Friday April 6, 2018

‘How I Got Started’ — Tammy Wilkinson

Theatre Du Jour founder puts ‘community’ into the interactive touring dinner theater experience
By Lou Sorendo

    Tammy Wilkinson

    Q.: What motivated you to first explore the world of theatre?


    A.: If you ask my mom, she’ll say it started when I was a little girl singing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” to folks on the bus as we went downtown. I definitely was always a ham, but did not enter the official world of theater in any capacity until Morrisville College in 1991. I got to be part of two productions, “Sweet Charity” and “Skin of Our Teeth,” and really came in as a person without any official training. I just had that ham mentality and a lot of natural talent because I was very outgoing. My mom said I was always singing and dancing in my room and I loved shows like “Star Search” and different artistic, creative type of things that would keep me excited about life.


    It wasn’t until 2007 that I got involved in The Oswego Players, and was first lead in “Born Yesterday,” playing the role of Billie Dawn. Again, I had no real official theatrical training, just a lot of hutzpah. I wanted to get involved in a community organization, and so I did that and worked with a lot of playhouses around Central New York. I did some great shows with Appleseed Productions and a school tour with The Redhouse. I kept getting lucky in that capacity and I was able to keep working on a community level with other actors. The cool thing about The Redhouse was there were professional and community actors in its productions. We really got a great mentoring experience out of that. It was super cool that their leads would come from New York City and Los Angeles and we got to work side by side with them.


    My background was in journalism, and I worked at radio stations in college and as an intern once I left school or during my summer breaks. Ultimately, I ended up at WRGB Channel 6 (Schenectady) and WXXA-TV Fox 23 (Albany) when I got out of school. Again, I didn’t really ever see the theater stuff as anything more than a fun, creative outlet.


    Q.: When did you come to realize that theater would become your passion?


    A.: As I worked with The Players longer, I ended up becoming their producer and taking a spot on its board.


    This is where it turned, because one of the main challenges that I faced as a producer was getting people in the seats. You have 120 seats at The Oswego Players’ Francis Marion Brown Theatre, and we were not filling 120 seats at that time. It was a $10 ticket, and it was quite frustrating. We were doing a show called “The Dining Room” and I asked, “Hey, what do you think about bringing this show out into the community? If they are not coming to us, let’s bring it to them!”


    I talked with Ray Jock at La Parrilla in downtown Oswego, and he was totally game. We just endeavored to do so, and that was kind of where the juices started flowing. It was such a success!


    The interesting thing to me was that at the time, we couldn’t get them in for $10. The dinner theatre experience ticket was $45. La Parilla is a lovely, intimate space and we filled every table.


    In my mind, it needed to be an experience.


    They want to be able to have a nice meal, have something to drink and have all the interactive extras that we bring to the table. We brought in a photo booth, had a cocktail hour with a local musician, and gave away prizes. We made it an experience and once we knew what people wanted, really it was just a matter of going for it.


    Q.: What or who were some of your greatest influences in terms of entering the business world?


    A.: I had some great folks in the community who were really quite supportive.


    I had a particular gentleman who is a theater connoisseur say, “Listen, you have to do something with this. You really need to figure out how to make this a business. You need to figure out how to bring this to the masses.” He just kept saying, “I know you can do this and I will support you however I can.”


    My fiancé said the same thing: “Tammy, this is magic. You need to do something with this.” Of course, I just assumed I would work for someone else the rest of my life, because I don’t make anything with my hands. I just did not see it as something to sustain life with. Nonetheless, I just decided, “OK, you’re going to do it.”


    I’m like, “Geez, I have a million and one ideas, but how do I make it work?” It was scary because you are just putting your foot in the water and saying, “I’m going to swim. I can’t drown!”


    Q.: How did you develop the concept of featuring an interactive touring dinner theatre experience?


    A.: I had never really been to a dinner theater so there wasn’t anything that I could use as an example. I thought to myself, “There’s got to be a way to engage the community and engage community businesses and make this thing super interactive. What do you think that people want when deciding what they want to do during the evening? Do they want to go to dinner? Do they want to see a show? Do they want to watch a band? Do they want to go see a movie? Well actually, if it was my perfect world scenario, I kind of want to do all of that. I thought to myself, “Cocktail hour is a great way to give them a Hollywood, celebrity experience where they are coming in, and we’re fawning over them and we’re taking their pictures.” I’ve been to enough events and know what pushes my buttons. I just wanted to build upon the regular theater experience and the regular dining experience and combine them complete with these interactive goodies.


    Q.: When did the business really begin to gain traction?


    A.: Working with The Redhouse, we toured schools and that just planted seeds for me. I worked with enough companies where I think that seeds were planted, but I didn’t see anyone doing the interactive thing. I just knew there was a niche after bringing the one main stage show out to the community because the response was overwhelming. Fast-forward, and we got our DBA. It was 2015, and we’re doing “Love Letters,” and we get the community involved.


    La Parrilla, Bistro 197 and The American Foundry were our three venues to start with, and we got [retired SUNY Oswego theater professor] R. Mark Cole and [Oswego Players’ actress] Banna Rubinow involved. That was a show they truly loved.


    Meanwhile, we were forming sponsorships and partnerships.


    I recall saying, “Maybe Maida’s would give us an awesome bouquet of flowers, it’s ‘Love Letters’, and we could give away a bouquet. We need candy on the tables, so let’s go to Man in the Moon Candies. We want to give away a beautiful piece of jewelry, so let’s go to J.P. Jewelers. I have all these wonderful relationships and my community supports me 150 percent.


    During my first show, there were press posters that featured our press releases, and there were cast posters that have cast photographs on the table. You had all the little details — candy, confetti and little frames that say ‘TDJ’. There were so many pieces to that puzzle for that evening for those experiences. It was just everything we could possibly do to make it beautiful, professional, enjoyable, and an engaging experience.


    It was warm. People just hung around and talked and drank their cocktails. Then they went in and had this fantastic dinner and then we gave them this fantastic show.


    There are so many details in how you do that. You make people feel really truly special.


    Yes, they’re coming to see a show and yes, they are coming out to eat, but it’s almost like the event of the year every single time we do a show.


    Q.: How much capital did you need to launch the business? What were some of your major overhead costs upon launching the enterprise?


    A.: Theatre is very expensive to produce, there’s no doubt about that. However, when starting out, you really — especially with an artistic endeavor — are on a shoestring. You are doing the best you can with what you have. I think that’s a very cool challenge. It’s a charm and a challenge at the same time. Initially when we started, there was a few thousand dollars in savings allotted for something like this. We spent less than $50 to file a DBA, and then there is licensing for every show. It’s different depending on whether I’m doing a musical, which is thousands of dollars, or I’m doing a straight play, which is often $100 or less per show for licensing.


    But in the beginning, there wasn’t a ton of money and we got creative in that we secured sponsorships and partnerships. There so many things you need to make a show happen, so if I needed a photographer, I would go and make a trade agreement with a photographer and would give them a full page ad in our program and a season ticket for the year. It’s a lovely way to do things and in the beginning, it’s how you have to do things.


    I needed a website, print and promotional materials, and assets in order to make this look like a million bucks. So I went to every single community member that I knew could help us in some way and elevate us in some way and we just figured out ways to give back.


    To be honest, we still do that. This endeavor has been a building endeavor where we had to educate our community that there can be theater right here in your own back yard, and if there can be experiences in the alternative spaces offering creative and amazing events.


    Q.: What were some of your foremost obstacles while building the business?


    A.: With every venue that we were involved with, we had to build it. When we first started, it was a struggle to fill all the seats sometimes. In fact, here we are in year four, and I still have that little ping of nerves as we grow. As we add more venues, there are more seats to fill. So again, as we began, was there a ton of money and was there a ton of resources? To be quite frank, not at all. However, I think it was kind of cool that we got to figure it out as we went.


    You know collaborative effort is such a buzz phrase right now. Collaboration was key in launching this project. If we needed a prop, we might go to one of our fellow theatre organizations and borrow a prop. In fact, that still happens. Even if I had a million dollars, I would still want to do it the same way.


    It was quite the treasure hunt and quite the little puzzle to figure out. Even today, we find ourselves asking, “What can we buy? What can we borrow? What can we make?”


    You have to be frugal because it’s just very expensive. Part to our mission is also to be able to offer actors a little something so that they were being paid as an artist, they were being appreciated as an artist and they were being mentored. It’s very important to me that we would find situations where actors, producers and directors can learn and grow.


    I’m not naïve in that I know we need to sustain ourselves financially. Obviously, we have to secure enough capital that we’re able to continue to do what we love to do. That comes slowly over time as we build bigger sponsorships, secure more venues and broaden our demographic.


    Q.: What is the most gratifying aspect of what you do?


    A.: My favorite part of every show is when I get to sit back and watch the patrons enjoy what we built. Every smile, every chuckle or gasp as the actors take them on the journey with them is so satisfying to watch.


    We also pick shows that are interactive, and my thing is people want to laugh and be engaged. I believe now more than ever, we are all looking for an escape from our hectic lives. And since we always offer an interactive experience, folks can escape into our world for the evening.


    It’s very intimate and enjoyable because we’re breaking down that fourth wall and they are truly a part of that world.