TimeLine Theatre Company has a problem. It's an enviable problem, but it's a problem nonetheless: More people want to see their productions than they can accommodate in their current venue. While no theater manager would complain about this situation, it raises a lot of serious questions: How does one continue to grow when space is limited? What would it take to move into a bigger venue?Will the company be able to maintain its identity in a new, larger venue? Elizabeth Auman, Managing Director of TimeLine Theatre, recently discussed these issues, and TimeLine's strategy, with CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath.
While TimeLine is in the fortunate position of having its own performance space in East Lakeview, you presented one of the shows in a different venue this year, and you plan to do the same again next season. What led you to this decision? Are you outgrowing the space? Are you finding the technical possibilities of your resident space limiting?
We are definitely outgrowing our space. The most seats we can have in our flexible space is 99. The previous two seasons (2009–10 and 2010–11) we had to stop selling subscriptions. Even with that step, during our first two shows of the 2010–11 season (Frost/Nixon and To Master the Art) we had challenges getting our subscribers in to see performances when they wanted and single tickets sold out within days of opening. Fortunately, we were able to add a few performances of To Master the Art, but it wasn’t enough.
When it came to planning the 2011–12 season, our choices were to add capacity or make the decision to have a season with no audience growth. We weren’t interested in the no-growth option. Our options for adding capacity were to add performances and add weeks to our runs. At the time our runs were seven to nine weeks with most weeks having five performances and the final three having six.
PJ Powers, TimeLine’s Artistic Director, created a scenario where each show would run for 13 weeks with six performances a week, which added 10,000 seats to our season. Then you look at the math. With four productions each running 13 weeks, you have 52 weeks of performances. Then you add several weeks for each show for load in and tech and you really have a space problem. In this scenario we could only do three shows at our space on Wellington.
In the fall of 2009, we produced All My Sons in the downstairs mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center so we could extend our production of The History Boys. So we had some experience with producing in another location and with running two shows at the same time. The space we were in at the Greenhouse had twice as many seats as our space and we were able to fill them, so we also became interested in producing in a space with a few more seats.
Ultimately we were not able to produce in a bigger space for the 2011–12 season. We produced A Walk in the Woods at Theater Wit, which has the same number of seats as our space on Wellington. This fall we will be in a space at Stage 773 with 50 more seats, which will be very helpful.
While we do have technical limitations in our current space, renting a different venue doesn’t always give us more technical capabilities. There is always a trade-off as we usually give up having a flexible space at another facility.
The physical space in which a theatre operates is a big part of its identity, and I would think this would be especially true for TimeLine, since you often use your lobby as an extension of the performance. How have you managed to maintain TimeLine's "brand" in rented spaces?
We have had an incredibly difficult time maintaining our brand identity in a rented space. As you mention, our lobby is an extension of the performance space. I don’t know of a rental facility in the city that would let us do what we do in our space on Wellington. This is largely because many of the rental spaces have multiple venues and many different tenants.
It is always something we are thinking about, and from an artistic and audience experience point of view, I’m not sure we will ever completely solve the problem. We do try to make sure we always have a consistent people presence when we are in a rental venue. We always have the same front of house staff person every night as well as make sure there is also a Company Member, Associate Artist, or another staff member on-site.
Fortunately for you, there are several theatre venues in the vicinity of your own space that you can rent, so this might not be an issue, but have you had any problems getting your audience, especially your subscribers, to follow you to the new space? What has their reaction been?
We haven’t had any major problems. It is all about communication. Last fall we had A Walk In The Woods running at Theater Wit and opened The Pitmen Painters just 19 days later, so the shows overlapped for an extended period of time, which was a little difficult. It was the first time we had two shows that were part of our subscription season running at the same time. Because the Stage 773 space we are renting is bigger, the run will be shorter and we don’t have the first two shows overlapping for as long a period. This will be helpful in many ways.
While we communicated well with our patrons about which show was where, we did find out that we didn’t communicate enough about why we were doing a show at a different venue. Early in the run of A Walk in the Woods, before The Pitmen Painters opened, it was especially confusing for some as to why we were at Theater Wit. I would always start my answer to that question with “The simple answer is math. 4 shows x 13 weeks = 52 weeks.” I wrote a post on our blog on the topic, which you can read here.
What other opportunities and challenges has the use of the additional space created for you?
The opportunities have been great. The 2011–12 season was the first time in three years that we did not have to stop selling subscriptions. We have had plenty of single tickets available to sell, allowing new people to see our work. Many of the challenges have been about logistics. And it is very challenging for our full-time staff of six.
There are some difficult artistic issues at play. Since we have a flexible space, we are able to start every conversation with a new director and production team by telling them they have an empty space in which to create the play. They get to decide if the play is best served with alley seating, in the round, thrust or proscenium. When we rent a space with fixed seating, we have to find the show that will work with whatever configuration is in that theatre.
What are your long-term plans regarding space?
While we love so many things about our current space and have a great relationship with our landlord, the Wellington Avenue Church of Christ, in the long-term TimeLine needs a new home. The Board of Directors has been having this conversation since before I started at TimeLine. And it is one of the reasons I wanted to work at TimeLine.
We are busting at the seams in every part of the building. We are out of office and storage space and, of course, seats. And there are many technical limitations to being in a 100-year-old building.
So TimeLine’s current three-year strategic plan directly addresses steps we need to take on our way to achieving a new home. It’s not happening tomorrow, but we are constantly talking about what a new home would look like and taking steps forward on the work we need to do to make it happen.
Do you have any advice for theatre companies that want to develop their own resident space, or graduate into a larger/nicer/better space?
Patience, patience, patience and lots of planning. Every company needs to decide to what extent they want to be a property manager and how much of their resources (financial and time) they can put toward having their own space.
The planning part is essential. Not only do you have to figure out if you can operate in a bigger space (manage it, sell the tickets, etc.) but you have to know what you are going to do in the space. What does your programming look like, your staff infrastructure, your board of directors? While being a tenant can have its limitations, operating your own space is a whole different game.
Elizabeth K. Auman joined TimeLine Theatre in October 2007 and since then has overseen budget growth of more than 90 percent, the largest capital improvements in the company’s history, extended runs of The Pitmen Painters, Fiorello!, The History Boys, The Farnsworth Invention, and The Front Page, as well as the expansion of TimeLine’s programming to additional venues, including productions of All My Sons at the Greenhouse Theater Center and A Walk in the Woods at Theater Wit, among other successes. Prior to TimeLine, Elizabeth spent 15 years at Victory Gardens Theater, the last 12 as general manager. She also has held administrative positions at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and DePaul University’s Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Reskin Theatre). Elizabeth has served four times on PACT/Equity negotiation teams and was on the board of Strawdog Theatre and Step Right Up Productions. She has a BFA degree in Theater from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and was the recipient of Eclipse Theatre Company’s 2010 Corona Award.