A Guide to Running Your Own Company
Are you too busy juggling technique classes and rehearsals to learn how to write a successful press release? Do you feel so consumed with choreographing your next piece that you can’t find time to file for nonprofit status? Unfortunately, few dancers formally learn the business side of running a company. No worries—we’ve created a cheat sheet to get you started. When running a company, you will need to know how to…
Holding an audition can be overwhelming. Avoid the stress by asking friends who are dancers to be in your company. But make sure the partnership makes sense both personally and artistically. “It’s very important to work with people you really admire,” says Karola Lüttringhaus, artistic director of alban elved dance company/KAROLA LÜTTRINGHAUS, based in Berlin, NYC and North Carolina. “It’s not enough to just work with someone who’s great.”
If you must recruit dancers outside of your personal network, consider approaching dancers you see in class. “Just walk on up to them and let them know you want to work with them. They’ll most likely be delighted,” says Pele Bauch, manager of program operations at The Field, a service organization for independent artists, in NYC. Another good idea: Hold a limited audition. Open it up to just 15 friends of friends. Send an e-mail asking for recommendations and then set a date and time. Keep it low key. You can even have a few days of classes and auditions so people can get to know each other and see if your company is the right fit.
Find rehearsal space
Renting rehearsal space, especially in a metropolis, can be one of the most expensive parts of running a company. Many arts organizations offer space grants, and many dance studios rent space at a discounted rate during off hours (usually late at night or early in the morning). Bauch suggests trying to find a studio that doesn’t offer classes: “Generally, the studios that have classes are booked all the time,” she explains.
Remember: Scheduling rehearsal space for a group of dancers who are all balancing side jobs can be a logistical nightmare. “You can’t always pay everybody,” explains Lüttringhaus, “so you have to work around their schedules.”
Online Resource: nycdancespaces.org has a search engine that allows choreographers to search for rehearsal space by size, price and location in the NYC area.
Secure a performance venue
There are two ways to present a show: You rent a theater (sometimes you have to apply, and it can take six months to a year) and do everything from hiring a lighting designer to advertising the show yourself, or a theater selects you, in which case it takes care of all the logistics. Of course, the latter isn’t always an option for brand-new companies. You may need to be seen a few times before a venue will present you!
If you’re not yet ready for an evening-length performance, seek out showcases at the theaters you’d like to perform a full show at someday. Look for “smaller performance opportunities where you can show a 10- or a 20-minute work and be part of a group show,” explains Bauch. “It’s a great way for you to get to know a theater and for them to see your work.” These opportunities are also usually at little or no cost to you. One notable series in NYC is Dance Theater Workshop’s Fresh Tracks Performance and Residency Program; fledgling choreographers and their performers audition to participate, and if accepted are given rehearsal time and a small stipend. Look for similar opportunities in your area.
Online Resource: gotour.org, sponsored by The Field, lists performance venues in various cities.
Create a press kit
The point of a press kit is to give reporters everything they need to write an article on your company. Fill a pocket folder with the following: bios of each company member, your artist’s statement, any promotional materials you’ve already made (postcards, magnets, etc.), photos printed on regular paper (if the media want an actual photo you can e-mail a high-resolution version later), reviews or articles that have already been written about you or your company and a press release containing info about your current project.
Even if you don’t have all of the elements listed above, send a press release on its own. Determine what your news hook is—announcing the formation of your company, your first show, a work premiere or a star guest performer. This information should be the basis for the title of the release and the bulk of the first paragraph. Make sure all performance dates and times are included, names are spelled correctly, and your contact info is double-checked for accuracy.
Online Resource: prleap.com has free sample press releases.
Start a website
While having a presence on the internet may seem like a priority, there’s no reason to hire a website designer right away. There are many templates that allow even technophobes to build a great site. First, buy a domain name, like “mycompany.com.” Keep it simple and avoid hyphens. Then find a host. Websites like GeoCities and Angelfire will host your page for a small monthly or yearly fee. It’s easiest to buy your domain name and host space from the same company.
Online Resources: Search godaddy.com to see if the domain name you want is available. Talentcase.com is an affordable website template company created by artists for artists.
Apply for grants
Along with soliciting donations from friends and family, you may want to apply for grants to finance your company. “There are grants available from local arts councils,” says Bauch, “and grants for people who are starting out.” She also suggests taking a grant-writing workshop, to learn this specialized style of writing. Before applying for a grant, research the goals of the organization you wish to receive money from. For example, if its mission is to further the endeavors of women, tell them if you’re the first woman in your family to go to college.
Most grants ask for the following: proposal summary (a brief description of your objectives), an introduction to your organization (bios of members, goals, philosophy), problem statement (what you will overcome with the grant), project objective (your goals), project methods (specific tasks that more money will allow), project evaluation (what criteria you use to determine success), future funding (expected sources of money after the grant is received), and a proposal budget. If this seems daunting, there are many people who make a living writing grant proposals.
Online Resources: foundationcenter.org offers grant-writing classes and research libraries across the country; guru.com is an online database of grant writers.
Buying an ad for your first few shows is “a chunk of change that’s not necessarily going to come back to you in ticket sales,” says Bauch. Instead, she recommends making postcards that you can mail to friends and family, hand out to colleagues and leave at dance studios. Postcards should have a compelling photo of your work, the name of your company, performance dates, times and venue, your contact info and price of admission. If nothing else, send a blast e-mail a few weeks before your show with the same info in it to everyone you know.
Online Resource: Order inexpensive customized postcards from postcards.com.
File for nonprofit status
Having 501(c)3 (or nonprofit) status means your company is exempt from some federal income taxes, and donations to your company can be deducted. Getting nonprofit status is not simple. Most applicants hire a lawyer because of the extensive legal paperwork. You must prove that your company betters the community; establish an advisory board; set up a separate banking account; take out liability insurance; pay a lot of money, spend between six months and a year working on the application; file annual reports and be directly responsible to the IRS. The benefits of nonprofit status are that you become eligible for more grants and you can receive tax-deductible donations, which will encourage more people to give you money.
Another option is finding a fiscal sponsor, such as The Field. A sponsor will either take a percentage of the funds you raise or charge a flat rate, but in exchange, sponsored companies are allowed to apply for grants that otherwise require nonprofit status, and receive tax-deductible donations. Essentially, you’re getting the same financial benefits as being nonprofit without the headaches. You know you’re ready for nonprofit status when you’re able to raise so much money that the percentage or fee paid to your fiscal sponsor is no longer worth the benefits.
Online Resources: Dance/USA, danceusa.org, is a national service organization for professional dancers; The Field, thefield.org, has satellite sites across the U.S.; Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, vlany.org, can help during the nonprofit filing process.
Starting a company can be daunting, but remember: Every great company started out small, just like yours! (Paul Taylor used to cut his dancers’ hair on the road!) So gather some friends and collaborators, get on your computer and jump in feet first.