Unpacking the theater industry

published on Jun 15, '16


 

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Chad Bauman unpacks the theater industry and his time at Arena

Chad Bauman – Managing Director at Milwaukee Repertory Theater Associate Professor of Marketing at Drexel, and the voice behind a well-respected arts marketing blog – is modernizing the theater industry. Prior to Milwaukee, Chad was a rising star in the DC arts and culture scene spending time as Arena’s Associate Executive Director and leading Marketing and Communications for several major arts organizations. We caught up with Chad to download some of his expertise.

SceneSquid: You’ve seen quite a variety of productions by this point. What was the first event you were seriously involved with?

Chad Bauman: I was in my final year of grad school and it was the opening of REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. They needed someone to work on managing the event, so I volunteered. Four event managers, we all reported to the primary. Remarkable experience.

It was a 24 hour event. We were on almost all 24 hours. It started at 4 o’clock with a dinner for high-level VIPs. This segwayed into late-night performances by Jason Mraz and Polyphonic Spree, followed by an overnight party for young people under 30. Come 8am Sunday, we kicked off the open community day for families. It was sort of amazing because it was very well thought out for all the stakeholder groups that REDCAT wanted to hit. High level donors, young professionals, families. Each aspect was laid out perfectly, and resonated with the target demographics. 

SceneSquid: That’s a sizable event to run. What’s your biggest?  

CB: The opening of the Mead Center at Arena Stage in DC was the biggest I ever did. I was asked to produce the opening of the building as separate from my responsibilities under marketing and communications. As part of the opening, we brought in 30 different acts from all over the world. There were multiple Tony award winners, events all day, all weekend. The President and First Lady were honorary co-chairs, and it was also the 60-year anniversary of the company.

Of course, there were tons of moving parts. We started the planning process for opening the building 18 months in advance and towards the end it became a full-time job. And you only have one shot to launch this brand-new $135M building, so it’s incredibly nerve racking. Thankfully, with the help from a phenomenal team, it came off perfectly. It was big, even meaty at times. And incredibly moving as it took a team of hundreds of staff and volunteers

SceneSquid: You mentioned you were in California for your MFA, and have since built yourself a serious career in theater. So why theater? What do you love most about it?

CB: From a working perspective, anything that’s highly successful in theater is the work of a large group of people. It’s impossible to do theater by yourself. Very different from writing and other areas of the arts…if you’re going to do something spectacular in theater, you have to work with 20, 30, 40, 150 people on a major project. All those people working to make something magical is truly magical. That’s really only found in performing arts.

SceneSquid: Not only are you a practitioner but you also teach. Given all your time in DC, how’d you wind up being a professor of marketing at Drexel up in Philly?

CB: Right after grad school, I went to Virginia State Company, then made my way to DC as the Director of Communications at Americans for the Arts I loved their mission but I was missing the theatrical side of things. Around that time, Arena happened to need a new marketing director. That was in 2007. While at Arena, I started a robust consulting practice on the side where I worked with theaters in New York, Philly, Minneapolis, Canada, St. Louis…and built connections to a ton of cities. We worked especially closely with the Pew Center for the Arts in Philly and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance…which led to the opportunity at Drexel. I’ve also had the pleasure of creating the Technology in Arts Management program at American University and teaching MFA Producing students for my alma mater – CalArts.

SceneSquid: What attracts you to the teaching component?

CB: As you go higher in management, it becomes easier to detach and stop learning. All too often, in the executive director position, you’re expected to teach and mentor which is really important. But at the same time, I have 30 years left in my career. If I don’t continue to seek my own personal growth and experiment, then in 10 years I’ll be 45 and washed up, completely disconnected from the frontlines of the industry. So as a professor, while I do teach, it also keeps me grounded with the frontlines of the industry as I’m learning a lot from my students.

SceneSquid: You spent a good bit of time in DC and on the East Coast. How is it different running events in Milwaukee?

CB: Every city has a heartbeat, you must find the personality of the city. This is just my opinion, but I think DC is about access to power and exclusivity. Did you get an invite or not? Who’s there? Who are the organizers and who’s not? How close can I sit to so and so versus how many tables away am I? DC is also transitional. Every 4 years, a significant portion of city turns over with a new president and congress. It’s one of the most amazing places on earth, but it’s always in transition.

Milwaukee is not like that. The city is very, very rooted. We’re talking five generations deep in some families. You’re literally going back to the founding of the state. It’s remarkable. In Milwaukee, there’s not a sense of exclusivity and access as much as a sense of coming together as a community to support the city.

SceneSquid: You’ve got Chicago just down the road. In some ways with DC, NY wasn’t far away. But Chicago is much closer. How do you see that impacting the arts in Milwaukee?

CB: I think the Milwaukee / Chicago relationship is very similar to the Baltimore / DC relationship. When I first moved to DC, I knew the Baltimore arts scene, knew Center Stage and its stunning reputation. But in the seven years I was in DC, I only went to one or two performances at Center Stage. Life just gets busy. At the end of the day there is tons to do in DC and it takes an extraordinary effort to go to Baltimore. I think it’s the same thing here in Milwaukee. While we’re the flagship theater in Wisconsin with historic roots in the state, it takes something extraordinary to get someone from Chicago to come up. That said, residents from northern Chicago suburbs attend quite frequently as the costs for a night out are significantly less in Milwaukee than Chicago, and it is easy to get here from there.   

SceneSquid: How do you measure success as a theater?  

CB: It depends. Nonprofit theaters measure success against their mission statements and strategic plans. We have to operate in a prudent manner financially, but we must meet strategic goals. For profit theater is very different; most for profit producers are interested in creating good art. But at end of the day they measure success by returns to their investors.

SceneSquid: Where is an event or show most likely to go wrong?   

CB:If you’re producing a new work and it isn’t ready to go. Maybe the script isn’t ready, you haven’t workshopped it, or you’re not confident about the plan to get it to stage. In this scenario, you either pull it last minute or produce a work that isn’t ready and piss off audiences…and it gets ugly. You must have a methodical plan on how you prepare the work to get it produced.

SceneSquid: What was your biggest ‘oh shit’ moment?   

CB:One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my career was when I was on the job for four months as the new communications director for Arena. Around that time, we we’re announcing we had to leave our location in DC and would have to produce for a couple years at satellite venues. And as we all know, many DC folks think that crossing the river to Virginia requires a passport.

So to make this announcement, I made the decision to give an exclusive to the Washington Post in order to get great placement and coverage. But in order to ensure that exclusivity, we didn’t inform our subscribers or donors in advance.

That was a big mistake. When our supporters read the paper that morning, it was the equivalent to getting served divorce papers and not expecting it. We had to do a lot of apologizing and backpedaling. My takeaway lesson was that you always give the exclusive story to your best customer.

Nowadays, arts organizations are their own content distribution centers. Even 4-5 years ago, we’d send out a press release, someone covers it, and that’s how we communicated with our audience. Today, we communicate not through press but with emails, social media, hand written letters even, social media, etc. That adds a lot of complexity to our job, and ultimately we are responsible.

SceneSquid: What do you think isn’t talked about enough in the theater or arts industries?

CB: So putting my hat on as a managing director, we have an under-capitalization problem in the theater world. Most aspects of the nonprofit arts industry struggle with this. During 2008, ‘09, ’10 – lots of companies burned through their cash reserves in order to balance operations in the middle of the recession. We’ve emerged – ticket sales are going up – but contributed revenue is still challenging. Theaters are more on the precipice today than at any point in the last two decades…there is VERY little room for error because everyone is out of cash reserves. This puts many of us in a quandary, because theaters are in the business of risk taking. Yet at the same time, there’s very little room to take risk.

SceneSquid: Who’s still on your list to collaborate with?

CB: There are tons of people I’d love to work with. From a theater / co-production perspective, Berkeley Rep comes to mind, what they’re doing is pretty phenomenal. The Goodman in Chicago. And Cornerstone Theater Company in LA does great community outreach, I think the best in the nation. And of course, I’d love the opportunity to work with Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie at Arena Stage again. With artists, definitely Todd Rosenthal He’s a set designer and a phenomenal artist with strong ties to Arena and Milwaukee. As for Directors that personally I just love – Anne Bogart Robert Lepage Robert Wilson to name a few. There are groups more on cutting edge like Builders Association and the Wooster Group that I’d love to work with as well. Too many to name!   

SceneSquid: It’s always a ton of work to get up to speed at a new place. Have you enjoyed a Wisconsin vacation yet?    

CB: I’m actually a bad Wisconsin resident. While most people are going to Door County, I recently flew back to DC and went to Rehoboth Beach. Looking forward to my first Door County trip this summer though!

SceneSquid: What would you want to learn about other people in the events space in our future interviews?      

CB: I would love to see what other arts organizations are doing to create outstanding events. How are they evolving their revenue streams, reaching millenials, etc. I know museums are ahead of the curve on this. I’d like to see you guys talk to some of the people who are doing this stuff really really well.