DECATUR - The first semester of a new college class can be filled with uncertainty for both the students and the administration. When the class is also a student-run business in its second semester of experimental operation, the confusion intensifies. Factor in a full theatrical season of independently produced student productions, and things get downright nebulous.
The small group of students and cadre of volunteers operating the Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre this semester face all these potential pitfalls and more as they attempt to build a seldom-used performance space into an autonomous student theater business. Balancing their roles as students and potential entrepreneurs, these ambitious theater majors are giving life to original Millikin-student productions in their "black box" of a theater.
"Last semester was the beginning of the Pipe Dreams Theatre as a student-run business, where we began soliciting production ideas from students and putting on shows," said production manager Jane Davis in an attempt to explain the sometimes labyrinthine evolution of the venue.
"There was not an actual university class for what we were doing then, and the university wasn't regulating it. This fall semester, there's a class element to it with a faculty advisor. The goal is to become essentially like Blue Connection; a freestanding business with self-sustaining revenue."
A team of five students from throughout the Department of Theatre and Dance was chosen by faculty last year to receive instruction on "how to start a theater as a business." This instruction included topics like facility management, employee hiring, audience outreach and artist management.
"It started out slow with just the five of us learning everything we would need to know," said artistic director Chloe Day. "We talked about things like 'Who's our target audience?' 'What is the special product we're going to sell to people?' 'Where does our income come from and who do we involve ourselves with?'"
Under the board of directors is a constantly expanding base of volunteers and outside contributors. A staff of around 20 student volunteers assist in various aspects of the production, but are not part of the new class. Business students brought in by faculty advisor B.J. Warren help with the economic side of planning the current theater season. There is a constant air of unpredictability, because the board members know that on any given day when they come to class, there may be new additions, staff and volunteers to coordinate.
"The whole point is that it's based off of a model of a professional theater of this size," said technical director Bekki Lambrecht. "Next semester it will continue to grow - the five board members will be in charge of long-term projects and original productions, and a management team under the board will also be enrolled in the class and will handle more short-term tasks like ticket and poster design, etc."
In this way, the Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre will slowly work its way down until it contains students from all fields and is able to fully produce shows in-house without ever soliciting scripts from outside.
"Right now we're sort of operating as a rental," Lambrecht explained. "Someone brings a project to us and we provide the space and the sets, and they hold a casting call for actors. In the future we will have writers and producers working within this theater itself and will be able to control every step of a production from beginning to end."
As for the current season, it features a mix of student-written "Twenty-First Century Works" and non-original "Pipe Dreams Series." In addition to planning the overall scope of the theater, board members also take the time to actually perform in productions - with a certain detachment from their previous role in the new business.
"We wear a lot of different hats," Day said. "When I'm an actor in a production I have to clarify whether a comment is coming from myself as artistic director or as the actor taking instruction from the show's director. But eventually an actor always has to defer to the director."
If the venture is successful and the studio theater continues to grow next year, it will prove bittersweet to seniors like Lambrecht, who won't be around to see the business begin to hit its stride.
"Back when we started this I knew that I would probably never see the theater get to where I wanted it to be in my head," she said. "I really hope that it will get there even after I leave. It's going to be really hard to detach myself from this after putting myself into it. Our hope for ourselves as graduates of course is that within a few years this will have become a good item to have on our resume."
The new format of The Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre offers an especially valuable service to student writer/directors. Here is a place on their own college campus where a venue has been built specifically to accommodate their creative ideas.
Sophomore Jared R. Mola is one such writer, whose production "I Love You. Let's Light Ourselves on Fire" premiered Oct. 12 in the black box of Pipe Dreams.
"It's a play of ideas that explores the relationships between art and love and violence and where the lines blur," Mola said. "Hopefully the title makes people ask a question: 'I love you. Let's light ourselves on fire.' How would a person get from the first thought to the drastically different second one?"
It may sound intimidating, but that's the price paid for embracing the creativity of students reared to produce works that go against the grain. Whether the students can market to the community will ultimately be one of the factors deciding whether or not the Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre is successful. Charging $5 a ticket for general admission with students admitted for free, non-student audience members aren't just nice to have-they're a necessity, if the theater wants to gross dollar one.
"We need a small number of community members at each show to break even on our budget, but even a small number seems daunting right now," Davis said. "We're optimistic though, based on the response to our first production."
The theater will also supplement its income by renting out the Pipe Dreams studio space for everything from birthday parties to concerts and meetings-anything to move one step closer to financial self-reliance.
Day is simply happy to be part of productions with substance being hosted by the new Pipe Dreams. Compared to the old use of the space, where theater students were irregularly required to see short, experimental student productions, the new schedule is markedly more ambitious.
"It was an older class, and you'd come in and see maybe five minutes of experimental theater," Day said. "It was really stereotypical, kind of bad student theater and the performers might be yelling at you and dancing around you in a circle, and you'd end up with no idea what was going on."
The new Pipe Dreams Studio Theatre program is currently one show into its fall 2010 season. The next original student production, "Bonsai Tree," premieres October 22. More information can be found on the newly created Pipe Dreams blog at www.pipedreamstheatre.wordpress.com.