Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Producing on a Shoestring Budget
How do theaters produce on a shoestring budget? Luckily, I'm an expert on the subject (or unluckily, but I'm an optimist).
We seem to have this lingering idea in our society that we need to wait for something to make art. From what I can gather, this concept is based largely on our commercial theater marketplace. In calling it "commercial theater", I am including all of us - because our society has set a bar that everyone is judged against. Essentially, we have been brought up to understand that art is only worthwhile when it is commercially viable. This is a trickle-down effect that starts at the top. In the theater world, the top is Broadway. They get the big sets, the great lighting, the good directors, the known actors, the critical response, the most money, the most respect, and the greatest financial support from individuals in our community.
"Financial support? But people can't donate to for-profit ventures", some of you may be thinking. However, what's on the top ten list of things to do in NYC: See a Broadway show. So, everyone is willing to pay for the experience of Broadway. Good or bad, it's something we should all live through, society tells us. No one is running to Off-Off Broadway - or even Off-Broadway.
When we think of what is "good" or "professional" or "accepted" or "successful", the paradigm always starts with the pinnacle of commercial theater. Building upon that concept, the best regional theaters are all trying to land shows on Broadway, so everything is set up for future success in the world market. The best theatrical programs are going to prepare students to work in these markets, so they also have the kinds of systems that are comparable to the best of what our country can boast. Even our high schools try to give their students that leg-up. On every level, our country is trying to measure up to these standards in our industry.
No wonder it's become so difficult to find the heart in our business.
You didn't come here to read about what's wrong with our system, though. You didn't come here to learn the backstory. You came here to find out what we can do about it. First of all, we've got to start thinking about theater as though it's an art form. That may sound like an obvious statement. And yet...look at other, more obvious artists and ask yourself: Does a songwriter need the best guitar to write a song? Does a painter hold out for the expensive paints in order to alter a canvas? Does a writer wait for the book deal to begin writing? In all of these examples, the artist begins with having something to say - and then they carry it out in the best way they know how. The World will let us know if our art is viable. That's not our job.
Now, what are shoestrings? They aren't laces. They are pieces of string, holding shoes together. Shoes are meant to operate with more support. So is theater. The next step is in realizing that in a race that depends on the sturdiness of your shoes, you will always lose. So, you have to change the game around. If your shoes are going to compete with everything that our society tells us is good, it has to offer something other than fancy footwork. The first step towards producing on a shoestring budget is to realize that YOU make the art. The spectacle doesn't do it alone. No amount of panache can substitute for what you bring to the table. Your message has to be at the forefront.
The biggest thing you can do is to come up with a concept for your play that rests on human storytelling. We've all heard this, but it seems that very few of us believe it. At the core of the theater is a person on a stage. Without a person on a stage, there is no theater. Theater can exist without a written script, without a director, without a light board, without a stage manager - even without a building. The requirements for theater are: actors, story, audience. That's it. So, place your focus on that person-to-person communication. How can the people tell the story?
It takes some practice. I was lucky. My theater program in my high school had no money. We had a lot of passion and drive. We had a black box. We had a lot of old paint. But all we had to fall back on was our collective creativity. And we did a lot with just that. My first theater company was called Poor Players for a reason. Keep in mind that acting is primarily the suspension of disbelief, anyway.
Minimalism isn't easy. But here are some benchmarks to help the fledgling artists in us all as we try to make art in these trying times:
Use your imagination. Ask yourself how your story can benefit from a bare-bones staging. It is generally good to pick plays that don't require multiple sets. The more conceptual you can make the show, the better. We told the story of our production of WAITING FOR LEFTY, using only Union buttons (which had our Seeing Place Eye on them), apple crates and a sepia color scheme. Rather than telling the story as vignettes in reverie, we kept the Union Meeting alive the whole time. The lights stayed on over the audience, and we set up the scenes as though they were skits that the committee had brought to convince the taxi drivers to take action. When audiences entered the theater, the cast was already improvising their way into the play for the first half an hour until "curtain time", when we started Clifford Odets' written play. Our focus was the life on stage.
Start from where you are. See if what you already have can work. In our production of THREE SISTERS, we knew from the get-go that we were not going to be able to create a 1904 Russian Mansion realistically on stage. But rather than aiming for the moon and falling short with shoddy costumes and the like, we opted to create a concept for what we wish we had and do our best to suggest that concept. We set up the production as though it were a designer run of the show that still had elements of rehearsal, so that the seams of our work were showing - literally. Costumes were half-finished with some elements from the present. Some props and set-pieces were represented by signs. We had a wooden block that said "Clock", pieces of paper that said "Book" or "Picture frame". We had a ladder with "Stairs" written next to it. There were realistic elements from both the present time and 1904. We had a real Russian Samovar. And we also had Whoppers that my Andrey was stress-eating. We had a violin onstage that I practiced in concert with some of the greats on our soundtrack during scene changes and intermission. We had our Stage Manager onstage, calling cues. The concept was to meld our current time with the past, so that our audience would associate with Chekhov's characters in the present time, rather than holding them as a distant relic from our history. We could have made our show pretty realistic - much more than we originally thought. We actually opted to remove several elements toward the end to make sure that the concept was clear. We didn't want to seem like we were offering the pared-down version. It had to seem intentional. And so it was.
Cut corners wherever you can. Save your money for the stage. The biggest hurdle is rehearsal space. It usually costs almost as much as the performance space. But that's not the only place you can save a lot of money. Use as much wardrobe and props as you can from your actors. On the showcase code, you can't require any AEA actor to loan their own clothing or props, but you can always make a request. Most actors prefer to wear their clothes if they make sense within the concept, because they know their clothes will fit. And then your major cost is in weekly laundry. Our Props and Costumes Manager, Gabrielle Loneck, is currently on a mission to find as much as possible for our entire Fourth Season from within our company and their resources. Re-use everything you can. Ask other theater companies, who have recently produced the shows you're doing, if they still have any odd props, costumes, or set-pieces in storage. They'd probably much rather get a few bucks for it than take up their space with it, when they might not use it again. Look into Build It Green for your construction needs. Look on Craigslist. Go to second-hand stores. Don't buy top-dollar anything unless it is your last resort.
Be creative. You need to think outside of the box. When we started The Seeing Place, I took a shot in the dark. A regular at my old restaurant was leaving for Paris and didn't want to clean his $4,000 a month apartment and get rid of all of the things in it. I offered to do it for him. As a result, he donated his apartment for 2 months for our rehearsal period for THE CREDEAUX CANVAS three years ago. We rehearsed a good amount of our production of WAITING FOR LEFTY in St. Nicholas Park. We've rehearsed in our living room, donated living rooms, my bedroom, you name it. We took over my old apartment and used my living room, hallway, bathrooms, kitchen, and several bedrooms for various entrances and backstage areas on many of our initial productions. I've worked with theater companies that used office lobbies, museums, libraries, churches, courtyards, exercise studios on off hours, you name it. Just keep in mind that The Group Theater had passion and craft. They rehearsed (and lived) in an apartment for much of their beginnings. It doesn't take as much as you may think to make art together.
Ask for help. You'll be surprised at how much you'll get. Try to get everything possible donated. In-Kind donations are essential. What are In-Kind Donations? Donations of goods or services. Most people can donate a lot more than they think they can. This is a tactic I learned from our Managing Director, Erin Cronican. And I have to admit that I was doubtful. But we've been donated paint, rollers, ladders, vacuum cleaners, flooring, printer ink, doors, windows, even scripts (that's a big one for people with office jobs) - just because we asked. Even donations of time are a big deal. Get your friends to help you promote your show if they can't afford to do anything else. It all goes a long way. At Erin's suggestion, we reached out to everyone we knew to help spread the word about our last production of DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA. As a result, we nearly sold out our entire Off-Broadway Debut.
Get your community involved. Make postcards and leave them everywhere you can. Don't just rely on rehearsal spaces and audition rooms. You want the theater-going world to know about your show. So, get your postcards in every theater you can. Don't stop there. Go to pizza places, laundromats, bars, bike shops, libraries, ANYWHERE AND EVERYWHERE. Let people know what you're doing. Post your show online everywhere you can. Talk about it on the social networks. Ask every blogger and reviewer you can get ahold of to come see your show. You don't need a publicist. You just need a diligent group.
Yes, you will need more money than you have. But you don't need to rely on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo - though they are great resources. You also don't need to be 501(c)3 to receive tax-deductible donations. You can apply to become a sponsored project with Fractured Atlas (as we have) - which is an umbrella organization that offers fiscal sponsorship to upstart companies and projects. But you can also make it fun. Have a party to fund-raise for your show. That will help you build some excitement around it as well. Lots of bars are willing to host events and give your crew a discount or kick back a dollar for every drink. Or you can hold your own. Spaces are hard to find, but we've used a lot of artist flats in the past. We've also rented theater spaces and done staged readings as fundraisers, where we've taken donations for Hot Spiced Wine and novelty drinks.
IN FACT, The Seeing Place will be holding our SEASON FOUR LAUNCH PARTY this Friday night from 7pm-2am. If you're in the NYC area, come join us! We'll have Dancing and Drama and the cheapest Drinks you're bound to find. And all of the proceeds go to making great theater happen.
Thanks for reading. We'd love to hear your stories and ideas. Please leave a comment and tell us a story about a show that you've seen or done that built something out of nothing.
I'd tell mine, but you've already read my stories. Now, I wanna hear yours!