How Theatre Prepared Me for Running a Business

Posted by Jen Siow on

Editor’s Note: In January 2021, Persimmon Peak was renamed Persnickety Pets.

It’s the first week of classes at the University of South Alabama, and for the first time since we moved to Mobile, I didn’t return with the students. For the past two years, I’ve worked in the Theatre Department at South as the costume shop foreman, teaching students how to sew and perform basic alterations while managing the costume builds for our four yearly productions. It was exactly the kind of work I wanted to do with my theatre career, and up until a few months ago, my 5-year plan included going back to school to get my MFA (that’s the terminal degree for a costume technician or designer). 

Like many of my colleagues, however, Covid-19 changed all those plans in a very radical way. Instead of returning this week to South for a third year as costume shop foreman, I’m officially going full-time with Persimmon Peak. It’s exciting and scary and a little sad. I never thought there’d be a time in my life when I wasn’t working in theatre in some way, but life has a way of making you face those situations you’d never stop to consider. With emotions running high and the theatre industry shut down, it’s definitely been hard to write this post; but I do hope it brings some perspective and value to an under-appreciated industry.

Persimmon Peak: theatre & business have more in common than you think

So, while we're all waiting for that time when it’s safe for live theatre to resume, I‘m using this time to create something exciting in Persimmon Peak. And I’m taking everything I learned from working in theatre to help me do so.

Here’s how my theatre career has prepared me for running my business:

1. Creative problem solving

In theatre, like in business, one can never be too prepared. Each day brings its own set of problems, issues, snags, concerns, hold-ups, WTF moments, and fires to extinguish. A director might change their mind about a costume piece during final dress rehearsal, a zipper breaks during a quick change, an actor gets injured and is replaced by some who’s a completely different size. My favorite issues to tackle are those times when you have innovate entirely new solutions: how do we get an actor into a full tailcoat ensemble in under 30 seconds? Turn it into a jumpsuit, that’s how!

In business, the problems that pop up may look a little different, but they still require a similarly open-minded approach. Theatre taught me there are a lot of benefits to thinking outside the box and  that there are a lot of ways to solve a problem. If one solution doesn’t work out, pivot. Try another solution. Pivot again. Approach the problem from a different angle. If it weren’t for theatre teaching me that it’s ok to experiment and pivot as long as you keep your eye on that one end goal, I wouldn’t still be running a business today.

2. Working to a deadline

Opening Night is as hard a deadline as I’ve ever worked towards. When the curtain goes up, that’s it: everything (lights, sound, scenery, props, costumes, makeup, blocking) has to be in place. On top of that, there are several hundred people packing the house to witness any mistakes or missing pieces. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also great motivation to make sure you’ve planned and prioritized your work in such a way that you finish the project on time.

Launching a new product or collection takes a similar kind of planning and time management to be successful. Though it was pretty overwhelming at first, I now approach new launches like I’m working towards opening night: except instead of the curtain going up on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m revealing the fresh new Spring Collection to my audience.

3. Managing a budget

If I’ve learned only one thing from theatre, it’s how to operate within a given budget (and quite often one that is much smaller than you’d like). One of the first obstacles you bump up against as a costume designer is your assigned budget. It doesn’t matter how perfectly your costume vision fits the script; if you don’t have the budget to actually create those designs you’re proposing, they’re little more than an exercise in what could be. You quickly learn how to create designs that work within the budget you’re given.

Likewise in my business, it’s easy to design collection after collection of fun, stylish pet gear I’d love to offer in the shop. But researching, testing, producing, and marketing physical products takes a lot of time. And a lot of capital. I simply don’t have that kind of budget right now. Good thing I’ve had plenty of practice editing my designs to be achievable within the boundaries of a given budget; that training has been a big part of how I’ve kept my business profitable from the beginning. Thank you, theatre!

4. Prioritizing tasks when time is short

Crunch time is something that’s all too common in the theatre world. Even with the best planning, sh*t happens. Actors get injured, the director changes their minds, a costume piece gets damaged during final dress rehearsal. It doesn't matter who you are or what you do, we’ve all been in those situations where it’s down to the wire and there simply isn’t enough time to do everything. When you are put in situations like these, you learn quickly how to prioritize what MUST get done and what can wait.

This lesson has proven to be immensely helpful in running a business, especially when I was working another job part-time. When you have a limited amount of time to spend on building and growing a business from the ground up, it’s essential to make sure you’re doing the work that really matters. I’ve seen how a production can suffer when the wrong things are prioritized, so it’s a lot easier for me to prioritize the important things in my business and leave the rest for another time.

5. Keeping the big picture in mind

One of the things I love most about theatre is that it’s a true collaborative effort. The work I do in the costume shop is just one part of a whole production that includes many other departments and crew members. A theatrical production is often planned months (sometimes years) in advance, starting with a broad vision for interpreting and adapting the particular script. That vision is what all the production departments work towards.

At the moment, Persimmon Peak is a one-woman show, so the only collaboration that exists in the company is trying to get my creative brain and my business brain to work together. However, I took the time last year to write down a long-term vision for Persimmon Peak. I’m always referencing that bigger vision to make sure every task, project, or side-road I turn down is going to keep me headed towards that one end goal.

What theatre taught me

If you’ve been surprised by the connections between theatre and business, you’re not alone! There are lots of people who consider the performing arts a passion more than a profession, but they really can be both. Theatre taught me to show up and show up early, to work hard for what I want and to get there by working with others. Theatre taught me to be responsible for my actions and that there are real consequences to what I do and say. Never did I imagine I would receive such a practical education when I decided to pursue theatre, but I’m so thankful that I did.

The next time you hear someone questioning the validity or practicality of a theatre education, please point them towards this article. It can be hard to see through all the glitz and glitter, but there are such valuable life skills wrapped up in the performing arts. Nothing prepared me for founding and running a business more than my time spent working in the theatre industry.

🐾 Each morning I get up for work, reach for my theatre hat, then pause and put it back. The theatre industry’s intermission is going to be a long one, and my theatre hat is going to be sitting up on that shelf for a while. I’m lucky though, because I get to reach for my Persimmon Peak hat next and keep doing a lot of what theatre taught me.

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