A Saturday afternoon lunch with Jeremy Lelliot, founding artistic director of Coeurage Theatre Company, immediately erupted into a snowball of hilarious storytelling in which Jeremy also revealed an intriguing insight about himself.
“I love baseball. I played baseball for one inning. Second base. I’d been on the bench the whole time pre-season. In the first game, the ball hit my glove, jumped up, hit my face and broke three bones around my eye. They made me the assistant manager instead. It was ok. I didn’t belong on the field. I belonged on the bench.”
His wisdom to accept playing a different role in order to stay in the game, struck me that flexibility and good judgement are probably two of the strongest ideals Jeremy has helped to embed in the deliberately gradual growth of Coeurage Theatre Company over the years.
Conceived by Cal-State Fullerton students in 2009, the evolution of Coeurage has been rather exceptional especially in Los Angeles where arts funding can be scarce and financial wizardry is everything. Not to mention, mounting a Broadway-style show like Urinetown: The Musical, which reopened January 6, 2017, has to be daunting for a small theater group.
Although, Coeurage was recently awarded a serious accolade. Centre Theatre Group (CTG) has officially selected them as one of three Los Angeles theater companies that will be appearing in CTG’s inaugural Block Party at the Kirk Douglas in 2017.
In the meantime, I was curious about Coeurage Theatre Company’s Pay-What-You-Want formula for success.
Theater companies and theater-makers are constantly trying to find the magic bullet. Coeurage seems to have done it with Pay-What-You-Want (PWYW). Or have you?
I don’t know that we have. I actually think what PWYW does, is make theater accessible for everyone, whether they can afford it or not, which is the reason behind it. What’s remarkable is how often people give more afterwards because they have a better experience than they were anticipating.
As far as finding the magic bullet, I think it’s pretty simple supply and demand. The market is what the market is. People generally spend roughly between $15 and $25 on theater tickets. And that’s all they want to spend according to data I’ve seen for non-commercial theater.
You are attracting younger audiences. How?
We did an adaptation of Titus Andronicus a few years ago, for instance, in this little 45-seat theater café. It was so intimate. And since people could spend any amount on it, almost the entire audience was in their twenties and thirties. They loved it!
With younger theater-goers, there might be work they’re more attracted to initially, but so often they’re more surprised about liking something they didn’t think they’d be in to.
Part of our core mission is to find new audiences. So we try to offer a balanced variety of shows and revivals that are under-appreciated, under-valued or deserve a fresh look.
Individual shows actively target and reach out to different audiences. It’s very grass-roots. We’re talking emails, Facebook and word of mouth. But we’re not winging it. We’re strategic.
What are the costs and challenges?
Our shows are done on micro-budgets and rarely cost more than ten thousand dollars to produce, which is a big contributor to our (so far) long-term, sustainable success both creatively and administratively. We have a wonderful Board. And our executive director is very fiscally responsible.
We’ve always been rather poor. But we’ve never allowed ourselves to get deep in the red. We did get into debt once when we tried to take a big leap and grow a little too fast, too soon. Lesson learned. Since then, even though it’s incredibly difficult to mount shows so inexpensively, we work with what we have. Period.
We make back about two-thirds of our show budgets in ticket sales. The rest from fund-raising and donations…like everyone else. Right now we’re incredibly lucky to have a wonderful relationship/home with The Road Theatre who played a big part in how we got here.
We were building this thing from scratch and they donated their space to us for a fund-raiser. We used that money for our first show and they let us do a front-of-house split with them because we were so new. The Road believed in us and has been generous throughout the years.
We’ve tried other residencies. But it’s been challenging especially when the landlords were not theater-makers themselves.
Coeurage is not just a bunch of actors putting stuff together. It’s real theatre. It’s a real business. We’re entirely a volunteer staff. Although, it is important to us that we become more capable of being further generous in the future through honorariums to our actors, designers and directors.
We’re very transparent. That’s important, because there’s a lot of assumption and ignorance about how intimate theater works. We feel like intimate theater itself is important, has unique challenges and requires unique funding. So we’re trying to grow into ourselves by doing a lot more comfortably, in order be able to increase the stipends of all the people helping out.
For us, fiscal responsibility has always meant ending the year in the black and hopefully with a little bit of a surplus for the following season. We’ve been able to meet that goal for the last several years. The new goal is to create a small war chest to prevent cash flow problems and for when we are ready to attempt something more ambitious. We’ll need that resource. Right now though we are wary of trying to get to the next level simply to be a medium-sized theater.
How has the recent change in the 99-Seat Agreement affected the company?
It’s affecting our level of stress. We’re fortunate that we are considered a membership company by Actors Equity. So for the time being it doesn’t really affect anything we’re doing. We have opted to both honor the old 99-Seat Plan and also extend a lot of the stipulations and also something resembling more the standards and practices of The Producers League. We are always self-policing to make sure that the experience for our artists and our audiences is top-notch. But we worry a lot. It’s difficult planning large ensemble shows which are a big part of what Coeurage does consistently.
What do you love about theater the most?
When it’s undeniable. Where energetically people are being moved, astonished, feeling intense emotions and it’s magical. And no one can walk out of that room and say it didn’t happen.