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Deb Clapp and The League of Chicago Theatres - Sharing the Experience

With 250 theaters serving an audience base of over 5 million, Chicago has one of the most respected and thriving theatre communities in the country. According to the League of Chicago Theatres, the combined budgets total more than $250 million, creating 15,000 jobs in 115 venues which translates to over 64,000 seats. And, the landscape is growing.

Consider that Chicago Shakespeare Theatre opened The Yard this fall, a state-of-the-art facility on Navy Pier that morphs into a variety of performance configurations, Theatre on the Lake, a new restoration project will bring live entertainment back to another part of the lakefront and the Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Arts Building has had a major upgrade.

There is something for everyone, and that all translates into economic impact of over $1 billion earning Chicago national distinction for a diverse, collaborative community of storefront, non-union, award-winning professional and resident companies, and Broadway touring organizations. 

Helping to promote for theater professionals, and by their estimate, over 800 productions annually, the League of Chicago Theatres evolved as a service organization, establishing HotTix as a clearinghouse for ticket inventory. For over thirty-five years, in addition to expanding their promotional efforts, the League has become an advocate for issues facing theatre professionals, providing support services and professional development programs.

On December 1st, Executive Director Deb Clapp joined the conversation to talk about a wide range of topics including the mission and important work of the League, the HotTix program, the superb 2017 Holiday Theatre Guide and a preview of the 2018 Chicago Theatre Week February 9th-18th.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST

RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER Photo: Rick Aguilar Studios

About the League … “We exist to promote, support and advocate for Chicago theatre… Everybody needs to sell tickets, so a lot of what we do is focused around promotion, public relations, all of those things that go into really raising the profile of Chicago theatre as a whole rather than individual theatres. … We have a very robust program of professional development that runs the gamut from management training to development training to public relations training.

Board Composition… “When the League was formed as a non-profit, the by-laws stated that we have to have board members from each of six budget categories, so that ensures that we have representatives from the smallest theater all the way to the very large theaters and makes for a board of directors that is looking out for the needs of the entire community. We also have several members who are not directly affiliated with the theatre but are theatre lovers.”

A Christmas Carol Photo: Liz Lauren

A Christmas Carol Photo: Liz Lauren

Career Path…I worked for Hartford Stage and then for Long Wharf Theater. I came to Chicago to work for the Goodman Theatre for about five years and I really fell in love with what Chicago theatre was all about.  When I left the Goodman, I had it in my head that I was going to be a consultant for small theaters and try to help them become what they wanted to be. It turned out that the need at small theaters is so great that all I was doing was day-to-day, which is very important, but it was not what I wanted to do. My friend, David Hawkinson, who was running Steppenwolf at the time and on the League board, approached me about this job and I said, “Absolutely, not. That’s not what I do. I’m a theatre producer.” And he said, ‘Oh well, will you just come and consult with us for a little while?” As he knew, I fell in love with it. He knew I would and here I am eight years later.”

Tips for Start-Ups… “To get started, you need a very strong aesthetic. I can’t emphasize enough that coming into Chicago, where we have so many theaters, you really need to know what your vision is. You have to have something that is different from everyone else. That is the number one thing. The number two thing is a business plan. You need to understand your first five years in business and what you hope to achieve.”

League’s Role in Business Development… “We help to understand what is going to be needed through our professional development programs. In particular, business management and fundraising skills… and a reality check. To give people that reality-based education around fundraising is very important. The basics of accounting... and a five-year plan or a plan that allows you to take all of your funding sources into consideration.”

Funding Partners… “We have foundations in Chicago that understand the ecology of Chicago theatre, which doesn’t exist without small, storefront theaters… They want to fund them. They want to help make them strong. They want to give them general operating funds and that is something that funders have shied away from for a long time, but in Chicago, we have a number of funders who are really, really wonderful about continuing general operating funding for theaters of all sizes.”

Deb Clapp, Executive Director of the League of Chicago Theatres

A National Conversation… “We deal with many issues… financial issues that affect the League… staffing issues, all the kinds of things that a board normally deals with. We talk about, in our board meetings, the issues that affect our community because it is very important for us as the League to address these issues and to try to offer programming and assistance that will help with those issues. Recently, ever since the last year’s election, we have had theatres that say that ticket sales have decreased, and some theatres have said that giving has decreased, but, also, we have had some theatres that say giving has increased. So, at the board’s suggestion, and through development and board discussions, we recently held focus groups with executive directors, marketing directors and development directors to try to really get at this issue. What is really happening? What can we do about it? What has changed? What do we think is temporary? What do we think is permanent? Really trying to get at those issues. We are in the process of, out of those discussion groups, developing programming as to what is really happening to ticket buyers. … Recently, there have been issues in our community of sexual harassment, some issues of racial insensitivity. We have talked about those at length in our board meetings and have already started to develop programming to address those issues. ... We have an organization called the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations(APASO)… we have a conference once a year… we are in very close contact in particular with our colleagues in New York, in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles all have robust theatre service organizations in addition to arts services organizations… it is really important for us to stay connected to them and to share programming and ideas.”

HotTix “HotTix is a way not just to sell tickets, but also to reach new audiences. HotTix has an audience base that is not necessarily the same folks who are going to buy a full price ticket, who maybe know about your theatre, so it really is a way for people to be introduced to theatre. All of our tickets are half-priced… there is a fee on all tickets that the patron pays, and you pay that on any discount site. The difference with HotTix is that that fee actually goes back into supporting Chicago theatre. ... First and foremost, if you love a theatre, if there is a show you cannot miss, go buy your ticket, don’t wait for HotTix because it may or may not come on to HotTix. If you are not sure what you want to see, you want to take a chance, or, maybe you simply cannot afford the full price ticket, then by all means, HotTix is your place.

2017 Holiday Theatre Guide “On the website at: Chicagoplays.org and available throughout the city, a comprehensive guide to all the theatre that is happening in Chicago during the holiday season. Sixteen pages of amazing shows… arranged by neighborhood and easy to see if the shows are family-friendly, which shows might be a little more for adults, and believe it or not, there are some adult-only Christmas shows out there. It is just a really great resource.”

Get Your Tickets Now for Everything: Shows are in demand at this time of year and regularly sell out.

Coming Up: 2018 Chicago Theatre Week – February 8-18 Check it out.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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