Monday, January 18, 2010

Little Jimmy's Guide To Self-Producing, Part 4: Moving Forward, Some Words of Caution

So, where were we?

Oh, yes. Moving ahead with big boners.

Right. Here goes.

Okay, so we got through how Pete and I staged our first play, Monkeys, and how we gave ourselves a production company name (Nosedive Productions) solely for the sake of putting something official-seeming on the postcard and how we ended up just being $300 (or $150 each) in the red, which was perfectly fine by us.

Now it's time to jump ahead a bit, and get into how we slowly and inevitably went from being a couple of dorks putting on a play a few months after moving to New York to actually running an honest-to-gorsh theatre company whose tenacity and longevity is respectable, organizational skills and business acumen are appalling, and professional integrity and reputation is dubious at best.

And of course, get into how we fucked something up with our second play, Allston, and made sure to never do anything like that again.

Since the plan was to stage Allston if Monkeys worked out, and in our minds, it did (the financial loss was negligible to the point of nonexistent), we got to work on staging the second play almost immediately. We were hoping to kick things up a bit with this production, namely, have a set, pay the actors and get reviewed.

The good news is, we achieved all of those things with our second play, which was staged at the Gene Frankel Theatre nine months after we closed Monkeys. The bad news is our budget for Allston ended up being more than triple (nearly quadruple) that of Monkeys, and for silly reasons.

Here's what we did wrong: we put in way too much money than we were comfortable losing. Money, I might add, that we all knew early on that we didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting back.

Pete, Chris Bujold (who moved down to New York to be in Monkeys and later agreed to not only act in Allston, but serve as lighting designer and producer) and I had a production meeting a few weeks before opening, where we did some basic arithmetic and realized that in order for us to come a little shy of breaking even (not breaking even, just coming close), we would have to sell out every seat for every performance, offering no cops whatsoever (an impossibility, since this time we had invited press folk, agent folk and would have to comp any AEA members in attendance, let alone the comps each actor would receive for their people).

We had to decide right then and there what we wanted to do: cut our losses and cancel the production, or continue on, take large personal financial hits and agree to never let anything like this happen again.

Obviously, we decided upon the latter and yes, sure enough, we each took large personal financial hits and have never done anything like that again to-date. (Our financial losses since have been well within our means.)

But I think it goes more than just basic finances (though our finances were a major and noticeable casualty). I think our biggest blunder in the abstract sense was that we mistook a minor success for a large success. And here's where I offer that rare bit of actual, paternal, "Don't Leave The House Without Putting On Your Mittens" advice:

As much as I've written - and will continue to write - that there's nothing wrong with paying for a production with your own money (it's pretty much an inevitability in the world of self-producing), and as much as I've written - and will continue to write - that financing a production out-of-pocket is not as scary or as daunting as you might think (and it isn't), I need to stress the following: Only put into a show what you are comfortable never getting back.

Spend well within your means. If you continue to overspend on productions and have no hope of getting a fraction of that back, you'll quickly find yourself in debt and with an inability to either pull yourself out of it or put on another play.

Be reasonable and realistic about how much your show can and should cost. Do the math: you know how many seats your theatre has, you know how many nights you're running and you know how much you're charging for tickets. It your budget is anywhere near - or worse, over - the maximum amount of revenue you can hope to gain, you have made a huge error. A huge, costly - and easily preventable - error.

(I've always been dumbfounded at companies that, due to hubris and a lack of any decent connection to reality, overspent on every aspect of their production. I'm never, of course, surprised that these companies almost always fold shortly thereafter. One of the biggest perks of self-producing is that, since you, the self-producing theatre-maker, is partly or entirely in charge of financing the damn thing, you're the one in charge of keeping your artistic needs in check, not some outside bean-counter. If you know you yourself can't afford something you want, you can come up with creative - and inexpensive - ways to get around such obstacles while remaining true to your artistic vision.)

If you're interested in not just putting on one show, but rather in developing and creating a company that will allow you to stage multiple shows over the course of years, you need to pace yourself financially and not spend recklessly. This is, after all, theatre: there are ways to convey things theatrically and imaginatively, rather than with costly designs and effects (not that I'm against impressive designs and effects, but shit: have some common sense).

For good or for bad, Pete and I had (and continue to have) a "money spent is money gone" attitude towards financing productions. The money we got (and get) back from ticket sales is, to us, "new money," not replenishing previously spent funds. If, after one performance, my take from the box office is $20, I often just see that as $20 I didn't have an hour prior.

But this mindset only works when we're spending well within our means. When we're not, we're finding ourselves constantly broke and desperately hoping to make at least a fraction of that money back at the end of the run, and fucked financially for months afterwards if when we don't.

(Here's a good place as any to also recommend being part of an arts umbrella organization like The Field or Fractured Atlas. They offer a lot of invaluable resources to self-producers, such as seminars, guides and insurance [both health and liability], but mainly, for a very reasonable annual fee, you can solicit and receive tax-deductible donations from your supporters, audience base and well-wishers through the umbrella organization's not-for-profit status. You get money for your project that you don't have to pay back, your donor gets a tax break, and the umbrella organization takes a very reasonable percentage. Everyone pretty much wins. Nosedive joined Fractured Atlas about four years after our first show, and we should have joined them much, much sooner.

Bear in mind becoming an officially incorporated company, then a 501c3 company, takes a great deal of time, money and paperwork. You can bypass some of the time by spending more money [by using either a lawyer or an outsourcing company like The Company Corporation], or you can save money by doing all the paperwork yourself, thereby taking more time [in some cases up to a year or more], but you can't bypass both. Joining The Field or Fractured Atlas takes under $200 and three minutes filling out an online form. I highly recommend becoming a member of one of these organizations until you're ready to deal with the pricey, time-consuming, hair-pullingly frustrating endeavor that is making your case to the State and Federal government that you shouldn't have to pay taxes.)

In hindsight, we could have easily staged Allston for half than what we originally staged it for. We rented a theatre that was a little bit out of our price range, paid the cast & crew a small stipend that we really couldn't afford (don't get me wrong: I'm glad we were able to pay our actors and crew, regardless of how piddling the amount was, but at the same time, we couldn't realistically afford to be doing so), overpaid for rehearsal and tech, overpaid for advertising (we put an ad in The Village Voice that cost more than the ad brought in paying customers), bought a Backstage casting ad for three weeks when we should have just bought one.

The set, of course, didn't cost us a cent. Sigh...

And that was another thing: most of our expenses weren't towards elements that were seen on the stage. They mostly went towards behind-the-scenes elements that weren't necessary to the staging of the play.

Still, I had a blast staging Allston, and was not deterred from continuing to put on plays under the Nosedive Productions moniker. Neither was Pete. Since Pete was interested in staging another play of mine (The Awaited Visit, which ended up being our first award-winner and actively profitable show) and since I had finished the rough draft of a new three-act (Ruins) a month after we staged Allston, we started to see ourselves as an actual company with a potential future, simply because we now had a queue of potential projects forming.

Next: Fundraising

Trying not to duplicate his mistakes,

James "Practicing Imperfectionist" Comtois

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you include a bullet-point list of things that you think you've done wrong and things that you think have done right?

2:53 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Good point: I'm hoping to do something like that in either the next entry or the following. Now that I've gotten most of the memory-lane nattering out of the way, I can (hopefully) be a little more concise.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Well, don't kick yourself too hard about the Backstage ads. Heh.

1:59 AM  
Anonymous RLewis said...

This is really great, JC. I think folks will learn a lot more from your true stories like this than from the usual hypotheticals.

This story brings to my mind the difference between putting on a play and putting up a production. I would encourage others to think of the whole production as more than just the show.

I wonder if your experience could have been better if you had started the production with a kick-off event either before or after rehearsals started. Ya know, throw a big party at a friend’s house, and charge everyone $10 or $20 for all the beer they can drink. Intro' the cast and spoil any supporters with some public butt-kissing.

You invite everyone you know, so does the team, and the cast, too. In addition to these friends now being donors, they'll also be your opening night audience.

Then, after you’ve cried about a financial emergency, use it. Write letters to relatives and others – “the show must go on, but we need you to save it!” Maybe even an open rehearsal/emergency party where you show some of the work in progress. This can also get folks excited about your product.

Gifts over X amount get 2 tkts to opening night and the after-party, some cheap champagne, cheese and crackers. And don’t just put their names in the program, introduce them to your audience. Everyone likes to feel special and needed and recognized for it.

Or let them fund one actor for the run of the show, or a specific set piece, or a week of rehearsal where they alone are invited to sit in. And list what they did in your program.

Maybe consider asking a friend to do some companion outreach. You might be able to match the topic of your work to a non-theater org’ who would love to have something to tell their members about. Give them a “first week” block of tkts at a discount. When we did Don Quixote, we got the Instituto Cervantes to do a kick-off reception at their space, and they had great food and beverages. I don’t know if we’d ever thrown a party where so many people turned out that we didn’t know.

Other groups like the closing night party, and they put buckets at the door for drunk folks to empty their wallets on the way out of the theater. Or do some teaser (live music from your show, a related film screening, etc.) months before you get going.

These are a few things off the top of my head to build a production beyond the play, but the options are only limited by your imagination and your ability to ask for help. People love to help, but even more, they like to be asked. A little money here, a little stuff there, and in the end, maybe there will be a little less debts.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Hey, Ralph! Yes, this is all excellent advice. We started doing fundraising shows/parties after our third play, which have been great ways to hang with our audience members, get tanked with them, plug the show, and get some startup cash.

We’ve also been more aggressive/assertive with our fundraising campaigns over the years, which includes fundraising shows/parties, email campaigns, and the periodic, “Oh, shit hey gang we need $2,000 right now can anyone help us out?” messages to those in our inner circle of friends and family members.

Once we started doing this, in addition to having more people on board as producers as time went on, this lightened the financial burden off our shoulders a bit.

4:46 PM  

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