"To be or not to be" may be the question, but when it comes to starting a drama school of your own, it's not the only question you will need to answer. The process of starting a school or non-profit theater company is different in each state. However, there are some basic beginning steps you can follow to get set up for success. The process can be rewarding, especially if your community doesn't have much access to arts programming in the public schools or a nearby university.
Decide upon an overview for your school's curriculum and write a mission statement. Before you can open your doors to potential students, you must decide exactly what your school is going to teach and what students will gain by attending your school. Traditional university theater programs teach acting, movement for the stage, voice and diction, theater history, and technical arts. Starting with that base framework, you will need to write a course progression that details what skills a student will learn in each segment. For example: In an acting progression, you might see that in Acting 1, a student will learn basic stage presence and work on simple monologues; then, in Acting 2, the student builds on those skills by working on scene study with an acting partner and exploring techniques found in Stanislavsky's "An Actor Prepares."
While developing your curriculum, you should think ahead to special or advanced classes you may want to include from time to time, such as improvisation, circus arts, acting for the camera or musical theater.
Once you've written a complete course outline, you should then write your mission statement to clearly reflect what students will learn if they attend your school and why they should learn those things.
Research accreditation and hire teachers. In most states, if you are planning to teach students under the age of majority, you will need either accreditation or special certification by the state government. In many states, teachers also need to be fingerprinted and tested for communicable diseases and drugs before being allowed to work. At the very least, you must ensure that potential teachers have proper training and experience to teach the classes in your curriculum. For example, you don't want someone who has never heard of the Alexander Technique to teach an advanced movement course.
Name and incorporate your business. You may want to obtain legal advice while doing this, as the regulations for incorporating a small business vary from state to state. You could also visit a legal website (such as Legal Zoom or others), which will walk you through the steps of incorporating your business. The most important thing to establish is whether the business is a non-profit or for-profit. The processes of obtaining business licenses are very different depending upon this designation. If you want to have a non-profit school, you'll need to file for 501(c)(3) status and provide the IRS with documentation of your funding streams.
At this time you'll also want to open a bank account and credit in your school's name.
Name an advisory board. Before opening your school's doors, you need to pick a select panel of theatrical experts and community members to help guide the school's objectives. The advisory board can be very important for the overall governance of the business, and it is essential to have in place when applying for funding and grants.
Write a budget. You'll need to include teacher salaries, rent for your school space, renovation costs and operating costs. Detail how much revenue you expect to raise from students and how much is coming from other sources such as investors, grants or gifts.
Find and rent a space for your school. Large warehouse and old storefront spaces work wonderfully to house theater schools. With a little manpower and DIY effort, you can transform one of these unused spaces into a nice studio space. Remember to install the following important things in your school space: dance flooring, mirrors and perhaps a small, raised stage.
Advertise your school and recruit students. You can't have a school without students! Once you've completed the above steps, you should be on firm-enough ground to start taking on students and creating class schedules.
Consider your personal qualifications before starting a drama school. The business of educational theater is extremely competitive, just like acting, and there are not many openings in the market. If you're an established professional (SAG, Equity or AFTRA) actor or a credentialed teacher with years of experience in both performance and education, you might be prepared to start your own school. If you're just beginning and really looking for a place to cut your teeth, you'd be better off engaging yourself with already established schools and theater companies. There you can gain experience teaching, directing and performing—all skills requisite to a successful drama school.
- Theater image by Alexander Tarasov from Fotolia.com