Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Little Jimmy's Guide To Self-Producing: An Introduction

Well, the theatre blogosphere has brought up the subject (as it apparently does every few years or so) of self-producing, and with Mr. Freeman's post here and Travis Bedard's suggestion that I offer the "hows" (rather than the "whys") of self-producing, so I think it may be time to quit stalling and offer a very one-sided, Jimmy-centric Guide to Self-Producing (in a similar vein to Dave Sim's Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing, which Nosedive Productions cohort Pete Boisvert and I used as our bible for Nosedive for those first few formative years when we decided we were in fact a theatre company and not just two dudes putting on plays). After all, Nosedive is now kicking off its 10th Anniversary season, so what better time than the present is there for me to natter about the trials and tribulations of self-producing my own work for the past 10 years?

One major perk about writing such a quixotic "how-to" guide like this is, whenever the conversation in the theatrical blogosphere invariably comes back to the subject of self-producing, I can just post a, "check these out" links every few years and call it a day.

Bear in mind that this "how to" dealie, like with all "how to" dealies, contains a great deal of bullshit. I'm basing this all on my personal experiences with self-producing through Nosedive, which is quite different from the experiences many, many other playwrights and directors have had with self-producing. Like I said, this is extremely Jimmy-centric here.

I call this upcoming series of entries quixotic because I don't think this will do very much in the way of getting people afraid to self-produce to jump in and self-produce. Much of the world of self-producing is that of "trial by error," which these entries won't offer. But at the very least, I can point the folks interested in self-producing in the right direction (the way Adam Heffernan and Dave Townsend pointed Pete and I in the right direction when we first moved to the city and ultimately formed Nosedive Productions).

* * *

I guess before I get into the "hows" of self-producing, I should take some time in this introduction to get a little bit briefly into the "whys" for Nosedive (which are part-and-parcel with the "hows"). It wasn't for high-minded or idealistic reasons: we weren't trying to stick it to the institutional theatre model or to get a foot in the door of an off-Broadway or LORT theatre. It wasn't for any financial reasons: we knew that self-producing was going to cost us, not gain us, money. It also wasn't for tangential career reasons: we weren't self-producing as a means to get noticed and whisked away into fame and fortune by a Big-Timey producer (I'm sure we wouldn't have minded, but Pete and I are stubborn, cynical New Hampshire men and are pretty realistic-to-pessimistic about garnering real world success).

Simply put, Pete and I wanted to put on plays, were impatient about doing so, and realized that staging them our damn selves was the best option available to us.

I moved to New York from Boston in the summer of 1999 and wanted to have my plays staged in the city. I had asked a few friends of friends how the hell that would be possible. Most of the options were the same: either form some relationship with a theatre so that they may (may) do a staged reading of my work in a year's time (though most likely longer), or spend a year filling out the paperwork to become a 501c3 (not-for-profit) entity.

My reactions to both options were the same: Fuck that.

Meanwhile, Pete Boisvert, someone I had gone to high school with but fell out of touch with during college, had also moved to New York at the same time and was having a similar experience trying to find directing work. The short story: no one hires a director just out of college with no real world experience.

So, we met up in the city (reunited by our mutual friend, Ben VandenBoom) and commiserated to one another about our respective "going nowhere fast" experiences.

Sometime in September (or October, I can't quite remember) of '99, Pete had asked to read a couple of my scripts. I obliged by sending them to him. Fortunately for me (and for him, since he didn't want to engage in an awkward conversation about how unimpressed he was), he liked what he had read, particularly one play, Allston. He called me one night to talk about him directing Allston. Although I wanted Allston to be staged, I actually wanted another one, Monkeys, to be staged first (for some reason, I wanted this to be my first play in New York and Allston to be my second; don't ask me why).

So, we started talking about the idea of renting out a theatre and putting on Monkeys. Since I didn't - and still don't - have much of a desire or aptitude for directing, and knew someone who wanted to and could direct (and, more importantly, wanted to and could direct my stuff), I absolutely dug the idea of us working together, finding out how to stage this show (and, if it went well, Allston sometime further down the road) and splitting the costs, grunt-work and eventually box-office earnings (if they existed) of the production 50-50.

The bottom line is the two of us were eager impatient to get started. We didn't move to New York to wait around for years for some theatre company to deign to give us the time of day at their convenience or spend a year or more working on paperwork to become 501c3. If I tried that route, I'm sure I would have gotten frustrated and left the city within a year (Pete tells me he'd have probably done the same).

(I should point out here that we here at Nosedive Central are not the most business-savvy individuals. However, one of the huge perks about self-producing is that you can control how much or how little the business aspects take up your time. The more business-savvy of you reading this will probably have the drive, organizational skills and common sense to create your Web site, fill the not-for-profit paperwork, write your mission statement and print your business cards all while staging your first play. We here at Nosedive did - and are doing - many of those above-mentioned things years later. For good or for bad [often, it's been a bit of both], it's always been about putting on the show first and foremost for us. But I've gotten way ahead of myself.)

So, about two months after moving to the city, Pete and I had the project we wanted to do: my play, Monkeys, which Pete would direct. If the process of getting this show up on its feet wasn't a disastrous experience or financial fiasco, we would then stage Allston. Awesome. Super. Fantastic.

There was just one problem: we knew exactly fuck all about how to go about doing this.

Next: Getting a little help from our friends, staging our first play, and revealing the most basic, paired down, nuts-and-bolts way this came about (with helpful tips for you, Dear Reader!).

Bending your ear,

James "Senile Grampa" Comtois

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Anonymous RLewis said...

Well done, sir. Your story underlines what I feel is the most important first step: find someone(s) to share the pain and pleasures of producing with you. The first thing I did when starting Peculiar Works was to join up with 2 others. It may have been the last best thing I ever did, but it has sure made the last 16 years a lot more better.

I'm hoping that your next steps are to join ART/NY (or some service orgainzation), and to join Fractured Atlas (or some fiscal conduit).

Incorporate, sure, it's easy; but 501(c)3, we waited 5 yrs to do it, and it mattered not a drop. We try to live by the lesson of Nello & George at Arts Action Research: let the work drive the administration.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Travis Bedard said...

This is GREAT.

And this is something that the rest of us can ALSO point to when June rolls around and the Class of 2010 wonders why we're not producing them.

New Hampshire Uberalles

11:50 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thank you, Ralph! Yes, having help is the best thing for starting. If Pete and I hadn't joined forces, I was foolhardy enough to do it alone (I was fresh out of college, had a bunch of new credit cards and had no regard for my credit rating), but man, am I glad he liked my stuff and wanted to direct it. It's much, much better to have a partner — or partners — in crime (especially partners with whom you're on the same page).

The next entry will still deal with staging stuff in a kinda-sorta vacuum, but I’m hoping in part 3 (if this is considered part 1) to talk a bit about ART/NY (though, oddly enough, we’re no longer part of it, for reasons I may or may not get into; nothing against the organization, mind you), Fractured Atlas, and being more organized and integrated into the theatre scene/community.

But you're absolutely right, sir: the work itself should dictate the administration.

Tangentially, I've noticed a number of groups that were much more on the ball than Nosedive ever was (or could be), but fell apart or went nowhere simply because they were all about the cart before the horse: they had a spiffy company name, neat Web site, printed business cards, an impressive mission statement...yet never staged a single show.

I'm hoping to convey in later entries that all the company building stuff for us came later, when we realized we were in fact in it for the long haul, not just for these two impending plays.

And thanks to you, too, Travis! Never underestimate the power of New Hampshire stubbornness!

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Dennis Baker said...

Thanks for sharing, I look forward to hearing more. The topics for part 3 sound interesting. I would also be curious what, if anything, you would have done differently.

Then again with comments like, "If the process of getting this show up on its feet wasn't a disastrous experience or financial fiasco...", it might be implied.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Ian Thal said...

Thank you Jimmy!

A year ago, I was in the position of simply wanting a staged reading of my play, and while I haven't yet gone so far as starting my own theatre company, I did just decide that I didn't want to wait on others, so I decided to start self-producing. So far, It's only been staged readings, but so far, I have no regrets-- between what I've learned as a writer, and the friendships I've gained, the money I've lost is irrelevant.

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Dennis & Ian!

@ Dennis, What would I have done differently? In a way, nothing. At the risk of sounding horrifically corny, we at Nosedive try to learn from the mistakes we made from the previous production(s) and make sure we don’t repeat them. We definitely made some blunders along the way, but nothing too spectacular and nothing we couldn’t learn from for the following show.

@Ian, yes, exactly. As you can tell, I’m very much of the, “Screw waiting around for someone else to read my work,” mindset, so I think that’s definitely the way to go.

2:22 AM  
Blogger Ian Thal said...

I've not given up hope that somebody else might produce my work, but I've also decided not to wait passively. After all, even after getting a semi-finalist nod in a competition (and I'm too new to the field to know what stature is assigned the competition in question) nobody has beaten a path to my door...

In the meantime, I have learned a great deal, and my mistakes haven't been too egregious.

6:18 AM  
Blogger RVCBard said...

I moved to New York from Boston in the summer of 1999 and wanted to have my plays staged in the city. I had asked a few friends of friends how the hell that would be possible. Most of the options were the same: either form some relationship with a theatre so that they may (may) do a staged reading of my work in a year's time (though most likely longer), or spend a year filling out the paperwork to become a 501c3 (not-for-profit) entity.

My reactions to both options were the same: Fuck that.

With the exception of the city name and the year you came to New York, that part could have just as easily been written about me.

9:05 PM  
Blogger cgeye said...

If it's not too time-consuming or expensive, would you consider producing a book-on-demand about this?

12:59 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh. Hmmm. I've never thought about that. Huh. I guess I could look into it. I suppose it all depends on, well, demand. But that could be an option.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Kent B said...

Alright James...

This series of posts has been exciting, inspiring and incredibly informative. I'm going to put my money where your mouth, er, keyboard is. (is that lame? I think so) Anyway, I'm going to follow your step by step instructions and I'm going to self produce my own work in NYC.

I have lived here 2 1/2 weeks now, I don't know many people here at all, but I've got a pocket full of cash from my student loans from grad school, a script I'm proud of, and the ability not to cry when this turns into a firey disaster. :)

I've also decided to start keeping a blog detailing the process:


Can I check in with you along the way?

3:36 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Holy crap! Awesome, Kent! And by all means feel free to check in with me. I'm very curious to read your progress and of course see the show once it's up! Best of luck!

3:41 PM  

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