Love's Labor

Three theater-company founders talk about the passion

Anyone with a love for theater has probably fantasized about starting one up. Directing plays and selling tickets: It sounds so glamorous! But how experienced are you at scrubbing down toilets? And have you given any thought to the loss of family time? We recently cornered the heads of three area companies and got them to schmooze about the good and the not-so-good of producing theater in St. Louis.

Donna Parrone, managing director of HotCity Theatre, became one of the original founders of HotHouse (now HotCity) in 1997 because "we saw a lot of really good friends move on to Chicago and New York. I hated to see so much talent leaving St. Louis. Then I came to find out there's a whole lot of talent here that never gets used because there's nothing to do."

Pamela Reckamp, artistic director of Spotlight Theatre, started her company in 2000 for the same reason: "There are people here who have all this talent but don't get to show it."

Pamela Reckamp: "It's a lot of work, and there's 
nobody else to do it."
Pamela Reckamp: "It's a lot of work, and there's nobody else to do it."
Donna Parrone: "If there's one bane of St. Louis 
theater, it's the space issue."
Donna Parrone: "If there's one bane of St. Louis theater, it's the space issue."

Nicole Trueman, artistic director of DramaRama, created her mostly touring theater for children in 2001.

Riverfront Times: Since starting your companies, what sorts of things have sideswiped you?

Nicole Trueman: Insurance! Royalties! I never knew royalties were that expensive. Especially for musicals, it's unreal.

Pamela Reckamp: I went two years without insurance, and then someone asked, "Where is your certificate of insurance?" I said, "What?" In my budgets I had allotted for the actors' salaries, but I hadn't taken into account paying into things like FICA.

Donna Parrone: Then you start adding health insurance on top of that. It cost us as much for the Equity actors in The Exonerated [last fall's opening production at HotCity] as we made in ticket sales.

Then how can you stay in business?

Parrone: Grants and individual donors. Forty percent of our budget comes from individuals, and a third of that budget goes to talent.

Are grants being squeezed right now?

Trueman: Oh yes. Because of reductions in grants, next season we're cutting back from three shows to two. Primarily we're going to schools. We'll hardly do any public performances.

When you started your companies, did you ever envision how much paperwork would be involved?

Trueman: No!

Parrone: No!

Reckamp: Or postage. Postage can put you in the poor house.

Parrone: I did not get into theater to make copies of financial statements.

What's the least glamorous part of the job?

Reckamp: Taking sets apart. I strike my own sets.

Trueman: Mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms.

Parrone: I said, "I'll know we're a successful theater company when I don't have to clean the bathrooms."

As nonprofits, you're required to have a board of trustees. How do you go about putting one together?

Trueman: At the beginning you ask the people you know. I was literally begging: "I have to have this board. Can you please be on it?"

Parrone: We make sure that we have marketing people and lawyers, a Web designer. We have a fabulous board, but they sometimes lose focus on the fact that what a board is supposed to do is--

In unison: Raise money!

Reckamp: So many of the grant agencies want to know if your board is racially and ethnically diverse. While I think that's a worthy goal, I have a hard time saying, "I've got to find a black board member." I'd rather find somebody who's interested in my company and wants to see it grow.

Parrone: We have gay people and Jewish people on our board. They're minorities, but they don't count because they're white.

People come to you and say, "I want to start a company." What do you say?

Parrone: I had someone call me about this the other day. I said, "First, make sure you know what you want to do and see if there's a need for it. Second, you better have some backing, because for the first three years funders don't look at you. They make you prove that you can stick it out before they give you any money. And third, make sure you have a space. Because if there's one bane of St. Louis theater, it's the space issue."

It's easy to think of all three of you--

Reckamp: As nomads?

Exactly. And even though HotHouse has been in the ArtLoft from the beginning, you've never had a lease.

Parrone: Nope.

How can you plan for the future when you don't have a lease, or if you don't have a space that's yours?

Reckamp: That's why I'm not at [the] Soulard [Theatre] anymore. I was certainly not the only company to leave Soulard. Three out of four did. The executive director of the organization that owns the building, Robert Brandhorst, was unwilling to enter into a business arrangement. In June 2004, after our production of No Exit, I was ready to put on the calendar my next two seasons at Soulard. And he said, "We'll see how Mardi Gras goes." I couldn't keep doing that. He was unwilling to come to any kind of legally binding, comprehensive agreement.

Trueman: I also left Soulard. We tried to develop a collective of four theaters. At the outset I wrote up an agreement of things that we would do and that he would do, and we all signed it. And even those things were not done. So if he wasn't even willing to uphold this friendly agreement, I wasn't all that surprised when we didn't receive a formal, legal, binding lease. But DramaRama was founded as a touring theater company. Everything is designed to collapse down into the back of my truck. We tried the Soulard Theatre. I was really glad I did. But I don't think I'm going to do it again, ever.

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