Making Art Their Business
The NOLA Project celebrates its 10th season of producing theatre in New Orleans. Artistic Director, A.J. Allegra discusses running the business side of a performing arts company.
More than a decade ago, while studying at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, New Orleans native Andrew Larimer had an idea. He wanted to create a theatre company, comprised of actors, writers, directors and designers, based in New Orleans that would hold the same kind of high dramatic standards he witnessed in New York.
In March of 2005, after convincing several other NYU acting friends to make the journey south with him, The NOLA Project was registered as a 501c3 non-profit organization.
Once official, the group welcomed several local actors to round out the company and with initial financial backing from friends and family-based donations, they prepared for their first production, The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh in August of 2005. The production’s third weekend was cut short as the city evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, but they finished their run back in New York City that same month.
In the 10 years that The NOLA Project, with its 24 members, has been producing theatre in New Orleans, they have become one of the most reputable and well-known theatre companies in the Gulf Coast region.
So far, their 10th season’s productions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shiner have received wonderful reviews from The New Orleans Advocate, The Times Picayune, NOLA.com and WWNO’s Inside the Arts.
But what does it take to run the business side of a performing arts company? A.J. Allegra, the company’s current Artistic Director, explains that there’s more to it than meets the eye.
“With a nonprofit organization your profit is not counted in dollars and cents per se, but rather in the ability to grow, continue your work, and reach more and more members of the community,” he explains.
Allegra holds a BFA in Theatre from NYU, and is one of The NOLA Project’s founding members, but he never really thought of himself as a businessman until he accepted his current role as artistic director, when Larimer stepped down to work on other projects.
“Growing a strong business acumen is key to running an arts organization,” he says. “I have self-taught, with crucial help from my girlfriend, who is much more gifted than I in several areas, including accounting with QuickBooks, Tax form preparation, 501c3 nonprofit law, as well as a slew of other things. Understanding the business side is key in order to maintain your bank accounts, control production and operating budgets, plan development strategies, and delegate work to certain members of the company and outside contractors that we work with.”
Not only does learning the business side of things help with keeping financial records straight and ensuring a profitable year, but Allegra explains it also enables the company, which produces their work in a variety of locations around town, to connect with artistic heavy hitters and form valuable performance venue partnerships.
“Our partnership with NOMA is strengthened by the fact that, though we are very much a smaller organization, they are confident that we have our financial house in order,” he says. “You can be a brilliant and groundbreaking artist, but if you cannot explain your annual budget or predict profit margins on a production, you probably aren’t going to get a lot of meetings with the more powerful people.”
Even now, after years of being celebrated and respected in the community, The NOLA Project still has to work to maintain their financial stability and allow for growth.
“The biggest challenge, like most everything in America it seems, is money… then and now. More so in the beginning, as we had to make sure that we made back, in ticket sales, what we spent on the show in order to ensure that we had the funds to produce the next play,” says Allegra. “Now, we are in a much safer financial place in that regard, but our production, as well as operating expenses, continue to grow and we cannot rely on ticket sales alone to keep up with the pace of our growth.”
The company has had to find creative ways to ensure they can keep up with demand as their popularity increases.
“We must operate much more in the nonprofit sector of the arts and pursue a combination of grants, which are slim nowadays,” he says. “Individual contributions, corporate contributions, in-kind donations, and we continue to grow and develop our board of directors. The larger an arts organization gets, the more avenues we must pursue in order to secure funding.”
In order to keep things fresh and competitive, the company prides itself in making tough choices to produce shows that feel original and challenging.
“Before each production we select, I ask: have we done this already? Does this feel too easy? Are we using the same people playing the same types of roles? The answer must be no in order for us to continue,” says Allegra. “After each production concludes I try and find the main takeaway. What did we learn? Sometimes it is good. Sometimes it is a hard lesson learned.”
As for what’s next for The NOLA Project’s 10th season? They are preparing for their next production: William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at NOMA’s Great Hall, which Allegra will direct.
“This particular production is a wonderful way to introduce people to the Bard, as the language is beautiful but also extremely comprehensible. I can’t wait to show off some of the fun ideas we have for this one.”
As Allegra and the company continue on their journey, they remind themselves that producing great art, while a tough business, is absolutely worth it.
“I think if your mission continues to drive your work and people continue to come to your shows and engage with your work, you can always call yourself ‘profitable’ even as a non-profit,” says Allegra.
To learn more about The NOLA Project and their 10th season, visit their website.