ON OUR WAY TO WEALTHY: Hattiloo Theatre's founder and owner, Ekundayo Bandele, views art as medium to express history and a community's present conditions. Theatre, he says, must be "supported, maintained and enjoyed." Spreading that message is part of his business.
Carlee McCullough: How important do you believe the arts are to a community and especially live theatre?
Ekundayo Bandele: You know I think it is just as important as food and air. Well, maybe not as important as air. The things that separate animals and humans are cultures. Cultures are the defining markers that identify people from another people. We have this T-shirt at Hattiloo that says, "Got Culture." I pose that question to our community at-large because we often think that we have culture because we may read a book or belong to a book club or we may go and even see the new upcoming movie.
However, for instance, do we know that W. E. DuBois not only had a theatre company but used to direct theatre? The first black theatre that opened in America was in 1848 in New York. Do we know that August Wilson won more awards than any other American playwright, black, white or otherwise, including Tennessee Williams and so on and so forth? Our kids don't really understand what we have achieved. They look at us and say we have a black President but we don't have that many blacks in the Fortune 500 companies.
CM: What makes the theatre so important to a community?
EB: We have achieved so much coming right out of tobacco, cotton and rice fields after slavery like making it to D.C. and becoming representatives. Theatres archive this information, present it to you in living forms to make it relevant. We are connecting to our history and it is our culture that does that. When people talk about art being the first thing you can cut, I think it's the last thing you can cut.
CM: From a business perspective what entrepreneurial business opportunities are associated with running a theatre?
EB: Right now, we're able to manage the natural physical plant on Marshall. But in the new theatre, we will definitely need janitorial services, dry cleaning because we will be doing four shows a weekend and those lights are hot. So we have to clean those clothes every weekend. We already have someone doing all of our graphic arts. We need marketing to drive people to the theatre, window cleaning because we definitely have a lot of glass in the building and carpentry for building our sets. Also we develop partnerships with musicians ... so we can have that live band...when we do our musicals.
CM: What advice can you offer to an entrepreneur, since you are so successful in your project?
EB: Numbers don't lie. Put your balance sheet before everything else. If we can produce a great play but our balance sheet has red on it, it doesn't matter how good that play is. However, if we have a strong balance sheet and we produce a mediocre play, we still have fun and can stay open. The bottom line is making certain that your finances are in order and that you have strong financial projections. So that things like a recession or you lose an account doesn't affect you bottom line.
CM: So can writers submit their plays to you?
EB: Yes. We look for original content. We also look for directors and actors.
CM: Tell us about your Campus Awareness Program.
EB: Our campus awareness program is a month-long program that we have been doing for 15 years. It runs Monday thru Friday from 9 until 3 on the campus of Rhodes College. During the course of a month they may learn about people like Billie Holiday, Arthur Ashe, Marcus Garvey and Harriet Tubman. They experience activities such as opera, ballet, martial arts, theatre, poetry, modern dance, chess, film making and jazz.
CM: When does it start, the cost and how many kids do you take?
EB: It starts the Tuesday after the Memphis City Schools dismisses because that Monday is Memorial Day. The cost is $400 for the whole month, $100 a week. We accept 15 kids, age 10 and up. The camp is life changing. Our graduates really excel and we typically bring them back free of charge for the next year to serve as a mentor to the new group of children. It's a serious camp.
CM: What's next for the theatre?
EB: We are really getting more youth involved on a technical side, which includes building sets and doing lights. We already have funding now from Memphis and a community foundation for those programs. But we want to expand that funding.
CM: Thank you so much for sharing your story.
(For more information, visit www.Hattiloo.org.)