Friday, July 19, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 10)

And so we come to the last and possibly second most important when it comes to producing your own play (second olny to Rule Number 1):

10. Don't sweat it.

Of course, as producer, your job is to make sure everything runs smooth and problem-free during the rehearsal and performance of your show.

But guess what. It won't. Despite your best efforts, things will go wrong.

And that's okay. As long as your show is good, your audiences will leave happy. And in the end, that's all that counts.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 9)

9. Don't be afraid of the media.

This is a biggie. And by media, I mean newspapers.

Yes, newspapers are dying. But good luck finding TV station that will actually do a piece on a local playwright. Despite their imminent demise, newspapers are still the best free advertising you can get.

But many people feel they need some secret key to unlock the gateway to the world of publicity. They need to write the perfect press release. Or they need to know somebody already in the biz. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, if you live in a city with a ridiculousy rich theatre community like Colorado Springs (cough cough), the likelihood of getting a review is practically nill. But it doesn't cost you anything to contact the media. And even if you don't get a review, you might get a preview.

Wait, what?

All right. Let's step back a bit. Reviews and previews are two completely different animals, but few people are even aware of the difference, including those who are active in the theatre community and whose livelihood depends upon knowing the difference.

What is that difference?

First of all, previews are written and published before a show opens, hence the prefix "pre". They're generally written by a reporter, not a critic (although on small newspapers, those two positions can be held by the same people). They're factual, i.e. the article restricts itself to talking about the history of the play, what it's about and what the director's vision is for this particular production, with a few choice quotes from the director or an actor sprinkled throughout. And as a fact-based article, there is no critique of the production itself, although they're often given a mild rah-rah tone).

Reviews are written and published after a show opens. They're written by (hopefully!) an experienced and knowledgeable critic. The critic should not have spoken to anyone involved in the production (that could have an undue influence and their judgment). And the piece consists largely, if not entirely, of opinion. Does the show suck or does it rock?

You may think you'd rather have a review. After all, you're taking a risk on getting slammed in print. But I have it on good authority that reviews sell many more tickets than previews and even a negative review attracts more people than it repels.

So how do approach the media? Emails are fine. Editors and reporters are used to getting emails, so one more doesn't phase them.

But that's also the main problem with emails. Yours can easily get lost in the shuffle, especially if yours is long. Chances are the editor or reporter will scan the subject line and the press release title to look for the hook. If there isn't one, they'll hit delete sooner than you can say Kinky Boots.

What's a hook? It's something that sets your play apart form all the other plays opening that weekend (and yes, it REALLY helps if you scheduled your production so no other plays open at the same time).

Ask yourself this: Why should people see your play? "Because I wrote it" isn't a good answer.

Do you have "star" casting (a highly regarded actor or some local celeb?). Does it have a tie-in to local history (newspapers love all that local crap)? Does it explore some controversial topic that's been in the news (post-traumatic stress syndrome among combat veterans is a particularly juicy one)?

I don't care what your hook is. But you've got to have something.

So forget the press release and send just a short two- or three-sentence email. That way you can put your hook front and center. And your friendly newspaper person will love you for it.

Or just skip email entirely and phone directly. Yes, it's a little more annoying to the editor or reporter. But everyone last one of them knows it's a part of the job.

And to be honest, newspaper people are feeling awfully lonely these days.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 8)

8. Skip the posters.

I know. I know. Everybody loves posters. They're familiar. They're eye-catching. They're cool. And that makes them the go-to advertising medium for both small-budget and large-budget theatre companies alike.

But here's the dirty little secret about posters. They don't work.

Think about it. Where do you put up posters? Coffee shops. Libraries. Places where there are probably already a boatload of posters.

And let's face it. With posters, you're focusing your advertising efforts on the general public, most of whom have no interest in seeing any play, let alone yours.

The answer? Postcards.

VistaPrint will sell you a stack of 500 oversized postcards for just $75. That may seem steep at first, but consider this: If only 1% of the cards motivate someone to come to your show who otherwise wouldn't have, you've just paid for the cards. And your success rate will probably be much higher than that.

The great thing about postcards is that you can carry around a stack of them at all times. Then, when you have the chance to tell someone about your play, you can hand them one of your postcards. Now they've got something to stick on their fridge or bulletin board which will serve as a constant reminder of your show.

And give a stack of postcards to your cast so they can do the same.

Just make sure you've got your ticket-selling website on the postcard so that you can convert all those eyballs to $$$.

Oh, and there's one more thing about postcards. They're a great way to reach theatregoers you don't know. Just leave a stack at the box office of theatre companies opening plays just before yours.

You'll have to ask permission, of course. But the theatre community is nothing if not supportive, and you'd be surprised how willing other theatre folk are to promote your show, as long as you're willing to promote theirs.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 7)

7. Leave the director alone.

I know you want to watch rehearsals. I wanted to. Badly.

But I forced myself to stay away as much as possible. In my case, that meant attending one rehearsal a week. But looking back, I see that even that was excessive.

Attending rehearsals served no earthly good. It made me worry about the progress of the rehearsals--unnecessarily, as it turns out. And it intimidated the actors.

So hire a director you trust, then get out of their way. You'll learn everything you need to know about your play during the actual performance.

And besides, you've got enugh to keep you busy as producer. Why aren't you out there selling tickets?

Monday, July 15, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 6)

6. Don't be afraid to annoy people.

You're a producer now. You're expected to be a jerk.

Okay, maybe you don't have to be a complete jerk to get things done. But it's important to remember that you're the one putting up the money. You have every right to expect excellence from the people around you.

Case in point: the web site error I mentioned in Friday's post. It was a simple bug, something the arts center should have been fixed in 5 minutes.

But it wasn't. I had to email them and call them and email them and call them. Agian and again. In fact, it took about a month from the time I first contacted the arts center about the problem until they got around to fixing it.

Did they find me annoying?


Do they want me to go away?

A big fat no. In fact, now they're begging me to come back and do another two shows this year.

So don't worry about annoying people. If you do a good job, people will want to work with you anyway.

Friday, July 12, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 5)

5. Pay attention to details

You're the producer now, so you're ultimately responsible for everything that happens with your show. The most surprising thing I learned about producing is how really wide-ranging the job is. Here are just some of the issues I had to handle.

Can people buy tickets easily?

As I described last in my post, I allowed the venue to sell tickets to my show through their own website. When I went to check out the website, however, I found that their drop-down menu only allowed people to purchase tickets for the Friday show, not the two Saturday shows. I could have missed out on some significant ticket sales if I hadn't checked this and gotten it fixed.

Where's the toilet paper?

During rehearsal, the director complained that the women's bathroom didn't have any toilet paper. Guess who got to talk to the box office person about replenishing the bathroom supplies and making sure they well well-stocked for the run of the show?

Is the venue safe?

This by far the most important issue of all. At our opening performance, one older lady stepped took a tumble when she took a shortcut from the bathroom and didn't see the low step that was there. You better believe that for the rest of the run, we had that step blocked off so no one could use it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 4)

4. Keep your eye on the goal.

And as producer, your goal is to sell tickets. Sure, you have to review the rental contract and choose the performance dates and pay your actors, but every single one of those decisions should be made with an eye toward getting butts in seats. And at the lowest cost.

We went through Brown Paper Tickets. Their web site is kind of wonky, but their services are free, easy to use and they offer buyers a boatload of ways to order tickets: Will Call, Print-at-Home, Mobile E-tickets and more. To maximize your ticket sales, choose them all.

Your venue may sell tickets on their own web site. Should you let them sell tickets to your show?

I would say yes. You may feel squeamish letting someone else handle your money, but if you're counting on the venue to bring in their regular customers, then those customers are going to want to buy tickets through their usual channels.

On the other hand, it's now two weeks after my own show closed, and I'm still trying to get the venue to send me my proceeds from their sales. So this isn't without its pitfalls.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 3)

3. Choose a good venue

And by that, I don't mean a venue that will provide the best environment for your play. I mean one that will make you the most money.

After all, your single biggest expense is going to be the rent on your venue. And if your play is any good, your audience won't care if they're sitting on folding chairs, if the place is non-air-conditioned on a blistering hot summer day or if trains rumble past at regular intervals (all of which happened during my production).

Of course, if you have free access to a usable venue, then more power to you. You're already well on your way to profitability. The rest of us, however, have to make some compromises.

When I went theatre-hunting for Kill the Critic!, I quickly found that most theatres won't rent at all and of those that do, many charge exorbitant rates. I ended up with two that charged a reasonable flat fee.

The first venue was a 50-seat black box theatre that offered me their space for $500 a week (Sunday to Saturday). Even though the performances were only on Friday anbd Saturday, my director was adamant that the cast be able to rehearse on the actual performance stage the full week before opening night.

The performance space was intimate, so the acoustics would be a dream, but you have those awful folding chairs. And while it was located in Colorado Springs, it offered only limited parking and was unlikely to steer any of its regular clientele my way (the theatre company that owns the space does mostly serious dramas, while my play is a farce with no socially redeeming value whatsoever).

The second venue was a large art gallery. They wanted $1000 for 8 days (Saturday to Saturday), giving us an extra day to set up. The space nominally holds 100 chairs (folding, again), but if the crowds got too big I could set out another 50 seats or more.

The stage was tiny, it was tucked away in the corner of the room, and we had to contend with those annoying trains rumbling by just across the highway (about five per 90 minute performance!).

Also, it was located in a small town about 15 miles north of Colorado Springs. That means I couldn't count on a lot of my friends and neighbors attending.

But the art gallery had it own contact list of 1200 members, many of whom would love to see a farce, a drama, a Kabuki performance or, really, just about anything (they're seriously starved for culture up there). In fact, they had sold out the place for an original musical production of Sense and Sensibility just the month before.

Oh yeah, and the art gallery's insurance covered our group, so we didn't have to buy any of our own.

Guess which one I picked?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 2)

2. Do the math.

How do you plan for success? Simple. By putting together a budget.

It doesn't have to be anything fancy, but it does have to include a reasonable estimate for each of the expenses you expect to incur. For us, those were rent, salary, set, costumes and advertising.

Here are our numbers:

Rent: $1000 (not including $200 security deposit)
Set: $500
Costumes: $500
Cast and crew: $800
Advertising: $200

Total: $3000

Now the big question: can you sell enough tickets to cover your expenses? We were overly optimistic. We thought we could sell 300 tickets at $15 a pop. That would have given us a total of $4500.

We ended up selling only 210. But our expenses came in a little lower too, which is what allowed us to turn a profit. I'll go into more detail in a future post.

Don't spend a dollar of your money until you've put together a budget. And make sure the numbers are realistic.

Monday, July 8, 2013

So you want to produce your own play (Part 1)

On top of the wonderful response I got on my play Kill the Critic!, it now looks like my business partner (the director) and I are going to make a little money (about $250 each on a $2500 production, but who's counting?).

Not only was it my first full-length production as a playwright, it was also my first full-length production as a producer. So yeah, I'm feeling pretty good. But mostly I'm feeling pretty lucky.

Over the next few weeks, I'd like to share some of the lessons I learned along the way. I made plenty of mistakes, and yet everything worked out in the end. If I can produce a play--and I am the least businesslike person in the world--then anyone can.

So here we go. The first lesson is far and away the most important one. And that's because it's all about attitude. Even though it may seem obvious, it bears repeating.

Every. Time. You. Produce. A. Play.

1. Expect success.

Don't go into this planning to lose money. Sure, you may end up burning a whole pile of greenbacks on your way to opening night, but that shouldn't be your goal.

If you're in this for the long haul, and by that I mean you intend to produce more than one of your plays, then it's important that you try to make at least a little money. Otherwise you're going to quickly lose enthusiasm for what could be viewed as a vanity project.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Kill the Critic! named finalist in the McLaren

Just got word that Kill the Critic! was named one of three finalists in the McLaren Memorial Comedy Playwriting Competition. All of the finalists will get a reader's theatre presentation by the Midland Community Theatre in Midland, TX on August 3. The audience fave will then get a full production in 2014.

In the meantime, I've got some work to do. The theatre needs my play cut down to 60 minutes for the reading. They offered to have the director do it, but I'd rather do it myself. After all, it's my baby.

And really, it shouldn't be too hard. The play is only 80 pages as it is, and I'm sure I can get it down to 60 pages with some judicious trimming. I may not even have to eliminate any scenes.

As for the reading itself, I'd love to drive down for it, but there's something even more important going on that weekend. My daughter Brooke will be performing in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Youth Rep production of Pippin. And she's got a lot of magic to do.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Kill the Critic! kills it

Okay, so now I feel stupid. A week ago, I was stressing out about how few tickets had been sold for the world premiere of my play Kill the Critic!

I shouldn't have. As I discovered with my reading of The Butler Did It!, 95% of the audience waited until the last few days before the performance to order tickets, and almost 50% bought at the door.

We ended up with a huge turnout: 105 on Friday night, 25 on Saturday afternoon and 108 on Saturday night. In fact, so many people streamed in for that final performance that I was still scrambling to set out chairs after the play had started.

Even better, the show was a monster-sized hit. The audiences ate it up, laughing uproariously in all the right places and in a bunch more I never intended to be funny.

But the best part of the evening were the people. One of the reasons I love theatre so much is that it brings people of such varying backgrounds together, and this production in particular enabled me to connect with old and new friends alike.

My editor at Pioneer, Brian D. Taylor, drove down from Denver to see the show. Although we email each other frequently, I had never met him before, so it was nice to be able to chat face to face. And, great guy that he is, he even gave the play a fabulous review.

Also, a couple who were the first friends my wife and I made when we moved to Colorado were there. We haven't seen them for probably, oh, 18 years. Sure, we could have met for dinner or drinks over the years, but we didn't. Instead, it took a play--and a pretty silly play at that--to bring us together.

And then there was the entire contingent from my day job (believe it or not, I'm an electrical engineer for a semiconductor company). I have no idea how most of them had heard about the play, but there they were on Saturday night, laughing and cheering as much as the rest of the audience.

Life is good. Theatre is even better.