Posts tagged: Anna Nicholas

An Interview with Constance Congdon

by Anna Nicholas

As a playwright fortunate enough to participate in the William Inge Play Lab this year, one of my favorite Master Classes was given by Constance Congdon (Tales of the Lost Formicans, Gilgamesh, Raggedy Ann and Andy and others). Connie’s been teaching playwriting at Amherst College for twenty-three years and knows her way around a writing exercise*. She graciously agreed to sit down and talk about her plays, writing for theatre and what if anything had changed for women playwrights since the production of her first play, Gilgamesh, in 1977.

Constance Congdon

 

AN: What was your earliest theatrical experience?

CC: I had puppets and used to perform puppet shows over the top of my parents’ bed. Later, when I was in Junior High, I played “Mammy” in A Feudin’ Over Yonder and got a lot of laughs. Though I love actors I never wanted to be one. (Note: I saw Connie kick it in the “Improv to Page” workshop conducted by Ron West and Catherine Butterfield. Connie can act.)

 

AN: Did you study theatre in College?

CC: I was an English major and not a great student. It took me 6 years to get through. Of course it didn’t help that I kept moving and had to pay for school myself.

 

AN: So, no theatre in college. How did you find your way back to it?

CC: I had lots of jobs but the life-changer was as a mobile librarian. I discovered children’s literature and reading aloud to kids. Something was sparked and that experience served me well when I began writing plays and musicals for the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. I hadn’t known that would happen when I boarded the book mobile.

 

AN: What was your first play and first production?

CC: Gilgamesh at St. Mary’s College in Maryland where I was teaching remedial reading at the time. They gave me a first class production. Not all my plays have been so lucky.

 

AN: Tony Kushner calls you “one of the best playwrights our country, and our language, has produced.”[2] But for whatever reason, I’ve never seen or read any of your work. I’m going to rectify that now and catch up on your canon.

CC: Thank you.

 

AN: You taught at Amherst College for twenty-three years. Over the course of your career in both teaching and playmaking you must have observed some changes in how women are perceived in the theatre.

CC: Not as much as I’d like. There’s more opportunity for women and the awareness of the need to produce women’s plays has increased, but there’s still a resistance to the female voice, whatever that means. It extends to Artistic Directors and Literary Managers and sadly both men and women.

 

AN: Now that you are retiring from Amherst, what’s your game plan?

CC: At 72, I am energized to see more of my work get to the stage. A few years ago, I was fortunate to be part of Profile Theatre’s one playwright a year with a few of my plays. And I have just finished a new work called Hair of the Dog: The Foule Murder of Christopher Marlowe as Uncovered by William Shakespeare and am working on a book on playwriting with Mac Wellman and Jeff Jones.

 

AN: What advice would you give to female playwrights?

CC: My biggest piece of advice is to apply for grants; particularly state grants if they’re available. It’s usually other playwrights like me who read the plays and make the decisions, which is good. And if there are no state grants, apply for any arts grants that exist. If you want to teach, get your MFA. It’s important for the boards and administrations of most colleges and universities to know you’ve been vetted. Go to theatre festivals and network. Familiarize yourselves with different theatre departments and submit, submit, submit. I also advise not to worry about reviews. I’ve never gotten good reviews and I’ve made my peace with it.

 

AN: I loved your Master Class and the “rant” exercise *. Can I share it with the playwrights who read the LAFPI blog?

CC: Absolutely.

 

Constance Congdon’s “Rant” Exercise: As yourself or one of your characters, write a rant for a solid 10 minutes. Let the vitriol out at a person or something you hate. Don’t edit and write honestly, like you’re going to rip it up. Have someone call time at 5 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute and 30 seconds. The idea here is not to break up the “planning” that often occurs in the writer’s mind about what you’re writing. When you’re done, read it. Take a breath and then write for another 10 minutes but this time you are writing the rebuttal to your rant. You can be the person ranted against, or someone else with a strong point of view about the first rant. The third part of the exercise is to go back and forth between the original rant and the rebuttal, taking one or two lines from each and you might just find yourself with the beginnings of a scene.

 

Anna Nicholas just returned from the 2017 William Inge Play Lab, where her play, Ocotillo was chosen for development. Annanicholas.com

 

 

Finding Your Fringe

By Anna Nicholas

In late January, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to see a short play of mine debut at Fertile Ground (http://fertilegroundpdx.org), what Portlandia calls its theatrical fringe festival. Fringe festivals exist in most major cities these days and provide writers, directors and performers of all types, a way to get their work seen. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a pipeline to production, it’s time to consider being on the fringe.

I am a bi-city kind of woman these days, with work in Los Angeles and in Portland, and thus I qualify to submit (Fertile Ground, unlike some fringe festivals, only accepts submissions from those with local ties). Since many Angelenos have ties elsewhere, you too may find yourself with the ability to submit work to fringe festivals outside of LA as well.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival (https://www.edfringe.com ) is the great mother of theatre festivals. Her origins are humble and date to the 1940s when three London based theatre companies ventured north to Scotland to put on works “on the fringe” of the official Edinburgh International Festival. The “fringe” at the time referred to both geography and subject matter. Since then, Edinburgh has steadily grown to become what a recent edition of The Dramatist magazine intimated was such a huge festival, with so many offerings that it had become overwhelming for both participant and audience member. One woman interviewed said it would be impossible without a cocktail.

Edinburgh’s success has also spawned similar festivals around the world, which are, thankfully, of more manageable size, including Fertile Ground, which began in 2009, and the Hollywood Fringe, (http://www.hollywoodfringe.org) which debuted in 2010 with 130 shows. In 2016, that number swelled to 296, while this year’s Portland fringe was just behind that with 295 works presented.  Both festivals are unjuried; meaning  if your show meets the specs (not too hard) and you pay your fees, you’re in!

Unlike Fertile Ground, anyone anywhere can submit to the Hollywood Fringe Festival, though it still attracts a predominantly SoCal contingent of artists (there is a deep pack of talent here, after all).  But if you want to try your luck elsewhere, similar fests happen annually in San Diego, Tucson, DC, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta,  Chicago, Providence, NYC, Cincinnati, and the list continues to grow.  I’m an advocate of not waiting around for someone to discover your work, put a team together for a fringe festival. And by the way, submissions for Hollywood Fringe 2017 are now open.

 

 

Anna Nicholas is a published novelist (The Muffia Series, Homegrown: The Terror Within), produced playwright (Buddha Belly, Petting Zoo Story, Villa Thrilla, Theatre in the Dark, Incunabula) and actress. More info at: annanicholas.com

 

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #15 The Critics…

#15. The Critics – Should You Care?

By Anna Nicholas

Save a playwright, shoot a critic? Unwise; though many a playwright has thought about it. According to Bernardo Cubria, who helms a NY Theatre podcast called Off and On, “At some point in their lives, theatremakers develop hostility towards theatre critics.” To Bernardo I’d say, “Why bother?” One bad review doesn’t make or break a play, a playwright or a theatre; even if it feels that way sometimes and even if the person penning the review might like to think he’s got that kind of power. Similarly, a couple of great reviews won’t necessarily drive people to your play and turn it into a hit. And sometimes a bad review can even make people want to see a show.

If anyone remembers the controversial and often hostile New York Magazine critic, John Simon, now 90, you might know what I mean. His brand of theatre criticism was erudite but scathing and after reading a Simon review, I would often feel compelled to see the show that was the source of so much vitriol. A case in point was Joseph Papp’s Cymbeline. In Simon’s 1989 review of that show, he took apart (among other things) the actress, Joan Cusack, and her performance: “The heroine, considered by many, Shakespeare’s most golden girl and described right off as ‘divine Imogen’ is played by Joan Cusack, known from the movies as the low-comedy, lower-class, addlepated or wisecracking, homely sidekick of the leading lady. Here she looks like a travesty of Tenniel’s Alice after ingesting EAT ME (but having grown more sideways than upward) and talks in her usual proletarian accent and in that breathlessly breathy voice we associate with Saturday Night Live parodies… Miss Cusack remains ‘unimogenable.’” You can read the whole review here. Yes, it’s cruel but I think it’s also a case of so much hate being the flipside of love. To work up the passion to be so nasty, at least he cares! I think it’s way better to be hated than leave the likes of John Simon wholly indifferent. Personally, I miss this type of theatre criticism because as cruel as people thought Mr. Simon to be, he knows the English language and theatre history and, best of all, he was entertaining to his readers (unless of course you happen to be the victim of his ad hominem evisceration that week). As a playwright and novelist who’s developed a thick skin, I’d rather have a scathing John Simon review than a milktoast blogger spewing my plot back at me anyday.

But back to you… “I need to get critics to see my show!” you say. “If I don’t, people won’t come!” Possibly. But there are plenty of stories about shows by no-name writers, starring people no one knows, that somehow get traction, and go on to be successful. When these shows finally do get reviewed it’s almost embarrassing for a critic to admit he’s so late to the party. See it’s hard being a critic, too. Think about it, if she says awful things about the work, she’s accused of being cruel; if she’s too nice, she’s pandering.

Critics are just there, like your set, and they have always had a symbiotic relationship with theatre as well as the other art forms. They have just been opining longer and louder so we have elevated their opinions above those of every other person seeing shows or movies or museum exhibitions. Maybe we shouldn’t care so much.

Jonathan Mandell, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, has written about theater for Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com, among other outlets. He currently blogs at  New York Theater and tweets as @NewYorkTheater. HowlRound, which bills itself as a “knowledge commons by and for the theatre community” invited Mandell to answer the question: “Are Theatre Critics Critical. An Update.” In the post he quotes Mark Twain (along with several others of varying perspectives) on the value of critics and the future of criticism in general. Mandell’s been in the trenches and I recommend all aspiring producers read the piece. But in essence, Mandell thinks theatrical criticism no longer has the sway it once did.

As touched on in previous posts, our need to be reviewed stems from our fear that without good notices, our show will somehow not have the legitimacy needed to fill seats. But this isn’t true. There are other ways to get people to buy tickets and we all need to think more creatively about how to do that. There are too many tiny theatrical presentations, at least in LA, for the critics who count to get to them all. And even if they could, there’s no guarantee they will review your show with the enthusiastic pull-quotes you need to promote it on posters, websites and ads.

But don’t worry, the economics of supply and demand have kicked in—at least in LA—and, as a result, several things have occurred. The first is that the limited supply of what I’ll call the “power” reviewers has created a vacuum that’s been partially filled by bloggers and others who call themselves critics. They write for online sites like Stage Happenings that don’t have much clout with the LA theatre intelligentsia. Even a good review from one of these folks won’t motivate most of your potential audience to buy tickets. And yet, you may feel having a few of these independent blogger types review your show is better than nothing? It’s not for me to say. I would argue, however, that you should consider fresh ways to promote your show rather than grovel at the feet of critics, particularly critics with no clout. It’s a waste of time.

But if getting a critic or two to review your show is of utmost importance, there’s a sure fire way to get at least one person to write it up and this presents the next item on the list of what’s been spawned by the reviewer vacuum: since April 2015, producers in Los Angeles can pay for the privilege of being reviewed. That’s right, for $150, (or less if your show’s a “fringe” show) you can pay the creators of the Lemon Meter who run the online review-aggregator site known as Bitter Lemons to review it. I don’t think an artist should ever have to pay to be reviewed, but you can read all about what’s called the “Bitter Lemons Initiative” (BLI) in the BL boss’s own (and excessive number of) words and decide for yourself: http://socal.bitter-lemons.com/learn/article/2456

Even if you pay for your BL review, it’s still not going to have the weight of a review from the LA Times or NPR. That’s because a lot of seasoned theatregoers still don’t even go online. They trust their big local newspaper and nothing else. It’s also because another part of the theatre-going population goes to shows to support friends, damn the reviews. In 99-Seat theatre in LA, which I attend at least a couple of times a week, I see the same people in the house over and over. The new folks are usually friends of cast members I’ve never met. This is fine but it goes to the question of who the audience is for small theatre. I submit that most of the people in the houses of waiver theatre are not there because of the reviews. We all know each other. That said, in order to be really successful, one needs to break out of that womb, as it were, and reach an audience that might be interested in your play if they simply heard about it. This might mean getting a star in a lead role (see the casting post) or doing a play that’s particularly topical. So you see the problem isn’t really critics, it’s marketing and that starts way back when you’re considering what play of yours to produce.

As a group, critics are like any other. Some are good and some are terrible. Some have agendas they’re unable to put aside when writing a review. It rarely happens that everyone who sees your play, critic or not, is going to love it. What people think is out of your control. My advice: Don’t give critics that kind of power and just do your work. You didn’t write your play for critics and if you did, you might want to reassess your theatrical motives. Playwright and co-artistic director, Daniel Pinkerton, summed it up well in the comment section to Mandell’s post, “Does a bad review hurt some people? Yup. Is war hell? Yup. Next subject, please.”

End of Post

 

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #14 Getting to Opening Night…

#14.  Getting to Opening Night or overcoming obstacles so you can have one

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

Getting a play ready for an audience can be exciting, hard work, torturous, expensive and maybe even fun. But I don’t think it’s the producers who experience much of that last one. Understanding ticketing (the subject of the previous post) and all its 21st century permutations will likely be the least of your concerns. Filling seats may be critical to your show’s financial viability. But being ready for that audience trumps all in terms of the show’s critical success and your play’s future viability. If it’s not you might find yourself returning money when you delay opening or close early because you never should have opened.

Villa Thrilla needed more time to be ready for an audience but we forged ahead anyway, despite encountering more than our share of obstacles. We had 5 ½ weeks for rehearsal, which should have been enough, but one week in we lost a key actor in our 10-character show and it took another 10 days to find a replacement. Several actors were sick, or otherwise didn’t make it to rehearsal a lot. They had auditions, sick parents and/or needed to leave the state to attend religious holidays, which had somehow appeared on the calendar after they turned in their conflict sheets. Grrr…

It was a brand new play that could have benefited from workshopping, a luxury we didn’t have. Rewrites were needed for any number of reasons—bits didn’t work, actors had trouble with lines, our set would not accommodate the actions I’d written or—here’s a good reason to rewrite—I found ways to say things more concisely. All these rewrites meant new pages daily until Gary (our director) said “Stop!” I didn’t want to kill multiple trees in this process so I’d bring in new pages to insert into existing scripts. Well, this was a failure with most actors having the “old page 6–A-2” or whatever it was. This reached a devastating conclusion at what must have been among the worst designer stumble-throughs in the history of theatre. It brought new meaning to the phrase “not on the same page.” Our well-mannered lighting designer wore an expression of embarrassed dread. I was feeling both too.

Then there were the stage and set preparations that went awry. The scrim was measured wrong or so said the construction crew. Or was it that the construction crew cut the scrim wrong, thereby screwing up the designer’s measurements? We had to buy more expensive scrim. Critical personnel were rarely there at the same time so communication broke down. We had plenty of time to build the set before opening (though it was an elaborate one) but we had delay after delay with causation and responsibility difficult to ascertain. Promises made, broken, remade and broken again. And if you’ve been reading these posts, you might remember the “couch” issue, where I drove all over LA wasting gas and checking out couches that would meet the expectations of the set designer, Gary and my wallet. I painted the floor myself, because it had to be done on a certain day and there was no one else to do it. And there were lots of other challenges with getting the set ready in time, though once it was up and functioning we were all very happy and it received its own share of good reviews.

Failure is not an option as one is negotiating all the obstacles one is faced with in getting a show up. It’s just a question of how you will compromise on your vision with the materials you have to work with, keeping in mind that vanishing time horizon as opening night draws near.

Then you get to tech week, which can be so torturous Anne Washburn wrote a play about it called 10 of 12, which just had a run at Soho Rep. Our first day of tech represented the first time all the actors were present for rehearsal since the first read-through, so for me it was less torturous than most other rehearsals. During tech, actors run through the bits of the show when light and sound cues occur. All that gets put into a computer for the Stage Manager. Fortunately for Villa Thrilla, we had an incredible stage manager in Josephine Austin. Throughout the entire process and despite all the turbulence, Josie remained unflappable and held us all together. Now, with tech over, Josie took control and we were ready for our two previews. No obstacles to overcome appeared on either night. Costumes, the set, make up, the board—everything worked. People came to watch and both previews went well. We made a tweak or two to sound/light cues but nothing major. There were also still quite a few bungled or forgotten lines but with ten actors onstage, someone usually knew where they were and could get the play back on track. All of us felt pretty good about the show we’d made and were looking forward to opening.

Finally, the Saturday morning of opening night dawned. Everything was ready to go. Our associate producer, Jerusha Aimee Liu had arrangements for the after party in hand. Wine, beer and concessions to sell at intermission had been purchased. A few critics would be in attendance though none from the top newspapers or blogs, despite our publicist’s best efforts. I knew what I was going to wear and there was nothing more to be done. So I rose early and went on a hike. About halfway in, my brother called throwing down the last obstacle I would need to surmount. His call was to tell me our father had died. Though it wasn’t a big surprise it was still devastating. Not only because I loved my father, but I had planned to see him two days later as soon as the show opened. I sat down on a rock and cried, questioning the timing of it all. I might have spent several hours on that rock but I had to get on with it. As things went, opening night went by in a blur. I was too blue to be worried about the show and being at the theatre kept me from wallowing in grief. I didn’t watch the show that night but from the audience response, I knew it went well. We’d gotten over that last hurdle.

Next up: Reviews and Keeping it Going

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #13 Ticketing…

#13.  Butts in Seats and Selling the Tickets to Put Them There

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

A playwright friend told me a story about how her first play was a week from opening when she realized they hadn’t accounted for how tickets were going to be sold. That’s TOO LATE! Once you’re in rehearsals (and regardless of how they’re going) you should already be selling them, or at least figuring out how to.

There are lots of ways to sell tickets; too many, really. So, if your budget allows, this is where you might be best served by hiring a box office manager or combo box office manager/ticketing person/”front of house” manager. This person should know how theatre tickets get sold in your town and have the experience to help you choose the best, easiest way to do it. And when I say best and easiest, I mean best and easiest for your potential customers, i.e., your audience; not you. Because believe me, they’re different.

Have you ever showed up to something, expected to buy a ticket and been told they only take cash? Or you’re online and whatever site you’re on doesn’t take a certain credit card? If you don’t want to lose a prospective customer, you want to make it easy for him or her to buy a ticket. If you don’t care about selling tickets or have such a small house, short run and built in audience that it’s not worth setting up multiple ways for people to buy tickets, then forget all this. But that’s not most plays and certainly not most plays that are self-produced.

I recommend some combination of making tickets available online, by phone and at the door. Sounds simple but stay with me. Figuring out what will work for you isn’t hard, it’s just one of those time consuming jobs that needs to be done.

Starting with the online ticketing sites, there are several to consider. Brown Paper Tickets is what we used http://www.brownpapertickets.com/createevent.html. You decide your ticket price and how many tickets will be available through this outlet. It allows your ticket purchasers to enter discount codes (that you disseminate via any number of ways) and keeps track of it all. At any time before online sales close before a given performance, you can see how many tickets have been sold and who bought them using which codes. Then there’s Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.com which is similar in functionality but seems to be used for more “one off” types of events. And there are others popping up all the time. Each of these sites takes a percentage of ticket sales and will deposit net proceeds into a bank account or via other means such as a PayPal account that you choose at the set-up stage.

In LA, we have a more full-service site called Plays-411 https://www.plays411.net/newsite/ticketagency/ticketagency.asp It offers ticketing as well as other services to producers, including email blasts about your show that go out to their lists and “hosting’ your show’s informational page, which can serve as your website if you choose not to get a dedicated URL for your show as we did with villathrilla.com. On that page you can provide reviews, cast member info, pictures and the like. Publicists like it because they can go into the site and directly book Press tickets. We didn’t use Plays-411 though a lot of producers do. But I recommend due diligence. Not only do they take an up front fee plus a percentage of sales, several producers I talked to say Plays-411 can take longer to pay producers for tickets sold. Brown Paper Tickets paid within a few days of a performance. The amount of lag time can be critical if you are hoping to use ticket sales to pay actors and other expenses in the later weeks of your show.

You’ll also want to register with Goldstar http://www.goldstar.com/company/suppliers, which has become the go-to place to search for discount tickets. If your graphics and logline grab people here, you can even pull in people to your show that might never have learned about it otherwise.

Something else a producer must consider in Los Angeles apropos ticketing is the Ovation Awards, managed by the LA Stage Alliance. http://lastagealliance.com/tix/) To be considered for an Ovation, you need to be a member (or affiliated with a member theatre as we were) and your show needs to run for at least 6 weeks. You also need to make it available to Ovation voters for free. They will then use this outlet to reserve their tickets. Additional discounted tickets can be made available here too, though we didn’t pull in anyone other than voters from this site.

All of these outlets will get your show in front of prospective ticket buyers and give them an opportunity to buy. But I’m sure you can see the downside to having multiple outlets: Checking in with each of them to determine how many tickets have been sold for a given performance. This can be a headache and even a nightmare if you have a hit show, though granted a good nightmare to have. You have to decide how many tickets you will give each outlet to sell at what price, sometimes changing that number if one site is running low. Invariably mistakes get made and you and your various outlets have created a situation where more tickets have been sold than you have seats. The whole thing requires monitoring and that takes time.

Then there are phone and “at the door” sales, and believe me, there is a large, generally older segment of the population that still prefers one of these two means. They just feel better talking to a real person. We didn’t want to pay for a new phone number or use our own. So we got a free phone number through Google, which allowed us to both set up an informational outgoing message and allowed callers an opportunity to leave a message. We’d then pick up the messages and call people back to take a credit card number for their ticket purchase.

As for sales at the door, we accepted cash, check and credit cards through our Square account. There are a lot of different mobile credit card applications now so again, choose the one best for you and your customers. Percentages vary but I don’t think you don’t need to sign up for more than one of these.

We had a master list for each performance compiled that afternoon from all the different outlets we were using so we knew who to expect. As people arrived, we gave them programs for entry. This is what most theatres in LA do these days. With most people buying tickets online and having the ability to print a receipt, there’s really no need to print up tickets. But if you want to, there are plenty of services that will take your money.

In closing, whatever means you choose to offer tickets to the public, may you sell out your houses and make your nut back!

Theatre Ticket

 

 

 

 

Next up: We are winding down but there are still lots of topics to cover. Is there any aspect of Self-Production you’d particularly like to hear about?

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #12 Rehearsal…

#12. Rehearsals – Or… Making it to Opening Night

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

In the theater, things don’t always happen in a nice, sequential and unstressful order. And in Equity-waiver theatre—read low-budget—things not going as planned is the order of the day. Meaning a playwright doesn’t often have the luxury of a wonderful theatre to work in, fabulous designers to bring her vision to life, a positive casting period during which actors ideal for the roles you’ve written show up to audition and a smooth but exciting rehearsal period where each rehearsal builds upon the last; until finally your show peaks on opening night in front of an appreciative audience with top critics in attendance loving your play. Oh, would that it were so easy! In fact, getting a play up is more a case of overcoming obstacles—whether those obstacles be physical or mental. And with Villa Thrilla, we had our share of both.

Once we had our cast—a challenge in itself—rehearsal began with just four weeks until opening night. (For more on the challenges of casting, see this post in the series: http://lafpi.com/2015/03/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-9-finding-your-actors/) Four weeks is not much time when you’re mounting a new play with a cast of ten; particularly when it seemed impossible to get all the actors to the same rehearsals, even though the play required that their characters be on stage at the same time.

You do your best to get peoples’ schedules ahead of time in order to plan rehearsals but a few people in our cast apparently hadn’t heard about looking at a calendar to verify their availability before committing to doing a play. Did they not know about Yom Kippur or their Mother’s birthday when they signed on? Add losing a cast member one week into rehearsals, losing another cast member for 10 days when a parent became sick out of town and a third cast member who was so difficult to work with we wanted to lose him but replacing him would have meant losing another cast member we liked and there just wasn’t time to get new people up to speed.

The only advantage I can see to 99-seat theatre going away—and I truly hope it does not—is an advantage only to Producers. I guess they should get something for having to pay actors more. The advantage I see is that actors will need to make a greater commitment to the play they have agreed to do, adhering to rehearsal schedules for the privilege of earning minimum wage. Currently actors can pretty much not show up if they feel a little sick, have an audition the next day or realize there were important events they forgot—including their dog’s graduation from obedience school.

The fact that we didn’t have all the actors to rehearse when we needed them made a lot more work for Gary Lee Reed (Director), Josephine Austin (Stage Manager) and me. At the time, if felt as if it took years off our lives. Gary couldn’t tell what he was looking at with the stage missing up to 5 people at any given rehearsal, which resulted in having to block scenes multiple times; Josie was constantly changing blocking in her master script and having to phone errant actors who were late or hadn’t shown up; And I was not able to watch and rewrite during rehearsals, something I’d been counting on, because I had to stand-in for missing cast members—often two or three of them in the same scene. I was dashing around the stage speaking with multiple dialects and vocal timbres providing a real person for the actors who had actually shown up to rehearse. Some nights, we wanted to strangle someone—usually someone who was missing—and yet, we had to try to remain upbeat for the actors who bothered to come to rehearsal. What would be gained by screaming? I don’t know; we didn’t try it. But I doubt it would have improved the rehearsal experience, which I’d hoped would be a gloriously fruitful period when my play would change and grow in leaps and bounds. But alas, I didn’t get to have that on this one.

Being an AEA actor as well as a playwright, I like to think I understand actors but when I put my producer hat on for Villa Thrilla, I was shocked by the behavior of some of my fellow thespians. Emergencies are one thing but it would never occur to me to commit to doing a show, commence rehearsals and then spring a few “unavailable” dates on the producers.

In retrospect, I would have helped myself by choosing a play with a smaller cast but I’ve already explained why I chose this play in the post on Selecting the Work: http://lafpi.com/2014/12/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-3-selecting-the-work/

Shockingly, we did not have our entire cast onstage at the same time until 5 days before opening. And the only thing I can say by way of comfort if you’re considering producing your play, is that once we got to tech, the actors were mostly great. They showed up for the remainder of rehearsals, then performances and, for the most part, knew their lines. So you may get a few more gray hairs, but if you hire professionals, they will be there.

Next up: Ticketing, pre-sales and making some money back

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #11 Publicity…

#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:

  1. 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.;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. Draft your press release and disseminate to any and all critics and media outlets. Then follow up by phone and email;
  5. Arrange for a production still photographer to shoot a dress rehearsal, get those photos out to media;
  6. Help plan and hype opening night and opening night party;
  7. Choosing graphics and advertising buys—online and in trades and local papers;
  8. Get you, your cast or members of your team interviews—online, on radio, TV and trades;
  9. Put press kits together to give to critics when they arrive to see your show;
  10. 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;
  11. 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!

Happy 5th Anniversary LA FPI Blog!

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.

  1. Jessica Abrams (past blogger)
  2. Tiffany Antone
  3. Erica Bennett
  4. Nancy Beverly (past blogger)
  5. Jenn Bobiwash
  6. Andie Bottrell
  7. Robin Byrd
  8. Korama Danquah
  9. Kitty Felde
  10. Diane Grant
  11. Jen Huszcza (past blogger)
  12. Sara Israel (past blogger)
  13. Cindy Marie Jenkins (past blogger)
  14. Sue May (video blogger)
  15. Anna Nicholas (guest series blogger)
  16. Analyn Revilla
  17. Laura Shamas
  18. Madhuri Shekar
  19. Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko
  20. Cynthia Wands

 LAFPI Blog 3

 

 

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: # 10 Selecting Your Designers…

#10.   Selecting Your Designers; or the Matter of the Couch

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

the CouchOne 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 Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: # 9 Finding Your Actors…

# 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 Team

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