How to Succeed in Show Business
When Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre recently unveiled ambitious expansion plans fueled by record subscription sales, it set the American theater world chattering. While many regional theaters are facing dwindling audiences and raising ticket prices to compensate, FST is selling as many subscriptions as well-known companies in New York and Chicago and keeping ticket prices lower than any other local professional theater.
By the end of 2011, subscriptions to FST’s Mainstage had exceeded 11,000, pushing the total number of subscriptions (including for FST’s cabaret and summer season) to more than 25,000. Including single-ticket sales and educational programs, FST’s programs now draw 160,000 participants every year. (The larger and better-known Asolo Repertory Theatre, according to its website, draws more than 100,000 theatergoers—although it should be noted that FST’s numbers include participants in its various educational and other programs as well as theatergoers.) FST officials estimate that number will reach 200,000 in five years, and that the annual budget will grow from $4.2 million to $6 million. According to a survey of professional American theaters by the New York-based Theatre Communications Group, the only other theaters with larger subscription totals are the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
FST’s three-theater complex sprawls along Cocoanut Avenue and Palm Avenue almost to Second Street in downtown Sarasota. The company is comprised of the Keating and Gompertz theaters for mainstage productions and the Goldstein Cabaret for musicals, improv and lyric poetry. On balmy winter and spring nights, the courtyards and patios are crowded with longtime supporters and newcomers, mostly retirees. Ticketholders mill about, enjoying pre-performance cocktails and conversation, happy to be sharing the experience of theatergoing on a charming corner just a block from restaurants, bars and a bustling street scene, before filing into the small, intimate theater spaces.
Shortly after announcing its expansion plans, the theater broke ground on a $6 million construction project in January; at press time, $4.9 million had already been raised. The existing Gompertz Theatre will be renovated to seat 230 people (it currently seats 160). An 18,000-square-foot addition will include two new theater spaces for the Cabaret and Lab Theatre (a 100-seat space for readings, classes and experimental plays), and the facility will also include a new lobby, café and 650 square feet of retail space FST hopes to lease to an arts-related business. The increased performance space will allow FST to grow its improv and New Play Development programs, both of which the staff views as essential to artistic innovation.
It took decades to reach this point. When Richard Hopkins was named artistic director in 1980, the theater had 100 subscribers; it had been a small touring company until 1977. Hopkins is a strong, dominating character known more for a single-minded focus on his role at FST’s helm than for mingling on the social circuit or interacting with other arts leaders, and the small theater company soon felt the force of his personality and ambition.
Howard Millman, the retired producing artistic director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, gets right to the point when asked about FST’s success: “What makes FST different,” he says, “is that Richard Hopkins is a brilliant, brilliant leader. And you’re talking to somebody who was a rival of his.”
At the beginning, says Hopkins, none of his staff had business backgrounds, so there was one strategy: Keep what works. It was just common sense. “Common sense means get out of the rain if it’s raining,” he says. “If a marketing technique is not returning ticket sales, stop marketing that way.”
The plan for growth was simple: “Low prices and high quality equal high volume,” says Hopkins. The low prices were easy enough because of FST’s small size and small-scale productions. Hopkins emphasized the subscription model, meaning FST fans can pay for a full season up front instead of purchasing individual tickets, a strategy that helped FST establish a strong relationship with its customers, most of whom experience the entire gamut of productions it stages every year. Within a few years, FST was averaging an annual 10 percent increase in subscribers—an increase that steadily became more significant every year.
And because Hopkins was developing a connection that made theatergoers feel comfortable and safe, FST was able to offer some edgy plays on hot-button topics like racism, politics, religion and mental illness, topics that arts leaders thought would never sell in a region of conservative Midwestern retirees. Hopkins has always believed that theater should tap into the “shared dreams and shared nightmares of society,” he says. “How do we embrace conflict? That goes to the heart of what true theater is.”
For example, last fall FST staged a production of Next to Normal, a musical that addresses drug addiction, depression and mental illness. “That’s a hard sale at single-ticket level,” says Hopkins. “We never would have been able to produce it without having built trust with our subscribers.”
Another smart strategy was to engage the community (and bring in revenue) in multiple ways. FST offers more than 20 classes in theater, dance and music, with students ranging from elementary schoolers to retirees. FST offers tuition waivers to about 15 percent of its students, many of whom are challenged physically, mentally or financially. For the New Play Development program, FST receives more than 8,000 new scripts every year to fine tune; some of these scripts are eventually produced through the mainstage or cabaret programs. A class called Behind the Scenes takes students through the production of a play from its infancy. Participants watch cast selection, early rehearsals and set production, all the way to the actual performance. Through the Write a Play program, theater staff encourages local students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, to write original plays and then submit them to the annual Young Playwrights contest.
Dennis McGillicuddy, chairman of FST’s board of trustees for nearly 20 years, and his wife, Graci, are spearheading the theater’s capital campaign. McGillicuddy credits his passion for FST to “the fact that we not only put on good theater but are out in the community affecting lives.” He’s especially proud of Write a Play.
“We go into the school system, and the kids actually sit down and write a play. They learn the structure of a play and how to articulate their imagination and emotions using language and the written word,” he says. “No one else is doing that. The icing on the cake is the 10 or 12 plays that are produced by actual actors.
“People feel a part of FST,” says McGillicuddy. “It’s not like we’re selling the product and they’re just a customer; it’s a symbiotic relationship.” That connection is expressed not only through subscription sales, but through sponsorships and donations. McGillicuddy says he is astounded when he looks at a new playbill and sees the number of donors co-producing the play.
Hopkins says FST’s successful strategy would work just as well in manufacturing or real estate. “Get yourself to the lowest price point and the highest quality—that’s what brings people in,” he says. “That’s true whether it’s a movie, a car or a toaster.”
“We haven’t had a year in the red for a very, very long time,” says McGillicuddy, who stresses that FST’s financial discipline has helped to put it in a place to expand its facilities and reach.
But what happens when an institution that is the force of one person’s personality finally has to pass the torch? Will there be FST life after Richard Hopkins?
Millman thinks Hopkins’ vision will outlast any change of leadership. “The pattern has been so strongly set, and the theater has such a strong sense of direction,” he says. “If Richard ever decides to retire, his work will be continued.” In Millman’s view, the low prices at FST have kept people coming out, and that’s the foundation for the current growth. “[Hopkins] isn’t expanding for the sake of expanding, he’s expanding because he needs the room,” says Millman.
Hopkins admits he’s nervous about filling seats after the expansion. He lives in a constant state of “productive paranoia,” he says. “We will open as many seats as we think we can fill, but not more. We will expand as the audience expands. My goal is to help set the bar for American theater.”
Growing with the audience and not getting ahead of himself brings Hopkins back to rule No. 1: It’s all about common sense.
Florida Studio Theatre’s campus expands with renovations and a brand-new building.
The 160-seat theater for mainstage productions is being renovated to seat 230 people.
An 18,000-square-foot addition will include two new performance spaces, a new lobby and 650 square feet of retail space.
Roberta Leventhal Sudakoff Theatre Wing
Houses artistic, education and administration offices as well as costume and supply space.
The 109-seat cabaret features musical revues, improv and lyric poetry performances.
The Keating Theatre, also used for mainstage productions, seats 173.