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  • Writer's pictureLauren Morris

No matter what the cost is always too high

I saw today a really cool, eclectic theater across the country is closing and that the person behind it will be left in massive debt. Unfortunately, I understand all to well why and how this can happen.

The arts, theater, and especially improv theater is difficult and small independent theaters are propped up by those who are willing to serve a bigger purpose than their own needs. Who truly feel the pull to be in service.

I don’t know that small theater owners talk about the true cost of running theater enough. Those of us who choose to take on overhead and put ourselves and our families in real financial risk tend to be quiet about it. We have actively made the choice, so why complain? We love the art form and what it can do for the human spirit, so why complain?

I can empathize with others but can only speak of my own experience. I hope this is read as it is intended and that is to help others understand what is given up and gained. At the end of the day, the cost is too high and in one way or another, it will take its toll.

Each of us makes a personal decision to stay and endure the cost or leave it behind.

My health and future is in a holding pattern and I am finding time to reflect on everything. Overwhelming isn’t a strong enough word but it’s a start. I am not making any decisions on any facet of life right now because it is too much and I don’t feel I can make a decision and be okay with what happens next. Not yet.

A lot of people don’t know how much “indie” improv I did in my early years. There are a few people who have been around long enough to know. In all honesty, I don’t care. Those years spent growing a scene were difficult but I look back on it with fondness. It also was a great teacher for me. I honed my skills, learned to market and brand programming, and met so many cool people.

I reached a point where I could see the bigger picture beyond the itch to get on a stage or classroom and my own ego.

As this is a candid conversation, what I often see now are a lot of people who try to replicate what I did (they don’t even know they are doing so!) because they want opportunities for themselves but they also like being regarded as a leader, producer, giver. A lot of it feels inauthentic to me and that could very well be me receiving the wrong message so I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

We have to take care of ourselves and there is no shame in creating something that benefits you as the artist just don’t hide behind “the greater good”.

It’s easy to be given accolades or told you are “important” when you aren’t truly risking real life. I’ve seen people given leadership roles and praised for their sense of community by others and shake my head because they really haven’t done anything then spend other people’s money, using other people’s resources and only take on projects that have big safety nets. It can wear you down so you have to decide if you are going to be part of this big stage to let that go, put your blinders on, put your head down, do your work.

Those of us who launch full-blown theaters know what we are stepping into and thus we understand what responsibilities lie on our shoulders. So much of what you see when you step into a small, independent theater is the owner(s) personal time and finances.

I have spent countless hours at the theater when no one is there fixing, cleaning, building, and so on.

I spend personal money on the theater. For several years, instead of a family vacation, that fund has been poured back into the theater. I don’t do it so people can tell me how amazing I am, and frankly, I don’t often share this side of the theater. I do it because I believe in the mission and philosophy. I believe in servant leadership and I feel more complete knowing I can give myself to something bigger than me. It helps give me a purpose in this world. The human condition is hard. This up until now has made life feel easier.

The last year has been the most stressful to date. I run a business. There were people who tried to sabotage that business. It was a big blow. People tell their stories. Those who knew me a long time opted to take the other side. People need narratives so they can sleep at night. It was such a learning opportunity and I only wish all involved happiness and peace in their lives. The theater and I are resilient and we survived.

I then chose to take a leap of faith and expand in space and staff.

I don’t expect nor do I want people to say how great or brave I am. I do, however, want less stress. This huge leap is too hard. That was apparent even before I became ill. I knew it and was working on adjusting to something actually manageable.

You pour so much into a community, a building, a business. It can be hard to sit down and say, “this isn’t working. This needs to change”. You think you’ve failed, you don’t want to let down your community, your identity becomes lost and completely entangled. You sit with a lot of fear. You cry often!

Your community can be supportive but the truth is they have no buy-in so they can (and many do) walk away at any time when it becomes too much. You cannot. That will either make you angry and bitter or you are okay because you understand that is your position. Every owner has to come to their own decision.

Finances have a big impact on where you are on this spectrum. As the sole proprietor, at what point is it no longer worth it? That is the question you always ask. For me, it’s been a lot of “for the next 6 months and then reexamine”.

You seek the support of other theater owners. It helps relieve stress or find new ideas but it still sits on your shoulders. Every market is so different too. I’m in a market where I get more praise and support from afar than up close. I never did this for the money. I have never taken a salary and any money the business has made has been put right back into the business.

There comes a point that you just don’t know if it’s worth it. Why do I fund other people’s hobbies? You find yourself asking that quite a lot. You see others getting praise or doing things that you quietly have done for a decade and you want to hit your head against a wall.

Now that I face new health challenges so many questions have flooded into my life and they aren’t just limited to running a theater. Frankly, it’s overwhelming to the point that I’m not even opting to ask the questions at this time.

I can have all the words of encouragement, I can have people physically helping out to keep shows and classes going and that is all SO important and wonderful but it isn’t cash. That sounds harsh and stark and I know that. The bills need to be paid. We do that through sales. People buy a product and I pay the bills. My main job is in sales and marketing.

It’s not fun. Some people love sales. I do not. I never wanted to be in sales for anything in my life. It is easier when you believe wholeheartedly in the product. I do believe in it and every job has an element you won’t like. I’ve always viewed the theater as the best job in the world and if the worst part is this element, I’m grateful to do it because anything else seems like a nightmare.

Over time, it has worn on me. This part of the job that is paramount is chipping away at me. It is consuming me, enveloping me, suffocating me. I get overwhelmed having to face it on a daily basis and terrified of walking away from it. Who am I if I walk away? What comes next? Those are such BIG questions and this new element of my life makes them feel impossible.

I know if there isn’t a theater I’m not just displacing a community, I’m displacing myself. I know improv in this area. People don’t rehearse if they aren’t “trained” to do so or come from a philosophy that is steeped in that. People don’t behave professionally because they “just want to dick around on stage with their friends” yet they charge people to watch them do that. Having a theater has helped me behave and surround myself with others who also behave as professionals. Improv is fun and you can fail. There’s a difference in failing when you’ve put your best foot forward then failing because you don’t put effort into your craft.

I see people’s egos thinking they don’t need to rehearse consistently because they’ve been at this for 3-4 years. That they get their “reps” in because they do other arts. While it is helpful, it’s not true. It’s also why many people don’t make it beyond 5 years in improv. Rinse, lather, repeat is what it’s all about.

There are so many opportunities now which is fantastic but it’s also a lot of novice performances being showcased. With a festival almost everywhere you go and most of them being non-juried so the festivals can make cost, you land up seeing lots and lots of basic improv. It no longer inspires others to work so hard at their craft because what they just saw on stage was truly magical but also not magical because the people behind the magic have worked SO hard for a LONG time.

All of this is why I have a theater. To elevate the art form. To also give a voice to underrepresented voices. It’s why our theater focuses solely on a relationship, game-driven long-form improv and why we push for inclusion. On paper when I write that out my heart swells with love and joy. Then I think about the day to day and that’s where I start to fall apart.

I don’t know how to keep going. I do know that to keep going there will need to be significant changes. I know that it is so scary. I know that no matter what there will be judgment, whispers, rumors, and who knows what else. Right now I don’t know how to see my way through and I know so many others who are in good health and struggle with the same issues.

What I do know is that the cost of running a theater for any and all of us is too high.

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