Harry M. Bagdasian, freelance writer/director
So you want to do theater, huh?
Part 1: Don’t think … do.
About eight years after leaving NPT to that well meaning, but ultimately ineffective board of trustees, I was at a birthday party for Ernie Joselovitz. A playwright was pressing me with questions about the “old days” on Church Street and eventually insisted, “you have to start another theater!’ Standing near by was E. Lloyd Rose, then drama critic for the Washington Post and former literary manager with us at NPT. Lloyd chimed in … “never happen. He knows too much now.”
Wow. Was she correct (as Lloyd so often is.) BTW, Lloyd had a wonderful comeback whenever we disagreed on something. She would simply say, “I’d agreed with you, Harry, but then we’d both be wrong.” That kind of arrogance is damned attractive. I loved her self-confidence.
You want to run a theatre. Just do it. Dozens of people are going to tell you why not by ticking off how many things can go wrong, how you’ll never have enough money and how audiences are hard to get into theatres and that there are already so many theaters why not work for one of them. Why not work for one of them? Too easy to answer. Because you feel they are artistic morons, their taste buds are in their butts, you could never ever in this lifetime or the next want their artistic direction, you can do a better job than they, and you just need to follow your own inspiration. I don’t know this for a fact, but I think those were most of the reasons that Bart Whiteman started Source Theatre. I know he was pissed at me and I think he was annoyed with Zinoman, so he set off on his own. And a damn good thing, too, because, say what you may about them artistically, the Source cadre of theatre folk created an environment in which many got their start, and could repeatedly stretch their artistic muscles. There’s also the Source Washington Theatre Festival (thank you Keith Parker!) The Festival was a haven for writers in this town for many years. That includes this writer in the years after I left NPT and wrote my own plays.
The question, “Where are you going to get the money?” seldom phased me. I guess that’s why, at one time, we were a quarter of a million dollars in debt … but we still opened a new season the following fall. How? Sheer determination … and a lot of slight of hand. Of course, come October when there was a chill in the air and we needed to turn on the furnace, the damn thing wouldn’t budge. We carefully examined the crrcuits, the this and the that and puzzled over this problem for many minutes until, standing there in our little basement outside the bathrooms, I notice there was no gas meter hanging in its accustomed corner of the basement. Oops. We owed so much money to Washington Gas that they simply capped the line and held our beloved gas meter hostage until we would pay the bill. took out the meter. How did I miss all that? Well, I wasn’t in the building when the gas men invaded and our then business manager didn’t want to tell me for fear of making me angry. Oh well …
I had an interesting conversation with the guy in the billing department at Washington Gas. They wanted me to pay the balance AND the estimated first two months of gas in advance. “Okay,” I told the guy on the phone, “I’ll pay the balance we owe … “ “Downtown,” he interrupted, “in person with a money order or cashier’s check.” “Fine,” I reassured him, “but why should I give you money for gas we haven’t used yet?” There was a brief pause and then he asked, “You run a theatre, don’t you?” “Yes.” “If I attend your theatre I have to pay before I see the play, don’t I?” That guy was smooth. Shut me up real fast.
Okay, it’s hard to pull one over on the utilities, but I thank God that printers and lumber yards were more trusting in those days. And there were plenty of lumber yards because these were the pre-warehouse store days. Of course, after a few plays failed financially, what could we do? The playwright was promised a production, the play was cast and in rehearsal … we had to build the set and we had barely enough money to pay the staff (when they weren’t being asked to suck it up and get their checks late.) What to do? Find a lumber yard further out of town where they would, for some reason, front us the sheets of plywood, two by fours and masonite needed to create our sets.
Speaking of paying the staff … once I was at a University of MD talking with set designer Dan Conway and he asked, “Is it true you once started a staff meeting by asking ‘who doesn’t need to be paid this week?’” Hell that was just about every staff meeting. At one point I was owed over 20 weeks salary. But the staff was all paid up. Eventually.
The Post Office can’t be conned. Cash only. That was trouble in those days because direct mail marketing was key to getting an audience. The internet nowadays is a boon to keeping an audience informed … and web sites are so inexpensive!
One year, our director of marketing (not Bloom – he had moved to NYC by this time) talked me into hiring a telephone marketing company to push our season subscriptions. Sure why not. Well, I’ll tell you why not … yes, it increased our subscription base, however the cost was bigger than the amount of cash the subscription sales brought in. We would have to pay for the campaign out of single ticket sales. Oh, dream on.
Throughout that season, the owner of the company would call me asking for his bill to be paid. The money was long gone, but we would send a few hundred bucks which still left a couple thousand still owed. Well, on about the sixth call from this guy I just turned it around, told the truth and asked him if he would join our Board of Trustees and help us raise money to produce these wonderful playwrights who needed and deserved a stage of their own. Knock me down with a feather. He said he would. Damn.
He turned out to be an excellent Board member, in addition to being a terrific guy. He and his wife loved the theater, attended all the plays, attended and dragged their friends to our big benefits … and he wrote off our debt as part of his annual giving. Why could we not have had ten of him? I think he stayed for a year or so after I left. I want to believe we wasn’t around for those last declining years when destructive decisions were made that forced the company to close.
Another survival tip … never take a board members word regarding legal matters. Get documentation. You see, way back when, the District of Columbia passed new tax laws that required everyone to pay property tax (which is such a rip, isn’t it. I mean we paid sales tax when we bought our typewriters – there I go dating myself again – and then we would have to pay yearly tax on the property we used to run our operation.) Okay, so the city passes new tax laws but gives non-profits a window of time to submit a few forms
To gain exemption from paying that tax. So Eric, our trusted lawyer assured us that he would file the forms because it’s no big deal he’ll take care of it easy simple and don’t worry about it. You know where this is going, don’t you? Yep. About a year later we get a bill for $2400 in property tax due to the District Government. Gulp. Did you file the forms? We asked him. Eric made up some mumbled excuse. So somebody files the form finally, but we find out it is not retroacttive. We’re stuck with a $2,400 bill to a creditor who can seaze our property, including the building. What to do? Okay, no matter what stories I heard about Mayor Marion Barry of the District of Columbia, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for him. Through a series of contacts I was able to speak to the Mayor at a social event and explain our $2,400 plight. (Even in 1982 that was a LOT of money). Long story short, Marion explained there was no way in hell he could go up against the head of the tax division, but don’t worry, “I’ll send you $2,400. from my special fund.” He did. A check arrived within a week.
I just realized that we really were in the dark ages back then … we actually had to pay a type setter to put our programs together. She had to be paid, but the printers … there were a lot of those to which we owed money. Now you can be a two minds about this. One, we were creating an environment in which it would be harder for other theatre companies to survive because we were such financial rascals. Or two, the show must go on. Did we cheat? Yep. Why lie about it? Did we get the curtain up when promised to the public? Yep. In doing so, we cut a lot of corners and even risked the safety of ourselves and the audience. Oh yeah, in 1978 while we were packing them in for Bob Schulte’s very successful production of Ernie Joselovitz’ Emma Goldman play, SPLENDID REBELS, a uniformed man whose metal nameplat said simply “Pitts” (no kidding) came to the theater, flashed a badge, looked into the performance space where we had crammed about 150 people into a space for 130, saw no second exit, only one exit signs and quietly informed me that he didn’t want to shut us down right now, but that he would be back on Monday and if were didn’t meet all code requirements and have an occupancy permit but were continuing to produce plays, he would padlock the doors and site us for about 15 violations of the city code.
We learned a lot in the coming months – were forced to. Even to this day some 30 years later, I cannot walk into an “alternative” theatre space without spotting code violations. So, getting back to what Lloyd said at Ernie’s party … yep, I now know too much.
PS: There’s more survival stuff to share particularly since I want to give credit to those people who made our move to and from the L’Enfant Plaza Theatre, produced a major fund-raiser while there, and got us moved back into a renovated Church Steer space almost 4 moths to the day that Officer Pitts flashed his badge that Saturday night December 1978 in the lobby of New Playwrights Theatre.
PPS: And then there was the time, years later when an arsonist tried to burn us down b ut only succeeded in burning a big gaping hole downstage center and into the first row … as well as causing smoke damage throughout the building.