Thursday, January 21, 2010

Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing, Part 5: Fundraising

While briefly relaying the hubris we displayed putting on our second show through reckless overspending, I was reminded of the line in Frank Miller's Daredevil: The Man Without Fear origin story miniseries, where Stick is teaching a young, blind Matt Murdock archery. After many failed attempts to hit the target (hey, the kid's blind, what do you expect?), young Matt finally hits the target with his arrow.

"Hey! I did it!" Matt exclaims with excitement.

Unimpressed, Stick and hits Matt over the head with his walking stick. "Anybody can do it once," Stick growls.

The wonderful and sometimes problematic thing about our experiences with Nosedive Productions is that we never had (and still don't have) any world-weary, Stick-like mentor figure to point us in the right direction, or remind us not to get too cocky over moderate accomplishments. If we did, we'd probably be reminded that staging Monkeys was an accomplishment that thousands (perhaps tens of thousands?) of other people had achieved in the city around the same time period. We were - and are - nothing special.

Anybody can do it once.

* * *

I figure this may be as good a place to start getting into the subject of fundraising in more detail. Over in the comments section to the previous entry, RLewis offers some excellent advice about fundraising. I'm reposting his comment in full (in bold italics), followed by an expanded version of my response:

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.

Hey, Ralph! Yes, this is all excellent advice. Nosedive Productions started doing fundraising shows/parties after our third play (The Awaited Visit in August 2001, when Patrick Shearer climbed aboard), which have been great ways to hang with our audience members, get tanked with them, plug the show, and get some startup cash.

Basically, our first fundraising show/party, which we held at the Surf Reality in January 2002, was done to raise funds for our fourth play (Ruins) and at the time when we really started to see ourselves as an actual theatre company. We rented out the space, bought a keg, some wine and some snacks, rehearsed some comedy sketches, invited a couple other performers (musicians, comics, improv performers), charged $20 at the door (which allowed access to all our alcohol: "$20 = All You Can Drink" ain't a bad deal, as it turns out), and offered a 90-minute sketch comedy/variety show, followed by a late-night party.

(A number of these have varied in their successes. Some in particular were massively successful in every conceivable way: huge turnouts, healthy profits, and fun times. We're of course realizing, as we - and our audience base - get older, all-night booze-ups don't have quite the same luster. We're amidst tinkering with our formula and adapting as we continue, with hit-or-miss success. Our Nosedive's Disturbing Burlesque last year was an absolute blast, while our Nosedive's Boxcar Social the year before was a total disaster that ended up costing us money, had the lovely and amazing folks at Vampire Cowboys not feel massive amounts of pity for our pathetic asses and donate a large portion of the studio rental cost. [Seriously, Robert, Qui and Abby, thank you guys forever for that.] We're amidst planning a blow-out party this March to kick off our 10th season and commemorate the 10th anniversary of staging Monkeys. We'll see how that all turns out).

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.

(Fortunately, we've been able to keep it together of late and have not had to resort to such desperate measures like the one we mentioned above. But there have been times. I remember we were having a serious and unexpected cash-flow problem and dealing with a theatre that required payment in full within a couple weeks of signing the contract, rather than the typical 50% down at signing, the remaining 50% at opening that most spaces require, so we needed to send out an, "Oh shit!" email to many sympathizers. But we really try to avoid getting into those situations and fortunately have been successful avoiding said situations for years. I just hope I haven't tempted fate by typing that.)

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.

So the bottom line is, there are a number of ways to fundraise, from hosting fundraising shows and/or parties (and how you want to run and organize these is totally up to you; it is, after all, your company, and your party), email campaigns, letter campaigns, or begging for loans from close friends and family members (the would-be and working self-producer has no time for such luxuries and shame or humility). Also, the goal of fundraising isn't just to raise money: it's to raise your profile and awareness within the theatre-going public.

It's also about getting to know your audience and, at the risk of sounding insufferably corny, getting a chance to have the people who come see your work be a part of your company. They're not just forking over cash that you need for paying the printing bill, they're joining you in the long haul of creating and cultivating a company.

Next: Some quasi-philosophical ranting, the self-producer versus the world conveyed in Outrageous Fortune, and why I haven't been a part of that conversation in the blogosphere (yes, again, it ties into self-producing).

Getting his audience drunk for over 10 years,

James "One More!" Comtois

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Anonymous RLewis said...

JC, please pardon my being so into your thread here, but I’m not that thrilled with the OF debate nor whether we’re putting on more classics than new plays. I’m more up for making things better in our community rather than pumping up the problems, so you may be stuck with me on this topic – it’s a good one.

I just wanted to share the best advice that I ever got on fundraising from an ART/NY seminar – tie it into your company’s mission.

For example, we’re a “site-specific” company, so when we did our burlesque fundraiser in ‘05, we looked for a Peculiar tie-in. What we found was that Collective: Unconscious’s space had been the former Harlequin Burlesque (I remember its pre-Guliani strip club days). So, by doing such a show in such a space, it was not only a cool hook, but we could also use the show in grant proposals and other site-specific material as “what we do”, not just what we did to make money. (And the good feeling continued when our artistic advisors, Pinchbottom, went on to do a monthly burlesque show there for the next couple of years.)

And one other thing I’d like to add for anyone reading these comments: know your local arts council.

In manhattan it’s the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, but every borough has one. I’ll bet my pants that almost every theater company got their first grant from either their local council or ART/NY. ART/NY has the Nancy Quinn Fund, and LMCC has the MCAF and DEC grants. That’s the easiest money out there for those just starting the journey.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, think nothing of it, sir! You're always welcome here! And I'm glad you're enjoying these entries and offering your experiences in the world of self-producing.

In addition to still writing the next entry, I'm trying to work on its tone, since I want to at least curb my equally less-than-thrilled feelings toward the OF debate to that of a mild sigh (rather than a full-on rant). This is, after all, about self-producing, not about how and why I'm the 32-year-old equivalent of the cranky old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

Tying your fundraiser to your company or your production is really essential these days, isn't it? That's kind of the problem we had once our simple, "Let's all get tanked!" fundraising formula was no longer working in and of itself.

And unrelated to fundraising, I love Pinchbottom! I've been fans of them for a while now. Nasty Canasta is one of my favorite burlesque performers.

But enough about my love of nudity and complete lack of interest in reading Outrageous Fortune. Knowing one's arts council is also a good step in the right direction. I have mixed feelings about the Nancy Quinn Fund. Okay, no, they're not mixed: I think it's a great annual Fund and am bitter that Nosedive is a three-time loser of said Fund.

5:05 PM  
Anonymous RLewis said...

fyi NFQ: it took us 3 tries before ever getting one, so don't stop trying. And we have lots of other grants that took even more than 3 tries. Learn from the mistakes, but everyone should just keep putting in the paperwork (and AEA-hampered worksamples. lol/boohoo). There are no losers, just winners yet to be recognized.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Well put. I could learn a lot from your optimism, sir. :)

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Bah, Link to Part 6 is broken?

12:59 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

11:16 AM  

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