Your College Play Will Change the Face of American Theater in These Ten Steps

by Peter Friedrich

1. Three weeks before opening night, go to your college cafeteria. Eat.

2. Go back to the line and introduce yourself to any staff member. Give your first and last name, and ask for the same from them. Then ask if they like going to plays. If they say no, keep asking others until someone says yes. Let them know you have complimentary Champagne VIP seats for all cafeteria staff, friends, and family. Make sure you have 50 hard copies of tickets in your pocket at all times. They should look and feel exactly like Broadway theater tickets.

3. Go back to the cafeteria every day and build your VIP audience. Get your cast and crew to do the same—ask them at the end of each rehearsal for the names of who they talked to.

VIPs at the The Tempest at Millsaps
College in Jackson, Mississippi
4. On your way to the cafeteria each day before opening, be on the lookout for groundskeeping and janitorial staff. Introduce yourself. Ask their name. Pull out tickets.

5. Recruit your server staff. They can be actors not in the show, or students who need extra credit. Or call up the athletic director and say you can help promote a sport that isn’t getting the attention it deserves—you just need a few athletes for a couple nights. You might even get the athletic director in on the whole thing.

6. Train your server staff. They should wear a tuxedo every night—men and women. If they don’t have one, use your costume shop or partner with a local tuxedo company. At the very least, arrange black pants, black shoes, white shirts, and matching ties and cummerbunds. Plastic glasses are fine, and your set shop should have a few trays. Buy at least 20 bottles of champagne. Train your staff to stand up straight, look VIPs in the eye, shake hands warmly, and thank them sincerely for coming. Female VIPs should be offered an arm as they are walked to their seat.

7. You will have people who request VIP tickets even though they are not a cafeteria worker, maintenance person, or groundskeeper. Remind them politely that your theater’s VIP policy is strict and clear. You may be asked if all this is actually “a real thing.” Answer, “Yes it is!” with your warmest smile. There may be people who are used to special treatment who still insist, saying things like, “Yeah, right, [your name], but seriously, I need to be in the VIP.” If this happens, breathe. Look them in the eye and remind them that they have been in the VIP from the moment they were born. Excuse yourself and walk away. Don’t turn around. Wait at least one day to respond to an apology email, which they will send. Accept graciously in a reply email, and mention that you are still short one server in the VIP section.

8. On opening night, your VIPs might not show up at all. Do not panic. Save the champagne. Go back to the cafeteria the next day and stay positive. They are coming.

9. The first night your VIPs arrive, there might only be two. It doesn’t matter. Announce the news in the dressing room, and listen to the roar of triumph like you are rebels in The Empire Strikes Back and the first transport has escaped the Imperial Armada. Explain the reference to them another time—get to work. Your entire job is now to take care of those VIPs. Leave your crew alone. Leave your cast alone. Leave your house manager alone. They’ll be fine. Stay with your server staff, and stay with the VIPs. That does not mean smother them. It means that at all times, you have an eye on them and are making sure their evening is unforgettable. When the show is over, walk and talk with them all the way out to the exit.

10. Be prepared to buy more champagne. The night after you have two VIPs, you will have four. The next night, you will have twelve. The next night just be ready.

P.S. These ten steps take time and money. But they do not cost as much time and money as your rotating stage for Mother Courage, your 18 custom lighting gobos for Caucasian Chalk Circle, or your set for Our Town that resembles an actual town. In space. Not one of those things is going to change the face of American theater. If you want to change the face of American theater, get more American faces into the theater.

Peter Friedrich
Peter Friedrich (M.F.A. class of ’96) is Chair of the Theatre Department of Millsaps College. In 2013, he won A.C.T.’s Contribution to the Field Award.

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