WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Business of Working With Friends - And Other Tales

In Spring 2009, my friend Kenny approached me about starting a theatre company. In August 2009, we asked Kenny's former co-star to join us. In the last two years, that co-star, Mary-Liz, gained the title of "friend" and we all officially (read: legally! eep!) became "business partners." And there it was - Kenny and I were in business through friendship and Mary-Liz and I were friends through business. And for the most part, that works well. From time to time we have our squabbles - like any relationship built-to-last, we don't agree on everything. But at our roots, we share the same goals, ideals, and a set of vocabulary we use to communicate with each other. The language creates a set of boundaries and a set of rules for our world. A world where we sometimes say, "I'm taking off my friend hat for the remainder of this staff meeting and I need you to listen to me as my business partner." And that works for us. But, as we expand our horizons and bring more people into the fold, I've started to wonder how we communicate our rules and boundaries to newcomers.

It's easiest when we start by bringing someone in on a professional level because we can neatly say, "Here are our expectations, if you don't think you can meet these, let's renegotiate." Fine. Done. It either works out or it doesn't. But then you start to work with people on a more regular basis and they enter the "friend sphere." So a new set of rules are created - a set where you can ask both more and less of a person because they've "crossed over." But this can still lead to awkward situations because ultimately we have to do what's best for The CoLab as a unit. (In a way, this is simpler because these people knew you first as professionals and hopefully have come to understand that it's not a personal matter, but a professional one... but I digress.)

And then you have the friends who start to work with you within your business title. For me, this is really where things get murky. No matter how hard you try to uphold them, the boundaries and rules get jumbled and confused. Why? Why? WHY?! This is a question I've asking myself for the last six months, one that's particularly started to bother me as we invite people to come out for casting. I like to think that everyone we invite is a professional as well and they understand that an invitation is only invitation and not a guarantee of anything. But if that's true, why do I still get that funny (emotionally gray) twinge in my stomach when I send out a rejection email to an invited auditioner? We try to say - "We invited you because we've enjoyed working with you before and we want to work with you again. I'm sorry it won't work out this time around but please keep us in mind for the future." And it's true - but it still feels odd somehow.

And if you thought that was bad, things get even more confusing as we begin to creep into other fields: directors, techies, playwrights, volunteers, etc. When you're casting a play, the words on the page help you decide what the right move is. The final decision (the final boundary or ruling) boils down to: is this person the right actor for the part? When we move out of the audition room into areas of production, the rules are created as we go and with so many balls in the air, it's often hard to set a standard for everyone to follow ALL OF THE TIME. Now don't get me wrong, I've been around this business long enough to know that it is, in fact, A BUSINESS. I'm not saying that I'm scared of making decisions based on friendships. (Because I'm not.) But it's no wonder that companies go under with this sort of push-and-pull pressure that's on them. And at 24, there's all sorts of other pressures on me besides my new title of Massachusetts Small Business Owner. Basically, what I'm saying (and you might have guessed it) my brain in on overdrive 24/7.

I don't know that there's a clear cut answer to my questions or if I'm really looking for one. The past year has been a crazy-steep learning curve and I anticipate the next year to be an even steeper one. I've learned so much but the deeper we delve into this world, the more I realize that problems I've never considered before will pop up left and right for the next several years. And that's okay, but it gets me thinking because I got into the business due to my passion, my sense of discovery, and the bonds I forged making theatre. I want to make theatre in this professional Boston scene and I want this for a career. Clearly I don't do it for the money or the fame (ha!). I do it for me. Because I love it. And part of that love is the friendships that cross through this professional life. And no matter how I emerge from this experience, as a Boston fringe company slowly staggering to its feet, I want to keep as many professional and personal relationships in tact as possible. This is an exciting time for me, but there's also a lot of heavy thought going on. So, internet friends, I unburden a little of that thought onto you for the time being. Phew. (And sorry for all of the run ons!)

As always, thanks for reading.



  1. I think this is a good read for anyone who wants to keep theatre-making a big part of their life.

  2. As always, thanks for writing. :)

    So much of this is so pertinent to my life right now, too -- the challenging intersections of running a company, growing a company, building a community, and maintaining individual relationships conflict and compete in so many unexpected, complicated ways.

    ~ Coriana