Theater is often described as a collaborative art form, and actions speak even louder than words.
Consider a number of recent co-productions that could be called a win-win-win-win situation — not only for both of the respective theater companies involved, in terms of allowing them to split the production costs and share in the box-office revenues of a particular show, but also for both of their respective core audiences, which generally don’t overlap very much.
Last year, Horizon Theatre, which operates in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community, and Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre pooled their resources in a joint venture with the comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” It bowed in May at Horizon, where it played to sold-out intown crowds during a six-week run, and then Aurora remounted it for theatergoers in suburban Gwinnett for another four weeks in October.
In between, Aurora opened its 2015-16 season that July with another “co-pro,” this time joining forces with Theatrical Outfit on the musical “Memphis.” It performed for six weeks in Lawrenceville before transferring to downtown Atlanta, where the Outfit staged a two-week encore of the show at the Rialto Center for the Arts (a much larger venue next door to the Outfit’s own space, the more intimate Balzer Theater at Herren’s).
“Memphis” was such a hit — in both locations — that the two companies reunited to open their current 2016-17 seasons with a similar bang. “In the Heights,” another large-scale musical, was another resounding success, too, running for six weeks in July and August up at Aurora, after which the Outfit transplanted it down to the Rialto for an additional two-week engagement in September.
“The beginning of any successful co-pro has a lot to do with an alignment between the two participating organizations, in the sense of sharing common artistic values and cultural philosophies. As opposed to comparing apples to oranges, it needs to be as much apples to apples as possible,” explains Outfit artistic director Tom Key.
“Something I didn’t truly realize until we’d gotten into the process is what a benefit it is to work with another company,” he continues. “Every group has its own habits and practices and emphases, of course, but what rose to the surface doing ‘Memphis,’ and again doing ‘In the Heights,’ were the best attributes of each company, and ultimately creating something that was stronger than either of us could have accomplished on our own.”
Moreover, Key acknowledges, “It doesn’t take a formal survey to make it pretty clear that the majority of the Aurora audience isn’t coming downtown to see shows, just as the majority of the Outfit audience isn’t going up to Lawrenceville. One of the greatest results of this experience is that it allows us to promote our theaters to new people, people who may have never been to either of these other spaces before.”
Aurora artistic director Anthony Rodriguez agrees. “That’s true to a very large extent, but there was also a certain amount of crossover (among audiences), because some people saw ‘Memphis’ and ‘In the Heights’ in both venues, which was a little surprising, but a little impressive and encouraging, too,” he says.
Aside from the geographical distance between the Aurora and the Rialto, were there any noticeable demographic differences between the crowds at either location? “Well, we don’t sell or track tickets based on race or country of origin,” Rodriguez replies, “but I will say that we had a much greater diversity and a much younger turnout for (the Hispanic-oriented/hip-hop-influenced) ‘In the Heights,’ here at Aurora as well as there at the Rialto.”
If there was any distinction at all between the two incarnations of “In the Heights,” it probably had more to do with the varying sizes of the theaters (Aurora seats roughly 250, while the Rialto seats approximately 800): “The intimacy of our space at Aurora gave the show a slightly different feel, compared to the Rialto, where every night played almost like a rock concert,” Rodriguez notes with a laugh.
Doing the math is relatively straightforward. For “Memphis” and “In the Heights,” Aurora and the Outfit divided the production budget “50/50” — which covered the licensing rights for both shows, paying the actors and musicians during the rehearsal process, and financing the design teams responsible for crafting the sets, costumes, props and lighting, among other preliminary operating expenses.
The proceeds from Aurora’s ticket sales stayed with Aurora; likewise, the Outfit kept the profit generated at the Rialto. Even though the Aurora runs included nearly three times as many performances, the Outfit runs at the Rialto included nearly three times as many available seats, so the end results were fairly equal.
As Key puts it, “These co-pros make perfect sense. Not only are they significant on an economic or commercial level, but they’re also important on a creative and artistic one. It’s a way of helping theaters to minimize their risk and expand their opportunities for revenue, while also providing them with a means to maximize the reach and the impact of their work.”