Box-Office Blues
An Ohio theater troupe is still struggling to hit the big time.
By Brian O'Reilly

(FORTUNE Small Business) – A year ago the Shadowbox Cabaret was itching to take its irreverent comedy theater routines from a shopping center in Columbus to Las Vegas, or maybe even get on cable television in a bunch of major markets. Shadowbox asked FSB for a makeover and got suggestions from experts on branding, improving internal operations, and chatting up Hollywood. And now? Well, Shadowbox hasn't exactly shoved SpongeBob off the must-see list. Initial efforts to get on national TV fizzled, and talks with Vegas impresarios are still just talk.

But the mood in Columbus remains upbeat. Katy Psenicka, operations manager for Shadowbox, says the makeover prompted an overhaul of everything about the company, including those frustrating intangibles, image and branding. Following the makeover last March, she says, "we met every other week for hours, concentrating on our brand and how we describe ourselves." They seized on "sketch comedy and rock & roll club," she says. Steve Guyer, founder and president of Shadowbox, says once they agreed on that, it became a lot easier to pare away what didn't fit and improve what remained. "I was able to look at things in a new way," he says.

Gone, for instance, are the serious dramas that Shadowbox produced in a second theater near downtown Columbus. "It wasn't our core business," explains Guyer. After one of the consultants suggested that Shadowbox's marketing was lowbrow, the Shadowboxers took a hard look at themselves. "We realized that our posters and video trailers," says Psenicka, "looked as if they were promoting Sesame Street, not adult comedy."

After one of the makeover consultants urged them to collect comment cards from the audience, they got some surprises. "People were unsatisfied with the menu choices," says Psenicka. That prompted Shadowbox to rebuild its kitchen and add a half-dozen new entrées to be served before the show.

Though Shadowbox is profitable, ticket sales remain flat. To help raise money the company recently switched to nonprofit status. And nobody has ruled out taking the show on the road. "Lots of people in Vegas are interested," says Guyer. "We just want to make sure their goals line up with ours."

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