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."

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.

[Robert Brandhorst says of the collapse of the Soulard Theatre Collaborative: "I do agree with the problem of leases. We went into this on a trial basis for a year, and we said from the outset that after a year we would re-evaluate the situation. I feel that we honored our agreement. We even installed a new heating and cooling system at a cost of $26,000. It's disappointing that we were unable to work out a continuing arrangement, because Soulard is an ideal venue for theater. I wish Pam and Nicole the best."]

Reckamp: I regret leaving Soulard, because people like being able to identify a company with a location. They can get confused when a company moves locations.

What about money for publicity?

Parrone: We don't spend money on publicity. Except for our direct-mail pieces, everything we do is what we get for free.

Reckamp: A couple years ago, a new company called Broadway at Your Doorstep was at DeSmet High School. They took out newspaper ads, and it sucked them dry.

What about television?

Trueman: They've filmed us. We've gone and stood at the window with signs. It doesn't do anything, because people aren't used to seeing it. If it was a consistent thing, it might make an impact. But right now we don't get phone calls from sporadic coverage.

Parrone: We've been hounding Channel 5. Their response is, "Do you want to come to the window?" No! I don't want to come to the window. That's not going to do for HotCity what we need them to do -- and, frankly, what we think it is their responsibility to do.

What's been the low point of running a company?

Reckamp: I can answer that one really fast: It's a lot of time away from my husband and my kids, and the cause of numerous issues at my house. Because it's a lot of work, and there's nobody else to do it.

Trueman: Same answer: It keeps me away from home. And forking over a lot of my own money has been hard.

Parrone: My marriage dissolved right after our first show [at HotHouse]. There were a lot of nights -- especially eighth grade and the first year of high school -- when my daughter was home alone because I was at the theater. That was tough on both of us.

What's been the high point?

Reckamp: Hellcab was an exciting time. It made a lot of money for Spotlight. When the phone doesn't stop ringing, that's when it's great.

Trueman: We perform mostly in schools. I remember once as we were packing up the truck, the kids went out to recess and started re-creating the play we had just performed: "I'm going to be Lucy. You can be Charlie Brown. You can be Snoopy." That was very gratifying.

Parrone: Our first show after 9/11 [It's All True] opened a week later, and it tanked big-time. Then our next show, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, sold like gangbusters. The last Saturday night I was sitting on Marty [Stansberry, HotHouse artistic director]'s lap in the very back of the theater because there were no chairs. We had pulled in every chair, every stool. The actors were so "on" that night, and the audience was so with them, and everybody was having such a good time. And I turned to Marty and said, "It is so good to be us right now."

More by Dennis Brown

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