Friday, May 17, 2013

Cookies, Entrepreneurship, and the Heart of Theatre

TEDxBroadway 2013 Series (Part II)

In this three-part opinion series, Signature Theatre staff look at their favorite talks from the TEDxBroadway 2013 conference sharing thoughts, insights, and an analysis of the issues facing the theatre industry at large and how Signature Theatre is handling them. Read Part I here.

Today’s blog author is Hunter Styles, Signature’s Public and Community Relations Manager.

How odd, when you think about it, that theatre artists gather together in a box in order to work at thinking outside the box. Sometimes it’s a blackbox theatre; sometimes it’s a more traditional auditorium space. Either way, the decree is to think differently about how to tell a story onstage, using the particular skills of the artists assembled.

But gathering in the blackbox is the easy part. It’s the individual-sized boxes we inhabit – walled in by our self-imposed comfort zones and by the assumptions others have about us – that can be hard to climb out of.

Zachary Schmahl is an actor from Nebraska who wandered into the New York theatre scene a few years ago only to end up starting a business of his own: an old-fashioned cookie shop storefront in Hell’s Kitchen. The box Schmahl identified with – the small oven in his 400-foot-square apartment – seemed at first the source of a hobby rather than a full-time job. But then he took the time to reflect on his life of constant auditioning. It had begun to feel unsustainable.

"When you’re unfulfilled," Schmahl said, "that’s life telling you that it’s time to adapt. To reimagine. To move on. To continue to dream big." His breezy, fun 10-minute TEDx talk encourages us all to think beyond the perfunctory limitations we put on how we imagine what might best come next. "Why photocopy something that someone else has already perfected?" Schmahl asked, arguing that hard work – and attention to your deep-down interests – pays off.
Zachary Schmahl presents at TEDxBroadway 2013.

Now he sells cookies to the public, and to numerous professional theatres in New York, as the owner of Schmackery’s bakery. Since opening in 2011, the shop has become home to what Schmahl calls "the unofficial cookie of Broadway."

"The more that I sold, the more I fell in love with what I was doing," said Schmahl. "And I gave myself no option but to succeed and grow my business as fast as I possibly could."

Not everyone finds a way to latch onto this killer combination of industry and imagination. It takes hard work, but it also takes some aggressive dreaming. And if a theatre can’t pull that off, the entire community misses out.

Fortunately, the box that Eric Schaeffer put himself into in the early 90s – an old garage on Four Mile Run Drive – became as much a source of inspiration as a center for hard work. "We had to go through about four inches of water just to get into the building," Schaeffer has written about his first time inside what would become Signature’s Theatre’s home until the 2007 move to Shirlington Village. "We finally got in the back door to find it was flooded inside. I looked up and saw the sky – not a roof. Rats were running in the shadows. But I also saw all these individual girders, and the strength in the building. Right away I knew this could be something."
Signature Theatre's original garage space.

Schaeffer’s wet, empty garage space – like Schmahl’s little-oven-that-could – transformed. Signature didn’t become a nationally-respected, multi-million dollar arts organization because Schaeffer saw a garage as a garage. A garage became a source of art. And a professional theatre space has to become one too, over and over and over again.

New York theatergoers don’t love Schmahl for his oven – they love him for his cookies. And theatergoers don’t love Signature for the building. They love the feeling of being dropped into the thick of the Vietnam jungle in this summer’s immersive production of Miss Saigon. They come to see a simple train platform become a portal across time and space in this fall’s world-premiere musical Crossing. They come for the raw, stripped-down pleasure of seeing two exceptional actors go head-to-head in the cold, cosmic void of next winter’s experimental drama Tender Napalm.

And with the level of trust and attention that Schaeffer puts into fostering creative relationships with his staff, artists, and community, it’s hard not to start knocking down some presumed inner walls of your own. Over time, in increasingly exciting ways, Signature has evolved from a product of inspiration to a source of it.

"Be that business that has a heart and soul alongside a quality product," Schmahl reminds us. To me, that's Signature’s ongoing summons: to be a home to theatergoers everywhere,  but also  to work relentlessly at un-boxing their assumptions about what theatre should be. It takes diligence, but a big heart can make much of what are initially small tools. Your biggest dreams float right into your hands, Schmahl suggests, when you can see more in the little things.

Check out the rest of the talks from TEDxBroadway 2013 here.


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