How This Couple Turned an Acting Group Into a Successful School and Production Company

Outside the Theatre   How This Couple Turned an Acting Group Into a Successful School and Production Company
 
The Barrow Group’s Seth Barrish and Lee Brock explain how they grew a business that enabled them to produce and continue pursuing what they loved.
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TBG Co-Artistic Directors Lee Brock and Seth Barrish Marc J. Franklin

Who: Seth Barrish and Lee Brock
Outside: The Barrow Group Theatre, located at 312 36th Street in Manhattan

Thirty years ago, Seth Barrish and Lee Brock were young actors living in New York City, fascinated by an approach to acting that was deliberately naturalistic. With a small group of actors, they resolved to meet up once a week for a month and explore this method together. A month turned into a year. Inspired by what they had learned, they decided to produce their own works. And so The Barrow Group was born. The company produces three Off-Broadway productions a year out of its longtime home on 36th Street, the same space that houses the Barrow Group school. From humble beginnings, the school now offers 85 classes a week—in acting, filmmaking, playwriting, directing, and screenwriting—with famous alums such as Anne Hathaway, Tony Hale, and Lola Kirke. We chatted to co-artistic directors Barrish and Brock about how they grew a business that enabled them to produce in New York City and continue doing what they loved for a living: acting and directing.

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Lee Brock and Seth Barrish Marc J. Franklin

From a business point of view, how does the success of the school impact the production arm of the company?
Seth Barrish: At first, we used unearned income to fund shows—so contributions from individuals, foundations etc. As the school started to become solvent, earned income was allowing us to produce. Shows make some money but they’re very expensive—they cost more than they make in ticket sales, so now that we’re moving back into producing, we’re doing everything to develop more unearned income so that we can maintain the school as a solvent business alongside producing.

Did you always have the school alongside the production company?
SB: We founded The Barrow Group in 1986 and produced two or three productions a year, in various spaces, into the mid-'90s. At the same time, I had been teaching acting, so we decided to fold an acting school into the company. Around 2001 we decided it was time to grow and that we needed our own space.

What were some of the challenges that came with acquiring a permanent space?
Lee Brock: It was a risk and we bit off a bit more than we could chew—we had no money! We launched a “groundbreakers” campaign where we asked 100 people—a lot of them acting students—to ask ten of their friends to give $10. This was before the Internet. Gradually, we had small checks coming in and managed to make $70,000, which spurred some bigger donations to come in. We asked our entire community to come help set up the space—they sanded walls, and all pitched in. It was strength in numbers.

What advice would you give to artists wishing to produce their own works while keeping costs down?
LB: Call in favors from your friends! Get space, set, or costumes donated. Ask publicists for favors.
SB: Collaborate with people who are impassioned like you and willing to give time and energy. You can do that for a while but at a certain point you can’t anymore, and then you hope you have enough of a track record where you can begin to get some financial support from folks.

How does teaching benefit your artistic work as actors or directors?
SB: Teaching was a natural extension of my desire to explore a particular kind of acting. When we’re teaching, we also feel like the students. We learn from our actors constantly and it sharpens our own skill sets.
LB: On a spiritual level, we want to inspire and elevate people in every classroom.

This month, TBG presents Lisa Loomer’s touching comedy Expecting Isabel, playing at TBG Theatre through July 8. For tickets, and more information on TBG, visit BarrowGroup.org.

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