In 2008, ‘Wired’ co-founder Kevin Kelly wrote his now-famous blog post “One Thousand True Fans.”
In a nutshell, it claims that any creator can make a sustainable living if they can find just 1000 people who really like their work. So, rather than try to appeal to the masses, you ‘niche down’ and focus on that one person in 6 million people weird enough to like the same weird things you do. In the age of social media, this should be easier than ever for YouTubers, bloggers, recording artists, and writers... But can the same concept hold true for work that must be seen in person? Work that — by its very nature — can't be transmitted through screens and speakers? Work like, you know... theatre?
Around the same time Kelly was hatching this theory I was enjoying my first post-college acting gig at the historic Walnut Street Theatre. A behemoth in the Philadelphia theatre scene, the Walnut has a subscriber base of 50,000+ annually, great Center City visibility, and significant cachet as America's oldest continually operated theatre. It now hosts a full season across three stages with the biggest titles in musical theatre as the tent-poles (Legally Blonde is playing now.) The Walnut Street Theatre does not employ a ‘niche down’ strategy.
In the fall of 2007, perhaps against their better judgment, the Walnut hired me: I was cast as an understudy and extra in Man of La Mancha. It was during the run of this production that I got to know Michael O’Brien, a golden-voiced tenor and rising name in the Philly scene. Through Mike, I heard about a project he co-founded: a theatre company dedicated to producing small, avant-garde, and contemporary musicals— the kind that would likely never play a 1,000-seat house like the Walnut but were every bit as vital. They called it 11th Hour Theatre Company, and I thought it sounded like a very niche-y idea.
“I heard about a project he co-founded: a theatre company dedicated to producing small, avant-garde, and contemporary musicals. I thought it sounded like a very niche-y idea.”
Now, heading into their fifteenth season, this niche-y idea has emerged into an award winning, critically acclaimed, essential artistic force in Philadelphia. “We're not trying to be the Walnut,” says Managing Director Dany Guy. “We’re small by design.” With a $300,000 annual budget and a tiny part-time staff, smallness isn’t just part of 11th Hour's artistry. It’s at the core of all they do.
Consider the company’s Concert Series. Though each year 11th Hour does present one fully-produced musical, the bread and butter of their season is a three- to four-event series of staged readings “that showcases musicals seldom seen in Philadelphia.” According to Dany, while this economical approach started from necessity for the fledgling company, the Concert Series’ popularity among patrons solidified it as “a core part of the programming.” He attributes this popularity to the concert atmosphere’s focus on the storytelling of the piece, an element he feels sometimes can get lost on larger stages: “Intimacy is part of the branding.”
Photo courtesy of 11th Hour Theatre Company
It’s also a part of the staff and workspace. Two years ago, Dany became 11th Hour’s first and only full-time employee. Occupying a former classroom in a shuttered South Philly Catholic school, the company has room to work and hold small rehearsals, but they lack a dedicated performance location. “With a venue comes branding and name recognition,” says Dany. “We're sometimes mistaken for the companies we rent performance space from.”
This company is no stranger to gracefully barnacle-ing onto the city’s larger arts and culture organizations. In fact, 11th Hour Theatre company is a sub-licensee of the Philadelphia Regional Arts Consortium (PRAC), a collaboration of (mostly) Philly-based non-profits which — among other things — provides the leverage necessary for smaller organizations to gain access to the Tessitura software. The shared single database PRAC provides even allows Dany some limited insight into larger buying patterns of patrons. “It's more bang for our buck,” Dany says.
As the company embarks on a mission to increase its percentage of earned revenue vs. contributed, this data may become more important than ever. Philadelphia in recent years has experienced a “major freeze in funding,” Dany says. “Certain donors are maxed out.” With this strategic shift in mind, Dany recently expanded the concert series from one weekend to two. This increased expenses but doubled revenue. It also allowed him to fold the growing “Spotlight Series” into the same venue on one of the concert’s off-nights — a scrappy move that eliminated the need for a costly additional booking.
Photo courtesy of 11th Hour Theatre Company
But while these financial considerations are important, they’re not what matter most to Dany and 11th Hour: “The Spotlight Series is about supporting younger artists who are up and coming.” This consolidation bolsters that support.
Says Dany, “We focus on the storytelling. We figured out who our base is. We created a niche.” (See!? He said ‘niche!’)
I don't know if 11th Hour can claim 1,000 true fans, but I think they show that running lean and mean isn’t about cutting corners. It’s about maintaining the flexibility to put the mission first.
Andrew is on sabbatical. This is the third post in a series featuring guest writers from the Tessitura team.