By Lara Smith, Managing Director
The “Reverse Mullet” Model
Every time I tell somebody I work at Dad’s Garage, they exclaim how fun of a job it must be! I am quick to say that I have the most boring job there–I spend the majority of my time in meetings, staring at spreadsheets, and managing people. For those of you who don’t know, we (and many nonprofit theatres across the country) operate on a co-CEO model, where I’m in charge of the business and Kevin (our Artistic Director) is in charge of the art. In Kevin’s words we are a “reverse mullet;” he’s the party in the front and I’m the business in the back.
A few years ago, when I was the Development Director, we posted a picture in the (now gone) 280 Elizabeth Street offices that included our fax machine and fax cover sheets in the background. Someone posted that they were sad that a place like Dad’s Garage needed something as boring as fax cover sheets. Our office is similar to yours–if your office sometimes has stink bombs go off, at one point in time didn’t have AC (hello, working in a bathing suit!), and if there is booze stashed all over the place.
Losing Our Home, Keeping Our People
In all seriousness, when we lost our home in Inman Park, we also lost our offices. We’re all working from home now, which may sound like fun until you consider when you call the ticket line at 2 a.m. after accidentally leaving something at the theatre, the phone in my house rings! Or when you think about managing a full time staff of ten people from afar. Moving into our permanent home will be great for our work, but also transformative for our staff.
But I digress. People often ask me what my favorite part of working at Dad’s Garage is, and without hesitation, I always answer the people. I moved to Atlanta for a job at Dad’s Garage in 2007, knowing very few people in the city. All of my relationships have their root in Dad’s Garage, and I’m certainly not alone in that. We call it a family and it truly is one.
The Spirit of Improv
As a staff, we (attempt to) truly embrace the spirit of improv. This means constantly trying new things, trusting our partners, building on ideas, and learning from our failures. When asked about our greatest triumphs and failures during the transition, they are often the exact same thing. As an organization, our sales projections have historically be spot on–within 5% of where things actually land. In our first two months at 7 Stages, everything was tracking closer to 70% of goal. We were able to pull together a task force made up of board, staff, and artists. This meant putting signs up at the old location directing folks to 7 Stages and creating a fun initiative around our new bar. We tackled the real and perceived issues and were able to turn sales around in four short weeks.
I’ve been reading a lot about vulnerability (have you seen Brene Brown’s TED Talk?) and a lot of it seemed parallel to my understanding of improvisation. (I’m one of the few staff members that isn’t also an improviser!) We have to be willing to put ourselves out there to truly succeed. Innovation comes from being courageous and being the first one to try something new. But being the first one to try something also carries a great risk for failure. Resiliency is key to be an improviser and to run a successful business. When we first started Dad’s Garage TV, there was no road map on how to proceed. We’ve been hired to create pilots, commercials, and industrials. When we first started, we thought the important thing to get our name out there was creating a large quantity of content. Over the past two years, we’ve learned that in order to be successful we must focus on the quality first.
Surplus and Success
Since 2007, our budget has nearly doubled and we’ve ended every fiscal year with a modest cash surplus. Dad’s Garage has succeeded in large part thanks to our diversified revenue streams. Our single largest revenue line is single ticket sales (at roughly 30% of our income), but we spread out that risk over a full year’s worth of performances (nearly 400 when we’re at full capacity). Many theatres also generate 30% of their income from single ticket sales, but they’re generating that revenue from five to seven productions. This allows us to take risks, such as last year putting on a big comedy bash called Dad’s Garage and Friends. We brought in a bunch of celebrities and local partners like the Atlanta Opera, and we put on a show for 1400 people at the Goat Farm. It was such a hit we’re bringing it to the Fox Theatre on June 13 this year!
I’m not sure I’ve actually explained at all how the sausage is made at Dad’s Garage. But know that a lot of different people with a lot of different skill sets go into making it. We all come for different reasons, but we all stay because we have one thing in common: we love Dad’s Garage and the family that comes with it.