The Mind-Bogglingly Simple, Yet Complicated Path to Sustainable Theater Space in Austin
We see it happening all around the city. Arts organizations being forced from their spaces due to rising property values that become increasing and unsustainable rents. Often, there is little recourse for the organizations to secure a new location, which ultimately leads to a community-wide loss of both talent and access to the arts.
Beloved theater companies are finding themselves forced to either find temporary venues or, in some cases, close their doors forever. What can be done to stop the bleeding? Is there a better and more sustainable model? Is there a business model that would allow a performance space to succeed without annual donations? Can a theater sustain itself through earned revenue, and yet remain affordable to the public?
Armed with some business background, a few financial resources and enough curiosity, I began a journey that has inspired and confounded me for the past two years.
When I decided to audition for a 2015 City Theatre production of “Twelve Angry Men,” I could not have expected it would prove to become the beginning of such a massive undertaking. I simply wanted my children to see their dad on stage after a 40 year theater “hiatus” while I had a career as a financial advisor. They were beginning to believe my stories of being an actor were merely figments of an overactive imagination. And if I’m honest, after years in the business world, I missed that part of me as well.
When I wasn’t cast in the show, I did quickly come to feel like a real actor, but with the director’s kind encouragement of my rusty skills, I decided to plow forward, even offering to underwrite the theater’s next production, “A Man for All Seasons.” My one condition? That I get to audition for the role of Sir Thomas More. This time, I was cast, and not only was the show a popular and critical success, it brought a number of new friends into my life who, as it happens, were just crazy enough to share the vision of building a sustainable theater in Austin.
Together, we founded Trusted Obscurity, a holding company, whose first venue would be called The Stage at Water Street. Our goal is to create additional venues in the years to come. With land costs so high in Austin, I decided our best approach would be to purchase a business condo in a mixed use development. We were able to secure a contract on 4,400 square feet in a new project at the northeast corner of Cesar Chavez Street and Interstate 35, a perfect location for our proof of concept. Having been blessed with some resources from the business world, I decided to lay out $500,000 as the down payment to secure it as the future home of the new theater. Yes, you could say I’m “all in” at this point. Perhaps someone should check my temperature?
So you may be thinking, “How do you think you can succeed where others have failed”? It’s a simple concept, really. The theater will own the space as a 501c3 nonprofit. As a 501c3. we will not be subject to property taxes, thus we can’t be priced out of our space by a landlord hoping to move in a big box store or another dry cleaner. As the anchor of a mixed use condominium development, the theater will also own a for-profit lounge. This lounge will serve not only theater patrons, but the tenants and guests of the surrounding condominiums. This will provide the theater with invaluable lifeblood, and provide The Stage the artistic freedom to develop seasons based on creative considerations, not only financial ones.
Working to negotiate build-out terms with the condo developers, we have cut our initial goal of raising $2.5M to a mere $1M. Ambitious – yes. Impossible – absolutely not. If you would like to join our quest, and create your own legacy, the naming rights for all sorts of things at the theater are available. We are getting closer every day. Armed with the knowledge of what a sustainable theater space could mean for our community, we will not be deterred.
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