By Taylor Jones
When I set out to write this blog post it was pretty much just going to be a cut and dry reporting of the finances of the theater, but as I was writing I found more and more that I wanted to dive deeper into what the Crowd has meant to me. I think it gives some life to the numbers rather than just some sterile reports to outline how we spend and earn money. So if you’ll indulge me I’d like to preface our financial data and plans for 2019 with a brief and sappy overview of my experience with the Crowd.
My experience with The Crowd is one of those once in a lifetime moments. A before and after type moment. It has changed me fundamentally, it has challenged me, given me opportunities to fail and succeed, brought people into my life both permanently and momentarily that have helped me grow into who I am now and who I hope to be. I am so grateful for my experiences and for the people who made them possible.
To me the Crowd has always been a vase, beautiful in its own right, but made more beautiful by that which occupies it. The people who come to the theater to play, and laugh, and cheer and love are a beautiful plant with a vivid and ever-changing bloom.
I didn’t come to Chicago with the dream of starting a theater, but after two years in the scene the idea started to take root. For me, it started with a frustration with existing theaters that I felt were not in touch with the performers that brought them to life, and their lack of interest in introspection and change compounded that frustration. As I thought about it, it seemed like it could be done so much better in regard to diversity and inclusivity. I met Dillon around this time and learned he was already gearing up to start a theater, I told him I was interested in this idea and would love to be as involved as he would have me. He and Blair had already come to a similar spot and from there I asked Lauren Walker if she would be interested in getting involved too and from there we had our starting line-up and things moved quickly after that.
We began to spend our time equally between drafting up a business plan and coming up with hilarious bits like putting up a billboard in rural Wyoming with directions to the theater. After we finished our business plan we had to find a space. The first place we looked at was a tiny little storefront between what was then Profile Theater’s spaces. It was tiny and ran $1000/month which was totally in our budget. We submitted our business plan and said, “Pretty please may we start a theater here?” and they said, “Hell no.” and we said “What are you our dad?!” We were bummed over being rejected, but determined - and a little later Dillon recalled a sign that said “Space for lease Call Tony.” So we called Tony and he said “Come on over,” to which we replied “Uh...now?” (it was like 9pm) he grunted “Yes”. We met with Tony, in his customary business bathrobe, half open displaying his customary business boxers, and wearing his customary business slippers, smoking his customary business cigar and he asked us what we wanted to do in the space and responded with, “A theater huh? Could be good…..could be VERY bad!” and with that we had ourselves a deal.
After scrounging up the first month’s rent from our meager bank accounts and insisting on having and signing a lease (Tony would have preferred we just slide a check or cash under the door each month) we had a space, but now we had to turn it into a theater.
Shit. How were we gonna do that?
The answer was a tremendous amount of help from all sorts of people that kindly donated their time and asked nothing in return. It truly blew me away how many people were willing to help us out. Painting the walls, laying down a million pages for the floor, Derek Cox helping us set up lights and Collin David who spent the better part of 3 days building an actual stage to fit in a very irregular corner of a very irregular building. Then after a month of renovations it was here. Opening night. It was electric! The theater was packed, it was right around Halloween so we said that people could come in costume which meant 67 people dressed normally plus a Jesus, a hotdog and me as a cat. We had a jam, a preselected mash up team and the 4 board members play that night then closed out with a beautiful poem Dillon had written about dreams to bring us all to tears. We stayed in the space to revel in the joy that followed. After everybody had gone home a few of us stayed behind and I layed on the stage, smiling from ear to ear. It was a rush like I had never felt before.
What I didn’t expect in the 3 years that have followed was that I would be hit with this same feeling again and again as I watched people fill the space with their personality and joy and compassion. The Crowd certainly has a brand, but not one that has been carefully curated. It was created by the people putting up shows, doing bits and pouring their energy into the space. I have seen so many people do incredible things here, from doing their very first performance to packing the theater to standing room only. I have been moved to tears from laughter and joy and beauty and sadness here.
I believe in what the Crowd has become and I hope only that those of us in leadership can help continue to shepherd it towards what the community wants or needs it to be. There is plenty more to be done, and while I am grateful for my experiences, the last thing I want to be is complacent with what is, when I know what could be. We can do more to serve underrepresented producers and performers.We can do more to reduce the barriers to entry. We can do more to help performers make the things they want to make.
I wanted to start with my experience with the Crowd because I feel like talking about the numbers can’t paint a full picture. That said, our finances have the ability to enable or stifle plans so we still must pay attention. The Crowd is a pretty simple operation we get our income from ticket sales, show rentals, rehearsals, Co-op dues and donations. Our expenses are pretty simple as well, classic things like rent, utilities and insurance along with paying the box office/tech folks, our house team coaches, and more recently Audrey, Courtney, Dillon and myself.
The report I have attached below is our profit and loss report for 2018 and it basically functions as a financial summary of all the income and expenses organized into categories (going down) and broken down by quarter (going across). The income is the top half and is divided into 6 categories which are pretty self explanatory with the exception of other donations which are received from fundraisers or outside contributions that don’t come to us through a show. For our expenses it’s broken down into labor, operations, marketing, finance and admin.
Labor: The cost of paying the box office staff, Dillon (booking and box office management), Taylor (bookkeeping) and Audrey (social media management)
Operations: This is where we put our expenses relating to the running of the theater. Paper towels, cups, toilet paper and cleaning supplies are all here. We also have all of our rent and utilities under this category.
Marketing: This includes things like website maintenance and Google Adwords
Finances: The boring stuff like credit card processing fees and insurance
Admin: This is where we put expenses for professional services like our lawyer and our accountant as well as fees relating to licensing.
As you’ll see in the report below The Crowd is generally bouncing just above or below breaking even any given month. At the end of 2017 we had saved up a few thousand dollars and opted to take care of a few more expensive projects like getting new floors in the green room and hiring a lawyer to help us with some zoning things which ended up putting us in the red on the year about $3,500.
Financially we aren’t in dire straits, but we could be doing better. Dillon and I both hate asking for money and that is not the best quality to have when you are operating a non-profit. We recently had to make the tough decision to stop paying our house team coaches starting in May and move that burden back to the players. This move was a little disheartening to make seeing as affordability is part of our mission statement. We had to make the decision due to a failure on the part of our leadership to take our finances seriously. As the person responsible for the Crowd’s bookkeeping I could have seen the trajectory of our expenses sooner and done something to prevent it had I been more diligent and for that I apologize.
We have learned a lot these past few months about our responsibilities in leadership and that the money that we make as a business has the capacity to affect a lot of people. That is why one of our goals this year is to raise $20,000 from grants, fundraisers and patreon donations so we can better serve the community. Paying coaches, improving the space, buying equipment, lowering costs for performers and even paying ourselves to free up more of our time to spend on The Crowd are all things that can improve the theater and serve the community. We have been kicking ourselves into gear. We have already applied for 10+ grants this year and will continue to apply for more as the year goes on.
In an ideal world we would be able to meet our goals through grants alone and we hope to get there someday, but we also ask of the community that you consider donating to The Crowd either via Patreon or through one of the many fundraisers that we are planning this year. One of our goals for 2019 is to revamp our Patreon with new and improved patron levels so you can also look forward to that on the horizon. We would never ask anyone to put themselves out for the sake of the theater, but if you have the means to spare some money each month and believe in what the Crowd stands for, we would be so grateful and would seek to turn that money around to serve the comedy community as best we can.
Thank you so much for reading through this sap fest. I truly love this community, and all the wonderful people that make it up and I am grateful to be a part of it. If you have any questions regarding the Crowd, its history, or its finances feel free to reach out to me at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.