#16. The Wrap—Lessons Learned, Settling Accounts and Moving On
Eventually, closing night will arrive. Your actors will take their final bows and the people who worked so closely with you to bring your play to life, will go their different ways. All the work, all those sleepless nights, the worry, the bleeding of money, will cease. And when it’s over, you’ll be left with a sense of accomplishment, even if it’s tinged with a degree of sadness.
You’ll also likely realize a few things you wished you’d known before you started. That’s what this post is about. It’s the cheat sheet of the whole Self-Production series with some “if only I’d knowns” tossed in. If you went to school for theatre management, all this may be overly simplistic. But for those of you who came to theatre production via an alternate path, here’s what I can tell you after having self-produced:
- The Show – Choose a show to produce that you believe in, one that people will want to see and for which you have a marketing plan to get people in the seats. If you’re an actor/producer, select a playwright who has a reputation that will entice audiences and critics to come. (Like these actors in Denver did with Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries) http://www.denvercenter.org/blog-posts/news-center/2015/07/29/a-gruesome-introduction-to-self-producing-live-theatre).
- The Budget – Put together a reasonable budget, based on recent research in your area, talking to others who’ve produced and by getting bids from possible hires. Figure out where you’re getting the money to pay for your show and have most of it raised before you begin rehearsals. You shouldn’t count on selling tickets to cover your late-in-the-run costs. And worrying about how you’ll cover your commitments instead of your play will only lead to misery.
- The Where – Select a theatre—in budget—which suits your play viz a viz the size of your set and cast, as well as for its geography. Make it easy for your audience to come see it. Think about a non-traditional venue for a non-traditional piece—a museum or a restaurant. Audiences enjoy novel experiences. LA based writer/producer Eric Rudnick suggests selecting a theatre where support is offered in the form of staff and equipment, and “Make sure you get names and numbers of everyone—box office, technical directors, concessions people, etc.— and establish communication early on.” Will they help you strike the set when your show closes? Make sure that’s in your contract.
- Hiring your director, co-producer, stage manager, designers and builders—Rudnick says make sure you get hard quotes from all the members of your team or you might suddenly find your budget blown on one line item. Playwright, Mary Portser, goes further saying, “Make sure you get solid commitments from all your hires for the time period you need them or you may find yourself scrambling at the last minute.” Ask questions—even if you feel silly doing so. Once rehearsals started, Rudnick discovered his otherwise fantastic stage manager had neither a car nor a smart phone. So she couldn’t be reached, nor could she be counted on to bring snacks and water to rehearsals. “Take nothing for granted,” he says.
- Casting – Select actors who are committed to their careers AND to your project. Vet people. Choose actors who ideally come with their own fan base who will be a draw to audiences. It’s a little sad but having an actor of some renown in your show will sell tickets. And if you’re a no-name playwright, self-producing your own work, this becomes even more important. You’re competing with so many other plays, TV shows, movies—you have to give people a reason to come see your show. If you’re using Equity actors, familiarize yourself with the union rules in place in your area.
- Promotion – If you can afford a publicist, hire one—ideally someone with social media savvy who knows how to use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And whether you have a publicist or not, establish your show’s social media presence at least as early as the start of rehearsals. Get your cast and crew onboard with promotion and sharing posts, tweets and any videos or pictures. If you’ve selected your play and team wisely, you’ll create a buzz through the exponential power of the Internet. Don’t forget to GGG—get good graphics! Have a visually provocative campaign with an intriguing logline to put on posters, postcards and ads.
- Ticketing – Register with all the ticket outlets to maximize visibility across all the possible platforms where tickets can be purchased. Develop creative strategies and synergies to sell those tickets. Offer discounts and giveaways, and develop cross-promotions with local businesses and restaurants. Try to get local business to have a stake in your show.
- Critics – Try to get critics excited about your show and to promise they’ll see it as close to opening night as possible. If you have a publicist, he/she will be working on this for you. However, if it’s looking like the only way you’ll get a review is to pay Bitter Lemons, decide if it’s worth it to you. A lot of reviews and reviewers don’t carry much weight. You might be better served using that money to draw audiences in a more creative way.
- Prepare for the unexpected because it will happen on the way to Opening Night. Rudnick suggests things will go smoother if producers keep the channels of communication open, “You don’t and can’t know everything so remain open to possibilities even while having a vision. Listen and try things before saying, ‘no.’ “
- Know it’s likely to be stressful. If you’re the type who gets stressed, figure out— ahead of succumbing—how you’ll deal with it. Playwright Portser says she didn’t realize the amount of work there would be the month before opening. “Between being at the theatre–for rehearsals, letting tech people in, cleaning the place, contacting people online, and then hunting for props, picking up flyers, programs, etc., it was full time.”
- Surround yourself with kind, competent people with good follow-through and take care to be kind to EVERYONE who is helping you. The corollary to this is: If you are unkind, apologize immediately. It’s unlikely you’re paying people what they deserve. So if you go berserk on your production designer because an actor quit on you, say you’re sorry for taking it out on her. As Tiffany Antone says in her Little Black Dress Blog http://www.littleblackdressink.org/for-kendra-and-all-the-other-playwright-producers-in-the-room/ sometimes you’re the pain in the ass so be nice.
- Lastly, keep good financial records (or hire someone to do it). Hopefully you made money or at least broke even. But if not, and you’re facing a loss on your production, you may be able to write off those losses, particularly if you are a financially successful writer or actor in some other medium. But don’t quote me on that because I’m not a tax professional. A tax professional would probably advise a less risky venture.
For myself, I had a blast self-producing my show, and in recounting for you my experiences doing it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.