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American Association of Community Theatre--Improving Communities One Theatre at a Time


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 start-up basics

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The information below is a brief overview of the main issues you need to address when starting a theatre company. Adapted from an article by John Warren, Artistic Director, Unconditional Theatre, and used with permission of Theatre Bay Area.


Start Idea


1. Decide on a collaborative structure.
Do you want to run it as a benevolent dictatorship? A cooperative? Or something in-between? How will you choose projects? Who will help with the non-artistic administrative work? Be very clear about the decision-making structure and lines of responsibility.  A good place to begin is with the bylaws of other theatre companies. We've included seven of them on this website.

2. Develop a mission statement.
This should be your company's identity, and the litmus test by which you consider future projects. Make it as broad as possible, while still identifying a unique vision. [See The Mission Statement]


3. Create a name and a look.
Brainstorm ideas on names for your company. Develop a logo and an identifiable "look" for your publicity, etc. Check to make sure that your proposed name is not already in local use,

4. Register your company name with the local authorities.
In order to become a registered business and protect the name that you have chosen, you must register with your city. You may have to register as a D.B.A. ("Doing Business As"), effectively registering it as an alias for one or more individuals in the company. Check to see where this is done in your area. After filing your name, you must announce the creation of your business in a local paper. 

5. Open a bank account.
The best way to keep track of your company's financial situation is to open a separate bank account. It also enables you to accept checks written to the company's name. You must be registered with the city in order to open an account under a D.B.A. name. Many banks are offering fee-free everything to business customers, so shop around.

6. Sign up with relevant service organizations.
Join AACT, your local theatre alliance, your state or regional organization. This gives you credibility, and access to lots of ideas and services. Consider joining a local service organization such as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce.

7. Decide on profit/nonprofit status.
This is one of the most difficult decisions to make, if you choose to go nonprofit, there is bureaucracy and paperwork to navigate. The main advantage is qualifying for grants and special discounts. Foundations can legally give grants only to nonprofjts, and individual donors can write off nonprofit contributions on their taxes. However, most foundations give only to companies with a proven track record. Be realistic about whether the effort is worth it. You can always wait and turn nonprofit in the future.  (Fiscal sponsorship is a popular option for small companies, whereby they can apply for grants and access bulk mail rates through a separate nonprofit umbrella organization Often these organizations take a percentage of grant income in return.) Click here for more on incorporating as a nonprofit organization.

8. Make funding decisions.
Will most of your budget depend on grants? The kindness of your family? Dues paid by company members? Earned income such as merchandise sales, auctions, and theme parties? Each has its advantages and drawbacks. Making decisions on funding sources and likely amounts of income will help determine how ambitious your plans should be  The Foundation Center's whole purpose is to help non-profits and individuals find money. 

9. Strategize potential non-production activities.
Doing a show or two a year is enough for some groups, while others like to maintain a continual presence to increase visibility and develop audiences. Examples of additional activities include teaching classes, hosting staged readings, and engaging in various forms of community outreach.

10. Create a database.
Nothing takes more time than repeatedly writing out addresses on postcards. There are lots of good database programs out there that allow you to print labels in a matter of minutes. It is advisable to keep a separate database for general mailings and another for press contacts. 

11. Think About Your Audience.
Who will come see your plays? How are they likely to learn about them? How do similar companies promote their work? Consider doing a list exchange or purchasing mailing lists from companies with audiences you would like to attract. 

12. Work Backwards.
Put your first production date far enough into the future that you have time to lay some groundwork, You won't do your best planning under the deadline of an approaching opening night.


13. Join AACT. Membership in the American Association of Community Theatre links you with companies all over the United States and beyond.  You'll get the benefits of networking with thousands of other theatre people, and more than 1500 different companies of all sizes, in all kinds of communities.  You'll also have access to the members-only pages of this website, including proven ideas for fundraising, choosing a season, publicity and marketing, and much more.  Click here for membership information.


Preparing for your Company's First Show

1. Develop a budget.
Be as specific as possible. Remember any of the following that are applicable: script rights, space rental (liability insurance may be additional), set construction, props, lights rental, costumes, stipends for actors/designers/running crew, various publicity activities, video archiving, and a generous line for "miscellaneous." When in doubt, be conservative about your likely income (especially ticket sales) and be generous in estimating your costs.

2. Secure rights to the play.
If the show is not an original work, be sure you have a signed contract in hand before you announce the play as part of your season. This is generally done in two parts. First, call the playwright/publisher/agent and determine whether the rights are available for your region. If so, then you must make firm arrangements for a performance space and dates, before the playwright/publisher/agent will even consider your request for rights.

3. Contract with a venue.
Space is at a premium in the Bay Area, so be sure to contract many months in advance. Find out what is included in the rental price, such as insurance and tech rehearsals. Many venues require you to acquire your own liability insurance, which can be very expensive. Practically every venue has a different policy on how much rehearsal/tech time is included in the basic rental fee -- be sure to budget the rental cost of any additional tech/dress rehearsals. Consider how long and how often you want perform. The longer a show runs, the more it costs, but also the more people can hear about it and make plans to attend. Weekend matinees vary in their success, based largely on the type of audience members your show attracts. You might consider performing midweek once in a while, so that people working on other shows can see your work. 

4. Make union decisions.
If you intend to hire any members of Actors' Equity, you must secure a contract from the Equity office. A BAPP contract may enable you to hire a small number of union actors at very little cost, if you meet certain budget and insurance criteria. A

5. Decide on a system for selling tickets.
Most small companies rely on voice mail for patrons to leave ticket reservations. If you decide to take this route, choose the lucky person who gets to receive those calls. Your local phone company can set up a separate, inexpensive voice mail number, so that nobody's home number is inundated with reservations. Some venues will provide their own box office services. Alternatively, there are services that can handle your ticket sales for a modest fee per ticket. Make sure that you arrange this a couple of months in advance, so that all marketing materials carry the correct box office phone number.

6. Introduce yourself to the press.
The cost of publicity is almost always underestimated. It can sometimes amount to a third of your budget. Especially for your company's first show, it is important to get your name out to the local press through early announcements, a newsletter, a letter of introduction, or whatever other creative method you dream up. Four to eight weeks prior to your opening, send out press releases and photos to all relevant calendars. A professional-looking photo is one of the surest ways to bring extra attention to your calendar listings. Then, a couple of weeks prior to opening, send press packets to local critics, including any background info that might entice them to see the show.  


[AACT's members-only website offers a Knowledge Base that includes tips on publicity and marketing, including sample news releases.]



Starting a Theatre Company
Start-Up Basics
Mission Statement
Nonprofit Incorporation

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