Don’t Tell Me the Moon is Shining
Hello my Beautiful, Sexy Readers!!!
I had the distinct privilege to interview (in a way) one of my fellow classmates from the University of Colorado, Boulder and one of the creators of a young theatre company in Boulder, CO, Devil’s Thumb Productions: Alexander Clifton Hughes. (Alex). The interview speaks for itself in inspiration but, to sum up, it touches base on very helpful hints on subjects of 1) creating a theatre company, 2) how to fundraise, and 3) how to stay inspired as an artist or anyone pursuing a dream that ventures off the beaten path.
On a personal level, this interview stands out to me and touches me because of Alex’s consistent emphasis on creating work for yourself. So many times as artists and as individuals bred from the American school system, we become dependent on others to show us a rubric or give us progress reports. But there comes a time when we realize that others do want to help us only when we have something to share. So create your own work and people will want to support it. The day of handouts is over and the day of helping yourself to help yourself is abound. Lately I have been seriously considering writing my own comedy as well as making a webseries with my hilarious roommates. The time is now. No holding back. Make it happen for yourself.
So, without further ado, I give you the very informative interview. Happy early Thanksgiving. You can return the favor in the form of Vegan pies or attractive, tan men who can sing 90s R&B. Please read if you are interested in creating your own company, have a project that may need fundraising, or if you are looking to create your own work or just continue being the artist that you are. Enjoy.
What motivated you to create a Theatre company?
Ya know, I think what motivated us is kind of what motivates most people to start any company, whether it be theatre or a restaurant or something. We felt like we had a product to offer (being our art and artistic vision) that was worth seeing. And we felt like we weren’t getting that out through conventional means. So, ya know, we wanted to something to kinda market our own art and market something we thought the community was going to want to see. The other reason we started was cuz Nick, Laura, Anja, and I – we had always had this dream of doing Jack and Jill (Devil’s Thumb Productions first production in the spring of 2010 at the Boulder International Fringe Festival). We all really wanted to work with one another cuz we enjoyed working with one another in school and so… we started the theatre company on the premise that it was friends working with friends. And that carried over into Talk Radio. We wanted to provide a haven, if you will, for young artists and people who wanted to work together to come together and produce that work without the necessary attachments that come with working at some place like the DCPA or the Arvada Center that already have a huge board. Although we have a board, we’re young and we can take risks that other companies with an established clientele and an established space don’t necessarily take, which is understandable.
Why Boulder, CO?
The reason we picked Boulder is because that’s where we all were at the time. It was a city of convenience. Rather than going into Denver and trying to make it down there where there are a ton of other theatre companies, we felt Boulder had a really ripe arts scene that wasn’t necessarily tapped by a lot of theatre markets. Especially the kind of theatre we are offering which is younger theatre – shows for younger people. We have a University up here and we have a lot of great companies like Square Product and BETC but, ya know, the market isn’t totally saturated. In Denver, there are 90 producing companies while in Boulder, there’s only 20 something.
That is advice for anybody trying to market themselves whether it be actors or writers or people trying to start a company: DO YOUR DEMOGRAPHIC RESEARCH.
… You have a chance to let yourself shine more. Right now, Boulder works with us because we’re a small company and we have a supportive community. That’s another important thing: a large part of a theatre companies success is building a backing and a following. Boulder has a really supportive arts community and they want to support local things. Us all having gone to school up there, that’s been a large part of our marketing strategy. We are local artists bred and born in Boulder, CO and we want to give back to community that helped to nurture us.
What do you hope to bring to your theatre community? What is your mission?
I always find missions to be a little… kind of… LOFTY. Everybody writes this “mission” and to me all it is is just words. I feel like a lot of people don’t necessarily practice their missions or, if they do, its not as complicated as their mission makes it out to be. For example, on our website, our mission is
“Our mission at Devils Thumb Productions is to watch, process and imitate life providing a venue for young theater artists to find their voices and enlighten our audiences. We represent an ever present part of Boulder’s culture and the idea that theatre visibly exposes facets of human life.”
And so, ya know, we spend a goooood, I’d say, month, trying to write that cuz we wanted it to sound professional and that we put a lot of thought into it. I’m really happy with the way that it turned out but the more and more I’ve been doing this, the more that I’ve come to realize that your mission statement… you don’t need one. Nobody cares about that. You need it for yourself but that can be internal. You just have to have a clear direction of what you want to give your audiences. One of our missions is to represent the idea that “theatre visibly exposes facets of human life?” Well that’s every fucking theatre company! They all wanna do that. Theatre is imitation of life. Entertainment in general, movies, acting – you try to imitate life, access, try to show other people that the emotions they’re feeling, the situations they go through, that they’re not alone. That its ok to laugh and to cry. I feel like our purpose, what we really want to get out of this and bring to the community, is to expose them to titles that aren’t necessarily produced a lot (Jack and Jill, a lesser known Jane Martin play), Talk Radio, An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein, and Dog Sees God (which is more mainstream).
The most important thing is that, since we’re all young theatre artists, we want to work with young theatre artists. That doesn’t mean people who are right out of college. It might mean someone who hasn’t been given the chance to make their big break yet, an older theatre practitioner whose played bit parts their entire life. We can take those risks and give people their first leads. We’re still lookin for our groove, as Stella might say.
So that’s a large part of our mission: to provide this venue for young theatre artists to explore their craft and get better at it and in the process, bring professional theatre to the Boulder community.
How is your company different?
We go out of our way to try to cast and find younger theatre people and specifically pick shows for them. We spent a lot of time looking for shows that had a lot of younger characters. We wanted to find shows that our actors could relate to and helped give opportunities to theatre artists that need a start.
Where did you begin in your creation of this company? What were your first steps?
The first question was whether or not we should incorporate, from a business stand point. Should we register ourselves as a business in Colorado or to just have a name with a back end tax option as a personal business and we wouldn’t be a registered business in the state? Its kind of tricky. Given what I know now, I probably would have held off incorporating until this season. I think we were a little hasty before Jack and Jill cuz we were excited. But my advice to people would be:
don’t be afraid to take it slow. Do that first show and see if its something you really are interested in and something you think you can maintain artistically and financially.
You gotta play the financial game – you all of a sudden become concerned with things like budget. It sucks having to tell artists that you can’t fulfill their whole dream. But we aren’t going to settle. We ask, how can we take this dream you have and turn it into a reality with the money that we DO have.
Then, in the creation of the company, we decided to incorporate. We registered with the state of Colorado as an employer. And we’re registered as a not-for-profit but you have to get 501(c)(3) status, which, I probably would have held out on that, too. Always do your research. You can never do enough research. Ask other companies. Do your research. So register your business and then figure out who you are. We spent a good three months figuring out our logo, our mission, job titles, how we all function within, a website, getting our name out there, forging connections. I can’t stress making community connections enough: as a non for profit, no one owns it except the public. So you have to set up and maintain a public trust. Getting to the community early is really important because they are the people that will back you, help you with fundraising, see your shows.
So, once you know who you are, make the community know who you are.
And that’s where we are right now. We’re in the “community phase”. Getting our name more visible with schools, clubs, etc. It’s a huge step in the process and one that takes a couple of years to build your solid base. Its frustrating that it doesn’t happen over night.
And read books!
One of the most useful ones I read was “Building the Successful Theatre Company” by Lisa Mulcahy. So good, step by step detail in figuring out the early processes and figuring out what we needed to do from the first step. Its on Amazon.
Any surprises along the way – things you never thought you’d need to expect?
That’s one of those questions … I wish I had been keeping a journal of events. Some of the most obvious things took us off guard at first so maybe they aren’t that obvious (things you just take for granted if you’ve always just been working for established companies or just out of college):
Nobody is out there working for you
In college you have professors who are advocating you get cast in things and you’re required to audition. You have PR in the department and they all work for you. The second you get outside of college, its all gone. And its all up to you to do that.
And so we came up with how to get people to our show and all these great ideas and then, when it came to doing them, we realized that we’d have to do them ourselves. And we just didn’t prepare for that in our time.
So we had to make a list of the step by step process of producing a show beginning with auditions and the very very very basics. Sit down and map out exactly what happens from point A, before a production even starts, to point Z, when the production closes. Figure out what happens and then figure out how you’re going to make that happen. Picking the show, the designers, what we need, hiring, auditions, prepping for auditions, paperwork, sides, a space for auditions, a table for the space, and so on and so on. You just gotta think of everything possible and you will inevitable forget stuff.
We were really critical on ourselves for forgetting things – its impossible to anticipate things.
That’s the biggest surprise; you are your own worst enemy at times. You need to step back, learn from your mistakes and let them happen.
Never stop your education on yourself. Just because you aren’t in school anymore doesn’t mean you cant still learn from things.
How have you found this endeavor differed from your theatre experience in college?
In college, everything is handed to you. You had to work, yes, but the opportunities are there. They set you up to succeed. If you have the talent, the drive, the will – you will succeed. The real world – you have to do things for yourself. No one is going to bat for you. You have to make your own opportunities. That’s another reason why we started this company – we were sick of going to auditions and interviews and we decided to make our own art. On the most basic level, we were being active for ourselves by creating our own road-map and opportunities to be exposed. So we decided to take that step together and help each other succeed.
How did/did not your college education prepare you for this?
Its hard to answer that question. CU didn’t prepare us for the business aspect of running a theatre company because we didn’t have an interest in that while in college. They don’t have a degree in that. The management classes deal with more artistic aspects of a company. But, CU did give us hands on, practical experiences. In college, we were all acting and designing and had practical experiences since freshman year. We were doing things independently without the help of others. Knowing that, in a crunch, I can design or direct, make costumes, make sets on a whim, that we have that in our arsenal, and that we have that in house, is brilliant.
Now, tell us a little bit about your upcoming season and projects?
This season we’re producing three shows:
Talk Radio, Eric Bagosian (performing NOW)
An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, Shel Silverstien (opening in Feb)
Dog Sees God, Bert. V Royal (opening in May)
If you wanna look at the shows, just go to our website for show descriptions (http://www.devilsthumbproductions.org/) – we spent a lot of time writing those up.
What sort of fundraising are you doing for your seasons and projects?
Fundrasing was a whole new world for us. For Jack and Jill we used private investments and a strong, aggressive ad sales compaign (about a quarter of the budget came from the program) and then ticket sales.
We started our research this season by going to the Anti-Theatre conference in Chicago hosted by Theatre Wit. It was a 3 day conference covering the whole gauntlet of running a company and we left with notebooks filled with notes. At the conference, we were introduced to Kickstarter. If you don’t know what Kickstarter is and you’re an artist… you’re missing out. Go to www.kickstarter.com and browse around. It helps people with project ideas to find funding based on the idea that ‘its easier to find 70 people to give small donations vs one or two people to give you everything’. You can describe your projects, give updates, videos, goals, incentives. We updated with Talk Radio PR photos, reviews, etc. It’s a great little site.
The huge part of its success is that you have to ask people for money. In today’s society, people don’t want to hand you cash nor do you really want to ask for it. Its admitting weekness. But with Kickstarter, it lets people log on and give you a donation or a backing without it feeling like that … it helps create a sense that they are a part of the company. And that’s a huge part why its successful. You can provide incentives and that will make people feel like they are a part of your project – that they have a personal investment and THAT is why they want to donate. They are donating to something THEY belive in. Kickstarter doesn’t work unless you’re part of the company – it allows people to participate and we thanked them when they came to the show.
If anyone reading this does start their own kickstarter:
Let your passion for your project show. You’re not asking them for money – you’re inviting them to help you do something amazing. Don’t be awkward. Don’t feel shy. Get the word out there and ask them to help you. Its not asking for money. Together you make a wonderful thing happen and when they come see it, they know they had a part in it. And in the end of the season, we’re going to show and share with them exactly where their money went and exactly how it was used.
Social networking has also been a godsend. Mailing lists, email, Facebook fan pages, profiles and asking people to post on their profiles. We’ve gotten at least a couple hundred dollars from people who saw it in their friends status and they each gave us 5 bucks. Its just 5 bucks.
One thing you NEED to do is: make a database. Sit down with everyone in your company and play the “who do we know” game. And make a list of every single person you know and who may be interested in this. And I had people I haven’t spoken with in 5 years who have given $50 and I was overwhelmed. But, because we had made those connections, they wanted to contribute. So start early, follow up and track your progress. We started early and had a month on our Kickstarter but we made most of our money in the past two weeks with follow up calls. Don’t be afraid to get in contact, get the word out, follow up.
What advice do you have for anyone in entertainment who wants to raise money for their project?
There are people in the world who want to give you money for your project. You just have to find them. There are people that want to support the arts and who want to believe in you. It is YOUR JOB and YOUR DUTY to find those people.
Don’t be afraid to start a random conversation and give your business card. Don’t be scared to ask people to help you follow your dream. “Help us fulfill our wish” was our campaign – and people helped us not to make theatre but to fulfill our wish. And they want to.
Where can they go to learn more about this method AND your company?
To learn more about DTP and our campaign, visit www.Devilsthumbproductions.org
Or go to Kickstarter and search for us under “Devil’s Thumb Productions”
We went to Kickstarter’s website and clicked on ‘discover more projects’ and went to the “Hall of Fame” category (the most successful projects). We went to their pages and took what was successful. All the successful ones have videos. You need a video! And so we studied these videos, how they worded things, incentives, videos, updates. Just look at whats been successful and then think of your own unique way to emulate it. If someone has a good layout – take it and make it your own. Steal what you’ve seen before and put your own twist on it.
Google “success on kickstarter” – there are lots of blogs, and they have their own FAQ.
What has this experience taught you?
If you’re passionate about what you want to do in the entertainment industry and you really want to do it, don’t wait for people to hand you opportunities. Make it on your own.
Find a new company, get involved. Create your own. Make your own work. People aren’t going to hand you things in life. The days of hand outs are over. You need to get out there and be proactive for yourself. We know we want to do this and that we have some sort of talent to give the world so we make it happen. And some days we’re more successful than others. But if you’re persistent and stick with it, something will come of it. Don’t give up.
My key quote of wisdom? Don’t be afraid to take risks. Especially at this point in your life. I’m a firm believer that anywhere you go in life is because you take a risk. Nothing is ever gonna come to you if you don’t take a risk, explore, fail. Don’t be afraid of failure. Its alright to fail. You learn a lot from your failures. Figure out why. I think we’ve all learned more from our failures, it helps us grow as artists, as a company. In the long run, they help you learn and make you better. Someone who plays it safe the whole time, in the long run, wont break any expectations. You must break perceptions. You gotta take a risk and you gotta believe.
Final parting thoughts?
I have two quotes:
“The sciences allow us to live longer but its art that makes us want to”
Be passionate about what you do. Enjoy it and enjoy life. Observe, live, and know that we are fulfilling a very good and needed niche in society. How boring would life be without it.
Anton Chechov – “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of the light on the broken glass.”
And that one doesn’t need explaining.
Thank you to everyone and best of luck to everyone. If you’re in the Colorado area, come to one of our auditions. Or if you’re in tech, send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.
So thats THAT.
Love you all,
(more to follow on my “personal projects” and creating my own work… if you’re interested)
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