatrical entrepreneurship with her Fishtank Performance Studio in the Crossroads Arts District.
“You have to learn to pivot, and be adaptable, like you would with any business or launching any product,” she said.
My interest in this topic was sparked by a panel discussion I attended, “The Business of Theatre,” which occurred Feb. 24 at the MTH Theater at Crown Center. The discussion was led by Tim Scott, MTH Theater’s producer and marketing designer. The panel included Van and Jason Kralicek, managing director of the Unicorn Theatre. I spoke with Scott, Van and Kralicek in March and April.
Van’s story illustrates what it takes to survive and thrive in today’s theatrical arena, where change is the only constant.
“There’s a lot more competition for everyone’s time,” Kralicek said. “The internet, mobile phones where you have an app for everything. That’s competition for every second of someone’s day.”
According to Scott, “the people who get set in their ways and their strategies are setting themselves up to fail. You have to be nimble. As I look across the landscape of arts marketers and business people in Kansas City, the most successful people I see are those that are very innovative and very nimble.”
MTH has turned to strategies such as a more dynamic ticket pricing system, Scott said. “If you want to come to a Thursday matinee you can get a ticket for $15.”
Kralicek said Unicorn has pared down its subscription model to make it simpler. “Before, we had a ton of different offers for subscriptions. We condensed them down to a smaller number of packages. And we rolled out something new that we call memberships. You get six tickets with our membership, and we let folks use them however they want.”
The Unicorn also offers “pay what you can” tickets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
One of the biggest challenges facing many theaters is how to attract younger audiences as the older, season ticket-buying audience ages out. “Somebody 40 years old is a catch as a ticket purchaser,” Scott said. “How do you get those kinds of people? A lot of that has to do with programming.”
Scott said MTH reels in its core audience with classic musicals, and reaches out to younger consumers with its “Night on the Town” series, which he described as “essentially a nightclub show. That is a totally different brand, a different entity.”
Theaters also must be nimble and innovative in terms of their brand, Scott said. “What is the identity of your brand on social media? Are you a fun brand? Are you a risk-taking brand? Are you an uptight brand?”
Scott said MTH recently completed a major rebranding and revamped its website. “We used to be called Musical Theater Heritage. We ran into trouble a lot of times when people would think it was a museum. Now we’re called MTH Theater at Crown Center. I think changing the name is serving us well.”
Van said attracting new, younger theatergoers is a never-ending challenge. “I’m constantly trying to educate myself on ways to reach out. I use social media more than I would ever want to talk about. And I don’t even know if I’m doing it right, because I’m 20 years older than those children,” she said with a laugh.
Some theaters have banded together to take innovation to the national level. The Unicorn is a founding member of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theaters that supports the development of new plays in innovative ways. Its offerings include the New Play Exchange, a cloud-based script database that lets writers share scripts and helps theaters discover and evaluate them.
Van founded the Fishtank in 2009. She tells her performers they need to not just perform, but promote the show. “They need to talk to their friends and their relatives. They need to create their network of support as I have.”
Van let go of her lease on the black box theater portion of the Fishtank at the end of last year, and now performs in a variety of spaces around town. She still holds a lease on a production office and rehearsal hall at 17th and Wyandotte streets. She in turn leases that space out to groups that need rehearsal space, and even to yoga instructors.
Van understands that the world of theater will continue to evolve. She’s thinking of hosting a Fishtank podcast or radio show. Because she is nimble enough to change and grow, there is one thing she is certain of:
“The Fishtank will be here.”
Above: Panelists shared their views on the “Business of Theatre” at a discussion hosted by the Mid-Continent Public Library at MTH Theater at Crown Center last February. Pictured (left to right) are actor Tim Scott, producer/marketing designer, MTH Theater at Crown Center; Chip Miller, assistant artistic director, KC Rep; Heidi Van, founder, Fishtank Performance Studio; actor John Rensenhouse, managing director, Kansas City Actors Theatre; Jason Kralicek, managing director, Unicorn Theatre; and Rick Truman, managing director, Quality Hill Playhouse. (Image: Mid-Continent Public Library)