Social networking key component in keeping theater company alive
By Misty Volaski
After five days of intense social networking — and a little freestyle beat-boxing — Theater 150 was able to raise the $70,000 necessary to keep its doors open.
Last week’s announcement that the theater was in danger of closing permanently came as a shock to many, particularly after the success of May 15’s wedding-musical “Deb and Chris Get Married,” held in Libbey Bowl.
Artistic co-director Deb Norton explained that after the play, the theater looked at its books and saw that the group didn’t hit its fund-raising goal for the year. “So we started talking to everybody we could, taking people to lunch, making phone calls,” she said. “Chris (Nottoli) wrote a letter to the paper, and we sent a letter to our newsletter subscribers.”
Then, on the advice of a friend, the group decided to start a “thon.”
“We created a web-a-thon,” Norton continued. “Facebook, our web site, YouTube, newsletter, videos. We kept it present in people’s minds, encouraged them to get involved in the tension of raising the money.”
There were three components to their web-a-thon, said general manager Andy Gilman. “First, you e-mail two or three times a day. You use videos. And you post comments on your site from (donors).”
Armed with little more than a cell phone camera and a whole lot of enthusiasm, the theater employees hit the streets last weekend, getting people to comment on saving the theater. Goofy and light-hearted, the clips were posted on You Tube and Theater150.org, and featured folks from mechanic David Jury to actor Malcolm McDowell pledging their support of the theater.
Theater 150 also sent challenges to fans on Facebook and newsletter subscribers, asking donors “to take ownership of the project, to own this nonprofit,” and post their own videos. The challenge was met by several local luminaries, including Peter Bellwood’s wife Sarah and daughter Lucy, who said, “Yes” to Theater 150. “Yes! Yes! $200 worth of yes! That’s a lot of yes.”
T-150 chronicled the pledges throughout the weekend and posted videos of their own, including one that featured Nottoli, Gilman and associate artistic director Niki Blumberg dancing and beat-boxing.
The money flooded in — with donations ranging from $10 to $10,000 — and as the movement gained momentum, so did the pledges. The staff collected a total of 232 pledges from the weekend.
“One guy saw our (efforts) and actually said, ‘I don’t even know what Theater 150 is, but here’s $50,’” laughed Gilman. “Almost every pledge came with encouraging words.”
The theater also got $60 from a group of teenagers, who loved coming to the theater’s Tuesday night screenings of the TV show, “Lost.” “That’s a lot for teenagers!” said Gilman.
With her pledge, Christy (no last name) wrote, “Theater 150 keeps Ojai from becoming just another small town with predictable cultural offerings. I hope you continue to challenge our predictable thinking and make us laugh.”
Another woman, Vicki, said, “This is scraping the bottom of my barrel, but I can’t stand the thought that Theater 150 could disappear. No (bleep)ing way!”
Geoff Wells, owner of Su Nido Inn and Casa Ojai, donated $300 and issued a challenge to other local merchants to do the same.
“All the merchants, whether they want to believe it or not, benefit (from Theater 150) in one way or another,” he said. “There is an incredible amount of people who come from out of town to these shows. They have dinner in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, visit the shops. It’s definitely worth saving.”
Norton took it a step further. “That translates to tax dollars. That goes toward our schools, our roads, washing our fire trucks. This grass-roots effort has just been amazing.”
The group, said Nottoli, has “… so much thanks and gratitude. This has been scary for us — it’s our job, but it’s also our vocation, our love.”
Theater 150 is already hard at work on its two summer productions, Shakespeare’s “The Winter Tale,” which will be held outdoors in Chaparral High School’s quad, and an indoor musical mish-mash of the TV show “Lost” and Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” written by Blumberg.
“We are so excited!” said Gilman.
Nottoli continued, “We are going forward with a new business plan. We’re going to actually publish our business model, offer transparency. We don’t want to be knocking on doors again three months from now.”