Saturday, June 9, 2012

Producing is F*ing Hard

 This is how it feels to produce a show most of the time.  A lot of responsibility, a lot of headache and heartache...and hopefully some creative satisfaction somewhere down the line.

It seems that in most people's minds, I get to do whatever I want, because I'm the Artistic Director of a theater company.  So, I pick whatever play I want to do, cast myself in it, rehearse however I want, and voila!  Right?  I wish.  Producing a play is, unfortunately, nowhere near that simple.  We've just spent the last three months applying for plays, getting denied, regrouping, recasting, applying again, getting denied, getting depressed, drinking, regrouping, reigniting, recasting, get the gist.

We are frequently asked for guidance in regard to getting a dream show going, fundraising, and all that other fun stuff.  So, I'd like to take a few moments to go over some basics.  Let's say you want to get a project do you go about doing that?  Exactly what goes into pre-production?

1.)  Pick a show.  Right now, this is the easy part.
2.)  Make sure you have a cast and director in mind for it.  You don't want to get the rights to something, only to find that you can't excite a group around it.
3.)  Find a space for the show - which also means that you will probably need to secure dates and put down a deposit for the space.
4.)  Apply for the license to do the show - usually through Dramatists, Samuel French, Playscripts, Dramatic Publishing, or sometimes directly the author's agent.
5.)  Wait 2-8 weeks.  Hopefully get it.
6.)  Raise funds.
7.)  Get the creative team together.
8.)  Contract the talent and apply for permission from Actors Equity, if it applies.
9.)  Start promoting and publicizing the show (to the public and to reviewers)
And this is all before you even step foot into a rehearsal room.

Now, that all seems relatively straight forward.  However, when you're operating in a big city like New York, there are all sorts of factors that go into getting the rights to a play.  We just applied for about 30 plays, and ended up getting denied the rights to most of them.  The first time I was starting a group in this city, I excited a whole team around Neil Labute's The Shape of Things, only to find that we couldn't get the rights.

You have to be prepared to move on to another show.  In all likelihood, if your play has been written within the last 20 years, you aren't going to get the rights to do it in New York - or even the Tri-State Area.  This is the advantage to starting a theater in Podunk, America.

It's difficult to keep up your enthusiasm when you can't seem to act in your dream roles, even when you're paying for them.  It seems ridiculous that authors wouldn't want their work done as often as possible, but the unfortunate reality for them is that the markets can become over-saturated. If everyone starts doing Fool for Love or Brilliant Traces or whatever other shows we see happening all the time, then by the time a major production team comes around to stage a Broadway or and Off-Broadway Revival, the public just doesn't care anymore.

So, I suggest finding a group of people you want to work with and finding an assortment of shows to fit that group.  Then when you apply, it's just a matter of finding out which shows you can pick between. 

Also, just because you've been turned down, it doesn't mean you can't produce the same show a year later.  As is the case with our current season, we didn't get the rights to our first two picks because those playwrights are having major revivals of their work staged, and they have put blanket restrictions on their work to keep excitement driven towards their current shows, and to allow for the possibility that these shows might excite the community for one of their previous hits.

Keep in mind that Producing is an artistic endeavor.  It requires lots of patience and creativity.  Once you get your show and theater lined up, then the next step is in securing the artists.  Generally speaking, you won't get your first choices there either - even if people were brimming with excitement before the project materialized.  Everyone is interested in the idea of a project.  The reality is always very different.  You can't let that discourage you. 

It constantly amazes me that I can listen to actor after actor bitch about not getting work - and then turn down work, because they're holding out for something or saving their money so that when the big time comes, they're ready.  It's unfortunate, but the reality is that in a big market, there are a lot of opportunities, and we all have to be careful with how we spend our time and energy. 

A lesson that I'm learning is that producers need to approach the market in just the same way that actors do.  I constantly hear directors bitch about their actors, producers bitch about their directors, actors bitch about anything, etc.  We're a sensitive group.  We like to bitch.

So prepare yourself now.  Whether you are an actor, a producer, a director, a playwright, a whatever.  You can make your experiences great.  When you surround yourself with people that inspire you, who will work alongside you (rather than piggyback along), your experiences will begin to be fulfilling.

Because the truth of the matter is that Producing is hard.  Getting audiences there is hard.  Holding onto excitement and creativity is hard, not only for you, but for your creative team as well.  Most artists I know do more to sabotage their work than to support it.  Your whole team needs to be supportive of one another - especially when talking to friends.

If you are an actor or a director or a writer (or yes, a producer), then save your constructive criticism for your confessor and your journal.  Try to address your concerns openly with your group, while still being supportive.  The easiest way to make yourself valuable to the people you work with is to value them.  The easiest way to make your project valuable is to find the value in what you are doing all the time.  And even if you fall short of your own mark, you'll be doing everything to make the project as great as it can be.  That's not just the Producer's job. 

Producing a successful project is a team effort. 



  1. Great points, Brandon. Obviously the rights issue is why a lot of companies focus on Shakespeare and other out-of-copyright works - not only are you saving money by not having to pay rights, you're not prevented from doing the show that you want to do.

    Companies that frequently produce new works also have more freedom, since they're often working with unpublished writers who are happy to collaborate in getting their plays seen.

    But new works have their own unique series of advantages and disadvantages for the producing company. Perhaps a subject for a future post? :-)

  2. I'm totally writing a follow up post to this on my own personal blog. People don't seem to realize the amount of work it takes just to get the show selected, much less marketed and rehearsed. And, interestingly, the mark of a good producer is to make it look easy for their fellow members and artists. So, we tend to downplay the frustrations and boost up morale without letting the cracks show until the situation gets dire.

    I'm very passionate about our (this) blog showing the seams a little bit, so that other actors can see what goes into producing, and other producing artists can have a forum for learning and chatting about their experiences. So, please do let us know what you think!

  3. I worked with a great company in Portland Maine called Madhorse Theater Company, and they were able to put on plays that had been off-Broadway just the previous season. It never occurred to me then that this was possible because we were in Maine! (though Portland has a thriving theater and film scene) At least those Maniacs are getting exposed to current works.

    Just as stage managing/directing can help actors appreciate the other side of things, and vice-versa, I bet producing can help us understand how a production is definitely the sum of its parts! What sort of sucks is balancing acting, working a day job, AND producing. The project better be something you are really excited about. And you can't be too hard on yourself if you don't execute each role perfectly. AND make sure you focus just as hard on your acting/directing work as you usually do, since you want to produce something good :)


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