Small business success #43: Daniel Elihu Kramer & The Chester Theatre Company

By Mark G. Auerbach

Chester, Massachusetts, used to be one of those forgotten hilltowns that dot the New England landscape, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. The main highway from Boston to Albany used to run through town, until Interstate 90 diverted traffic away from Chester’s Main Street. The once-busy Boston to Albany railway kept the town depot busy, until passenger service all but disappeared, and only the occasional freight train now runs through town.

But, in 1990, the famous Irish actor and director Vincent Dowling and H. Newman Marsh decided to launch a miniature theatre company in Chester’s Town Hall Auditorium, a small space on the edge of the Berkshires’ cultural scene. Dowling’s quirky theatre developed a following, and long after he left, the theatre company, now The Chester Theatre Company, has bigger ambitions. Since 2015, when current Producing Artistic Director Daniel Elihu Kramer took the helm, Chester Theatre has emerged as one of the top theatre companies in New England, and the town of Chester is no longer off the beaten track, as theatre goers throng to town during the summer theatre season.

Playing in the big leagues

Chester Theatre may still be miniature in production size, but it’s big league in its artistic endeavors. Contemporary hits by up-and-coming playwrights, among them Lauren Gunderson, Annie Baker, Sharr White, and Ayad Ahktar, share the stage with co-productions and premieres. Kramer has enlisted some of the best actors and directors, among them WAM Theatre’s Kristen Van Ginhoven, to partner on plays. Chester’s theatre tours to London, Toronto, Chicago, and Washington engage the growing audience during the off-season. And, the accolades come in, from the many “wins” at the Berkshire Theatre Critics Awards to a recent New Yorker profile.

Daniel Elihu Kramer brought challenging programs to Chester, working with the theatre for four years before taking on the lead.  He works nationally as a theatre director and playwright, and as a film director. He is chair of the theatre department and a member of the Film Studies program at Smith College. Kramer holds an MFA in Directing from Yale School of Drama and a BA from Haverford College. He was a founding artistic director of Salt Lake Shakespeare, associate artistic director of Spiral Stage, and assistant to the artistic director of Circle Repertory Theatre. Kramer was also drama editor for the Kenyon Review. As a director, dramaturg, and musician, he has worked with playwrights including Bekah Brunstetter, Bill Cain, Julia Cho, Wendy MacLeod, Eric Henry Sanders, Julian Sheppard, and Elizabeth Wong. See his complete bio here.

Kramer had no formal arts administration or business and management training while he was at Yale. (As a footnote, I was in Yale’s theatre management program, and we had no training in directing.)

Growing revenues

According to Kramer, “Our most recent annual budget was $450,000. We spent 59% on artistic and productions; 23% on administration; 6% on marketing; and 9% on education. As to our income 38% came from ticket sales; 11% from trips and special events, 4% from grants, 47% from individuals and corporations. The budget has grown by approximately 50% since I arrived.”

Kramer keeps on top of trends in theatre management through networking. “I’ve found that an informal network of other managing and artistic directors has been my most valuable resource. I rarely encounter a situation someone hasn’t dealt with before.”

Kramer and his team have found software to streamline the marketing and development operation. “We’ve recently switched our ticketing and our fundraising software to Ovation. We’ve benefited from having a single database for all the audience and donors we work with.”

Best and worst advice

The best piece of advice Kramer received: “A long time executive artistic director, Chuck Morey, told me that budgeting isn’t that hard. Make sure you don’t make plans to spend more than you can reasonably expect to take in. You’d be amazed how many theatres suffer because they don’t think this way.”

And the worst piece of advice ? “Don’t concern yourself with what your audience wants.”

Kramer has several role models in theatre. “I assisted Artistic Director Tanya Berezin at Circle Repertory Theatre, and saw some small part of what the job entails. I learned about kindness and grace in theatre from Ken Washington. Peter Brook continues to exemplify (from a distance–I’ve never met him) the combination of wonder and precision that makes the best theatre.”

Ktamer is “proudest of the community of artists and audiences we’ve created here. I love that this is a place artists are excited to make work, and audiences are excited to come share in that work.”

And, if he had one do-over? “Believe it or not, my last year of graduate school at Yale Drama, when we were asked to write an imagined future career, I wrote about running a theatre in Western Massachusetts. I hadn’t expected it would take me twenty-five years to do it. On the other hand, all my experiences between now and then made me ready.”

And, that’s succeeding in small business…and helping a local town thrive as well.

For further information on The Chester Theatre:

For information on Chester and the Hilltowns:


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. He is also the theatre reporter for The Westfield News Group and producer/host of ArtsBeat Radio on 89.5fm/WSKB. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.

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