#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