NEW! CLICK HERE for 7/16//13 panel
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From Table Reading to Tony Award: A Long Way to Memphis
CLICK HERE for a lost article found:1/20/10 panel, posted 12/8/11
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CLICK HERE for an article by TRU member Melba LaRose, which expands on TRU's March 30th panel
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I rarely have the pleasure of being involved in a discussion that has me on the edge of my seat for hours on end. However, I found myself engrossed in the conversation flowing effortlessly in the TRU Panel, Reinventing Off-Broadway for a New Audience: Site Specific, Interactive, and Immersive Theater. The panel featured six unique and experienced voices: Ana Margineanu and Molly Morris from Popup Theatrics; Ryan Bogner, Director of Creative Development and Production for RKO Stage and the producer of the upcoming The Orion Experience; Stephen Squibb from Woodshed Collective; Stephanie Ybarra artistic associate at The Public Theater, producers of the hit Here Lies Love; and Rachel Chavkin the director of the hit Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
The riveting dialogue broached topics that ranged from the cost effectiveness (or added expense) of site-specific theater to the perspective Off-Broadway must adopt in order to compete with the more lucrative Broadway scene. As a group, we all seemed to come to the conclusion that, in order to create a thriving Off-Broadway, those involved need to offer theater goers something that Broadway simply cannot deliver. But what could Off-Broadway offer? Simple, Off-Broadway can offer theater connoisseurs an experience that transcends expensive, plushy seats and the passive observation that is part of the usual theater experience. Members of Off-Broadway companies can give themselves the permission to push the boundaries established by traditional theater and the expectations that bind Broadway shows. Chavkin commented that in a typical proscenium theater “the audience experience is often taken for granted.” However, with site-specific or immersive theater, the audience’s experience becomes a major aim of the show. Off-Broadway theaters can provide an audience with an interactive experience, either in the reimagining of a traditional theater space or in actual audience participation. As Margineanu so deftly put it, “instead of witnessing an experience, you are having an experience.”
At one point, moderator Bob Ost broached the current concern about getting young people to attend the theater in greater numbers. In this age of instant gratification, it is difficult to get young people to commit their time and unstable finances to a night at the theater. However, if theater promised them an experience that could not be gained by watching television, or could fulfill their need for a more social meet-up environment, perhaps they would be more willing to shell out their money. Therefore, Off-Broadway would acquire an audience that would not compete so directly with Broadway.
However, Bogner warned against viewing site-specific and interactive theater as a cure-all for the problems facing Off-Broadway theaters. In order for these elements to be included in a theatrical work, it must make some dramaturgical sense and heighten the telling of the story in some way. It would not do to put Hamlet in a nightclub if there isn’t some element of the text that is enhanced by the new location. So, one should not decide to add movement sequences or audience interaction just because they’re in vogue.
There are risks involved with participating in theater that pushes boundaries between the audience and the performer. Occasionally, an audience member will not understand the expectations that are established because, when one is breaking the rules in a certain area, it can be unclear what norms or boundaries are still in place. One well-documented instance was sited in which an audience member at Natasha and Pierre… grabbed a disruptive audience member’s cell phone and threw it across a room in exasperation.
In addition, there can be unanticipated issues involved with a non-theater space. Chavkin described her experience as having, “a learning curve like an Alpine mountain,” when she experimented with using a tent as her performance venue. Where would the dressing rooms be? Wardrobe? Could they find a place for a kitchen since food service was part of the concept of the show? And how many audience members could they accommodate using table seating? Squibb added that their job is to “rebuild a theater where there isn’t one,” which is essentially creating a productive working environment from scratch; and in the case of one of Woodshed’s multi-site works produced in the various areas of a church, it was like building and running multiple theater spaces. That is not an easy task. When one chooses to use an unconventional space, occasionally there are certain technical elements that the performance must do without. Audience or backstage space could also be diminished because of the area’s style or shape. However, in order to push the envelope, those sacrifices must be made.
But are these sacrifices worth it? The group argued that they are indeed. First, the spaces can be much more cost effective than a traditional proscenium theater, and in some cases donated. In using the XL Nightlclub for The Orion Expwerince bogner could cut a great deal for a show that would run in an 8pm slot, a time the nightclub would not usually be used.
In addition, one can go about marketing in a much more cost effective way by using unconventional methods. When everything else about a show is unconventional, it seems right to find alternative methods to draw a crowd. Social networking has been extremely beneficial in building an audience base for these types of shows. Since marketing costs tend to be the most grueling financial aspect, finding these cheap ways to broadcast a show cuts those costs almost completely, aiding the cash flow. In addition, the show no longer needs to have a celebrity or a big name behind it to create a successful show since the concept or hype surrounding the uniqueness of the show can become the major marketing factor. Bob Ost quipped, “that’s your star.”
But how does one go about finding the perfect setting for this kind of theater? Well, it is all about making your show work for those who run the location. Bogner commented that one should, “get a partnership with the people who run the space. Get them excited about the show and help them see the value in the deal.” Squibb added that since the tickets to his shows are free, “the city has an investment in making theater that is available to the community.”
I was really inspired to witness a discussion about the future of the Off-Broadway and indie theater industry, and I am grateful that I was able to attend. Should anyone have the chance to attend a TRU panel, I would encourage them to do so. They will not be disappointed by the extremely thought-provoking discussion and the welcoming atmosphere.
© 2013 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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I recently received an e-mail prompting me to attend "Singing a New Tune: Let’s Revise the Musical Theatre Development Process!" an event hosted by TRU (Theatre Resources Unlimited).... TRU is a networking, promotional and membership think-tank serving the NYC theatre community. The organization produces a well-respected play and musical reading series, TRU Voices, an annual audition event for actors, ongoing panel discussions, producer boot camp, a top industry resource directory, membership referral and discount services. It’s a sensible investment to become a member for working actors, producers, coaches and theatre professionals on the ground here in NYC.
BOB OST, Founder and Executive Director of TRU, assembled and moderated a rich panel of industry people, including ERIC GOLDMAN (Entertainment Attorney/Producer), JAMIBETH MARGOLIS (Independent Casting Director/Stage Director) JOE CALARCO (Co-Artistic Director Breaking Bread Theatre) FRANK & ELIZA VENTURA (CAP21 Theatre and Conservatory), JOHN CHATTERTON (Executive Director, Midtown International Theatre Festival and Off-Off Broadway Review creator) and TIFFANI GAVIN (Producer and General Manager). The audience was 36 strong including writers, producers and performers from the US and London.
After introducing ourselves and our projects, we launched into an in-depth and lively discussion about the challenges of producing new works. We didn’t arrive at any conclusions or solutions, but a handful of important points cut through the evening.
“We, as an industry, are in a crisis and we are not investing in supporting new work or new authors. We are only ‘musicalizing’ properties with built-in audience appeal” - Eric Goldman
This was echoed by regional theatre director Joe Calarco. It seems to be caused by the increasing barriers, set up initially to protect creative artists, which have now cut off oxygen to the process of developing new work. These include: showcase and contract rules, collaboration agreements and the astronomical costs of producing commercial theater.
This is a trend we’ve been reporting for quite a while now in our blog and explains why so few contemporary writers are getting their songs published. Simply put, the expense is too great. What if the show doesn’t have broad appeal? How much of a risk are we willing to take on a new writer? These are the questions producers and publishers have to ask given the investments involved in mounting productions and publishing sheet music....
The group and panelists discussed new work and how to protect it. If you’re a writer, you already know the dangers of exposing your work at too early a stage of development. Still, there are clever tricks producers can employ to protect a budding piece. Producer Tiffani Gavin related that the producers of Once, the musical never sold tickets in the workshop phase in order to insulate the work and allow it to develop. Gavin also explained that the cast never changed from the show’s developmentto its opening, which is incredibly rare.
Other shows, like Bare, the musical, gained an audience over a long period of time. Originally developed in 2002 in Los Angeles, Bare, the musical didn’t initially make it to New York. The show went directly into a [licensing] catalogue (Theatrical Rights Worldwide) and slowly built a national following in advance of its commercial run. Bare opened at New World Stages this past January (2013). Cast recording forthcoming.
As an ever-changing online resource, we acknowledge the growing pains of developing in front of everyone’s eyes. And yet, this is also a great gift because of the valuable input we receive from the writers and subscribers. We have a built in mechanism for feedback and use it to increase our success in the marketplace.
“It’s hard for young writers, performers and directors to have a [collaborative] dialogue because they are so anxious to garner resume credits.” - Jamibeth Margolis
Well said and very true. To this point, Eric Goldman mentioned a book he was currently reading entitled Group Genius by Keith Sawyer, which points out that great creativity is often the result of many small creative sparks over a long period of time. Sawyer relates current research and anecdotal stories to this end. Collaborating for the good of the group over the individual, while a trend in urban classroom education, is not necessarily a trend in the theatre at the moment. I believe this is a symptom of the “me-centric urban grind” in which we live. This may be why Goldman, who recently joined the board of The League of Independent Theatre NY, wants to restore New York City to being the “Silicon Valley of indie theatre.” This re-branding of off-Broadway could shake off the uber-commercialization that has crept in the last 15 years.
Similarly, The Directory [of Contemporary Musical Theatre] bucks the traditional model of internet sheet music sales. While we ask a small administrative fee from writers listed on the site, we do not take a cut of the profits of writers’ individual song sales. The Directory aims to be a curated resource that hopes to remain independent from the commercialization of theatre songs and theatrical properties. We hope to elevate the conversation above the “commerciality” of songs and shows. We want to be a gathering place of information on the art and craft of well-written musical theatre songs and cultivate exposure and nurture song writing talent within our ranks.
John Chatterton, Executive Director of Midtown International Theatre Festival shared that the New York theatre festival circuit is a ‘must do’ for those wanting to get their shows on the radar of the producers and directors in New York. MITF is possibly the only festival of note that does not take a financial stake in the future revenues of the shows they produce.
Frank Ventura of CAP21 Theatre/Conservatory mentioned that “resources are examined when it comes to new works.” CAP 21 has relationships with various theatres around the country and tries to match new projects with an appropriate theatre that can take it on.
Toward the end of the evening moderator Bob Ost brought up the conversation we didn’t have, “What are the markets for new works that aren’t commercially viable? How do we define success?” We tabled these for another panel.
It is still quite expensive to get a show noticed in an off-off theatre venue – the investment is often times too big for the artist to undertake. Off-Broadway used to be the incubator for challenging new works but in recent years it has become commercialized and unaffordable. Joe Calarco is right in noting, “The full commercialization of Off-Broadway is hurting development of new work.”
Off-Broadway’s commercialization is probably what made it impossible for Bare, the musical to make it here in 2002 when it had such critical acclaim in LA at that time. But, like any great story and compelling craft, it cut through. It made it to NY, NY. Let’s hope we attract more of the same and that The Directory can help level the playing field.
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How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Everyone knows the answer to that one.
But how about this one: How do you take a show to Broadway?
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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Money is scarce these days. Government funding to the arts has been drastically cut, yet again. How do we operate healthily with less money? And how did some companies manage to actually grow during the 2009 recession? TRU's January panel dealt with these questions, and with the issues of cultivating individual donors in hard times, reducing or adapting programming and other necessary strategies to survive. Helping us do so were Jill Garland, director of development at Playwrights Horizons and former general manager at Naked Angels; Fran Kirmser, fundraising consultant (Lincoln Center Avery Fisher Hall, Musical Theater Works, Pentacle, Sandra Cameron Dance Center and Doug Varone and Dancers), founder of Manhattan Theatre Source, board of directors of Apples & Oranges Productions (Hair, Memphis); and David Winitsky, freelance development consultant (Institute of Music for Children, Green Recoverings, Playwrights Theatre).
As Winitsky put it, “If they're donating to your company they're donating to your company and not investing in your show.” His illustration was that “if someone were to donate to the Wal-Mart Foundation, they could not then make a profit from it.”
Ost explained the rationale behind these laws: “The government does not want you [as a donor] to strengthen the product with an eye towards profiting from it.”
However, Garland said that, despite the legal differences that exist between the two realms, “there are some basics about asking for money” that are the same for not-for-profits and commercial enterprises.
Kirmser, who consults about eighty companies across the country, agreed. Her advice? For one thing, “forget about the foundations” in this economy; “pretend they're not there.” Instead, “the emphasis is on individuals: contact them frequently, and keep them in touch with the work. . . . Concentrate on bringing people to the work” rather than on getting grants, at least for now.
Garland agreed, saying that at Playwrights Horizon, “we focus on people who come into the theater to see the work; then we do a lot of outreach.”
As a grant writer and development consultant, Winitsky advises starting with the basics: “The first part of adapting your fundraising strategy is to have one.” Start by asking where your money is coming from right now. For not-for-profits, see whether your income stream is balanced. Ideally, you should be getting a third of your revenue from donors, a third should be earned from the work, and a third should be coming from institutions. Be realistic: “If you're a small company, you can't get corporate sponsorships. You can, however, get corporate grants.”
Kirmser cautioned against wasting time going down fruitless avenues, and recommended Winitsky as a resource: “David would be able to tell you who it's worth writing your grant for.”
How does Garland recommend one ask individuals for money? Stay focussed on what it is you do. “Whatever happens, we have to stay with our mission, and we have to concentrate on getting that across to our ranks.”
About the bad period from October '08 to October '09, she said that, though they had donors drop out, “we would find ways to keep them involved.” If people were laid off, Playwrights Horizon kept them as volunteers; now many of those people are donors again, but they're involved on a totally different scale.
Meanwhile, they tightened their belt where they could: “We cut out a whole fundraising event that we do in the fall because it was too little money for too much work.” Winitsky counselled keeping things simple, saying, “Sometimes the outlandish idea is the way to go;” for instance, he knows of a tiny company who did their major gala as a potluck. “If you have the chance to do less, people will understand, and you'll have more time to evaluate your programs and mission—this opportunity to re-evaluate doesn't come along very often.”
Garland agreed that there is a positive way to look at the constraints imposed by the economic downturn: “It does give you an opportunity to really laser in on what makes you unique, and to have a close relationship to your core donors.” Playwrights Horizon survived the year pretty much intact: “We slashed expenses—we did not cut our season,” although there were a few lay-offs early on. “It was really just being ruthless about our expenses.” What's changed in programming for this year? They're doing partnerships—a very good idea for small companies.
Partnerships can be based on all sorts of strategies. Playwrights Horizon, a writer's theater, looks for other companies that support a particular writer they're also interested. Generally they partner with smaller companies so that they can use their own space, and because “the smaller, edgier ones bring a whole other audience up to 42nd Street.”
Winitsky said, “Co-productions come in all flavors.” For smaller companies the things you're trading may not be money, and hence are simpler. “Think about co-productions that are not regionally based,” he advised. “If you can get a run in somewhere else, do that; the more times you do the thing, the better it is.” The reviews you get when you open are crucially important, he said: “If you don't get the good reviews you're dead.” So it makes sense to have a first run someplace outside New York, someplace with less critical pressure.
But don't you want to have your world premiere in New York? Well, maybe not. Garland says that, despite all the hype about world premieres, Playwrights Horizon's artistic director tries to only line up things with previous productions.
The most important thing is to be organized, Winitsky said. This will help you come up with creative, money-saving strategies like co-productions; it will also aid you when it comes to talking to donors and potential donors. Asking for money for your own dream is hard. Having the financial needs on paper and being able to explain it rationally makes it much easier emotionally. “The main reason people don't give money is that they weren't asked.”
Kirmser said that, “The key thing is to make time to think about these things.” If you're organized, you can show plans to your core people. They see you're organized; they see where they might contribute; they might see where problems are that you've missed. Also, you have to “know very specifically what you need, so that when you're in that moment you'll be able to say it.” Garland agreed: “There are very few situations where you do an ask, with individuals or organizations, where you're not going to put a number out. When you say 'do what you feel comfortable with,' people don't understand that.”
As a psychological tip, Ost advised that “The key to effective asking is asking with the full understanding that people have the right to say no.”
Winitsky pointed out that very small companies have, in a sense, an advantage when it comes to zeroing in on their donors: “If your mailing list is two hundred people, you can Google all those people. You can use Zilla to find out if someone has a million-dollar house.”
Garland said, “New York City is supposed to be this big place, but really it's the same people” who maintain the theater world. Look through Playbills and compare donors; know your competition.
Garland advised getting a development consultant, like the ones on our panel—you'll get overwhelmed if you do all the development work yourself, but it's hard to find good, experienced development people, that you could afford to hire on staff; “farm it out.” Winitsky agreed, saying that often theater artists shoot themselves in the foot by trying to do everything: “People will finish tech, perform a show, then talk to donors—but talking to the donors is a separate job. You won't know what you said to the donors.”
In the end, it comes down to doing what people who earn their livelihoods in the arts always have to do: work incredibly hard to maintain their visions, and be creative, not only in their art itself, but in the way they turn disadvantages into opportunities. The difference is that now the stakes, and the challenges, are greater; but hopefully we can live up to the challenges by becoming more creative, ourselves.
Ost summed up by saying, “This is not a time to be shy about asking; it's a time to be honest, open and empathetic.”
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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Asking for money is actually a business, agreed the three speakers at TRU’s September 21st pane at the Roy Arias Payan Theatrel, which makes it vital to think of funders as a market requiring a researched, organized approach in order to make your sale. "People think you do good things, and money will follow. Or you talk to the right people, and money will follow," fundraising consultant and best-selling author Laura Fredricks told the panel's packed audience. But only three things will keep you afloat in the “business” of arts fundraising, and they require effort beyond merely perfecting the venture you're seeking to fund.
The three things? “Structure, organization and focus," said Fredricks, International Philanthropic Advisor and best-selling author of "The Ask: How to Ask for Support for Your Nonprofit, Cause, Creative Project or Business Venture.”
In a freewheeling, advice-packed discussion, Fredricks joined with Ben Cameron, arts program director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation -- which Cameron said invests $135 million in the arts annually -- and Bruce Payne, executive director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, which he said devotes a third of its grants to "arts and culture." Here are some of the topics touched on, and the advice offered:.
First off, "Believe in your organization and your message," urged Payne. "If you don't, you shouldn't be doing this."
Research your potential funders before you apply.
The Foundation Center on Fifth Avenue -- foundationcenter.org/newyork -- offers a Philanthropy News Digest available by email, which lists every grant that has been given out across the country and is a good place to start, as are the Association of Fundraising Professionals -- www.afpnet.org/ -- and the websites of individual funders.
GuideStar -- at www.guidestar.org -- collects the 990 forms of donors and grant makers, and is a great source for finding out who is on the boards of potential funders, said Fredricks.
Look also at the donor lists of organizations and ventures similar to your own, said Cameron.
Your success will depend largely on "your ability to speak to where your funders are listening from," said Cameron. Is the funder's focus economic? Do they want to create jobs? Help youth? Spur tourism? "Research not only what they fund, but what they're listening for," he advised.
Don't tarnish your grant proposals by making common mistakes
Avoid "grant speech," which will render your application "indistinguishable," advised Cameron. Make your submission as detailed specific as you can. Statements like "we are going to do quality theater" or "we dedicated to producing groundbreaking theater” are too general and may lack credibility.
And to please stay away from judgmental comparisons to other companies. For example, do not make statements like “we are the only theater company presenting new musical theater,” because they know this statement is false and will discourage their favor.
Shun hype, he added, especially of the sort where it's declared, "We're the only theater in America that..." Don’t oversell. Find what is genuine and unique about your company without making judgmental comparisons that may be hard to demonstrate.
Payne said it's always a real head-scratcher when he gets grant proposals with spelling and grammatical errors. "Nobody proofread it," he told the audience. "What are you thinking?"
Another common error: "They haven't read the website's description of how to submit a proposal," he said. The requirements for applying are generally stated clearly, and are not subject to interpretation. Do what they say.
Make quantitative arguments for funding, not just qualitative ones
Higher education is very good at defining quantitative needs and rates of return when asking for grants -- a specificity the arts are less adept at voicing, Fredricks noted. Quantify who you employ, and what your organization/project's economic impact will be.
Your prospective funders want to know, "How would the community be damaged if you shut down?" said Cameron. "What is the value of theater in my community? How can my theater be a valuable conduit" to the arts?
Expect, and meet, value-based questions, he advised.
But don't just crunch numbers -- tell a story.
Unlike social, educational and medical organization, the arts are "not telling aspirational stories about people whose lives you've changed, kids who you've helped," said Fredricks.
Said Cameron, "Give me a vision. Give me an image. Tell me about that person who went to [your] symphony" and was changed in some way."
Don't forget creative marketing
Cameron told the audience that when he visits theaters, "I see the pictures of the actors who are going to be in the play. I see the play. Then I go home. I rarely see pictures of the school program, or the playwright program," or the senior citizen's program hanging on a bulletin board in the lobby, Cameron said. It's a missed donor cultivation opportunity, he noted.
Rely on your board members
Cultivate your board members, urged Fredricks, telling the audience, "They are your best donors." Their primary purpose is to help bring in money to run your organization.
Give your board members written explanations of what's expected of them in terms of time and money, Fredricks said.
Be kind to your individual donors
In dealing with all individual donors, ask for specific amounts, said Fredricks. "It's insulting to make them engage in a guessing game" by saying only that you're hoping for a "significant contribution." State clearly: "Would you consider a donation of X-dollars?"
"The worst they can say is, "I cannot do this," said Fredricks. "And 'No' now does not mean 'No' later," she added. "Just say, 'Thank you.'"
If you throw a fundraiser, dinner or wine-and-cheese event...
Sometimes it's best to keep it small and personal -- pair one board member to one of each of ten potential donor-guests during the event, suggested Fredricks. Then have the board members make a followup call, asking the potential donor what they liked and didn't like, and setting a time to meet again.
"Don't plan events that are too big," agreed Payne. Do a benefit dinner for a dozen people, he suggested -- "Something wonderful for the people you invite."
Keep events short, said Cameron. "I have yet to go to a fundraiser that was too short," he said. And remember, he said, people love to meet artists, actors and directors -- use them.
Cameron said the best fundraiser he ever went to was for a dance company in Boise, Idaho -- at which the dancers each stood up and made a short speech about, "What I love about Boise."
And make friends, not just contacts
Don't ask a new prospective donor for money the first time you meet them, stressed Fredricks. Cameron called it the "Rule of Five" -- hit them up after the fifth contact. That means a phone call, an email, an in-person meeting, a drink, an introduction at a party. Five contacts before making an ask.
Payne said that at the Rubin Foundation, as much as two-thirds of giving goes to people known already to the foundation. "Everybody in the office gets to say, 'I saw this extraordinary thing,'" and champion for it, he said.
That's why when it comes to donors, having a few friends -- influential people who will back your venture -- trumps having a Rolodex bulging with contacts, said Payne. He offered no specific advice for friend-raising, though, noting only that “ you have to build with your heart, from what you are."
And when you've found them, invite them to rehearsals, readings, etc., advised Cameron. "Invite them to participate in the journey."
© 2011 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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Last night TRU hosted one of the most informative, interesting, honest, and exciting panel events I’ve ever been to in New York. Speakers included Beth Blickers, literary agent Abrams Artists Agency; Peter Flynn, artistic director Hangar Theater in Ithaca NY; Jayson Raitt, producer (Murder for Two, A Killer Musical; Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory; Vanities, A New Musical; Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn Off-Broadway & London; Being Alive, an all-Black Sondheim musical; NAMT Festival of New Musicals; and Pasadena Playhouse); and Greg Schaffert, producer (All Shook Up; Burn the Floor; Bat Boy the Musical off-Broadway and London; How to Save the World and Find True Love).
Finally, the question of a creative producer taking a portion of the author’s rights arose and the fireworks between producer and agent exploded.
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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TRU Panel: 1/27/11
Like all relationships, collaborations between commercial producers and not-for-profits can be fraught with arguments over money, over who gets to be boss, and over how best to raise the "baby." But members of Thursday night's TRU panel, New Models for Success: The Commercial/Not-for-Profit Partnership, said that these relationships can also work extremely well, with financial and even creative benefits beyond what either partner could accomplish alone.
Who initiates the courtship? The panelists have had it both ways.
Producer Robyn Goodman (A Class Act, Metamorphoses, In the Heights, Avenue Q, Steel Magnolias, Barefoot in the Park) discovered Avenue Q when its composer/lyricist team performed three songs at a BMI industry performance: "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "If You Were Gay" and “Tear It Up and Throw It Away” (which was eventually cut from the show, but which Goodman says is an hilarious song about getting a jury duty summons). Goodman turned Vineyard Theatre artistic director Doug Aibel (Avenue Q, [title of show], The Scottsboro Boys) on to the project, and their collaboration at Vineyard launched the musical on its now-storied way to Broadway and beyond.
Two other panelists gave an alternate example, in which their project was initiated by the not-for-profit which brought in the commercial producers. After a string of rave reviews and critical attention for what was just a showcase that seemed to cry out for a commercial production, Keven Kennedy, managing director of The Peccadillo Theater Co. (Room Service, Another Part of the Forest, Talk of the Town) convinced commercial producer RK Greene (Love Child, the upcoming A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and others to take a look at the revival of the classic comedy Room Service, and another collaborative success story got its start.
As TRU executive director Bob Ost noted, commercial/not-for-profit partnerships sometimes hit the shoals when commercial producers' concerns over marketability clash with not-for-profits' worries over the sullying effect enhancement dollars might have on their creative mission. But Goodman and Aibel, and Kennedy and Greene, along with fellow panelist producer Randall Wreghitt (Aesop and Company, Lieutenant of Inishmore, Grey Gardens, Little Women) had largely only good things to say about these increasingly popular kinds of collaboration, stressing that when they work, benefits abound:
• Financial benefits for commercial producers, who use these partnerships as a developmental step for their projects, include the dramatically reduced production costs under the not-for-profits' lower rates for such budget items as cast pay, other union salaries, theater rental and rehearsal space rental. Wreghitt estimated that the recent workshop of Aesop and Company, which cost about $350,000 to mount, could easily have cost twice that without a not-for-profit partner.
In spite of the numerous successful enhancement deals that have been negotiated with not-for-profits – the ones our panelists have been involved in, as well as other huge successes like Dodger Theatrical’s partnership with La Jolla Playhouse on Jersey Boys, Junkyard Dog Productions partnership also with La Jolla and 5th Avenue Theatre on Memphis and Margo Lion’s partnership with 5th Avenue Theatre on Hairspray - the panel also expressed concern on the escalating cost of enhancement. Some large non-profits are now asking for such exorbitant enhancement deals (one unnamed non-profit was asking for $1.5 million for a musical), that they have priced themselves out of the market for many commercial producers.
The concept of regional theater co-productions was also touched upon, a tricky partnership in which two (or perhaps more) different theater companies share expenses, world premiere credit and (ultimately) future royalty participation in the production of a new work. Another model currently used for plays, rather than musicals, and nurtured by Jason Loewith and the National New Play Network, is the rolling world premiere, in which two or more not-for-profits share premiere credit for consecutive productions of a new work, usually in different areas of the country, but each puts up their own production, independent of the other. Panelist Goodman instantly recognized this as an incredible opportunity for a writer to see his play shaped by three different directors. One hopes that a savvy writer would learn lessons, good and bad, from each production and make the ultimate decisions about what changes stay and which ones are later dismissed.
This sparked a question from audience member Meredith Lucio who posed the idea of a producer using different regional theater productions for the developmental path of a show. Goodman cautioned her that as long as the commercial producer is attached to the production, Equity will not sanction a developmental route in which the subsequent Equity contracts do not equal or surpass the terms of the previous production; so in making a plan such as this one, a producer needs to be aware of the LORT contracts in effect in each regional theater that is in the development plan.
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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If you don't consider yourself a tech-savvy person, things like social media and video marketing can seem overwhelming. Where to begin? For our July panel, "New Media: Using Video As a Marketing Tool," we were joined by five innovative figures in the realm of social marketing, who helped us navigate topics like how to generate usable content for new media, within Equity's guidelines; using multiple platform formats; and internet video usage, video hosting, and how and where to host a video once you've got it. Hillary Cutter is co-founder / co-producer of Van Hill Entertainment (producers of the off-Broadway Rooms), and owner / executive producer of Cutter Productions and Management, which creates viral and music videos; she said she’s excited to be using her TV and film experience in theater. Edward Highfield and Evan Frushtick are co-founders of Project Pause video production and multimedia marketing. Jeremy Handelman knows about both sides of marketing -- he's a commercial producer (White's Lies, F#@king Up Everything) but also principal of Off The Leash Productions, which began as a video production company, doing commercials and viral and event videos, and also handles promos and actor reels. Evan Seplow is the founder of StageBuddy.com and CEO of The ImangeFactory, a film and multimedia production company. Stagebuddy is a search engine for shows; as Seplow told us, he was inspired to found it when, after having seen an off-off-Broadway show that he liked, he asked himself, “How would I have found out about that show, if a friend hadn’t invited me?” Stagebuddy is free, and there’s no filter, so you can put up whatever you want. In the “real world,” now, Seplow is in film production, mostly doing commercials, but also feature films.
Ost started the discussion by pointing out that, when it comes to electronic media, there are “a lot of caveats because of Equity” when it comes to photography or videotaping. There are exceptions – for example, you can do a video shoot of your Showcase, if you pay actors a SAG rate for a day. However, for many off-off-Broadway productions, videotaping the show itself may not make economic sense.
But no matter what your budget, it's still worth your time to think creatively about ways to use the internet to market yourself. For one thing, as Handelman said, "Certain video things you can negotiate with Equity;" in other words, don't just assume that a particular door is closed until you've made sure.
More importantly, there are lots of ways to use video other than simply filming excerpts of your show and disseminating them. For example, as Seplow pointed out, "Before you have a show mounted, you can do interviews with the writer, with the cast, or do videos of rehearsals," and you can put that material on Stagebuddy, and elsewhere. (Note: Equity does not allow videotaping of the rehearsal itself, but you can create informal content with your actors at rehearsals.) If you create totally new material, then, from Equity's point of view, the video is a totally new production and is not regulated by any of the rules that govern your play. Highfield added that you can always post footage of audience testimonials on your site, once you have a show up and running. Of course, you will need to get releases from the interviewees, but that's not as complicated as you might think. There's no need to have interviewees sign releases; as Highfield pointed out, "You can have interviewees give a verbal release on-camera."
So even with Equity restrictions, there are still lots of possibilities for video marketing for your show. Now that you know that, how to decide which angle to take? As always, that all depends. Handelman said, "You really have to think through what you want to achieve; with a musical, maybe the footage is going to help you" (that is, if you are not doing a Showcase and therefore allowed by Equity to film the show); "if you’re doing a drama, it may not.” When he was promoting F#@king Up Everything, they filmed spoofs of the show; some of those videos got three thousand views, and the show sold out. Presumably at least some of those ticket sales were thanks to their popular video campaign.
Seplow suggested thinking about promotional videos in terms of two basic types: "safe" videos, that explain or document your show; and viral video. A viral video is one which spreads through the internet, garnering a massive amount of views. It is the internet video equivalent of enormously successful word of mouth. Having a viral video is a great goal, because it means that many thousands of people have heard of your show; however, it is difficult to create one, since on the internet no one can tell what will catch on. If you want your video to have a chance of going viral, though, a "safe" product which straightforwardly explains your product is probably not the way to go. You want to create something quirky or interesting, which will catch people's interest, and prompt them to forward it on to their friends. "And," Cutter added, "viral videos are spread for free."
Cutter also said that, despite the new opportunities presented by electronic media, the fundamentals of marketing have not really changed. The point is still to give your product an engaging brand, an engaging story, that makes consumers want to be a part of the experience. (And, as Seplow pointed out, that story does not have to be told in video form, although the discussion at this particular panel wound up focusing on it; there are text-based uses of social media and the internet, too, as with message boards, Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter.)
Sometimes, when people feel uncomfortable with electronic media, they have a tendency to not think through the materials they post. However, as Highfield said, “You can mis-use this stuff really easily, so get your marketing plan together early. There really has to be a consolidated plan. Just handing your Twitter and Facebook accounts over to your intern is not necessarily a good plan.”
Ost agreed: "If your content isn’t strong, you’re better not to send it out – you could kill your show.” If you're unsure of how to proceed, Handelman pointed out that "There are companies that specifically do social marketing," and they cater to all sorts of budgets--you would do well to research some of them and see if one might be a good fit for your project. "There are things that can be done on a Showcase level," he said.
Frushtick recommended that, no matter what your budget is, you make sure that you don't settle for low quality when it comes to your promotional materials: “People have skimped because of money, but there are so many uses for that video, and so many venues, that it’s not worth skimping in the long run.” Those venues include youtube, your website, embedding it in an e-blast, etc.
Seplow agreed, saying that "What matters even more than the image, is the sound," since people tend to forgive poor picture quality far more easily than they do difficulty with hearing something; and Cutter added that "If you have no money, you should at least hire a good videographer and a professional sound mixer."
And then, Frushtick said, "How you put it on the website is almost as important as making the video itself." He shared the story of a corporate client who paid to have a very nice promotional video made, but then embedded it on their site in such a way that visitors had to scroll down before they ever saw it. It doesn't matter how good the video is if you don't give people some way of knowing that it exists.
Also, Ost pointed out, it's counterproductive for your video to become a nuisance to the people you're trying to reach. For example, "be careful about things like compression," so that it doesn't take users an annoyingly long time to download the video. “I’ve needed to take two Bufferins waiting for content to buffer.” Of course, one solution to this problem is simply to have your website link to your video posting on youtube, instead of posting the video itself on your website. (Cutter pointed out that, if you are lucky enough for your video to go viral, you don't want to have people downloading it from your own site, because of the massive amount of traffic that would be generated, and which could wind up costing you a lot of money.)
Ost did voice skepticism over the idea that electronic media is a magical, cheap solution to the expense of traditional marketing strategies: "It hasn't been demonstrated conclusively that youtube videos translate into ticket sales." However, Cutter pointed out, "We have no idea if subway ads sell shows," and Ost agreed that "It does all add to your multiple impressions." And Cutter went on to assert that "a $15,000 video for your Off-Broadway rock musical is going to far out-sell a $15,000 New York Times ad.... Video is what kids want to see, it’s hot, it’s new, it’s on youtube.”
Going back to Frushtick's earlier comment, Ost asked what the uses are for video, other than ticket sales. Frushtick said that "Any video could be useful in any number of ways." For example, archival video could be used for news agencies. And of course, actors will be grateful for video for their reel, and may want to consider hiring one of these agencies to put one together for them, apart from any specific production they're doing. Seplow agreed that "videos are more helpful than headshots, for a variety of reasons;" a headshot is not nearly as good at giving a sense of the actor's presence, and, of course, a photograph gives no clue as to the actor's voice.
Is it common to make videos in order to attract investors? Not really, the panelists said.
Once you have a video, what do you do with it? Obviously, you would post a link to it on your own site. But a link to where, other than youtube? There are lots of sites where you can post video content; Seplow recommended the website Blip TV in particular. "They're good for webisodes and easy to navigate, and they have relationships with youtube, iTunes, Tivo, and it's free to post there."
Handelman talked about some new distribution methods that have appeared, citing in particular a company called Mogreet, which he worked with for White's Lies, and which also did work for In the Heights. For White's Lies, the campaign that they came up with along with Mogreet was to encourage people (through the show's website, or through e-blasts, etc.) to text the code LIES to a phone number; you received back from Mogreet a text, with a video – for example, dating advice. At the end of the video, up came a link to buy tickets, with a discount code.
An e-blast is an ideal way to send people embedded links to these types of promotional videos. If you don't have a mailing service yet the panel recommended Constant Comment, Benchmark, Vertical Response and Mailermailer (which TRU uses). Different services are better fits for different companies and productions. When deciding which one is best for you, find out how many people it allows you to mail to, and how much they charge.... Be aware that mailing services do not provide you with any addresses, and that you have to create your own list. Ost particularly recommended that you "think ahead in terms of segmenting, if you're putting together a mailing list;" you may not want to mail everything to every person on your list, so it's important to decide early on what categories you want to divide them into.
Hopefully, the electronic revolution will level the playing field a little, allowing opportunities for wider distribution to producers who wouldn't be able to afford a large print campaign. It's a system that, even more than ever, rewards creativity in marketing as well as in the artistic side of the business; as Cutter said, "It's all about telling a story;" the technology alone is not enough.
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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The internet has become an essential tool for marketing all businesses these days. We all know that; but do we all know how to use it in ways that makes sense? On Wednesday, March 17th, TRU held a panel on “New Trends in Marketing for the Arts, and Effective Uses of the Internet.” Our guests were Jim Glaub, Creative Director of Art Meets Commerce, and Zach Overton, VP of Sales for Plum Benefits and former Director of Marketing for Broadway.com. Bob Ost moderated.
Ost opened the panel by getting straight to the point: “Is internet marketing replacing all other kinds of marketing?”
“That depends on the show and its size,” Glaub said. For small shows with small budgets, the only space they have may be online. But Broadway shows use $500,000 to a million on marketing. With that kind of budget, they're certainly going to spend some money on print and signage, and probably always will. On the other hand, Overton pointed out, “The publishing industry is struggling across the board,” meaning that the advertising space they have to offer may be shrinking in value anyway, since fewer people are buying their publications. On the net, meanwhile, advertisers have the advantage of measurability—they know whether or not their ads were clicked on.
But newspapers and magazines aren't the only form of print advertising. Glaub pointed out that, for small shows, a postcard is still quite useful: “There is something powerful about a person handing another person something.” “It's also a repeat impression,” Ost pointed out, “in addition to the e-blasts, etcetera.”
But it is still vitally important to have an online presence. As Ost pointed out, though: “It's great to have a website, but how do you get people there? How do you optimize traffic?”
The key, Glaub said, is creating a lot of content, and in structuring that content wisely. “Lots of theaters don't even have the name of their company in the text—it'll be part of an image.” That’s a big problem, as it turns out, because if you don't have the name of your theater company on the website, as text, search engines will not be able to find it. So you get less traffic.
Glaub also likes mu-cards, a new kind of very small and very cheap business card. If the cards are eye-catching, “they can drive people back to your website. So as long as your website is a great place to visit. . . .”
“The social element is very important,” added Overton. For example, on your Facebook page, “If you post something and someone responds, you have to talk back to them.” People misuse Facebook by using it as a direct sales driver, but that's really not where its usefulness lies. It is a way for you to establish a relationship with an audience that can then pay off in unexpected ways. For example, Glaub points out, Rock of Ages had 20,000 Facebook fans, and because of their ability to post last-minute discounts to all those fans they were able to sell out in a snowstorm, instead of having their audience decimated by one.
When devising a marketing campaign, producers have to decide on their priority: is it about selling tickets to a specific new show, or is it about creating longevity and a brand? Are you trying to sell a product, or an experience? “Think of your product as a person,” Glaub said, “and remember that this person has a voice. . . . Then determine, What would the voice say? What is the personality, the tone? Would they be able to interact directly with fans on the website? Then the voice now becomes two-way.” Meanwhile, one great way to make your site more dramatic is by including video: “Video is key. It's become so important, and also so easy.”
Glaub said that, “Strategies are different for a show website and for a public website. In a lot of ways a show can get away with more of a brochure approach. . . . Theater companies want to be the brand, but each show also has its own brand.” To make sure that happens, he usually recommends that each show have its own site, separate from the theater company's.
But Ost cautioned the audience not to make the opposite mistake by forgetting to brand the theater company at the same time as the show. He also pointed out that part of the way you reinforce the company's brand is to remember its mission when you're choosing shows.
How important is social media, in addition to more traditional websites and homepages? Very. “It's definitely not a trend—social media is here to stay,” Glaub said. Moreso than traditional websites, social media sites help you cultivate a relationship with your audience.
Facebook may be the most popular social media site nowadays, but Glaub recommends against dismissing MySpace: “I think that MySpace is really great for music.” It has worked wonders for Fela!, for example, and is generally agreed to be very useful as far as promoting in the music industry.
Overton and Glaub both sang the praises of behavioral targeting; Ost, meanwhile, seemed to have certain reservations about it, saying, “I understand it, I think it's great, and I think it's creepy.” Behavioral targeting, he went on to explain, “is an extreme form of what used to be called list management.” It is a way of matching advertising to specific consumers by scanning their Facebook profiles, internet habits, etc., and it saves advertisers money by targeting only consumers who seem to have some interest in the product being marketed. As Glaub pointed out, you, as the computer user, “don't even know this is happening.” Creepy, yes. But effective.
Facebook, Glaub said, is great for behavioral targeting because “Facebook is one of the few things that is affordable to you, and you can target people's profiles.” For example, if you have a show about dogs, you can target anyone in the tri-state area who mentions dogs in their profile.
But the first thing Glaub recommends is to purchase Google ads, which, of course, use behavioral targeting. “If you're not-for-profit you can get $300 worth of Google advertising per day.” Two good things about Google ads: you only pay for your ad if someone clicks on it, and if you post ads on your site you will make money if anyone clicks on them.
What about e-blasts, mailings, and the like? “Do you want to recommend an email service?” asked Ost.
“For indie producers I recommend Vertical Response, because they only charge per e-mail, not per month,” said Glaub. Meanwhile, Plum Benefits are the go-to as far as e-blasts are concerned, in his opinion. And for tiny shows, he recommends Google ads, Facebook, etc.
As far as setting up e-mail lists, Glaub says, “Even if you don't know what you're selling, reserve as many domain names as you can.” Then you can use those domain names to construct very simple loading pages where people can register for the mailing list.
Overton recommended subscribing to all the e-blast and e-mail lists you can, simply for the sake of marketing research. Which ones catch your eye? Imitate them.
Regarding your mailing list, Ost told the audience that “You should be aspiring to at least a thousand names,” and he advised new companies to think ahead in terms of list segmentation. (“List segmentation” is the process of dividing your list into certain categories, so that you can keep track of how people came to you and/or so that you can easily target your mailings to specific parts of the list, instead of mailing to the whole group at once.)
Overton agreed, saying, “If you're going to do list segmentation, pick one or two things that are very important.”
Meanwhile, there are people out there who will do much of the work of marketing for you: “The blogosphere has become as important as the critics,” says Glaub, and “what's great about bloggers is that if they like it, they'll rave about it. If they don't, they may just not write about it.” If you want to know whether a blogger has a large enough audience to be worth giving a comp to your show, Alexa.com allows you to see how much traffic their site gets.
Of course, not all marketing has to be done online. For example, Overton pointed out, Zipcar put thirty tickets to Fela! inside their glove boxes, to spread the word about the show.
Ost and Overton summed up by reminding the audience that, no matter what technological changes may have occurred or still be in store, effective advertising will remain a matter of putting an alluring message in the right context. As Ost put it, “Marketing is going to always come down to positioning.” And, as Overton added, “A bit of mystery is always helpful;” the goal ultimately will always be to make the audience curious enough about the show to go see it.
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
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Putting up a show in New York is daunting, to say the least; is it possible to have a big success elsewhere, though? According to our panelists on February 17th, the answer is definitely “yes.” For Producing Opportunities Beyond New York, we talked about Fringes, academic bookings, conventions, arts centers, and international festivals, with a group of producers, writers, and performers who have made their own way. Our panelists were Dorothy Leeds, the writer-performer of Good Lessons from Bad Women; Dorothy Marcic, writer of the musical Respect (which has played in seventeen cities with over 2200 performances); Ronald Rand, writer-performer (currently touring America and the world with his solo play about Harold Clurman, Let it Be Art!); writer-director Virginia Scott, who has extensive experience on the Fringe circuits and elsewhere; and Nancy Holson, producer/writer (The News in Revue, Bush Wars, Parenting 101).
The panel opened with Ronald Rand, who has performed Let it Be Art! between 150 and 170 times, in ten countries and thirteen states. Why has he devoted himself so to this show? Because “I decided it was important to bring Harold Clurman to life,” and to deepen people's appreciation of our theatrical legacy. The rare chance to perform the show so many times means that his portrayal of Clurman has become richer, to the point where “I don't play him, I embody him. . . . I've been very blessed to share our history, and who we are.” Let it Be Art! is not just a temporary gig for Rand: “I'm going to be doing it the rest of my life.”
He started out by self-producing in New York City. “Initially I wasn't well-connected.” Then how did he wind up doing the show so many times? By working at it constantly: self-producing, Rand explained, is a job that never ends, requiring two to three hours a day of self-promotion.
The first, most important step in that job is devising a very, very good e-mail presentation, which describes your show, your bio, and all the good things people have said about your show. Remember, you will often be e-mailing busy people who have never heard of you, so you need to be very concise about what makes your work impressive. . . . “It's very important to think of your long-term goal, especially in terms of marketing.” He went on to say that “I wouldn't still be doing this show if I weren't making a profit. . . . I'm doing it for the art, but I have to make a living doing it or it wouldn't make any sense.”
“Even if you do find a manager, you don't let them take over your promotion;” you do that better than they can.
There are many ways to get contacts, with one of the most direct and simplest being Google. For example, many of Rand's international performances have resulted from Googling, say, “theater festival Croatia.”
Rand, like our other panelists, has been flexible about finding venues to perform in: he's done the show in acting schools, at universities, in festivals. Of course, he points out, “There's nothing wrong with going after real theaters.” Plan ahead, and know what you're going to ask for by the time you contact someone: “You have to decide what your rates will be.” His common college rate is $1,200. For acting schools: $350. For a big acting school: $1,000. For Harvard: more. Also bear in mind that you can supplement your income by teaching, or conducting workshops, so be on the lookout for those kinds of opportunities. As for international festivals, if you do one you need a sponsor to get you over there — it certainly wouldn't make sense economically for you to buy your own plane ticket! Meanwhile, try to get lodgings from the presenters of the festival. “I don't pay for anything,” said Rand, including food. The presenters don't pay, though; he does his own fund-raising. (Marcic pointed out that some conferences and festivals cover more expenses than others; for example, she's done Australian conferences that paid for room and board.)
Finally, the point is not always to e-mail someone and book a show right away: “It's about creating a relationship with them, and it takes time.” After three years of exchanging e-mails with a particular art director he was finally booked.
Nancy Holson has her hands full, doing double-duty as writer and producer of her shows. She's enjoyed a lot of success with The News in Revue, Parenting 101 and Bush Wars, and has proven that you can have a very viable career outside of New York. How did she get started? When her youngest son was in nursery school, Holson decided to do what she'd loved her whole life: write. That was in 1992; she wrote and put up a show — the reviews were good, but that didn't help, and she promptly lost all her money. Obviously she needed to rethink her strategy: “My background is in business, so I decided to think of my show as a business.” Soon she had two troupes, then troupes all over the country.
No troupes in New York, though. “Pretty much I've only lost money in New York, and I've made money pretty much everywhere else,” except when she's worked with New York producers. Why? Perhaps because New York producers have set ideas of the way things are done; for example, she worked with someone who insisted on paying a rental fee in a venue where he could have made a dinner-theater-style arrangement instead, because he didn't perceive dinner theater to be respectable enough.
Holson believes in keeping her packages constantly flexible, particularly when people began getting skittish about the economy. When bookers began worrying about being able to fill venues, Holson switched to allowing them six weeks to cancel — this reassured the bookers and worked out well for Holson because, in the end, the shows did indeed sell. She also believes in using radio ads, PBS ads, and in constantly re-writing her material, as well as in her independence from the New York scene. Her good New York reviews have not helped her book shows elsewhere: “I don't see where I need the New York billboard at all,” she says; “I don't see a scenario where I would need to be in New York.” The other market she avoids is DC, which at first is surprising given that many of her shows have political content. But she decided long ago to steer clear of it, because of all the competing shows.
As for Dorothy Leeds, her story is particularly inspiring, since she was able to achieve so much success while being far from an expert in the way the theatrical world worked: when she started doing her show, she was a professor of management at a university. She gave an academic conference about how women are presented in pop songs, and because people loved it she decided to try to make it into a one-woman show called Good Lessons from Bad Women. She performed at conferences, especially women's conferences, and wound up doing the piece eighty times. Of course, she wasn't really making a profit in those days: “In the beginning you have to do things for free.” But given her level of expertise when she started, “I feel that if I can do it, anyone can.” For example, the first time she did her show in Nashville, she didn't know what a stage manager was. But then again, Leeds has a history of trying new things: “I've had eight careers.”
Leeds has had good results booking shows in academic settings and at conventions. What are the advantages of doing your show at conventions? “You don't have to audition, and you can make quite a bit of money;” you could easily be booked for $5,000. Her rates are flexible; “I try to get $5,000, because that's sort of the cut-off point for associations.” But she's gone as low as $3,500. Also, libraries can only pay about $500, and she's done that. Her corporate career came in handy when it was time to plan the financing. “You need a database, contacts, a website, a Facebook presence.” In the convention world, people who produce are called presenters. Leeds, who belongs to eleven additional conferences, particularly recommends investing in going to APAP to book college shows, where they have three floors of producers: $1,200 will get you membership and a booth. There's also a big conference, Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA). If you want to get booked at one of these conventions, Leeds advised, “get the name of the faculty adviser, because they stay after the kids leave.”
“Getting booked in the college circuit is not as slam-dunk as people think it is,” Ost pointed out. There is a lot of competition, and theater is not the number-one draw. “If it's not music, if it's not stand-up comedy, or a magic act, then the one thing the presenters might be interested in is issue plays. But the issues need to be relevant to college-age audience members.”
How to learn about these conferences? “Just go online and you'll find 'em,” says Rand.
Meanwhile, Scott, who is mostly a director and writer, encouraged people to think about developing their shows with the Canadian Fringe. It's not as profitable as performing at conventions and the like, but if you do a developmental run in Canada you could make a little money, whereas in New York you could lose a lot. And in the Canadian Fringe there will be audiences, if you're savvy; it's not like in New York, where often no one comes to a show. There are twenty or thirty Canadian Fringes, and they're the biggest things in town. Meanwhile you don't have to worry about working the kinks out of your show while you're under producers' eyes.
You could tour Canada east to west, and get your show reviewed in major papers in Edmonton and such places. Every major city has a Fringe, albeit not necessarily a part of CAFF (Canadian and American Fringe Festivals). As Scott said: “Some are good, some . . . well, you know...” It's great for small casts. The set-up time is typically fifteen minutes — nothing glamorous. (This, said Rand, is why he doesn't do Fringes — he needs two hours' preparation in order to embody Clurman.) The Fringe provides tech. Scott takes only her cast and set: “If you can put it all in your trunk, that's good.” The theatrical venue you get is determined by lottery. (If you're thinking of going further afield, Ost pointed out that “in Edinburgh you don't get accepted into the Fringe until you have actually booked a venue, which you have to negotiate.”)
Scott was particularly speaking about the CAFF, whose rules are different from the New York Fringe. The performers get 100% of the box. It's a lottery, with no adjudication—that's one reason why the New York Fringe is not part of CAFF. Also, in the New York Fringe, the Fringe gets a cut of royalties from future productions; that's not so in CAFF.
Marcic pointed out that all is not rosy when it comes to the Fringes; she lost money at the one in Orlando. It's hard to get noticed at a Fringe festival. It's great for developing your show, but producers don't shop at CAFF (though they do at the New York Fringe).
Is there a length requirement in CAFF? Scott thinks so: “Probably you have to talk your way in if it's over ninety minutes.”
From there the discussion passed to Marcic, who summed up the story of her jukebox musical Respect as, “I moved from the cottage-y thing where I was booking myself to shows that were making $50,000 a week.” Part of that success happened because “I asked for people's feedback.” She gave out sheets of paper asking people what they liked, what they didn't, and gave away a free cast recording to whoever wrote the most words. It also came out of her do-it-yourself approach: Respect has sixty-three song excerpts, and “I did all the licensing myself. . . . I only pay 4% of the adjusted box office to the licensees. I have the relationship with the licensees;” she cuts the checks. And she is always on the look-out for future engagements; for example, she writes into her contract that the booker is required to give her two names of people who might book her. In the beginning, Marcic said, “I booked primarily through Women's Studies,” at colleges. Talkbacks helped to sell the show, or she would do workshops. And she and Leeds both advise that “Anyone who does a one-person show, join the National Speakers' Association.”
Finally, some of our panelists offered their last pieces of advice. Rand said that “one of the most important keys to your success is visualization — really believing that no matter what it will happen.” Holson urged us to “think outside the box — we always think we can find someone who can do the stuff we don't want to do, but in my experience it never happens. Figure out how to do it yourself.” And Marcic reminded us that “if you want to learn to play tennis, play with people who are better than you.”
© 2010 Theater Resources Unlimited.
Unless you happen to be very rich, it's hard to jump in and produce a commercial show first time out. You have to build a career and reputation, and gain important skills along the way. Not to mention the fact that a producer is the last person to get paid on a project! So how do you even afford to become a producer? TRU's November panel looked at the career paths that earned several successful producers a living, and taught them what they needed to know. The panel included Shirley Faison, executive director at the National Black Theatre; Tiffani Gavin, Sr., Director of Licensing for Theatrical Rights Worldwide, former executive producer at Clear Channel Entertainment, and former company manager at Blue Man Group; Jamillah Lamb, producer of Platanos and Collard Greens; Tom Smedes, producer (Ace the Musical, [title of show], Naked Boys Singing, Dog Sees God), general manager (Altar Boyz, Musical of Musicals), and company manager (Show Boat); and Sheila Speller, producer (…Another Man’s Poison) and general manager.
Shirley Faison began her thirty-six years in entertainment as a performer, then moved into management at the National Black Theater. The National Black Theater funds its original showcase productions largely through real estate—they have a 64,000-square-foot property, which houses their theater, but most of which is used for retail. That model—using a separate business to fund your art—is one which will be familiar to many theater artists, and which applies to Faison's personal career, as well: fourteen years ago she left the NBT to become a talent agent; two years ago she returned to the National Black Theatre to put a workshop staff back together. Now she produces original showcases for NBT, but still makes most of her money through the talent agency.
Tom Smedes went to NYU, and by taking theater and business courses sort of created a theater administration curriculum, then did the same thing in grad school. Meanwhile he was getting work experience through internships. Thanks to the facts that he “cleaned the fridge well” and “had low rent” (since otherwise he wouldn't have been able to live off the job), he was able to get hired by TheatreNow as company manager, where he says he learned more answering phones than he had from his schooling. (Just what is a company manager? Company managers are below general managers in the hierarchy, and deal with the theater in a hands-on way, whereas the general manager handles big-picture negotiations that the company manager then implements. For example, the company manager runs the payroll that's been negotiated by the general manager.) After he left TheatreNow he became house manager for the Marquee Theater, where he learned that he hated customer service. Then he moved to Nederlander, with Rent, for three years. After that he got approached to produce Naked Boys Singing, and joined Martian Entertainment. At Naked Boys Singing, he was both producer and general manager: “For smaller Off-Broadway that's a good model—very reasonable.” Finally, he left Martian to start Tom Smedes Productions.
Tiffani Gavin has a different story: “I'm one of those weird people who came to New York knowing I was going to be a producer.” A native of Philadelphia, she got an internship at a theater there where she used to audition; it wasn't long afterwards that she was offered an internship at the Public Theatre here in New York. She commuted from Philadelphia to the Public every day, and worked in the casting office. “But I wanted to be on the other side of the building, where management was.”
Her internship over, Gavin returned to the Philadelphia theater world. There she combined general and company management, because her company couldn't afford a company manager. She “sort of helped with fundraising,” and was “sort of the C.O.O. of the theater.” But she also did box office and all the other glamorous little jobs that come with the theater, like cleaning the fridge. She got a chance to return to the Public when they hired her for management. With no place to live in New York, she arrived at the theater with a suitcase, hoping to find an apartment that day—if not, her plan was to commute back to Philadelphia that night. Luckily, she got taken in by the secretary at the Public, who still likes to tell the story: “I just saw this black girl walk in with a suitcase and she looked so lost.”
At the Public one of her primary jobs was running royalty spreadsheets for Bring Da Noise, Bring Da Funk. Then she moved across the street for two years, as company manager for the Blue Man Group. “It wasn't a typical company manager job because it's not a union job, and the company manager winds up running the box office, redecorating, etc.” From there she became an engagement manager for Cameron MacKintosh. Never heard of an engagement manager? Well, it's a job which may not exist outside of Cameron MacKintosh's shows. The engagement manager works out the logistics of the shows' tours, which are much more complicated than most shows'—for example, Phantom could only go out to thirty-seven theaters because the steel for the chandelier cost $250,000. Even when the show was down-sized, it still went from thirty trucks to twenty, while most shows need only five to eight trucks to tour. Gavin had to plan the tours out six months in advance.
From there she moved on to Clear Channel as an executive producer, where “I kind of thought I had the best producer job because I didn't have to raise money and I got paid whether the show was any good at all.” Then, when she was once again between jobs, she called Tom Smedes, and he hired her as company manager.
From there the panel moved on to Sheila Speller, who considers herself to have the perfect producing background, because “I've always been interdisciplinary.” She worked for a concert promoter, and worked in non-profit development; from there she moved to feature film and video marketing, where she helped pioneer product placements and special events for Dirty Dancing and Pippi Longstocking; she got an MBA in Media Management which includes Theater and Arts Administration; oh, and by the way, she's also SAG, AEA, and AFTRA. But after all that, she found that it was time to bring it all together: “I lived this journey that touched on everything and then I was like, 'Well, what do I want to do now?'” She directed a short, and produced some readings. “After I finished my MBA, I decided to mix entrepeneurship and creativity by starting Orielle Creative.” Then TRU gave her a scholarship to CTI and she became part of the TRU producer mentorship. She became a commercial Off-Broadway producer who raised the capitalization to mount a production; she carried the titles of both producer and general manager, working eighteen-to-twenty-hour days. “You really do wear a different hat at different times;” when handing out checks, you're very much a general manager. But as the producer you have to be very supportive of the creative side and the overall goal of the production, as well.
Jamillah Lamb, producer of Platanos and Collard Greens, one of New York's longest-running shows (entering its seventh year), had a very different journey: she never planned on being a producer at all. Her partner David was an attorney, who had written Platanos. She had no experience in theater, except as an audience member. But they believed in the play, and in 2003 they arranged to perform it for one weekend only at the Producers' Club. Why the seven-year extension? Because they sold out, and kept selling out. Now they've toured two hundred colleges, and in 2010 they're hoping to open mainstage performances in Miami and the Virgin Islands. The secret of their success? “Our model is that we basically work eighteen to twenty hours a day,” Lamb says.
Gavin pointed out the recurring theme of the eighteen-to-twenty-hour day: “You have to love what you're working on, because you're going to be spending eighteen to twenty hours a day with it.”
So what are the primary qualities necessary for a good producer? According to Bob Ost, “You have to be able find the money or have the money; you have to put together a creative team; you have to be good at managing relationships.” Gavin concurred on the need to manage people: “You have to be the parent.” Sheila Speller said that a lot of managing those relationships has to do with an overarching vision: “It's really important to have a vision. If everyone knows ultimately where they want to be, the show doesn't get caught up in details. . . . You have to have a good eye for overseeing everything.” Ost agreed, saying that a lot of in-fighting in productions is due to insecurities translated from the producer to the company. The producer has to radiate the kind of confidence that comes from knowing where you want to be and how you're going to get there. “You have to be the eye of calm at the center of the hurricane.” And you have to be able to step away from the show and see the difference between the show and the market.
Faison added that keeping your mind on the bottom line helps too: “To me, it's really business. When you're producing you're dealing with someone else's money.”
Finally, Ost turned the panel to a question that troubles him: why are there so few African-American producers? (Smedes pointed out the irony that he was the only producer on this particular panel who was not African-American.) Smedes thinks that—in addition to a certain nepotism on Broadway—the problem is tied to the lack of African-Americans in theater generally, and the failure of the theatrical world to expose African-Americans to its products: “I didn't necessarily aspire to be a producer until I knew it existed.” Faison agreed: “You can't be what you can't see.”
Tiffani Gavin agreed, adding that she stopped performing because there were few parts for African-Americans. If the problem is one of exposing and educating the audience then ultimately it's a marketing failure: nobody markets to the black community until they have a black show. In the same way, few people in the Broadway community knew Hispanic people went to theater until In the Heights. What frustrates Gavin is that producers seem not to follow up on the successes that they do have with African-American audiences: “I just feel that once you find out African-Americans like going to theater, why not invite them to the next thing you do?”
© 2009 Theater Resources Unlimited.
At the October 21st TRU panel, we attempted to define “indie theater,” a new designation for Showcase and off-off-Broadway productions, and compare it to “off-Broadway”. Are the differences between indie and off-off-Broadway mainly economic, or are there significant aesthetic distinctions? Does “indie” necessarily encompass the Fringe and other festivals? When planning a production of a new work, why aim for one level instead of another? What's the impact of “indie” theater on New York's economy? These questions and more were covered by the panel, moderated by TRU president Bob Ost, and featuring Paul Bargetto, Managing Director of Public Affairs of the League of Independent Theater; Frances Black, Director of Member Services A.R.T.-New York; Martin Denton, Editor of nytheatre.com and nytheatrecast.com; Virginia Louloudes, executive director of A.R.T.-New York; and Stacey Cooper McMath, Associate Arts Program Specialist at the Department of Cultural Affairs.
So when did the term “indie” start being applied to theater? According to Martin Denton, “The word 'indie' was first promoted by nytheatre.com,” and was coined at the New York Innovative Theater Awards, which tries to provide recognition for off-off-Broadway – sort of the Obies of off-off-Broadway. At the first Innovative Theater Awards, they gave the Caffe Cino Award to Kirk Wood Bromley, who during his acceptance speech said the off-off-Broadway sector should re-name itself “indie,” because off-off-Broadway is a description of what you're not, instead of what you are. Describing yourself in opposition to the establishment made sense in the sixties, but not any more. “Indie” describes people who may not have commercial ambitions and don't take orders – they make theater the way they want. Denton thought this was a great way to re-brand off-off-Broadway. Ultimately, he says, the term “indie theater” is a way of saying “this is theater that is worth doing.”
Ost phrased it this way: “It's negative because it brings to mind Broadway, a competitive market.” He added that, “I think it's probably easier to be an audience member seeking ‘indie’ theater rather than ‘off-off-Broadway’ theater.”
What led Paul to co-found LIT (with John Clancy and John Pinckard)? “I'd been working mostly under the Showcase code, which is a very difficult thing to do.” Trying to produce under those limitations compelled him to get involved in advocating to renegotiate with unions, and LIT is an effort to organize this sector of producers. He claimed that no one from Equity ever negotiated with off-off-Broadway producers, even at the beginning: “The Showcase is a diktat – no one came to off-off-Broadway and negotiated with us. They said: this is what you get.” So what kind of producers join LIT? Companies generally have budgets of under $100,000 a year, although this is not a requirement; the only criterion is that you must have produced at least three shows in a ninety-nine-seat theater. If you want to join LIT, venue/company memberships are $100, and individual memberships are $50.
Louloudes said that most of A.R.T.-New York's members also tend to have budgets under $100,000. But her organization is not as concerned with trying to make large changes in the Showcase code. In part, she said, this is due to the size and diversity of their membership, and she explained why with a quote from Jesse Jackson: “When you have a long train, you can't make a sharp turn.” When you have so many members, you can't deal with Showcase problems the same way LIT does. To join A.R.T.-New York, you have to be a company or starting a theater company. The cost is figured according to your operating cost, but even Lincoln Center's dues are only $750 a year, and for most small theater companies they're something like $150.
McMath voiced a certain confusion over the purpose of the term “indie”: “It's a term that I've heard, but indie music and indie film are in response to a studio system. . . . I'm interested in what indie theater is in response to.” Does “indie” mean that the show is somehow inherently opposed to the system? After all, you could have a Fringe show that ultimately aims at Broadway. Can it still be indie? Ost continued that train of thought, asking “Can something be indie if it's under Equity?,” since Equity does, after all, impose restrictions. Black said, “I'm fine with the term but I'm interested in hearing what it helps us do.” As a way to begin answering that question, Ost said that “I think 'indie' is useful if we attach an aesthetic to it.”
Denton pointed towards the answer by drawing another distinction between the terms “off-off-Broadway” and “indie”: “Off-off-Broadway, to me, is mainly an arrangement with Actors Equity, and I'm not sure it describes anything else. Too me, indie theater is a marketing term, purely. . . . It's a marketing tool for describing the kind of theater you can see for $18 or $20.”
Louloudes pointed out that even the term Showcase is often not relevant to the work that is being done under that code. “The whole concept in the '60's of 'Showcase' was that it would be seen and moved, which is kind of insulting,” if that level of production is your end goal. After all, there are lots of shows done on the Showcase level that aren't necessarily actively trying to get picked up by a Broadway producer! “We're different, and we've changed, and you can't put us in a box.”
Bargetto made the point that, from Equity's point of view, what they demand is reasonable: “The union wants you to develop into something that's going to pay actors; that's their mission.” However, he thinks that perhaps Equity doesn't appreciate how valuable indie-level theater could be for actors, and how much of that potential is strangled by Equity's regulations. Off-off-Broadway and indie theater is created by something like 40,000 people – certainly, an awful lot of those people are Equity members. But Equity regulations can make it difficult for shows at that level to have a future, because it's extremely difficult to progress to the next step. According to the Showcase code, the maximum budget is $35,000; for a Mini, which is the next contract up, it's in the six figures. Now imagine that you're producing a show on the Showcase level. Imagine that it's the fourth week; you're selling out, you have a good notice in the New York Times, but now you have to close because you've just had your sixteenth show. Your only alternative is to move up to a Mini contract, but, as Bargetto says, for most people on the Showcase level, “that's just too big of a ditch.” This has created a culture of deceit in the theater world, because people often lie about being in Equity, so that they can continue to work with a show.
Describing nytheatre.com, Denton said, “Our whole impetus has been to try to find a way to define this sector that is not marginalized, but is cool, and fun.” When asked by an audience member who was marginalizing the indie sector, Denton said, “The media, mainly.” Louloudes agreed, going so far as to add, “What's great about now is that the media's dying;” newspapers and other print forms are not being read, and word of mouth is becoming more and more important.
Audience member Laurie Eliscu said that there's only so much difference a brand like “indie” can make: “This all comes down to Equity. I love the term indie theater, but unless you go totally without Equity, you still have to deal with Equity.” Louloudes agreed, but was optimistic that Equity would soften their restrictions: “At some point you can't deny anymore what's happening.” After all, “a crisis is a good chance to get their attention.” In the worst year since the Depression, nytheatre.com reviewed 910 shows. Ost agreed about the importance of off-off-Broadway, reminding us that last year there were “1100 off-off-Broadway shows, as opposed to maybe sixty Broadway and a hundred Off-Broadway.” Obviously there is a thriving scene in New York that Equity can't afford to ignore, because, Louloudes said, “if there are no emerging theaters there'll be no Lincoln Center theater, because there'll be nobody coming up.” Towards the end of the panel, Ost indicated that he himself was somewhat surprised at the direction the discussion had taken, saying, “It's interesting that the conversation gets so entangled around Equity.”
In the end, the conversation turned, as it often does, to how theater companies can survive financially. One way is to apply for non-profit, 501c3 status, although Bargetto said, “I think not-for-profit is another word that needs to go in the trashcan,” since it is not necessarily descriptive of a company's ultimate goals. Ost said that TRU itself, as a 501c3, is able to get hugely helpful funding from NYSCA and DCA, and Bargetto pointed out that many indie companies are umbrellaed by 501c3's. In the last fifteen years, he said, there's been an explosion of companies in New York which need such umbrella organizations, and he speculated that that explosion might be due to MFA programs. Going further, he wondered if maybe the aesthetic difference between off-off-Broadway and indie theater might be found there, with off-off-Broadway being the people who have been on the scene for years, and indie theater being the new arrivals whose ideas were largely fashioned in those MFA programs.
McMath said that one way to help increase funding for the arts in New York is to finally make it clear to the lawmakers how valuable the arts are. To that end, she advised everyone to go on-line and find the Cultural Data Project, created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and fill out the eleven-page document on their website. The purpose is to codify theater data in New York. The potential benefits, and the potential gain in knowledge, is huge – McMath said that when the same project was undertaken in Philadelphia it was discovered, to everyone's surprise, that the arts were the second-largest employer. If the New York theater community could make similar claims, there's no telling what kind of additional assistance we could receive from the government. Producing theater on the Showcase level can, when things go poorly, feel isolating and unimportant; it's worth remembering what a huge difference such theater actually makes in New York.
© 2009 Theater Resources Unlimited.
How does a producer know if a play is worth the risks involved in producing it? And are there any tips for writers about how to write such a play? Those are two of the questions that came up during the last TRU panel, “Why Am I in Love with this Play? (And Should I Really Get Involved?),” featuring panelists Randall Wreghitt (producer Pure Country, Impressionism, Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, Little Women, Gray Gardens, The Great Game), Cheryl Wiesenfeld (producer A Steady Rain, Legally Blonde, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, Caroline or Change, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Exonerated), Mitch Douglas of Mitch Douglas Literary & Theatrical, formerly with ICM (clients: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Graham Greene, Lanford Wilson, Lawrence & Lee, Kander & Ebb, Dan Goggin of Nunsense); and Annie MacRae, literary manager, Manhattan Theatre Club.
Ost started with the basics: how do the panelists decide what to produce, or who to represent?
MTC tries to maintain a certain eclecticism; “We don't like to say, 'This is an MTC play, this isn't.'” MacRae explained that MTC is a non-profit with three spaces. One is Broadway-sized, the other two are Off-Broadway. Part of their concern in selecting plays is balancing the use of these three spaces. Another is in looking at what's being put up elsewhere, and trying to choose plays that will complement the season as a whole.
Douglas piped in, “I'm very old-fashioned—you've got the first two or three pages to grab me and make me keep reading.” He went on to explain, “I look for something that can make money; I worked for ICM, a very commercial organization, for thirty-five years.” But when Douglas describes a piece as commercial, he doesn't simply mean that it's good for short-term gain and a quick buck; “I want something that’ll work twenty years from today.”
Wiesenfeld works from her gut and makes her decision based on the personal effect reading the play has on her. She tries to keep her mind open, she said, and added, “I want to be floored. And I want to push the envelope a little.” A glance at her credits will show that she follows her mission – “changing the world one theatergoer at a time” – and has worked to bring politically and socially important theater to the stage. That mission is closely bound up with what moves her personally.
Wreghitt, too, was unwilling to give any hard-and-fast definition of what he's looking for: “I want a story well-told. I'm not looking for a story about anything specific.”
Of course, with such subjective processes, there's plenty of room for disagreement. Impressionism, which Wreghitt produced and Wiesenfeld passed on, is a case in point. When asked what he thought about Impressionism now, Wreghitt said, “I still think it was better than the critics did!” But Wiesenfeld disagreed, saying she didn't like it on the page, or the stage. Ost asked Wreghitt what he liked about Impressionism; “I'm a sucker for romance,” he said.
What are some specific plays that our panelists found memorable? MacRae said, “I loved Rabbit Hole.” As if to demonstrate how impossible it is to make strict rules for how to attract a producer, she added, “In many ways it is a kitchen-sink-type drama, and I don't normally enjoy navel-gazing plays.” So what made Rabbit Hole stand out, asked Ost? “The honesty,” she said. “It was deeply moving because it was real.” She added that she was interested from the start, partly because she knew writer David Lindsay Abaire from his more whimsical plays like Fuddy Meers, and she was excited to see him moving in a completely new direction.
Wiesenfeld agreed that the honesty of a playwright should show through, saying that in a good play, “The writer has to maintain this kind of connection to who they are.” She talked about her latest project, A Steady Rain, saying that she'd been looking for something to produce, and, when the play hit her desk, she read it in forty-five minutes, then called the agent and said, “I need to do this play.” The production here in New York is exactly what she envisioned. “It's these two guys telling their story. And for me that's what it's all about, storytelling,” echoing what Randall had said earlier.
As for Wreghitt, he said, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the most exciting play I've ever read.” Thirty producers had already turned it down by the time it came to him—this, of course, was before Martin McDonagh was famous. “I read it and couldn't put it down, but at the same time I kind of felt scared,” because of its controversial material. Wiesenfeld added, “One of my big disappointments is missing out on the chance to be part of Beauty Queen.”
Ost asked for times when the panelists had fallen in love with a play, but had decided not to produce or represent it. Wiesenfeld said, “Everything I've loved, I've produced. There are things I liked that I haven't produced. There are things that I've produced that I haven't loved… I guess things appeal to you because of where you are in your life.”
Douglas, on the other hand, said, “I don't have to fall in love with a play to know how to represent it. I have been very honest and told playwrights, 'I will represent your play, as long as I don't have to sit through it.’” He said, “I want something that will attract people into the theater and make a lot of money.” Plays that he has been involved with include Mass Appeal, Nunsense, Dial M for Murder, and the revival of Twelve Angry Men.
Of course, none of these stories adds up to a rational system for choosing plays to produce. Ost asked, “Why is it so hard to read a play?” Wiesenfeld suggested that it's because “Reading a play is influenced by who you are.”
But are there any concrete guidelines when it comes to choosing a play? Maybe. For example, Wreghitt said, “If I open a play and it says thirty-seven characters, I can't do it.” But on the other hand, if he likes it he might send it on to Lincoln Center.
There are other considerations regarding technical things like cast size, which the writer may not even be privy to while working on the play; for instance, MacRae pointed out that, at MTC, the cast-size cut-off depends on how things are balanced among the three stages—i.e., Royal Family, this season's main-stage production, is big. If they have twenty people in one show, then they probably won't consider putting a ten-person show on one of the other stages.
Ost said, “I'm suspicious of a play that has fifteen locations;” it makes him think that perhaps what the writer really wants to create is a screenplay. And there might be other technical things that writers can do to improve their craft. “I do believe in dramaturgy,” Ost said. “There are things that can be taught, that can make your play stronger.” For instance, “Some dramaturgs stress the importance of events. Things have to happen constantly.” But Wreghitt and Wiesenfeld disagreed – what catches the audience's interest doesn't necessarily have to be a series of events. They cited the new Carrie Fisher solo piece, Wishful Drinking, which doesn’t have a conventional play structure.
That having been said, Wreghitt admitted, “I'd like my plays to have a beginning, middle and an end, so I do sometimes wish some writers knew more about structure.” In the end, there are simply too many variables. “A play might not work for a lot of reasons,” Wreghitt pointed out, “and it's not always on the page…. There are so many things that can go right or wrong.” He suggested reading The Season: A Candid Look At Broadway by William Goldman to see the kinds of things that can have an impact on a production.
The subject of readings came up; how helpful are they in getting a producer or agent? In the case of our panelists, not very, although, as Ost pointed out, lots of producers and agents would feel differently. Douglas said, “I never liked going to readings, because you're subjected to a certain interpretation.”
Wreghitt agreed, and seemed to think that the developmental reading process can sometimes get out of control: “There are shows we keep getting invited to readings of for ten years, and they never get any better, they just change. Remember, you'll get everyone in the room maybe once.”
MacRae pointed out that “There are different levels of readings.” Wiesenfeld concurred, saying that it's important to “start with people you're comfortable with. Don't invite industry early.”
For writers, is there a protocol for getting your script read by big producers or agents? Not a particularly formal one for our panelists. MTC doesn’t take anything unsolicited—send a cover letter first, with a writing sample. And (as when submitting to anyone) mention anything that could spark the interest of the people reading your submission; MacRae urged writers in the audience to remember that the people they're sending their plays to probably have about a hundred other plays to read, so anything you can add that will make your piece stand out is worth adding. If there's any way you can make them recognize your writer, cast, director, or if you have a friend involved with MTC, or anything at all, bring it to their attention.
What about e-mailing the script? Wiesenfeld said, “As long as the play is seventy-five pages or less, I'll print it out.” Wreghitt said, “I may print out the first twenty pages.” Annie said that at MTC they prefer to have things e-mailed to them.
What are the odds of getting produced? Wreghitt responds, “We're booked for two to three years now. But we're all open to receiving good plays.”
Any special considerations for writers of musicals? Just the demo. Wiesenfeld said, “In terms of musicals, I listen to the music first. In musicals that's really your job: putting together a good demo.”
Any recommendations on where to submit things? Wreghitt recommended trying to get into the more selective festivals, noting that plays in Summer Play Festival (SPF) seem to get more exposure. There was some dissent at this, with Ost challenging Wreghitt to name a big play that had come up from SPF; but Wreghitt stuck to his guns, claiming that, at the very least, big names are more likely to attend the shows at SPF than at the other festivals.
Finally, the panelists stressed the importance of knowing your own material, knowing what you want to say, and knowing which suggestions to take and which to reject. As Douglas said, “Be open to everything. If it works, take it. If it doesn't, reject it.” MacRae concurred: “We get nervous when we see a writer taking all our suggestions.”
Ost added: “Sometimes people may not be interested in your play, but they can be interested in you.” For example, Wreghitt is currently reading each of the plays written by a playwright he met at the TRU Writer-Producer Speed Date. He hasn't yet found one that he plans to produce, and he may not, in the end. However, he was interested enough in the writer to take a look.
Something similar could be said to the producers: “People invest in people,” said Wiesenfeld. “They're investing in you, because they believe in you. So your job is to find projects that truly represent who you are.”
The main thing that producers should remember is that this is a job that takes a lot of dedication. As Wreghitt said, “Raising money is a 24-7 job. Being a lead producer is not something you fit into your schedule—it is your schedule.”
© 2009 Theater Resources Unlimited.
No one would claim that producing theater in New York is easy, but as the June TRU panel demonstrated, it may be easier than you think. On June 17th, in "Who Can I Turn To? Resources to Make Your Producing Life Easier," TRU's Bob Ost and BackStage's Sherry Eaker spoke to representatives from several companies who are working to make New York theater financially viable: Martin Denton, Executive Director of New York Theatre Experience; Lee Eagle, Senior Account Executive, and Victoria Gettler, Acount Executive, of Theatremania and Ovationtix; Ahmed Tigani, Direct Donations Coordinator of Materials for the Arts, Jon Reuning, co-founder of United Stages; Emily Watts, Director of Liability Insurance of Fractured Atlas; and Hal Hochhauser of Shakespeare Mailing Services.
What services does NYTE provide for the community? A better question might be, what don't they do? First of all, you can list your show on their site, for free. (You design your page.) Even more impressive is the number of shows they review: 910 in 2008. "We're known for reviewing every show in the New York Fringe since 2002," said Denton. Often the only review a show gets is on their site, he added, "which is sad, but we're happy to provide the service." How do they manage that feat? All content on the site is provided by volunteers, all of whom are theater people.
In addition to reviews, they also publish interviews, including interviews with "nobodies": the people who operate outside of the spotlight, without whom no theater would happen. NYTE also started the first regular theatrical podcast in New York, which can be a doorway to further marketing opportunities. And they've just extended their media range to public access television with Indy Theatre Now, the pilot of which aired on June 21st.
Finally, they offer a coupon program, free for producers; you can list any offer you want, and it's automatically included in their newsletter. However, Ost cautioned, "Anything less than 10% off is not perceived as a meaningful discount." He recommends a minimum of 20% off.
Another multifeature resource is the company Theatremania. They offer two ways to sell tickets: Ovationtix and Theatremania. They also offer editorial content that can be used to sell tickets to your shows, as Eagle explained. Their free services include a listing in the form of a page on their site; "This can be an alternative solution for those who can't afford to run their own website." You manage all content yourself, including your own logo, your schedule, and pictures. This page will appear in Google searches.
Like NYTE, they also review shows. "Any particular reason why you pick a particular show to review?" asked Ost. "If something catches our eye, or is topical, or is running in a slow season," replied Eagle. Other free services include message boards on which you can try to start buzz about your show, and coming soon, classified listings.
They also offer paid services. For one thing, they will do e-blasts with a direct link to your own ticketing. The cost ranges from $175 to $3,500 for a dedicated email to 280,000 New Yorkers.
The company is probably mainly known for its ticketing services, for which they offer two softwares, Theatremania.com and Ovationtix.com, the latter of which, according to Eagle, is "slightly more sophisticated and robust." Naturally, there are few aspects to the theater business more important than ticketing – as Eagle pointed out, "Everyone wants to do their art, but without selling tickets it won't happen."
One major advantage of a service like Theatremania's is that it keeps track of your ticket buyers, so that you can let those who came to your last show know about your upcoming one; as Eagle said, "People who have brought tickets to your show before are your best market, because they've already bought your ticket." The ticketing service gathers information on your buyers, and "we make it easy for our clients to access that information."
As for Ovationtix, which evolved from theatremania.com ticketing, just what is it that makes the service more "robust"? For one thing, it can be used by venues which have ongoing programs, who need to integrate the service with their own websites. It also has an Express System feature, with which a listing can be set up in ten minutes, for a one-time show.
The panel didn't deal only with how to market the show; the panelists also addressed inexpensive ways to actually get the show up. One of the greatest resources the city offers for this is Materials For The Arts, run by DCA, which provides an exhaustive supply of props in a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. What can you get there? As Tigani explains, "We don't do costumes" (although they do have a lot of fabric), but otherwise "we take everything except buildings and food (I wish we took food)." They have a vast array of donors (including Martha Stewart), and tons of brand-new stuff. All you have to do is be a not-for-profit or be sponsored by one, join MFTA, and sign up for a shopping day at the warehouse; or else use their on-line component which connects you directly to their donors. MFTA also hosts workshops on making things like costumes, musical instruments, etc. And, though many don't realize it, MTFA can also be used to stock your office with equipment like printers and so forth. What do you have to give in return for these services? Simple thank-you letters suffice. In addition to being common courtesy, Tigani said, "thank-you letters create good relations, between MTFA and the donors, and between the donors and the theater companies." Although it's not required, it's also a good idea to send donors an invitation to your show – it's a potential way to win a new fan for your company. Sign-up with MTFA is free for 501C3's. If you're not a 501C3, but you're fiscally sponsored by one, you can also sign up to shop with MTFA through your sponsor.
What is fiscal sponsorship? This question brings us to the next panelist, Emily Watts of Fractured Atlas. Fractured Atlas offers a wide range of services, including liability insurance, event calendars, actor training, and more fiscal sponsorships than any other organization in New York. Fiscal sponsorships make it possible for theaters without non-profit status to accept tax-deductible donations; in return, the fiscal sponsors typically take 4% to 6% of the donations. Watts explained that "Basically our mission is making artists better at what they do as businesses." They charge $75 a year for membership, or $7.50 a month, and applications get approved once a month. "We are national," she said, "but half our membership is in New York."
We've heard from providers of electronic content--is there any room left in modern marketing for good old paper? The answer, according to our next two panelists, is emphatically yes.
Hal Hochhauser, founder of Shakespeare Mailing, explained that he started the business in 1987, since which time he's been keeping a database of addressees; his clients choose who on this list they want to mail to. In the beginning, they did mailings strictly for actors; since then, the company has developed two divisions: talent mailings, and business mailings. When asked, he said that "there has been a slight dip in business because of the internet," but says that mailings remain important. Ost agreed, pointing out that printed post cards remain visible for days, unlike just another one of the day's 150 emails. In fact, increased technology has made print advertising even more cost-effective, so that 5,000 full-color postcards can be printed for under $300; and Hal has equipment that can address 15,000 cards per hour. With Hal, the advantage is that he is able to be both the printer and the mailing service. With non-profit postal rates, he can send out cards at 14 cents apiece, instead of 44. Another important point is that he updates his mailing list, periodically weeding out defunct addresses and adding new ones (casting agents, etc.).
Ost introduced Jon Reuning, the last panelist, by saying "United Stages has been an incredibly good friend to TRU for years." During that time, United Stages has been providing small shows with professional, glossy, copy-edited programs. Reuning said that part of the original motivation of the company was "to honor the audience, and the cast" by offering them something a little more handsome than photocopied, error-ridden programs. Professionally-printed programs also go a long way towards convincing others of your seriousness; Reuning pointed out that reviewers at papers "have started asking for playbills a week in advance, to see if you're serious." Tigani said that MFTA asks for the same thing.
What makes United Stages different from Playbill? Speed and size. They offer a minimum of 400 programs, with a two-day turnaround for reprints (no minimum orders), and only need the show information a few days beforehand, rather than a few months (like Playbill). All that at only about 65 cents per program. Editorial content changes almost constantly. And Reuning made the same sorts of observations as Ost about the value of paper marketing: "a lot of hands touch the programs, people tend to read them a second time, they tend to save them."
Sherry Eaker concurred, citing her experience at BackStage: "BackStage is no longer ‘the’ casting source, but people still trust it," in part because it's a printed publication. Of course, BackStage still works to deserve that trust; the staff checks references, asks for scripts, etc. Listings in BackStage cost $60, but there's a 40% discount for TRU members, as well as concessions for festivals; for more information, get in touch with Luke Crow, at firstname.lastname@example.org. As for getting your show reviewed in BackStage, the person to talk to is Erik Hagensen, reachable at email@example.com. Get in touch with him at least three weeks in advance and be prepared to follow up. If you think your show could be a feature story, contact David Sheward, at firstname.lastname@example.org; have a great hook ready for him.
In spite of recent economic woes, there's no reason for small theater companies to throw in the towel. In fact, after June 17th's panel, things seem almost rosy.
Should producers indeed “come to the cabaret” to get small, original shows up and running? What are the advantages? What are the obstacles? Has the economy – or certainly times – given the very word “cabaret” different meanings to different audiences? How do producers, writers and performers take their shows from cabaret venues onto bigger, theatrical venues? These are among the many questions that were discussed by the group of hardworking professionals who turned out for TRU’s April 22 panel, “Cabaret: Economical Launching Pad for New Work,” held at the Players’ Theatre on Macdougal Street.
TRU President Bob Ost and Back Stage Editor-at–Large Sherry Eaker were the panel’s co-moderators, delving into the experiences and insights of the six panelists: Suzanne Adams, whose Opening Doors Theatre Company has been producing the Closing Notice Series, which revives interesting Broadway “flops,” at the Duplex; Sharon Carr, producer of Glimpses of the Moon, a jazz age musical based on a work of Edith Wharton (the show ran Monday nights for a total of seven months at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, one of the centers of night life in the show’s era); Bill Daugherty, a self-producing artist whose show, Brother Can You Spare A Dime?, presents songs and stories of the Great Depression and is now at the Triad Theatre; Kevin Kennedy, managing director of The Peccadillo Theatre, which produces forgotten American classics, and created Talk of the Town, a musical about the Algonquin Roundtable which ran at the Oak Room, and which is going on to a national tour; Richard Skipper, a self-producing artist whose show, “An Evening with Carol Channing,” has performed all over the country, with bookings initiated by Skipper himself, who portrays Channing; and Lee Summers, general manager and booker for The Triad Theatre and producer of his own show, From My Home Town, which has run in small venues, gone on to off-Broadway, and is expected to mount a production at the Triad.
While love of the arts is what motivates everyone who gets involved in the daunting effort to mount a show, large or small, it nevertheless became clear during the course of the panel discussion that the almighty dollar is a constant issue. “In many ways, the cabaret venue can allow producers to get a show up and running less expensively than a theater venue can and hopefully lead them to the possibility of expanding their audience later,” Ost explained, setting the framework for the panelists to recount their experiences. Rehearsal time is a big area of savings. Cabaret venues allow the show to use their space for free for rehearsals, when they are available. Theaters and rehearsal spaces generally charge. Use of the venue for each of the actual performances generally ranges from $50-$150 for the use of a cabaret venue and is a great deal more than that for theaters, depending on the size of the venue.
Sharon Carr points out, “The goal for all producers is to fill as many seats as you can while spending as little as possible. You don’t have elaborate lighting or an extensive set in a cabaret. You have fewer performers and under the cabaret codes salaries for performers are lower.” She notes that Glimpses of the Moon cost $80,000 to produce. In a larger theatrical venue, she feels it would easily have cost about $1.2 million.
“A small venue can make for more personalized relationships with your backers,” Carr adds. “We had a producers’ table where we all met and talked regularly.” She emphasizes the importance of “partnering with your venue, having discussions beforehand on how you can work together.” If the venue advertises or markets what it’s featuring, your work will be mentioned without the cost coming from your pocket. “If the room you’re working in is in a hotel, as was the case for us, it may be possible to work out having the hotel mention your show on its in-house television listings of things for guests to do.” The fact that drinks and dinner were served by the Oak Room “allowed our audience to have an enhanced experience.”
When the Opening Doors Company got started on its first piece, Bring Back Birdie, at the Duplex, artistic director Suzanne Adams says, “We thought we were going to do it as a one-time fundraiser. But we soon realized we wanted to do ongoing work, here in New York.” The company stumbled upon a hidden treasure when an Equity rep suggested that instead of the Showcase Code the work could be done under the little-known Manhattan Experimental Café Agreement. The differences include the performance schedule, which is a maximum of four a week, and a total of eight (as opposed to 16, including extension, for a showcase). And like the Showcase Code, this agreement cannot be used by anyone who has produced at a commercial mini-contract level; and actor payment is transportation costs. For details of this agreement, you should contact Equity.
Adams emphasizes, “Our goal is to be able to pay our actors a real salary some day but we could not have gotten started and certainly couldn’t have cast as many people as we regularly do – eight or nine performers per show – if we had to pay salaries. We are looking for grants now and ways to raise more money.” The Closing Doors Series. which has grown out of Adams’ and associate artistic director Hector Coris’ work, generally presents three shows per season “and we make a profit,” she points out to everyone's amazement, “which we pour back into the company.” She notes that if their work ever does go to Off-Broadway they will no longer be able to use the Café Agreement.
Kevin Kennedy noted that the Peccadillo Theater Company, where he is managing director, also turned to the Oak Room’s cabaret venue in producing Toast of the Town. The Peccadillo has produced many “unfortunately often forgotten” American classics in various theater venues. Several of those plays were written by the famed regulars of the Algonquin’s Round Table and so a production about these legendary figures seemed perfect. Once again, it was cost that made the cabaret venue attractive. “Under Equity’s Cabaret Contract you pay actors per performance,” Kennedy points out, “rather than weekly. If we had tried to do this show – which ran for over a year – off-Broadway it would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce while working in a cabaret setting costs nowhere near that.”
The downside, he notes, is that “the cost to your audience, which of course determines how much of an audience you have, depends on the cabaret venue you choose.” Most cabarets require a minimum number of drinks, or offer dinner. This can potentially bring the price up a great deal above the ticket price. As it happens, Toast of the Town got excellent “buzz.” The show is a classic example of how the lesser cost of a cabaret venue production can lead to the kind of exposure that lets a show go as far as a more expensive production can.
Kennedy urged those attending the panel to become acquainted with APAP, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, an organization of bookers and producers around the country belong to and turn to to seek “product”. The annual APAP conference comes to New York every year and member organizations and presenters in essence audition the shows that have signed up. Toast of the Town was very well received and will go on a national tour next year. Information about APAP can be found on its web site, www.artspresenters.org
Richard Skipper agrees strongly that marketing is a key element in producing one’s show. “You have to have a plan from the beginning,” he emphasizes. Skipper, who bills himself as a tribute artist, and has focused on Carol Channing for 15 years, works with five musicians and four backup singers. He agrees with other panelist that a key advantage of producing in a cabaret venue is lower overhead. However, he feels there are pitfalls. “The cabaret world has become incestuous,” he says, by which he means that all too often the audience consists of the performer’s friends and of people who themselves work in the cabaret world. For that reason, he feels, it is difficult to attract press to review performances in cabaret venues and so spread the word about a show. Most tourists visiting New York, he notes, are not aware of the cabaret world. And, he feels, it is important to reach out beyond New York.
“The venue will not market your act. You’ve got to find ways to do that yourself,” Skipper reminded everyone. He too has booked performances through APAP and also stays alert to places that might seem open to his act – a theater, for instance, that has just featured Hello Dolly and so may have raised local interest. He contacts these theaters directly. “I work on marketing strategies all the time – Facebook, all the latest Internet approaches as well as traditional networking.”
Bill Daugherty agrees about some of the problems the cabaret world’s isolation can present. He has found that picking your venue is one of the most important steps you can take. “Speak to the management, make sure everything is clear.” Liking and trusting management is fundamental, he says. “Unfortunately, there are some people who lack integrity. You should speak with other performers you trust who have played the venue in question in the past.” Sometimes in the cabaret world, if the drinks minimum is not met, one has to make up the difference to management, bringing expenses back up. This is the sort of thing that has to be negotiated, Daughterty stresses. “Get everything in writing,” he urges. Daugherty liked the Triad, where his show, Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? is currently running. He tailored many aspects of the show to the space itself. The venue has a proscenium so he was able to use his cast of six (and a three-piece band) effectively and create a more theatrical experience.
Daugherty is fortunate in that he acquired a loyal backer along the way, a fact which took care of many problems self-produced acts can face. But acquiring a backer who believes in you does not necessarily happen overnight. “Sometimes it's just plain luck,” he says. His show works under Equity’s Tier B cabaret contract. The production saves money in that by performing three shows a week it does not have to pay in for health insurance, as it would if it went up to four. A plus was that “two of our performers got their Equity cards, a very important thing for their careers.” So again, the balance between art and commerce is always a delicate one.
Daugherty agrees with other panelists that paying attention to the marketing of a show is very important. “Hire a good press agent who can get you reviews, hopefully good ones, obviously. If you can possibly afford that investment then it is well worth it,” he emphasizes.
Lee Summers wears two hats in terms of his experiences with producing. He is General Manager/Booker at the Triad, a venue which books many shows – both individual performers and theatrical productions. They work under the contracts that are appropriate to the size of the venue and the type of show. Summers also wrote and produced his own show, From My Hometown. “Every performer and every show is different,” he says, “and both in picking venues to develop your work and in seeking backers who understand what you’re doing and will stand by you, you have to do what works for you.” He emphasizes that performers should only proceed to the next level with a production when they have the actual money in the bank from their backers – they should not rely on “credit or hopes and dreams.”
From my Hometown began “as an informal, entirely developmental kind of thing, on the order of individual performers working things out” at La Place. Once it started to take form as an actual show, Summers worked with Donna Trinkoff of Amas, who arranged for the appropriate contract at a venue on Theatre Row. He called regional theaters. Some theaters called him, based on the good press reviews the show had received in national publications. “At first, I shared my writer’s royalties with other creative members of the team – the choreographer, the director and others,” Summers recalls. Later, the show went bigger, playing off-Broadway at the Gramercy. And now, it is about to return to its smaller venue roots at the Triad. “Some of that is because of the economy and some of that is because we think that is where the show belongs.” He sees shows like Forever Plaid as a role model, productions which go on to play in many locations and venues as a kind of perennial event.
Co-moderator Sherry Eaker summed things up by observing, “There are many advantages to working in a cabaret venue – the savings in costs, the small, personalized atmosphere. But there are disadvantages too, that small atmosphere can mean a smaller audience and often it’s more difficult to get reviews, certainly from theater reviewers, when you are working in a cabaret. Every producer has to decide what will work best in getting his or her show off the ground.”
© 2009 Theater Resources Unlimited.
In the face of the current economic crisis, how can producers hope to persuade theatergoers to spend their dwindling dollars on tickets? Are there any steps that we in the industry can take to see to it that we survive, or even thrive, during these troubled times? Those are the questions that TRU set out to answer in the March 18th panel “Getting Butts in Seats in a Butt-Ugly Economy,” featuring producer Ken Davenport (Altar Boyz, My First Time, Speed-the-Plow, Blithe Spirit), Hugh Hysell of HHC Marketing and Thomas Adkins of TDF. The panel was co-moderated by TRU president and founder Bob Ost and Sherry Eaker of Back Stage.
Opening the discussion, Eaker got straight to the point. She said to our panelists, “You have all done what you do brilliantly until now. How have your gears changed?” Ost wanted to know whether the effect on the theatrical market is really as bad as we might think it is.
Things have indeed changed, Davenport confirmed: “We're down 14% in gross from last year and 7% in admissions,” for Broadway. However, he qualified those figures, pointing out that there are an average of only twenty-four shows this year, whereas last year there were thirty, meaning that the figures per show are actually higher.
Hysell pointed out that the changes are not simply due to theatergoers, per se, having less money, but also to a change in the make-up of the market, since there are not as many tourists. “A lot of the old chestnuts that depend on tourists are no longer with us,” he said, but maintained that New Yorkers remain hungry for entertainment, citing the buzz over West Side Story.
Even so, it is a fact that New Yorkers as a whole are worrying more about money these days. So how to pack those butts into seats? One way is by offering discounts. Adkins pointed out that the booth element of TDF is not just for tourists, and plenty of New Yorkers take advantage of it as well. TDF also has a Members Program set up for “people of a lesser income level.” Tickets for members can be as low as $12, and as low as $36 for Broadway shows. (Of course, those are shows that need TDF, not hits like Jersey Boys.) TDF also has a voucher program which is geared towards Off-Off-Broadway and which, for some reason, is not as well-known, whereby you can get tickets for $9 apiece.
The obvious downside to discounting is that you're not selling a full-priced ticket, which is why some producers hesitate to discount. But as Ost pointed out: “Having a hundred discount tickets sold is a lot better than having a hundred empty seats.” Hysell agreed that it is a good way to bring in income, if the alternative is to have empty seats, and he added that the discount programs could be made more beneficial to producers if requirements “to be a mouth” were added to the membership requirements. Adkins agreed, saying that TDF is in the process of developing automatic e-mail responses and questionnaires for their audience members to fill out. Davenport had suggestions for what such questionnaires might ask, saying that in his own surveys and questionnaires he always includes the question, “Would you go out of your way to bring people to this show?”
Eaker asked Adkins if TDF had thought about doing direct surveys with their members about the products, i.e. the shows; Adkins said, “That would be great,” but that all such projects are still in the embryonic stage.
Of course, discount programs were already in place before the economic crisis; how has the economic news changed what the panelists do now? Davenport said that “The good thing about this recession is that it forces us all to get smarter.” When the economic stakes got higher he “picked products that were totally unique and that would stand out in the market,” and he reminded the audience that in any down market there are always winners. Like Ken’s most recent hit, Will Ferrell’s limited run of You’re Welcome, America.
Hysell agreed, saying that it's a question of communicating value to the audience; “How much assurance can you get that your time is going to be well-spent?” Davenport agreed: “I don't find people to be price-resistant. I find people to be value-resistant.” He cited the Will Ferrell show, in which people paid $800 for left-side balcony seats. The perceived value was high, because the show had one of the biggest movie stars in the world on Broadway, for the first and probably only time. No matter how bad the economy gets, there will always be people with money, and they will be willing to spend that money if you can convince them that they want what you're selling.
One way to vividly and clearly convey the special value of your show is to be more creative in your marketing campaigns. Davenport and Hysell both recommended using social networking sites to advertise shows, but when Eaker asked if social networking could really be geared towards selling a show, Davenport offered the caveat that none of these sites can really be used for a hard-sell, saying that “No one's figured out how to monetize social networking, yet.” However, referring to the panel itself, he did say that “If you'd had this event on Facebook you'd have 30% to 40% more people here.”
So, if social networking can't be used for a hard-sell, how can you make it generate a 30% to 40% increase in audience? Hysell offered a list of easy, free marketing techniques that social networking is good for: creating a group, inviting friends (i.e., Facebook Friends) to a show, posting event notices, and sending reminders about upcoming shows. He also pointed out that Facebook messages pretty much always make it through people's spam filters. Davenport added Twittering and micro-blogging to the list.
Adkins agreed about the usefulness of social networking, pointing out that the technology allows you to talk back to the audience. An audience member cited the recent success of pop singer Taylor Swift, who used her Facebook page to cultivate personal relationships with fans, who were able to read her blogs and send messages to her and receive back personal responses.
An audience member cautioned against posting images on Facebook, since Facebook legally owns all materials posted on their site. However, the panelists seemed to consider this a non-issue, pointing out that the images on Facebook are so low-resolution that no one would ever be able to make any money off of them, anyway. Besides, Hysell stressed, the potential benefits far outweigh any risk involved: “A lot of your tickets are going to be friends, family, and neighbors of you and your cast;” you can get those friends, family members and neighbors to collaborate in your marketing campaign by posting information about your show on their Facebook pages.
Hysell pointed out that social networking, and the internet generally, offers great opportunities for niche marketing: “Find as many sites as possible in the same niches as your show,” and coordinate with them. For example, if you are doing a play set in Ireland, coordinate with Irish websites, Facebook pages on which people have listed “Ireland” as one of their interests, Google ads, etc. And you can probably get free print advertising, too, which never hurts: “Nobody sells every single space in their publication,” and local Irish newspapers would rather have some content other than a “Run Your Ad Here” notice, especially if you're willing to throw in some free tickets for the staff. “It's about impressions,” Hysell said; “how many impressions does it take to sell a show?” According to research, people have to see an ad seven times before they even remember it, so use the free stuff.
Moving away from social networking to the general topic of marketing, Hysell cautioned against marketing plans that don't go with the product: “Your campaign has to reflect what the natural word of mouth is.” Davenport agreed —“When you think of the thing, it has to make sense given what the show is.” He gave examples of publicity events that he's orchestrated: the Altar Boyz once challenged the Backstreet Boys to a boy-band battle at Virgin; teenagers only attended the first performance of 13; and for the opening of My First Time, virgins got in free, with a hypnotherapist checking to see if they were telling the truth. The virgin stunt fulfilled a huge marketing goal, that of being reported outside of the theater pages: it got a column on page four of the Daily News, was reported in Rome, on CNN.com, and (the great coup) made it into a joke on Jay Leno's show.
Finally, mutual respect among the creative and marketing teams will help everything run more smoothly. As Hysell said, in reference to writers' occasional touchiness about the pitches written for their shows, “The offense gets in the way so much in the way on Broadway and Off-Broadway.” Clearly delegate tasks among the marketing team, and, Davenport warns, “Producers — do not give authors artwork approval.” Ost agreed, saying to writers, “You should trust the people you hire to work on your show – let them do their jobs.”
In any economy – blue-sky or butt-ugly – you can't forget the importance of a good old-fashioned well-crafted marketing plan. When asked by an audience member how much producers should expect to spend on marketing out of their total budget, Davenport and Ost agreed, “Between 10% and 20%.” Davenport compared developing a marketing plan to speed-reading; when you speed-read, you pass your eyes over the page and retain only the important information. When you think of your show, don't focus on its details; instead, ask yourself what its most important facets are? What's at the heart of it? That's what should be communicated by your marketing plan. Hopefully your message will fill those seats.
© 2009 Theater Resources Unlimited.
TRU Panel - February 18th, 2009
On Wednesday, February 17th, TRU hosted a panel called “Pitch Perfect,” with guests Michael Feingold, literary consultant for Theater for a New Audience, and former literary manager Yale Repertory Theater, chief theater critic for the Village Voice; and Michael Nassar, producer and general manager, former Associate Artistic Director O'Neill Center, dramaturge Public Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club and 7 Devils PW Conference. It was co-moderated by Bob Ost, founder and president of TRU, and Sherry Eaker, editor-at-large at Back Stage. The panel's goal was two-fold: to guide writers in pitching scripts to producers, and to suggest to producers ways to pick better material.
The panel began with a discussion of what's wrong with what's being produced today. Feingold had some definite thoughts about why theater in New York leaves something to be desired: “My big problem is that I very often have to go to the theater, and I sit there and look at the play, and I think, 'Why am I watching this? Why did someone want to produce this?'” He said that often producers seem to choose projects for the wrong reasons: “People get locked into the idea of doing a certain kind of play, with a certain kind of person in it.”
How can producers know if what they're producing adds something vital to the culture, instead of just parroting what audiences have seen before? One way, Feingold said, is simply to become more familiar with American theater, past and present, and to develop a sense of where our own work fits in with that larger tradition. “European countries have subsidized theaters and education,” he pointed out, using their attitude towards their theatrical history as a possible model. “We also have a theatrical heritage, but it's regarded as curios.”
Michael Nassar stepped in at this point, saying that he wanted to take a moment to play devil's advocate. To Feingold, he said, “So you're saying that you want producers to not only be educators, but also gatekeepers of our cultural legacy?”
Not quite, replied Feingold. “It's not that I want producers to be educators, but I want them to be educated.” Often, producers are making choices without knowing much about the field.
On that point, Nassar did agree. Referring to his experience as a literary manager, going through slush piles of scripts, and his experience working with developing artists, he said, “There's an equal deficiency of craft in playwrights and producers. . . . There are those who want to learn, and those who don't want to learn.” It's frustrating, he said, to work with those who don't want to learn, who don't want to progress collaboratively.
Ost agreed that writers often wrongly assume that the writing has stopped once the producer options their works: “When a producer options a piece, he's saying 'I believe there is promise in this piece.' He's not necessarily saying it's perfect.”
Eaker wanted to get into specifics; how, she wanted to know, does a producer know that a play is well-made? When we talk about craft, what exactly do we mean? What are the things that producers should be checking for?
Feingold's opinion is that this question is, in today's world, even harder to answer than it has ever been before: “Modernism challenged the idea that there was an agreed-upon form for a play. So now the question of craft has become one of artistic sensitivity.” As such, the topic is especially fraught with opportunities for heated disagreements.
Nassar stressed that the question ultimately has to do with intangibles, and that, despite the importance of education and thoughtfulness, in the end the decision comes down to the producer's gut instincts: “Even with all the Aristotelian T's crossed, the play may still not make an emotional connection.”
Ost agreed, but nevertheless stressed again the importance of dramaturgical competence among producers, saying, “Producers need a better understanding of craft.” They tend to get excited when their individual passion buttons are pushed, but that is unlikely to lead them to success if they don't know structure.
Say that the producer and the playwright have a solid grounding in the art of theater. How then should they approach their relationship? Michael Nassar said, “You need to approach it the way you would any other relationship with a human being.” Don’t rush into it, and be cautious when committing to the legal commitment.
Michael Feingold also counseled patience on both sides. “Artistic relationships that work are rare,” he reminded the audience; “you can spend your whole life looking for them and not finding them.”
From there, the panel finally moved on to the much-anticipated discussion of “the art of the pitch”: what do writers need to do in order to interest producers in their projects, especially when we remember that often that interest has to be sparked in the middle of a conversation, at a crowded party, in the space of a very few minutes? How important is a well-crafted pitch, anyway?
“Hugely important,” says Nassar. It is the writer's job to make the producer immediately see what is exciting about their show, not the producer's job to figure it out. “Don’t put the onus on the producers.” Nassar shared with the panel a rule he's learned from his work in television: “People have no idea what they want until you tell them what they want.” You have to let the producer know, right away, what it is that you have that he or she wants.
This means that the writer first must figure out for himself or herself what the show is about. As Ost pointed out, this does not mean detailing the minutiae of the plot. “We think our shows are about the details, but they aren't. If you can't say in one sentence, 'This is what my show is about,' you probably don't know.” As an example he gave the opening number of Fiddler On the Roof, “Tradition.” That opening number lays out the theme and spirit of the musical perfectly, and it was born out of the writers' struggle to answer director Jerome Robbins’ question, “What is the show about?” The distillation of the essentials of a work is the pitch; the work of figuring out how to “sell” the show to an audience in the opening moments also led the writers to understand their show, and hence to make it the classic that it became.
Other guidelines? “The pitch should contain a hint of the qualities inherent in the play,” said Feingold. And, if your show is a musical, you should be able to quickly give the producer an idea of how it sounds, Ost says, advising writers to spring for a professional demo CD, despite the cost.
Crafting a pitch is “similar to a press agent's job,” suggested Ost. “Or a journalist's,” added Eaker.
Don't be general; be clear about the character's journey. What happens now? Don't tell the producer the background of your story, tell him or her the story itself. Don't tell the audience's journey, tell us the characters'. “I get very irritated by the adjectives,” Feingold said, referring to many writers' presumptuous habit of telling the audience in advance how they will feel about the show. Just tell us about the show, and let us decide how we will feel.
Perhaps, for writers, the most important lesson to be gleaned from the panel was in Ost's story about Fiddler On the Roof. Crafting a pitch is best thought of as a way to define for yourself the meaning of the show, a process that hopefully will be able to lead you back to the heart of your project and make it even better.
© 2009 Theater Resources Unlimited.
Anyone who's ever been involved with a small theater company knows how overwhelming the work can be, and it's understandable that someone thinking about starting their own might hesitate. That's why TRU decided to hold a panel on December 17 entitled “How to Run That Theater Company That's Been Running Your Life.” The panel was co-moderated by TRU's Bob Ost and Sherry Eaker of Back Stage. It featured Paul Adams, artistic director of Emerging Artists Theatre (EAT); Jan Buttram, artistic director at Abingdon; Doug Devita, marketing director at Abingdon; Sarah Rulfs, development associate at Abingdon; Tim Errickson, artistic director at Boomerang; and Charles Johanson, artistic director of Grove Theater Center, in Los Angeles.
© 2008 Theater Resources Unlimited.
Why don't existing companies produce the kinds of plays you want to see, or offer the sort of roles you yearn to play? Why can't you get a production of your play? Why can't opera companies produce opera for family audiences? Why isn't anyone interested in comedy for comedy's sake? If these are the kinds of questions you've been asking yourself or your thespian friends, perhaps you've decided to solve them by founding a new theater company, one that will cater to your tastes, address the issues you find most urgent, or allow you to express yourself as an artist. Which of these intentions to found a theater company are good ones, and which will simply pave your personal road to hell?
To find out, TRU moderators Sherry Eaker and Bob Ost asked a panel of New York theater practitioners who have founded theater companies, both as for-profit and non-profit ventures. The panel was held on the evening of Wednesday September 16th, 2008, at the Players' Theatre. On the panel were Greta Barrett Holby, founder of Ardea Arts and the Family Opera Initiative, Melba LaRose (New York Artists Unlimited), Rich Orloff (Foolish Theatre Company), Mike Roderick (Small Pond Entertainment), Patricia Klausner (Shotgun Productions), and John Cooper (Turtle Shell Productions.) Ost began the evening by asking the panelists why they started their companies.
"I fell into opera quite early, in the 1970s," Holby said. “And I thought, I love this, but where is the new stuff? If we're going to have a vibrant creative art form, not just an interpretive art form, then we need new operas.” So, in 1989, Holby founded the American Opera Project. Later, she founded the Family Opera Initiative, “an accessible introduction to opera for families.” Most recently, Holby founded the nonprofit company Ardea Arts, with the Family Opera Initiative as its primary program.
“Theater companies should be founded to serve a vision,” Ost observed, “not just the founder's particular needs.” He went on to say that it is good and healthy for artists to create their own opportunities, but it may not be the strongest foundation on which to build a theater company. Nevertheless, companies that are founded to serve the founders' needs often evolve into something truly visionary.
Klausner is currently the Artistic Director of Shotgun Productions, which was founded in 1989 by two actress-directors. It achieved nonprofit status in 1994. “Originally,” Klausner recalled, “Shotgun existed to support women artists. The founders named it Shotgun because in each production, one acted and one directed – one rode “shotgun” with the other as leader. Initially, the going was rough. NYSCA turned down Shotgun's funding requests, possibly because the mission statement – to support women artists, and produce plays primarily by women – was not observed. “We had to alter our mission statement,” Klausner said, “because we were producing a lot of plays by men.” Then, one founder left “because,” Klausner said, “she had too many children” and, more recently, “the other left because she wasn't getting many acting or directing opportunities.” At that point, Klausner took charge and turned Shotgun around. “This was a golden opportunity to remake the company,” Klausner realized. Under her leadership, they are developing plays by women, including Bandit Sisters, a timely play about women in the military. She also involved Shotgun in a Global Arts Initiative, to bring arts education to disadvantaged children internationally. Soon, Klausner herself will go abroad with that project to create theater with orphaned children in Nairobi.
Melba LaRose founded New York Artists Unlimited, “initially,” she said, “to produce my own acting, writing, and directing.” She later founded The New York Theatre Caravan, which takes theater to the homeless and to jails, “all sorts of dangerous and unsavory places,” she said. Getting to the heart of the topic, Ost asked her “And running a company – it doesn't run your life?” “Sure it does!” LaRose admitted.
John Cooper founded Turtle Shell productions because he found himself “frustrated by a lack of storytelling and craft sensibility” in New York theater. He was also frustrated by professionally as an actor. “It ate away at me that I wasn’t getting where I wanted to get,” he said. Turtle Shell began when Cooper cast himself in a fiftieth-anniversary production of Summer and Smoke in the very theater where Tennessee Williams had developed that play. He got the New York Times in: they were interested in the production's historical angle. “My one obstacle,” he said, “was money. But all you really need is imagination and resourcefulness. Just tell that story.”
“Don't try this at home,” Ost joked. “Do we want people to just jump into it like that, with no financial resources in place?” Cooper responded that he made up in human resources what he lacked in capital. “I found the right people,” he said. “The scenic designer was the art director of Good Morning America. People like that love work in the theater, to get out of the TV studios.” Cooper held a fundraising gala, with advance ticketing and wine donated by a wine company for program credit. “And you had passion!” Eaker added. “Yes,” Cooper said. “You got to love what you're doing. If you don't love it, then get the hell out.” This was the first of three rules for new-company management that he learned from Turtle Shell. The second is “open yourself up to see what you're selling” and “don't expect perfection. Expect things to screw up. I still expect that. Focus on the successes and on enriching your next production.” “Passion and persistence!” Eaker summed up.
Mike Roderick, founder of Small Pond, describes himself as a “born teacher.” He grew up in Rhode Island, “a tiny place where everybody knows everybody else.” He became a teacher at LaSalle Academy, and decided that the theater needs a company that regularly offers opportunities to young people in high school, college students, and recent college graduates. He earned a Master's in Theater Education from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, found out about fiscal sponsorship – an arrangement through which a young company can use the not-for-profit umbrella of another – and created Small Pond. Its aim was to support young theater practitioners by giving them opportunities to work alongside seasoned professionals, “turning a big community into a small pond.” He learned the value of collaboration as he taught it. “The more people you help – when they have a load-in, whatever – the more free help you get yourself.” He added that “when founding a theater company, you have to look for the gaps and the silences.” What is needed or missing, that could be your niche?
In the audience were many people who, in an initial go-round, claimed that they were each planning to found a new theater company to answer unmet needs or produce their own work. “I don't mean to be a bitch,” Klausner told these auditors, “but have you ever thought of getting together and just founding one company? If you each found a company, you're not only going to be competing with each other for the same dollar, but with more established companies like those we're hearing about from the panelists. And the stock market fell another four hundred points today.”
In answer to the panel's official topic, Holby replied that founding a theater company “will take over your life. You'll have fifteen, sixteen hours a day doing nothing but trying to make the company fly. Of course, people will find out about you and want to help. I had people say: 'I work for the City Opera but I'll volunteer for you as well.' Keep people who come in,” she advised, “and bring in more and more. You don't want to do it all yourself.”
Orloff introduced his company, the Foolish Theatre Company, as “a playwright-driven company, and I,” he laughed, “am the driven playwright.” He founded Foolish to produce his own work, but within a clear, necessary niche. “We do comedies only. Our mission statement is a longer version of 'laughter guaranteed.' As a producer I always have to ask this question that I don't ask myself as a playwright: 'why would anyone come to see this? And 'it's good' is not an answer.”
Should a new company seek nonprofit status or fiscal sponsorship, or simply attempt to exist as a for-profit venture? As Ost said, “you need to learn who your supporters and investors are and what they want. If they want tax deductions for their donations, you need to become a nonprofit or obtain fiscal sponsorship from one.” In New York, some of the more prominent fiscal sponsors of many emerging companies are Fractured Atlas and The Field. TRU also engages in fiscal sponsorship of member companies, to a more limited degree. There are other benefits of fiscal sponsorship besides tax deduction eligibility for donors, including use of resources such as Materials for the Arts and the TDF Costume Collection's heavily-discounted rental program.
Fiscal sponsorship can save you a great deal of time. It takes time to fill out an application for 501(c)3 nonprofit status, and you will almost certainly need a lawyer to help you with it. And there is a requirement of detailed financial accountability that requires a lot of close attention, as well as structural needs such as a board which some companies may not be ready to administer.
If you do choose to go the nonprofit route, you will need to assemble, manage, and cultivate a Board of Directors. Who should you invite to join the board? “Most people,” Holby observed, “invite their sisters, partners, best friends, etc, but this is not always a good thing.” According to Ost, board cultivation should involve looking for people who will provide at least one of three things: prestige, money, or time as a skilled, dependable volunteer. This is also known as the three w’s: wisdom, wealth or work.
Finally, Klausner advises, it sometimes becomes necessary for founders to allow the company to evolve without them. “You need to transfer your attention from personal loyalty to mission loyalty.” Some of the most famous theater companies have existed for fifty, seventy-five, or hundred years or more, from the Comedie-Francaise to the Irish Abbey Theatre, to Moscow Art Theater. If a company is to last longer than a single person's career lifetime, it must be able to survive without its founder at the helm, and for reasons greater than its founder's personal ambition. “Founders leave,” Klausner said. “It is part of the growth process for many companies.” It’s also often the only way they can reclaim their lives.
© 2008 Theater Resources Unlimited.
Producing a musical in New York City is a challenge. The musical producer faces skyrocketing venue costs, a dizzying choice of festivals to enter, and fierce competition from Broadway mega-musicals and jostling newcomers alike. To even attempt this, you'd have to be crazy. Fortunately, as Akira Kurosawa once said, in a mad world, only the mad are sane. As the conditions of the New York musical world are mad, anyone crazy enough to produce one will have an advantage.
So where do you begin? At TRU's November 29th panel meeting at the Players Theatre, co-moderator Sherry Eaker, of Back Stage, asked a range of successful industry veterans. They were: Playwrights Horizons dramaturg Christie Evangelisto, actress-singer-producer Jana Robbins (Little Women, I Love You Because), producer Van Dean of Van Hill Entertainment (Saint Heaven), Janet Paillet (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The Great American Trailer Park Musical), and self-producing artist Nancy Holson (Bush Wars, winner of five Emmy awards).
Sherry asked each of these professionals “how you approach developing new musicals?” At Playwright Horizons, Evangelisto explained, new projects arrive over the transom, by agent or author submission. As a rare renowned nonprofit producer of unsolicited musical submissions, Playwrights Horizons is usually inundated with scripts, so, if you submit, be patient. “It takes about eight months” from submission to response, Evangelisto explained. “We get four hundred submissions per year, so the ones I'm reading now were submitted months ago.”
What if you decide to produce your musical initially without the umbrella of a theater company like Playwrights Horizons? As Robbins explained, it's all about money and motivation. “Raising money to produce a musical is like getting pregnant. You're told that before you even think of getting pregnant, you're supposed to save a certain amount of money to support the kid. But what really happens is you get pregnant, and then you say, I need this much money by nine months from now. And because you have the need, you find the money.” For her show Little Women, she “just raised the money,” contacting everyone she knew, pursuing every avenue, because the musical was headed to the stage. “You have to make your own circumstances.” Furthermore, in Robbins' experience, it's harder to raise money for an Off-Broadway production than Broadway, “because the huge corporations only want to deal with huge amounts of money.”
How should a producer choose a musical to produce? “Don't even try to produce something you don't just love,” she warned. If you love a work, it is still possible and perhaps advisable to “audition” it for yourself. “I picked up Unlock'd to present at NYMF to learn about it and develop it – including to learn whether it's a project that I want to continue with.” Happily, Robbins discovered that, indeed, it is. Which festivals present opportunities for this process of development, reconnaissance, and exposure? New York has several, annually. They include the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), which developed Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone, and the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), which developed Altar Boyz, Gutenberg The Musical, and The Great American Trailer Park Musical (which started in the TRU series).
At NAMT, you cannot present your entire show, only a 45-minute sample. Not very useful as a development resource for honing the structure of a show, this can pay off as a backer's audition. “Forty-five minutes,” Paillet said, “is enough for me to learn what I need to know.” As it is an expensive forty-five minutes, be certain that your show really needs NAMT and is ready for it before you apply.
“NYMF”, Robbins advised, “is the Sundance of New York musical festivals.” However, warned Paillet, as with NAMT, “don't send it if it's not ready,” because you will only incur negative publicity, and at great financial cost. Have clear, reasonable achievable goals when you submit a show to a festival. “You have to really know your show,” she says, “and really know what you want to achieve.” Bob Ost, TRU president, warned that NYMF in particular is “an extremely competitive environment. It's not a Fringe.” More so than the other festivals, NYMF demands “extremely high production values” and is “incredibly expensive.” The official budget is capped somewhere above $20,000 in line with Actors Equity Association special NYMF regulations, but, unofficially, Ost claims, “I'll be a tattle-tale: some shows have cost upwards of $50,000 or more.” Most of the panelists and many audience members nodded their head in agreement. Furthermore, at NYMF, you are at the mercy of Murphy's Law, because “you get into the theater on the day of your show,” with no prior tech time in the space. Only risk this if you're really ready, and have a good reason. What was Robbins' reason for taking Unlock'd? “I had a right of first refusal” to that show, she said, “and so it was a backers' audition – for me.”
So, what do you do with your meager budget, at a festival? Robbins cautioned the audience not to spend it on “bells and whistles.” “Someone,” she said, “at another festival, spent $100,000 on orchestrations alone.” Of course, those will be useful down the road, in other productions of the musical – but only if its first production gets off the ground and succeeds. “Too many bells and whistles” in development means that “people will pay attention only to that, and then you don't have a product.”
Given the expense and competition, are there alternatives to producing your musical in New York? Absolutely. Van Hill Entertainment is doing just that with its critically acclaimed, award-winning new musical Saint Heaven. In 2005, Saint Heaven authors Keith Gordon and Marty Casella submitted the show to the TRU New Voices Musicals Competition. It won a place, and was matched by TRU with Van Hill. After Van Hill's presentation of a TRU-subsidized reading as part of the 2005 New Voices Musicals Series, they moved it just across the state border to the Stamford Center for the Performing Arts. Van Hill opted for “a four-wall production—you rent the theater, you provide nearly everything.” They cast acclaimed singers Debra Gibson and Tony winner Chuck Cooper and then, “pregnant” (to use Robbins's term), raised $185,000. “I didn't know if I could raise that kind of money,” Dean recalls, “but when I had to, after I signed a contract for the theater, I did.” He was successful partially because he capitalized on the reputation of a famous actress. Gibson, he recalls, “did lots of publicity—TV, radio, lots.”
One of the most famously successful musicals to emerge from both the TRU Voices Musicals Series and NYMF, Paillet observed, is The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Originally recognized by TRU, it went on to NYMF, where the authors, David Nehls and Betsy Kelso, had no prior connections. They produced it for $15,000—in context, a shoestring production. The set was minimal and the author, Betsy Kelso, was originally a self-producing artist.
For Paillet, that show was not only a success but a training ground for a more ambitious producing project: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. “As Associate Producer of The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” she remembers, “I had to learn all the legal stuff. Then I took on The Grinch”– for which she needed to secure the rights to adapt the source from the Estate of Theodore Seuss Geisel. That turned out to pose few problems: “Audrey Geisel saw it, loved it, and gave us the rights.” The seasonal show is eclectic: short-running, but seasonal; a perennial in the garden of annual and seemingly eternal flowers that is Broadway. Its short length allows it to be staged more frequently within each week than other Broadway shows. “We do fifteen shows per week,” Paillet notes, “and ten on Christmas weekend.” How are the profits divided? “After recoupment” (repaying of the original investors), “profits are split 50/50 between producers and investors.”
When producing a musical, what is your number one expense? The venue. The number two expense is marketing. This isn't unreasonable, as an insufficiently or incorrectly marketed show will garner no audience, run out of money, and close, no matter how admirable its artistry.
What about self-producing? Holson recalled that process from experience. Fifteen years ago, she produced her first show in a three-weekend run at a Jewish Community Center. Then, a producer picked it up, and they raised money “from friends and family to take it Off-Broadway.” There, it got “good reviews, but lost a ton of money.” If you go this way, be cautious. “Some people prey on the naïve.” However, it is possible to succeed with musicals as a self-producing artist, as Holson's later triumph, Bush Wars, proves. One way in which Houlson recouped costs is by hiring a press agent, who put Houlson's show on the Public Broadcasting Station. Then Holson offered “corporate shows” -- private performances booked by corporations. “The PBS shows” functioned as free publicity “and sold the corporate shows.” In short, Holson advised, remember that “it's a business.” You need to spend money to make money.
Why is it so much harder to produce a musical Off-Broadway? Several producers on the panel and in the audience chimed in: because to fill the house, you must advertise almost as aggressively as for Broadway, but charge less per ticket. This leads to some frustrating lessons in economics. “An Off-Broadway ticket now costs the same as a discounted Broadway ticket,” Pailet lamented. “But then a discounted Off-Broadway ticket...” Ost ventured. Pailet shook her head. “You can't make money on that,” she stated. Additionally, there is the problem of tourists, who come to New York to see theater on Broadway. They haven't learned to make it a tradition to see New York Theater anywhere else. “Give my regards to Off-Broadway; Remember me to Astor Place” evidently doesn't sound as catchy – yet. “We need to brand Off-Broadway?” Ost asked the panelists. “What's' the difference between a Broadway musical and an Off-Broadway musical.” Said several people at once: “Money.”
On the subject of marketing, all the panelists agreed with Pailet that “you want to market to as broad an audience as possible.” At the same time, Ost added, “don't ignore your niche just because you want the production to have broad appeal.” A great example of a smartly-marketed show, Ost recalled, is Naked Boys Singing, a revue that debuted in Los Angeles in 1998 and now plays in several cities across the nation. The first marketing wave focused on the initial target audience, gay men. “But your marketing plan must evolve,” Ost explained, in order not to run out of fresh spectators. “So they marketed it to bachelorette parties, and got that niche in as well.” The show's reputation travelled, its appeal broadened, and it became an unstoppable rollercoaster. Be creative with marketing, and take advantage of new media, especially given that your audience does. Dean recommended “use FaceBook!” Myspace and other social and business networking sites can function as effective free publicity.
One question from the audience concerned development. How do you get a musical ready for production, or even for festival presentation? Does it help to get it produced at a church, school, or community theater? That depends, Ost answered, “on what your ultimate goal is.” If the goal is to hone the artistic elements of the piece, the more chances the authors get to see and hear it performed, the better. “But you may not get an adequate response” from nonprofessional audiences, and it's not worth spending money on such a production if the money could be used for the show's benefit elsewhere. As Pailet honestly put it, “Me, a Broadway producer, develop something in a community theater? Absolutely not.” But that doesn't mean that academic theater should be ignored. Unlock'd was discovered when it was an NYU thesis project, produced by students. Seeing it for the first time at NYU, Pailet “got goosebumps,” she confessed, “and I cried. Twice.”
Small productions can grow using “enhancements” -- when one producer or company gives money to boost the values of another's production. In the nonprofit world, the home of Playwrights Horizons, there is some “partnerning between commercial and nonprofit” entities. One example of this is Grey Gardens, the cult hit by Quills and I Am My Own Wife playwright Doug Wright. As Evangelisto explained, “this came to Playwrights Horizons as an idea”--the idea of adaptating the documentary Grey Gardens as a musical. “An angel gave us a very generous gift,” and then Wright and the other collaborators were recruited to create the show. It was produced at Playwrights Horizons and extended twice, then moved to Broadway.
Once ideas, collaborator, and possibly producer are all on board, what should happen? Ost explained, in four steps. One, “write the show.” Two, “have an informal private table reading.” Three, “industry presentation,” can finally be followed by initial production, either as “showcase” or at a Fringe or Festival, whatever is most appropriate.
“How important,” Ost asked, “is a New York production?” Dean, speaking from the vantage point of Connecticut, replied that “if you go all around the country, you don't have to go to New York” at all. According to Pailet: “think about where your show really belongs. New York isn't always it.” Robbins warned that Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash homage musical, “failed because New York is not Memphis or Las Vegas,” traditional hotbeds of interest in Cash's country-star sound and legend. As Ost concluded, “Nunsense is a multimillion-dollar industry, but it never made money in New York.”
Finally, what is the most valuable advice for producers of musicals to follow? For Robbins, it is to take risks. “Once you're running after a play that's already been discovered you're too late,” so take risks and “trust your instincts.”
© 2007 Theater Resources Unlimited.