Small business success #37: Kristen van Ginhoven & WAM Theatre

Kristen van Ginhoven of WAM Theater

Kristen van Ginhoven of WAM Theatre

By Mark G. Auerbach

The new year offers great promise for WAM Theatre, the Berkshires-based professional theatre company. Its American premiere production of The Bakelite Masterpiece, a co-venture with the well-established Berkshire Theatre Group, won rave reviews and received praise in many arts writers’ “Best of 2016” recaps. Also, WAM recently was honored as the Outstanding Philanthropic Corporation by the National Philanthropy Day Committee of the Western Massachusetts Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Theatre artists, audiences, corporate sponsors, and donors are jumping on the WAM bandwagon.

According to WAM co-founder and artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven, “WAM Theatre is Where Arts and Activism Meet.” The company was co-founded in 2010 by the Canadian director, actor, educator, and producer. WAM’s vision is to create opportunity for women and girls through the mission of theatre as philanthropy.

Van Ginhoven says that she was inspired to create WAM by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn.  WAM donates a portion of the proceeds from its theatrical events to organizations that benefit women and girls.

Since 2010, WAM Theatre has donated more than $30,000 to 11 nonprofit organizations and provided paid work to more than 175 theatre artists. In addition to the main stage productions and special events, WAM Theatre’s activities include a comprehensive educational outreach program and the Fresh Takes Play Reading Series.

“Our first mainstage production in 2010 was Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl,” says van Ginhoven. “Just pulling it off was so gratifying. I’m very proud of our well-received production of Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which we presented in 2013. We’re remounting that show with its original cast, and it will play Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox, MA, from March 30 through April 9.”

“In 2014, we presented Winter Miller’s In Darfur,” recalls van Ginhoven. “I was petrified to direct this play. It was a sell-out. We gave an incredible donation to the 13 housemothers of the Mother of Peace Orphanage in South Africa – it was their first stipend for caring for 84 orphaned children.”

WAM has nine part-time employees, various independent contractors, and operates on an Actor’s Equity SPT, Small Professional Theatre contract. According to van Ginhoven, “We started in 2010 with a budget of $10,000. In 2016, our budget was $170,000. In 2017, we are aiming for $230,000 based on our first year of doing two productions. So, we’ve had massive growth.”

Learning by doing

“WAM’s greatest success in all ways is being a philanthropic professional theatre company,” adds van Ginhoven. “We pay everyone who works with us a equitable rate that is in line with the other companies in our area, plus we donate 25% of the box offices from our mainstage productions to our beneficiaries. It’s amazing. If we can do it, everyone can. We are growing slowly and conservatively. We aren’t doing ‘pie in the sky’ projects. We are making plans, very, very detailed plans, for every single project we undertake. Next year is the first year we are really leaping with our budget.”

Van Ginhoven entered professional theatre with a degree in theatre performance from Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS. There was no business course of study or arts administration track in her education program. “It’s all been learning by doing,” she says.

Van Ginhoven attributes WAM’s success to its programs and people. “People LOVE that their support of WAM does two things – a double WAMmy, at least – that their ticket price or donation not only provides jobs but also creates opportunity for women and girls, locally or globally. They love the social entrepreneurship aspect of WAM. We also live in an area that is culturally rich, with lots of engaged global citizens so our work really speaks to the people in this region.”

There aren’t many models in the non-profit theatre industry similar to WAM, so networking with like business models is challenging. “Like in anything, it’s about finding like-minded people and being resourceful in connecting- joining committees, boards, organizations and saying ‘yes’ to any opportunity in order to build your community,” says van Ginhoven. She focuses on perseverance and consistency. “Success isn’t about when things are going good. It’s about what you do when things aren’t going well. Resilience. Persistence. One foot in front of the other. And be super clear on why you are doing what you are doing.”

If asked for advice to someone who’s starting a business, van Ginhoven says, “Be clear on why you are doing it, how that fits with your overall life goals and what your business goals are. Make a very detailed plan, break it down and then break it down more – tasks, timeline, who will do what, when and then…make it as detailed as possible. Then – and this is the hard part – stick to the plan.”

And, that’s succeeding in small business.

Learn more about WAM: Find WAM on Facebook and Twitter @WAMTheatre.

Video: WAM’s Mission:


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

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