Little Jimmy's Guide To Self-Producing, Part 2: Getting Started
In my introduction to this quixotic and rambling Guide to Self-Producing, I started talking about how Pete Boisvert and I reunited from high school in the city, got immediately frustrated by our mutual attempts at getting our feet in the door of the theatre world, started talking about putting on two plays of mine, and realized we didn't have the first clue as to how to do that.
Here, I plan to continue telling the story of how we put on our first play, Monkeys, while finding ways to
awkwardly shoehorn seamlessly tie-in practical advice for the aspiring self-producing theatre artist (taking periodic breaks to provide updates on the process when needed, as the New York theatre scene has changed a bit from 1999/2000 to 2010; but only a bit).
The intention here is, rather than bog you down with tons of dry technical shit or a myriad of "you could do this" or "you should do that" pieces of (useless) advice that may overwhelm and exhaust you, to simply tell you, step-by-step, what Pete and I did to get that first show off the ground. Remember: this is more or less a "Complete Idiots...er, Beginner's Guide." I'll get a little more technical later in the series, just you wait.
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Though Pete and I didn't know exactly how to go about putting this pent-up, reckless energy to practical use, we fortunately had two other friends - Adam Heffernan and Dave Townsend - that had already been living in the city for a couple years and involved in the Off-off scene. Also fortunately, Pete and I were shameless about wanting to know what to do, so we had no problem grilling them for information.
Fortunately for us, Adam and Dave knew some of the ins-and-outs of self-producing (at the time, Dave had just finished producing a double-bill of one-act plays up at the 78th Street Theatre Lab), liked us well enough, and liked the script for Monkeys well enough to hold our hands and show us the basic steps for staging it, as long as Pete and I were willing to finance it ourselves (which we were; we were both fresh out of college and had a bunch of new credit cards and had no problem using them).
(I'll probably get into money and financing a little later, since it kind of merits an entry unto itself, but for now I'll say that how much you want to spend of your own money is up to you. Monkeys ultimately cost $2,400 to stage. This means that Pete and I each put in $1,200 of our own money to stage it. Now, $1,200 may seem daunting to some, but remember that neither Pete nor I had to come up with that figure all in one lump sum: it was doled out over the course of four months, which amounted to about $300 a month, or $75 a week. I don't know about you, but I used to spend more than that on a night of drinking. And if you're in dire straits financially, you can also ask for donations/loans from well-wishing friends and family members. I'm sure you can find some would-be benefactors in your life that would be more than happy to help you stage your first show. Think of the bragging rights they'd gain!)
The first step was picking the venue. Actually, picking the venue is the first, second and third steps, since many things fall in place after that. Landing the venue gives you the schedule, and landing the schedule gives you the cast (since you can't cast it until, well, you know when & where it's playing). Also, renting the theatre is going to be the biggest - or at least one of the biggest - expenses, so it's really nice to have the biggest payment happen up-front. (Hey, the first step is always the hardest, the subsequent steps are much easier.)
We started our venue search in October, and although Pete said he only needed three weeks of rehearsal (plus one week of tech) and therefore was fine with finding space available as soon as December, realistically we were looking for spaces that were open in February. (January was no good since that meant we'd be rehearsing in December, then parting our separate ways for Christmas and New Year's, then having to reorganize for tech and opening. It's looking like more and more companies in New York are opening shows in January, which is a relatively new trend. Pete and I had no intention of doing any such thing for our first play, and most likely, we never will for as long as we're running Nosedive.)
Through a Web site that Dave pointed out to us (that no longer exists), we were able to find a small yet workable theatre (that also no longer exists) for the right price of roughly $90 per night (The Surf Reality House of Urban Savages down in the Lower East Side). We opted for a two-week, eight-performance run (Wednesdays through Saturdays), paid the owner of the theatre 50% of the tab, and now had to work on casting.
(Though Web sites some and go, and at this point, we select our venues based on long-standing relationships with various theatres, their availability and appropriateness of the venue in relation to the play, and haven't used a search engine to find a theatre for years at this point, these may be good places to start your search if you're based in New York. Bear in mind information about availability and pricing may not be up-to-date on whatever search site you're using. Plus, lead-times for theatres are growing. We needed a four-month lead-time [October to February] back in 1999/2000. Some places book their space six-to-eight months in advance. So, in some instances be prepared to have to call a theatre in January to see if they have any open nights in September. Not always, but more often than you'd think.)
With casting, thanks once again to Dave pointing us in the right direction, we rented a studio room at Buzz Shetler Studios on Eighth Avenue (it's since moved), where we also ended up going to for our rehearsals (we don't anymore because their rates kept rising), and held auditions. Since it was our first show and we had zero track record (and didn't feel comfortable bringing in complete strangers), we invited people we knew. We pre-cast our friend, Chris Bujold, who was so excited about the prospect of Pete and I putting on a play in New York he moved down to the city from New Hampshire to get involved (and later became one of the chief architects of Nosedive, albeit unfortunately too briefly), Pete brought in a number of his fellow Ithaca College alumni, and Adam Heffernan (who was also ultimately cast) brought in a number of his friends (many of whom I later discovered were Mac Rogers' college buds, including Gideon Productions co-founder/VIRAL director Jordana Williams).
(With our second play, Allston, we once again held auditions but widened our selection pool of actors by putting an ad in Backstage seeking 20something actors. Though we didn't offer any pay for Monkeys, we offered a small stipend of $100 per actor for Allston and foolishly ran the ad for three weeks. I received a total of 2,000 headshots & resumes over the course of about three and a half weeks. I'm not exaggerating. Morals of the story: 1.) Actors aren't scarce in the city, and 2.) If you're going to run an ad in Backstage or craigslist, just run it the one week.)
With the round of auditions held at the studio we rented done, and later doing another round of auditions in Pete's apartment for a couple extra actors after a couple people passed because the script had too much swearing (Grrrrrrrrrr...), we had our play cast.
Since one of our actors (Tally Sessions) was in Equity, we had to get liability insurance and fill out the Equity paperwork to make this an Equity Showcase.
(Where you want to get your insurance is your call; Pete, who has always been in charge of calling the Equity rep and dealing with the insurance, so I can't remember where we got our insurance from back then; we've often gone with CIMA but recently decided to go with Fractured Atlas. So it's up to you to shop around and figure out which works best for you and your needs. If you're going to use Equity actors, you're going to need to get insurance. If you're not going to use Equity actors, it's not mandatory that you get insurance. Some would say you should, and I guess you should. But we sure as hell don't. Because we're cheap, and if we don't have to pay for it, guess what? We won't.)
So, to recap: we had our space (a dingy yet delightfully colorful theatre in the Lower East Side), our schedule (Wednesday through Saturday for two weeks in February 2000), our cast, our insurance and the OK from Equity. Pete then roped in the services of a friend of a friend, a lovely and talented 19-year-old college girl named Sal Robinson, as our (his) stage manager. (There was no real design for the show and therefore we had no designers; the lights in the space were merely functional, so it was a "lights up, lights down" kinda show and we only used the stage blocks the space provided and a handful of props.) It was now time to rehearse and promote this thing.
Next: Flashing forward, joining Fractured Atlas while working on Incorporation paperwork and 501c3, some publicity stuff, becoming an actual "company" (instead of a couple of dorks putting on a couple of plays). UPDATE: Okay, not really. It's some publicity stuff but more on landing the first play and figuring out what we learned from it.
James "Sailor" Comtois