This Millennial Couple Opened a Nonprofit Theater. Here’s What They Learned
I was sitting by a fire pit back in 2014, sucking down a Blue Moon and warming my feet at a cast party for a production I had just appeared in at a local community theater.
That’s when I overheard the lead in the play, Christopher Hahn, and his girlfriend who also appeared in the show, Jenna Burnette, discussing their dream to open a theater company in Dayton, Ohio.
They mentioned that they hoped to start with a stage adaptation of “The Breakfast Club” to draw in non-theater-goers, their target audience, and immediately, I was hooked.
You see, “The Breakfast Club” is in my top five favorite movies, and forget Anthony Michael Hall: The role of Brian Johnson was written for me.
I joined in the conversation, agreeing that opening a new theater with no business knowledge and no funds was a great idea and that I would be happy to offer my basic web design and writing skills to join the cause.
And wouldn’t you know it? They listened to tipsy Tim by the fire pit and moved forward with their dream. (I should also add that they did stage “The Breakfast Club,” and I killed it as Brian Johnson. Anthony Michael Hall hasn’t reached out yet to recognize me for a job well done—but give it time.)
Four years later, Hahn’s and Burnette’s theater, called The Playground, is going strong and has been lovingly received by its audiences in Dayton.
So how did this millennial couple pull it off?
“Many sleepless nights, actual blood, a ton of sweat and a lot of real tears,” Hahn told me. That’s how.
How to Start a Nonprofit Theater Company
Hahn and Burnette credit their experiences growing up and consuming theatre in their hometown of Dayton as their inspiration for The Playground.
“We were exposed to different types of theater—from the touring companies at the Schuster Center and Victoria Theatre to the productions at Human Race and Dayton Theatre Guild,” Burnette explains. “They all inspired us in different ways and made us fall in love with theatre.”
But it was in Chicago, a much larger and more thriving theater scene, that the pair began to formulate their own vision for a theatre company.
“The material was contemporary and edgy,” Burnette says. “Theaters were filled with young professionals who would rather see a show than a movie, and the productions were presented in a raw, intimate and hyper-naturalistic way that we had never experienced before. The closeness to the performers and realistic acting made us feel like we were watching a film on stage.”
This kind of theater could not be found in Dayton back in 2014, at least not consistently. Hahn and Burnette resolved to bring their experiences back to the town they called home. They’d introduce the community to this visceral, contemporary theater, with the goal of drawing in younger crowds — crowds who would ordinarily scoff at the thought of spending $20 to see a play.
“The nonprofit route seemed like the logical way to go,” Burnette explains. “We looked around and saw that other successful theater companies were nonprofit, and we knew that because of the nature of the theater industry, we could not rely on ticket sales alone to make enough money to not only sustain, but continue to grow our company. Grants and donations would be imperative.”
Other financial and legal factors will help guide you as you determine if your new startup should be for-profit or nonprofit. Entrepreneur.com does a good job in laying out the important distinctions.
Defining Their Nonprofit’s Mission
Hahn’s number one advice for anyone starting a nonprofit?
“Figure out your ‘why’ before anything else, and make sure it is damn strong because it will be tested, repeatedly.”
Hahn and Burnette took this to heart when starting their company. It was crucial for them to define what set their theater apart in Dayton and why non-theater-goers should check them out. They developed a mission statement that sought to encapsulate that:
“The Playground’s vision is to be a playground for actors, artists, designers and dreamers to use their unique voice to bring to the stage raw, honest and relevant stories that reflect what it means to be human.”
But What About the Money?
Hahn’s and Burnette’s biggest challenge as they launched their new company (and that they still wrestle with today) was the money.
They never intended to make money off their company; to them, it is a passion project. They do, however, need to earn enough funds to keep it going.
“Our initial financial push came with the help of a local campaign that was running called Power2Give,” Burnette explains. “Essentially it is like Kickstarter for nonprofits. They also had a partner at the time that was offering a 50% match of anything that was donated. This was not an easy process. We shot videos, promoted content and even threw a fundraising party. Getting people to invest in a new arts organization is tough. You sort of feel like you are asking them to pay for a root canal. We had to realize that early on, the greatest support would come from friends and family, and not from random people jumping at the chance to throw money at us.”
While Power2Give was a specific, local campaign, Burnette and Hahn challenge aspiring nonprofit owners to do their homework.
See what programs you can become involved in and what grants and opportunities exist for new organizations. And, as much as you might hate it, start crowdsourcing, professionally reach out to donors in the community who are known to give out money to nonprofits like the one you are aiming to start, and don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for help at the beginning.
Unfortunately, finances haven’t gotten any easier. Burnette told me, “We are working in a smaller market that is not used to the style of theater we are doing. Add to that the fact that our target audience is comprised of non-theater-goers, and you have a very challenging situation on your hands.”
Right now, the theater operates and lives show-to-show in terms of budget. Ticket sales, donations and unique arts programs have been just enough to keep them going.
“We are aware that this is not sustainable,” Burnette says, “so we are going to ramp up classes and apply for grants.”
So far, it has been difficult for The Playground to earn local and national grants.
“Our hope is now that we have been established for three years, we will have access to more grant opportunities,” Hahn says. “We absolutely plan on gaining more knowledge and pursuing as many grants as possible going into our next season.”
Hahn and Burnette were lucky to be selected to be a part of a local initiative called ImPACt for the last three years. As part of this program, the Victoria Theatre Association has provided a space for The Playground to rehearse and host its productions at an incredibly discounted rate. The head of the program is also available to give advice to young theater companies like The Playground.
The Playground just wrapped up its third and final year with the program, making grant applications and fundraising for a new space integral to the company’s 2018 business plan.
Going In Blind
When I asked Hahn and Burnette what business and financial knowledge they had going into this, they both smiled and told me, “Seriously, we knew nothing. We cannot stress that enough.”
While both Hahn and Burnette studied theater in college, they lamented that theater programs don’t typically offer courses in how to run an actual theater business.
“Not understanding fundamental business and financial principles made for some tough times. Our lack of knowledge and experience in development and fundraising is an issue that we face as a company to this day, but we are pushing ourselves to learn and grow in this area,” Burnette explains.
Hahn adds, “Moving forward, we plan on being much more committed to learning about the development side of the business and taking advantage of some of the grant writing classes they offer at our local library branch. Additionally, we plan on seeking as many other resources as we can. This is the side of our company that we know is lacking, so now it’s time to give her the nurturing she deserves.”
The Challenges of Running a Theater — Or Any Nonprofit
Despite having little knowledge in running a business, their passion has carried them through these last several years. That doesn’t mean they’ve been without challenges, however.
“Oh man, so many mistakes!” Burnette laughs. “All of the mistakes. When you start out to build a company, especially an innovative one, the desire is to do everything perfect, but it’s literally not possible. Life is messier than that.”
Hahn and Burnette have faced shortages in funds, artists who could not follow through with a commitment, lack of rehearsal space, board shakeups, technical difficulties and more.
“Specifically in regards to finances, in general we didn’t keep a close enough eye on them,” Hahn says. “We didn’t really have a bookkeeper, it got out of hand, and we felt like we were drowning.”
Yet they persisted.
More recently, they sat down with their finances and invested in bookkeeping software customized to their needs. “It’s not sexy,” Hahn says, “but it’s required.”
And from all the challenges they have overcome, Hahn and Burnette have learned something.
“The hardest, most valuable lesson we’ve learned (and are still learning) is that if you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t going to grow,” Hahn told me. “It’s easy to see in retrospect, but it really sucks when you are in the midst of making those mistakes. When you are in the process of making a mistake, it’s very easy to get caught up in the negativity and feel like a total failure. The important thing is to breathe, stay positive and figure out how to work the problem.”
Their Advice? Just Go for It
Hahn and Burnette admit that The Playground has been nothing but hard work for over four years now. They both still work day jobs, Hahn as a technical lead at a marketing company and Burnette as a house manager at a larger theater.
Yet they still manage everything for their nonprofit — marketing, finances, growth, directing, acting, set construction, ticketing, sound and light design, you name it. Sure, they have had some help from fellow actors and patrons of the arts (like me!), but at the end of the day, 99% of the work is done by Hahn and Burnette.
And they absolutely love it.
“We have been lucky enough to receive some incredible recognition from both critics and audiences,” Burnette told me, mentioning local awards and reviews from the press.
But more importantly, the two have been challenged and have grown.
Burnette said, “We have created a brand and a name for ourselves, and hearing people associate that brand with moving, impactful, honest, daring work has been a bit surreal. We have established an environment for artists to explore and hone their craft. A place where they can challenge themselves personally and creatively. Many of the artists we have worked with have told us that they did their best work in one of our shows, and that fills us up with more gratitude than we know what to do with. To us, that is one of the biggest rewards.”
So should you dive into a passion project headfirst without any knowledge of what you’re doing? Not necessarily.
But if you’ve got some sense of direction and the drive to figure out the rest — and it’s a nonprofit whose difference in the world you believe in — well then Hahn and Burnette say go for it.
Their final advice:
- “Dedicate yourself to always doing your best work, no matter what, no exceptions.”
- “Keep track of your finances from the get-go and never let them lapse.”
- “Make good art that matters,” or, more broadly, do charitable work that matters, and the rest will fall into place.
Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer, but in his free time, he fancies himself as an actor. His favorite roles have been Brian Johnson in “The Breakfast Club,” CB in “Dog Sees God,” Johnson in “Really Really” and Jeff McCracken in “Kimberly Akimbo.”