#11. Publicity…. or getting those B.I.S. (butts in seats)
by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas
You’re probably thinking: Shouldn’t Anna be ready to start rehearsing this play already? And the answer is: Yes. In fact we are in rehearsals. But before they began, the publicity wheels had started to turn, so we’re going back.
Planning on how you’ll get the word out about your show needs to begin early—before casting and before you even secure your theatre; about the same time as you decide to self-produce your play. If you can afford to pay a professional, that person would be called the publicist. And if you think you’ll be able to get the best critics to see your show and have a sold-out run without one, I hope you’ll finish reading this post before you make your decision.
Getting audiences is NOT easy—not even for the bigger “better” theatres. If you have a star—and I mean STAR—in your cast, that’s one thing. But I see promotional material all the time saying something like: “A New Play by Elena T. Ruggiero,” (who?) “Starring Robert Urianisk” (who?) “as seen on Little Blip Theory, Cosmic Family… “ The point is, theatres try to pump up non-stars to star status hoping you’ll come see their shows. It sometimes works, by the way, so kudos for effort. But unless you have a real star in your show, I think you’re going to need help getting your show reviewed (hopefully positively) so you can use those reviews to pull in audiences. If your show gets some great notices from the more important media outlets—even without a star—you’ll most likely be able to put “butts in seats” (B.I.S.).
In Los Angeles, there are only a handful of publicists considered “worth it” in small theatre. That’s because their fees are a good portion of your budget. Our publicist, Lucy Pollak charges about $3,000 but she was worth it. Lucy and I started talking about Villa Thrilla 6-8 months before we began casting. That was lucky for me because had it been 2 months out, she couldn’t have taken the job. As it was, she already had shows lined up for the same time frame. Some publicists, like some designers, can handle 2-4 shows at a time. But ask your prospective publicist how many other shows he/she will be working on concurrently with yours. There is a point at which she can no longer handle the needs of all her clients You definitely want to avoid your publicist having two openings on the same night.
Getting the press to notice you is huge and made easier by having a good, reputable publicist who has solid relationships with critics. If, however, you are lucky enough to have Cate Blanchett or Stephen Tobolowsky in your play, chances are you could draft a press release yourself and people would come.
Be realistic–how much effort do you want to put into selling your show?—this on top of rewriting during the rehearsal period, not to mention all your other production duties. Take off your playwright hat for a minute, and look at your play as a package. Would you–if you knew nothing about your show and knew no one in it nor who’d seen/liked it—select your show to see out of the hundreds of offerings on a given night? And that’s just theatre offerings. How many times have you said to yourself, “Ahhhh, I’ll just stay home and watch TV”? If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll likely realize you need help to make your show stand out somehow. That’s the publicist’s job.
Here’s a list of what a good theatre publicist will help you with:
- Brainstorm how to publicize your show and come up with a pitch or pitches to sell it to local and (when appropriate) national media outlets—TV, newspapers, online blogs, radio stations, magazines etc.;
- Assist and give input about actor and director choices, letting you know if any of your options have some cache or marketability in your area;
- Call key critics early, hoping to get them to calendar your opening night. Your publicist may not be able to get a certain critic to come, but she’ll at least be able to get that person on the phone;
- Draft your press release and disseminate to any and all critics and media outlets. Then follow up by phone and email;
- Arrange for a production still photographer to shoot a dress rehearsal, get those photos out to media;
- Help plan and hype opening night and opening night party;
- Choosing graphics and advertising buys—online and in trades and local papers;
- Get you, your cast or members of your team interviews—online, on radio, TV and trades;
- Put press kits together to give to critics when they arrive to see your show;
- Coordinate with your ticketing services and house manager to ensure when critics reserve seats (for free) those seats are booked out and not subsequently sold;
- Assist with social media promotion. Lucy was not particularly savvy in this area but our talented Associate Producer, Jerusha Aimee Liu was. Jerusha built the Villa Thrilla website, Tweeted and also Facebooked for the show. This is becoming more and more important as social media becomes more prevalent and accepted.
As mentioned in a previous post, Villa Thrilla, was hampered by several factors in getting audiences: We had no stars nor did we have a recognizable name for the writer, producer or director so the show was a hard sell. Nor could we get anyone to review the show on opening night; perhaps because 16 other shows opened in LA on the same evening. Realistically, though—had there been only 8, we still would have been way down any critic’s priority list. There’s so much good theatre to choose from here. Even after opening, we had a hard time getting certain critics to in. The top ones, the most trusted ones, never came.
And as the reviews we did get came in, though most were very good, they did not, unfortunately, carry much weight. See anyone can start a website and call himself a critic. We also had one really bad review from a recognizable website/blog. This is my sour grapes story but I knew we were in trouble when I saw a particular man enter the theatre one day and was told he was a critic. He truly was among the most miserable looking people I’ve ever seen. Scowling, angry at the world—or perhaps just angry with his boss for sending to see our no-name play on a lovely Sunday afternoon. What a perfect choice to review a farce! Not. There was no way—if this guy’s face was any indication—that he would find anything positive to say. And he didn’t!
So, to sum up: If you’re going to self-produce your show—given all the work that entails—you probably want people to see it. Before you get too far into it, assess how difficult it will be to get audiences, bearing in mind things like the appeal of your subject matter/cast, location of your theatre, parking and even the local restaurants. Do you want to spend time promoting your show in addition to everything else you’re doing? If no, think about hiring a publicist. If, on the other hand, you think you can get butts in seats with no help from a professional, more power to you. May you fill your house every night with enthusiastic audiences!
Next Post: Next time is compromise/collaboration I swear!Tweet
In my last post on here in January I was talking about those ever-timely resolutions. Did you set some? How are they going? I pronounced that I was going to make monthly goals, rather than yearly goals, and really work with some new techniques to help me achieve my goals. The month of January was a success! I achieved my goals of writing 50,000 words in my first novel and working out 5 days a week. How great were those 50,000+ words? Well, a few were okay and the rest were cringe-worthy, but the point is I did it, right?!
Fresh of my successes I was ready to set my goals for February and set out to re-write a Screenplay of mine. I also set more physical goals. As February ticked on, however, I was not meeting my goals. It’s not that they weren’t specific enough or that I didn’t have enough rewards/consequences in place–though, I do think not having as much moral support and people to give support back to did effect things in a huge way–mostly, though, I think I was just falling deeper into the old hat of depression. My January success turned into thoughts that asked questions in accusatory and derogatory tones, like, “So, was it worth it? All that time you spent working on that sh*tty-*ss novel? You still have nothing worth showing for it. And all those work outs–what was the point? You’re still f*ck*ng f*t, etc.”
February and March were spent mostly in bed, when I wasn’t working, struggling to find a way out again, to get back up and try again. And now, here we are in April, which, I am happy to say, is off to a great start! I am on my way up again. I got to act in a short film called DATING FAILS that will screen at The Moxie on Friday, April 24 at 11:30pm, Saturday, April 25 at 2pm, & Sunday, April 26 at 6:15pm. I’ve started running again, and not to jinx myself, but I have been actually enjoying it, instead of dreading it like I usually do. And, perhaps most exciting of all, I have been working on a new web-series that will premiere May 19, 2015 at www.landlockedthewebseries.com.
Landlocked is a story about a couple in a long-distance relationship struggling to stay connected as one of them deals with Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. To me, when I am working on a new project it feels just like falling in love. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up, the thing I daydream about throughout my day, and the last thing I think about at night. I find myself smiling for no reason imagining sequences or being moved to tears. Every song I hear I imaging playing under one of the scenes and every lyric relates to the story. So, I feel pretty sure I’m going to be okay for at least until the end of July when the series finale airs…and by then, hopefully, I’ll meet another, fresh, new project to fall in love with all over again.
In my research regarding Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia I came across this chart on the website Triumph Over Panic:
“This chart represents your practice program, leading gradually to full recovery. Each “P” stands for a panic incident. A “P” can seem like a setback at the time, but it is actually an integral part of your success.”
I feel that, similarly, we create our art in these waves of euphoria, followed by the humbling reality of it not living up to our expectation of greatness, so we fall into depression due to our own self-induced perception of “failure” and then, because we are Artists and because that is the way through which we process life, we eventually create again. I think it is easy to feel like our chart is actually a circle that repeats itself in this never-ending unexceptionalism, but if we can start to see our perceived failings as the process through which we grow, we may take out some of the weight of those downward periods, rebound quicker, and even dare to say, “I can’t wait to fail more!” The quicker I fail, the faster I succeed.Tweet
by Robin Byrd
Today is the 5th Anniversary for the LA FPI Blog.
My excitement over the diverse voices that frequent this blog never wanes. Pick a few bloggers and read their articles. Tell me what you think.
- Jessica Abrams (past blogger)
- Tiffany Antone
- Erica Bennett
- Nancy Beverly (past blogger)
- Jenn Bobiwash
- Andie Bottrell
- Robin Byrd
- Korama Danquah
- Kitty Felde
- Diane Grant
- Jen Huszcza (past blogger)
- Sara Israel (past blogger)
- Cindy Marie Jenkins (past blogger)
- Sue May (video blogger)
- Anna Nicholas (guest series blogger)
- Analyn Revilla
- Laura Shamas
- Madhuri Shekar
- Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko
- Cynthia Wands
#10. Selecting Your Designers; or the Matter of the Couch
by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas
One of the most satisfying theatergoing experiences I have had in recent years was Emma Rice’s production of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter.” There wasn’t much script but what her design team did to create the world in which the actors played has remained with me. Point being, the visual and auditory experience an audience has of your play are at least as important as your words, which in the case of “Brief Encounter,” weren’t many. I know this might be tough for a playwright to take but a play is an event you want people to come see. It’s not just about a few actors standing on a stage speaking a sequence of words you so painstakingly strung together; it’s the whole shebang—actors, set, costumes, lighting and sound. It’s the same in the movies—what would Jaws be without the music? What would Alien be without that giant lethal lizard?
Assisted by imaginative and able designers, your words can transcend what you ever imagined, all through lights, sound, costumes and the physical space created by the set designer and builders. Did you write a character that speaks while lit by a star on a cloudy night? Is there a scene set on the bow of a ship with the sounds of a harbor as the boat approaches shore? Unless you want your audience to do a lot of work, you’ll need designers to create the mood, the sound, the look and feel of the world you wrote about.
Designers aren’t cheap. And it’s difficult to get them to come down on their fees, which can (depending on experience and number of awards) range from $750 to $5000 for low-budget theatre in LA. I paid between $1100 and $1300 each for costumes, lighting, set and sound. Other than theatre rental, designers’ fees and the costs associated with executing their designs will eat up most of your budget.
When you’re an independent producer and no one knows you (which was the case with me), you’ll likely pay close to the top of a designer’s range, should they even be willing to do your show. This is yet another reason to co-produce with a theatre company. Designers have ongoing relationships with theatre companies so will often work for less than they would charge an independent producer. They know, or assume, that the work will be of a certain quality and that there will probably be more work down the line. A couple of company artistic directors told me they never spent more than $800 for any designer.
Remember design fees do not include the purchases or rentals needed to carry out the designs. If your costumer needs to build a life-sized praying mantis costume, that’s on top of her design fee. If you’re renting a theatre that doesn’t come with the lights needed to achieve the lighting designer’s effects, you’re looking at a sizeable rental for the duration of your run. In many cases, the more experienced designers have relationships with vendors. For example, our lighting designer, Brandon Baruch, had a contact at a lighting rental house and got us a quote for the strobe lights we needed for Villa Thrilla. (It turned out to be cheaper to buy some at The Guitar Center, which I later sold and almost broke even).
When you’re hiring your designers, ask questions. Have that sample budget to work from so you know some of the questions to ask. On mine, there was a line item in the lighting budget for gels. I would not have known to ask about that. If your play is set in the 1920s, it would be helpful if your costume designer has access to a large stash of vintage costumes. So ask. And does your set designer have a lumber discount? You don’t want to be asking what the set will cost and have the designer say “$5000; only to turn around after being hired and say “Sorry, I meant $15,000.” You could try to restrict the budgets of your designers but that could seriously impact the quality of the finished product, i.e., your show. I think it’s better to be as thorough as you can in hiring reputable people and asking them to be very specific about their budgets at the top. You will probably find that though a well-connected designer charges a higher fee, you will save money through discounts in the long run.
Even when you, as the producer, think you have things covered—your designers are hired, the designs approved and in process–there’s always something that doesn’t get discussed like painting the floor or driving to get the scrim because no one else can get it before the store closes for the weekend and it has to get put up or you can’t open in time. These are things you just do. And then there’s the matter of the couch…
There’s always one item you need to make your set work but that you cannot find. For us it was the couch. Our set designer, Madison Rhoades, had creatively brought the foyer of a Victorian mansion into existence. But it fell to me to find the furniture that would dress it—items which would be “of the period” or at least look it. We needed a sideboard, a parlor table and chairs and several other pieces of furniture, the most significant of which was a Victorian couch. I found most of the items with not too much effort or expense through a combination of Craig’s List, Goodwill and the vintage furniture shops scattering the San Fernando Valley, most notably Canoga Park. Our sideboard I found on the street one day—banged up but made perfect with a few strokes of the paintbrush. The only expense was bribing a homeless guy to watch it for me while I borrowed a friend’s truck.
The couch, however, simply would not materialize. The search took a month. It had to appear Victorian, it had to have upholstery in a certain color palate, it had to look rich, not be too worn, be neither too big, nor small; not have too high (or low) a back and have arms that could withstand an actor’s weight. Prone to agree on most things, the director and set designer disagreed on how large the couch should be; meanwhile I wanted a couch I could both afford (which meant under $500) and which I could easily sell once the show closed.
There didn’t seem to be anything everyone could agree on that was under $1000. Getting desperate, and the actors needing to work on the real deal, we finally agreed on a dark gold velvet number on Craig’s List. It was the right size and look but the owner wanted $800. Plus it was located in San Juan Capistrano, 3 hours away without traffic and when is there ever no traffic on the 405 south? I stalled, hoping no one would give him what he wanted. After ten days, he dropped the price and I told him I’d come get it the following day. Then I got a call from Ibrahimi, a kind Afghani man who owns an antiques shop in Canoga Park where I’d found our dining chairs. After negotiating for the chairs, I casually asked if he knew where I could get a certain couch. I described what we needed and shared some of my frustration. Then he said, “I think my friend has your couch and as it happens, he wants to sell it.” Ibrahimi gets on the phone and within minutes I had a picture of the couch, texted it to both Madison and Gary (the director), and though the couch was bigger than Gary wanted, I bought the couch. For $250. It was perfect. There were a few problems getting it out of the owner’s apartment, doors had to come off hinges, but when, at long last, we had the couch on the set, we all knew it had been worth the wait. Having the right couch made all the difference.
Next Post: Collaboration, Compromise and the Greater Good
The City Garage Theatre is a lovely space.
Each reading was fantastic. The talent in the room was magnetic -even the micro-reads which are done with minimal if any read-throughs prior to reading them in front of the audience were exciting! Such FUN.
Thank you to everyone who made this event a success – you rock!
# 9. Finding Your Actors… or Do you Need a Casting Director?
by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas
When you’re preparing the perfect meal, you need quality ingredients to make it turn out the way you want, right? A play is not much different. Without actors who can bring your words to life, you’re going to get a soufflé that won’t rise or gnocchi that won’t gnock anyone’s socks off.
So, in a word, yes, you need a casting director; although there are several exceptions: If you’ve written a one-woman show for your best friend who says she’ll do it no matter where or when, you’re set; if you must use the member actors of the theatre company you’re partnering with, ditto; if you are intimately familiar with the theatre scene where you live and know all the actors by their work, and (often more importantly) their work ethic, you may also not need one. But a casting director can open up the range of choices in so many ways; especially if you have to find specific types of actors (e.g., little people with perfect French accents and the ability to juggle fire) whom you have limited knowledge of. A good casting director will organize your open call (should you have one), post a breakdown, as well as organize auditions, call-backs, deal with agents—should there be any—determine an actor’s availability AND he or she will often know whether a given actor is a team player or a diva who could make getting your play up and running—a process that should be fun—an ordeal.
Initially, I had hoped to partner with a theatre company. Our deal was to be that five of the ten actors required for Villa Thrilla would be company members, which seemed a fair trade-off for what the company would be bringing to the production—reputation and cash. We agreed we’d network among our contacts to find the other five. But as mentioned in an earlier post, “artistic differences” put a kibosh on the co-production and so when we parted, I was in a time crunch and needed help.
Even though I knew a lot of actors and considered myself knowledgeable about the casting process—I’d auditioned and been hired (and rejected) enough to pick up a few things—it was not so simple. I figured I’d just call my friends, Facebook friends and acquaintances, ask them to do it and adhere to the 99-Seat plan!(which could be going away. See #8 in this series). But three things soon became apparent: (1) I knew far fewer people who were right for the play than I thought, (2) most of the people I thought could do it were unavailable and (3) casting the play was a big job that I was ill-equipped to do alone. So I took a look at several playbills I’d saved and there were a few casting directors whose names appeared over and over. One of them was Raul Staggs. Raul had cast me in a new play a couple of years earlier and I liked him. He was personable, professional and I knew he knew the Equity Waiver scene in Los Angeles as well as anyone. So I called him up, we talked, settled on a fee (CDs can charge anywhere from a few hundred to $3000 for an Equity Waiver show, depending…) and that was that.
Raul was wonderful to work with, well organized and he did all the heavy lifting. The director and I only had to show up for auditions and make choices, which was hard enough. He provided a buffer between us—Producer and Director—and the many actors we saw, keeping things moving and on schedule. Having Raul on board also increased our credibility factor. Actors and agents know him and his reputation. Having his name on the project made it appear more legitimate, which made actors and agents more open to submitting. This was vital, especially with respect to those actors who were hard-to-find. We needed to cast a wide net beyond our circles, to find them.
One pretty cool thing happened during casting, which requires a little backstory: Early in my TV career (or late given what didn’t occur after), I worked with Doris Roberts in the waning days of Remington Steele. On that show, we had a fight over an urn. “Back off Blondie,” she told me. “That’s MY urn!” Doris got her urn and I went to jail. But when I first began writing Villa Thrilla and created the role of Camilla, the toilet bowl heiress, whose voice is heard in the play, it was Doris’ voice I heard in my head. Other actresses had read the role but I couldn’t move forward with casting anyone else until Doris had said “No.” Through our publicist, Lucy Pollak, I contacted Doris’ managers. Then I wrote Doris a letter and was floored when she said she would be the voice of Camilla. She’s a fan of small theatre and wanted to help. Raul was the one who encouraged me to ask her, proving you never know.
And this has some bearing on celebrities generally and trying to get at least one of them in your show. We’ve all heard about how TV networks, web series, video game producers are all vying for “eyeballs.” Theatre in LA is no different, though we use “butts in seats” as our goal. There is a lot happening and it’s tough to put BIS and pull the eyeballs away from all the other options. On Villa Thrilla’s opening weekend, as many as 10 other shows opened, which means we struggled to get one of the more influential critics to see the show and hopefully give it a good review so we could use it for promotion. Well, we never got that influential critic, not over the entire run. Having a known entitiy—read celebrity—in your show elevates your chances of getting not only critics to see your show, but paying audience members in those seats. So, note to self: Next time, should there be a next time, get someone in the cast who people will come out for. As Tim Wright, Artistic Director of Circle X Theatre and Producer of the current hit, Trevor told me, “Get Laurie Metcalf and everything else pretty much falls into place.”
Next Post: Choosing Your Design TeamTweet
Presented by Free Association Theatre with Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, hosted by City Garage Theatre.
Come on out and celebrate with us!
Bring some pages and sign up for the micro-reads.
Calling all LA female playwrights
(and screenwriters): Let’s read your work!
Bring 1 page for our Micro-Reads.
View Action Fest Line Up Here.Tweet
Action Fest line up:
BOX by Robin Byrd, directed by Julianne Homokay
Synopsis: Elpis and Pandora are sisters. There has been a death in the family. What if they could have one last chance before they have to seal the box?
THE PROPOSAL by Carolina Rojas Moretti, directed by Laura Steinroeder
Synopsis: Benny was lost before finding his True North, but can he stop himself from destroying the compass?
THE MIXING BOWL by Leslie Hardy, directed by Gloria Iseli
Synopsis: Stephanie thinks her partner Alicia’s parents are simply coming for a visit. She’s in for a surprise. Sometimes the ingredients of our lives do not make for a great recipe.
MANKIND by Beverly Andrews, directed by Alexandra Meda
Synopsis: New parents have a serious discussion by the river’s edge and reaffirm the people they really are.
THE MISSING STAIRCASE by Morna Murphy Martell, directed by Lane Allison
Synopsis: The Staten Island Ferry passes Ellis Island. A strange man tells about a staircase there that changed his life. One woman knows the secret of the missing staircase.
ILL INFORMED by Raegan Payne, directed by Courtney Anne Buchan
Synopsis: Owen is bad at stalking. Olivia is bad at living. It’s fortunate they are meeting.
Micro-Reads Actors: Dylan Quercia, Pauline Schantzer, Anna Simone Scott, Tippi Thomas, Harriet Fisher and Tinks Lovelace
Come join us this Saturday, 28 March 2015 from 12 – 6 pm at City Garage Theatre located in the Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica, CA 90404
For more info: http://lafpi.com/events
FB Event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/898010020244015/
If you tweet we’re @TheLAFPI; we’re also on Instagram @thelafpi. #SWANDay #LAFPI.
Also connect with our hosts, @CityGarage (Neil LaBute’s Break of Noon opens April 3 http://www.citygarage.org/).
Bergamot Station Arts Center
2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica, CA 90404
( off of Cloverfield Blvd., between Olympic Blvd. & 10 Freeway)
Free Parking in Bergamot Station Arts Center. The complex opens at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. SWAN Day Action Fest audiences are encouraged to arrive early, and come and go throughout the day to visit the many art galleries.
Hope to see you there!