It Ain't About the Tunnel, it's the Light at The End

Been meaning to sit down and blog for a while now but I’ve been a bit conflicted about it – on one hand I want very much to be really transparent and up front about how things are going on the business end of things but at the same time, I feel like part of my job is saying “hell yes we can do this” and posting bleak financials isn’t really the way to rally everyone’s spirits so I tend to stress out about this myself and focus on the fact that things around HUGE have been kicking ass in pretty much every other area besides money.

The shows have been great, the bar is open, Saturday nights have been full houses and generally the word seems to be getting around.  When people ask how things are going at HUGE I tell them the shows are kicking ass – which may have accidentally given people the impression that the hard part is over and it’s time to relax.

That may sound like a joke but it’s actually been a common problem at HUGE – I’ve had people come in and see that we use an iPad as our cash register and comment that we must be doing pretty great, when in fact we are incredibly lucky to have gotten the donations of technology and equipment that allow us to run the place.

Hell, there was a long time when everything in the theater space was dontated to us – down to the paint and the screws – and would not exist were it not for the generosity of people around us. Hell, we still don’t own the lighting in the theater!

Those are a long term loan from Four Humors that we keep hoping they don’t need back…keeping our fingers crossed.

I am incredibly thankful for all of it and I don’t kid myself into thinking we would be in such a good place without some awesome poeple backing us up – but some of the shiny toys can also get in the way of getting our message out that we still (VERY MUCH) need support and help – it’s hard to ask for money with an iPad in your hand, even if the iPad was free.

Keeping the tradition of being very open with the challenges that HUGE is facing, here’s the reality of the theater:  We need help making the rent.  In many ways we are in the same boat we have always been in, the same way we were when we struggled to find a way to purchase chairs and lumber – only since we’re open and running shows I think there’s an assumption that HUGE has plenty of money coming in, or that once the space is built it means the space is paid for.  This is not the case at all, in fact we had some of our hardest months yet recently.

Challenges:

Taxes – we got nailed by a tax hike. And because it was a tax hike on the property, it hit us on the 3037 building and both of our parking lots (which we are required to lease in order to keep our theater license, despite being across the street from 2 municipal parking lots and offering incentives to cyclists…anyway) and drove our monthly lease payments up for the summer.

That wouldn’t actually have been so bad except the bulk of it hit us in May when it hit the landlord, even though taxes had gone up in Januray and started accumulating all the while, meaning that on May 15th we had to pay for January to May suddenly.  The result of which was our monthly payment was almost DOUBLE normal in May and up over $9K per month for June, July and August.  It wiped out all the reserves we had been busting ass to build up and then some, which sucks since the fact that we had been building reserves was such a positive indicator and I was lookjing forward to the day we could start paying the people you see on our stage.

That’s something that we don’t point out nearly often enough – every single person that is responsible for HUGE Theater’s ongoing growth is a volunteer.  Not one Board member or staff person gets paid.  That’s amazing.

Fees and Permits – the bar is generally seen as a massive cash cow for the theater, which may come to be true but so far the process of getting the license has been bleeding us.  From the $3300 in fees just to apply, over $3K in changes we had to make to the space (upgraded fire doors, replacing the hand made sign in the front window, losing our basement space), $1K in materials and equipement – we should be charging $100 a beer but I’ve just been glad to see some income from the whole thing and I keep trying to remind myself that someday this will be icing on the cake revenue.  Someday. Not yet.

Lost income – Adding to the licensing nightmare was the loss of confirmed revenue as a direct result.  We had agreed to host a Vitamin Water event at HUGE in June before TCIF similar to one they have done in several cities – they host free yoga classes, skateboarding, fashion shows and live music at night.  A nice paycheck for us that was going to help make that swollen lease payment…until the City of Minneapolis added conditions to our beer and wine license barring us from hosting live music that isn’t part of a theater show.

I argued that the rental was already a done deal and we wouldn’t even be serving – no matter – putting a night of live music on our stage would (now) be a violation of our beer and wine license, which we hadn’t even gotten yet, and cost us fines and probably the license itself.

The event was cancelled – the $5K check for the space use had to be cancelled.

That hurt when we needed it more than ever.

Our landlord has been terrific, by the way.  Much nicer to us than he is required to be, for sure.  He differed our rent for 2 months during construction so we could fundraise, build and try to get some revenue, has allowed us to make the lease payment in pieces as we bring money in when months have been tough, covered some of the fees and services to the space or just not charged us for them, and even gave us a $1K discount on our rent for a month if we could drive up 20 new members (which we did)!  That’s a pretty great landlord and I’m glad we signed a lease with him, not many people can say that.

This week I sat down with him as we have paid $2K of our $9K lease in July and it is almost time to add August to our running tab.  He agreed to continue being flexible with us in the interest of “getting us all through to the long haul together” and that’s pretty awesome.

He isn’t forgiving that rent, mind you, there’s a meter running and it’s expensive.

Per our deal on deferring the rent in the beginning, we still are paying off 12 months of rent in 12 months.  That means two things – in August we mark one year since signing the lease and in September our lease payments go down for the first time.  There are many significant hurdles and events that I keep telling myself and everyone around me we “just need to get through” but this is a major milestone in both regards.  Holy shit…a year…it boggles my mind.

So what exactly has been kicking ass again…?

We made it through TCIF and immediately the increase in our visibility or just the general awareness of the place was obvious.  Instead of “What’s that?” when I tell people what I do I run into more and more people that have heard of the place or have even been there.  Maybe I’m just looking for positive motion but in a time when I’m cashing out my 401(k) to pay the rent, it feels great and I’ll take it.

Shows – We opened Star Trek, another show we have been talking about doing since before the beginning, and it has been blowing people away.  Splendid Things, The Bennets and the Bearded Men round out our Saturday nights and it is, as the kids say, “off the chain”

The Minneapples are back on our stage on Wednesdays, we partnered with One Group Mind and brought in the Titanic Players.  The Mustache Rangers are back on Thursdays and are running the most ridiculous promotion they could imagine.  Fridays feature a couple of my favorite weird groups as a part of HUGE Justice, a new home for the Brain Game and Vicious Delicious is stepping up to close the night out.

When the shows are on stage, all is well.  Our mission is clear.  The hard work all makes sense.

So what are we doing?

Ticket sales – We made the decision a few months ago to drop the weekend ticket priced to $5 and raise the IAGG to match.  We were seeing small houses on the weekends for the $10 shows and numbers jumped when the price went down. We love seeing the bigger houses, having more people in to see the shows we put up and the feeling that HUGE is somewhere you can afford to go all the time and hang out with friends – but the numbers are tough.

$5 X 100 seats = $500 per show max.

6 nights X $500 max = $3000 per week max

$3000 X 4 weeks = $12000 monthly max

Monthly rent:  $8000 no matter what.

So we would need to have 75 people at EVERY SHOW,  EVERY NIGHT in order to pay the bills.  Really just that one bill.  That one, immovable bill.  There are more bills beyond that but that one is daunting enough and I already feel like the harbinger of doom instead of my usual optimistic self.

We are looking at moving weekends back to $10 for the whole night, or $5 each – I would rather not, I love being able to provide inexpensive shows but closing down will severely hamper our ability to provide anything so it’s in the works.  Plus $10 for 3 shows is a goddamn bargain and anyone that complains is invited to sit down with me and explain why an entire night of theater isn’t worth ten bucks.  I will listen.

When things are going not-so-well we know we need to change something to help the situation improve, we can’t just do nothing and watch the place lumber toward extinction but at the same time changing things is even more terrifying since making the wrong changes can make things much worse right when we need to see improvements.

Nobody wants to be the person that made the decision that killed ticket sales in our time of need – and I know  that if things go fine, nobody will ever think about it.  If things go down in flames, every decision I have made will be scrutinized by myself and the people that affected by my decisions.  That’s a hard spot to be in and still be able to make the bold moves when the time comes.

Grants and Foundations – We are always seeking support from foundations but the hard part is the old Buried Shovel problem – one of the parameters for qualifying is that we pay our artists.  Since we cannot pay rent right now squeezing every penny we have there’s just no way we can.  And until we have enough money to pay out, that foundation support is closed to us.  The only way to get the money we need is to have more money than we need.

On the grant side, opening the theater has actually made many things more difficult in some areas – for example, before we opened HUGE I could apply for grants as an artist seeking to produce improvised theater in the Twin Cities and stand a good chance.  Those grants can include things like ‘renting a space’ and the cost of doing the show.

Now that it is my “job” to do exactly the same thing it is practically impossible to delineate my job from what I do as an artist – and I am unable to apply for grants to pay me to do my job or to pay the rent on the space for the show – so that money is closed off as well.  We are encouraging performers looking to produce shows on the HUGE stage to apply for grants and we will support them with help with grant writing and commitment letters, that way they can get paid for their work (rightfully so), even if it isn’t by HUGE Theater.

The rent party – a good old fashioned party to pool together money to pay the rent.  It is a time-honored tradition and we will be doing it Friday the 29th.  Shows that night will be “Pay What You Want” and there will be beer provided by Tall Grass and more.

Come, see the shows, celebrate with us afterward, listen to us ask you for money.

The landlord has issued us another challenge and reward – if we can make the funds we need by way of the rent party (and virtual rent party if you cannot attend) he will give the first ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS by taking that amount off what we need to raise.

So the challenge has been issued.  The beer has been ordered.  The calendars have been marked.  Friday the 29th, shows start at 8pm and the drinking and fundraising goes until 1am.

Memberships – It’s interesting how quickly the key messages you try to get across to everyone seem to become the white noise we tune out.  We keep saying “Members keep our ticket prices low and the place open” and it’s so painfully true.  If we have the member numbers we need then we don’t need to pay the bills with wildly fluctuating ticket sales and look at bumping ticket prices – we can count on our stable base of donations from our members as one less variable that allows us to make good decisions.

Thanks to MPR, many of us are familiar with the idea behind membership, unlike MPR which seems to stay on the air no matter what and has a sizable chunk of money behind it, if we fail at our membership drive we will have to stop operating.  Once that happens it isn’t a matter of pushing harder and finding new members so we can reopen – once that happens we are done and it is too late.

To that end we are retooling the membership levels and launching a new membership drive.

The goal is the same as it has always been:  To keep HUGE Theater alive so we can be a resource to improvisers and audiences in the Twin Cities.

– – – – –

Thank you for reading this far.

When you see me at the theater with a grin on my face it is because I am lucky enough to be part of something truly special, not because HUGE is raking in money and basking in our success.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t an immense amount of work, it just means that I am happy as hell to put in the time and the hours to get the work done.  All of us are.

But we need you.  We need your support as much as we ever have, we need your voices to help us connect with people that can become members or give to the cause.  The need is very real, ever-present and very possible for us to overcome with enough help.

Please help HUGE Theater.

 

— Thank you.

Butch Roy

Executive Director and Humble Servant

HUGE Improv Theater.