The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #6 The Where…

#6. The Where — Selecting a Venue

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

To many a playwright, choosing where her play gets produced is no more difficult than selecting a brand of toilet paper. She thinks all she has to do is get her play on a stage and people will come. Maybe this is true when she’s in her 20s and, possibly, 30s but soon after, just like forgoing that sixth story walk-up apartment, she needs to think about the experience she’s asking people to endure.

The sheer act of putting on a play is not going to put butts in seats—at least not for any sort of extended run beyond which point your friends refuse to drive 60 miles in 2nd gear traffic to see your show again. Where you put your show up is important. On the other hand, IF you can get a great review by the mainstream press of your no-name-cast experimental comic melodrama having a run in an abandoned missile silo in Chatsworth, yeah, you might get an audience and I take it all back. One good thing about Chatsworth is there’s lots of free parking. But I digress…sort of.

I selected my space the way a bride’s mother might choose a wedding venue so it’s a good thing I had a son. There were a lot of considerations. I wanted lots of free, safe and easy parking, I wanted clean bathrooms and separate dressing rooms for men and women. I wanted the theatre to be close to people who might come. Pretty simple criteria, right? Wrong. You cannot believe all the tiny, uncomfortable (for both cast and audience) rentable spaces there are in LA located in areas you wouldn’t want to walk at three in the afternoon! And you will be walking because there’s no parking. When I go see a show, I don’t want part of my theatre experience to include hoping somebody will pull away from the curb within five blocks of the theatre. Unfortunately in LA, mass transit is difficult at best so the reality is people drive and need to put their cars somewhere while they see your show. You may think I’m being overly picky but I’m not alone. Part of the reason Elin Hampton selected the Greenway Arts Theatre for her Bells of West 87th was because there’s a dedicated parking lot and good bathrooms!

And there are other things to consider:

How large a playing area do you need? For Villa Thrilla, we wanted a stage with height and breadth to create the illusion of a grand, 2-story house. But perhaps if we’d been more creative, we could have reimagined it. I’m thinking about Alan Aykbourne’s play, Taking Steps, which is set in a 3-story structure but in the playing of it, the actors never climb a stair.

Can you rehearse in the performance space? For actors, being able to rehearse on the stage they’ll be performing on makes them more comfortable and often saves time not having to adjust after rehearsing in your apartment for a month. But this is a luxury and can increase the budget substantially. I do recommend trying to load in at least 10 days prior to opening so everyone can get comfortable.

Will you be sharing the theatre with others either during the day/evening when you’re not using it?

This isn’t a huge deal but it can present scheduling headaches if the space is booked solid with classes, meetings and the like and you need more rehearsal than you bargained for. Try to negotiate to “own” the space 10 days prior to opening for whatever might come up.

How big do you want your “house”? Obviously, theatres with fewer seats are easier to fill. In fact I’m convinced one theatre company in town creates madness around its shows because there are only 29 seats. They always get to say “Sold Out!” Yes you’ll bring in less money but better to sell all of those 29 seats than sell only 29 in a 99-seat house.

As you start thinking about where to do your play, draw up a priority list of what is most important to you and your prospective audience. There will be tradeoffs—easy parking vs. lousy bathrooms; getting to rehearse in the space vs. far from your hoped-for audience. Thinking through what you want will help focus your search and decide what’s most critical for you. Start by approaching theatres/ theatre companies you like and ask them if they rent space. Many do. Getting the choice 6-week slots will be costly ($1500-$2500/week) but sometimes you can get a deal for a weekend or two, sandwiched between the larger productions. I’ve known ambitious playwrights for whom this scenario has worked well. They have been able to generate buzz over a short run and use it to move their shows to bigger, better theatres.

Often, when a show is successful, where it’s being performed truly doesn’t matter to most. “They” will come. But why not choose a venue that will give your show the best chance of becoming successful with the resources you have? Don’t be afraid to negotiate for the deals you want. Life is a negotiation and you’re an artist. Negotiate creatively.

Next Week: Finding your Director

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