Monday, January 25, 2010

Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing: A Brief Tangential Pause

Thanks for everyone who's commented on this site and emailed me about these entries on self-producing. I'm very glad to see readers are finding value in them. I'll continue to post more. I have no idea how many, but I still need to natter on about such nuts and bolts things as publicity and dealing with cash flow management, as well as offer a few more digressional and semi-philosophical entries on this weird niche.

I suppose this entry falls in the latter category. This isn't really a helpful "how to" entry, but it may help put some things in perspective about the realities of self-producing as it relates to the massive discussion going on in the theatre blogosphere of late.

So if you wouldn't mind indulging me a little? Don't worry; it's slightly shorter than the other entries. But only slightly.

Now. Outrageous Fortune. I haven't read it. I probably won't anytime soon. I've got a backlog of reading material in my queue and am currently in the middle of Stephen King's massive, amazing 1,100-page tome, Under the Dome (so far, it's the best thing he's written since It, not counting the Dark Tower books, which are in a category all of their own), which I suspect is a more interesting read - and pertains more to my life - than Outrageous Fortune.

Sean Williams just posted this, which I think says it better than I could (and no, I'm not just pointing his entry out to you because he quotes me and links to my blog - okay, so maybe there's a little bit of that going on).

The thing with self-producing, especially when your goals for self-producing are primarily for getting your work staged and getting it staged in a manner you approve of, it makes many of the problems and complaints being blogged about and discussed in relation to Outrageous Fortune fundamentally alien.

I really mean no disrespect to the discussion going on in the blogosphere about the book, since this is a subject worth discussing; but there's a pervasive feeling that it's akin to self-loathing navel-gazing (but even more perverse: it's akin to gazing into someone else's navel).

I imagine this lack of interest in, say, how an institutional theatre chooses the plays in its season is similar to, say, Caveh Zahedi's or Jim Jarmusch's lack of interest in what pictures the major Hollywood studios are greenlighting in any given year.

I'm thrilled with the audience response we get, and we don't get anywhere near the turnout that institutional theatres get. Or the income. In the past 10 years doing this schtick, I think I've made a total of $600 from my playwriting. That's not a joke. (A few years ago we stopped splitting whatever profits we made off the productions - and yes, we do get profits, albeit meager ones, every now and then - and just roll it over into the budget for the next show.)

So when I read the lamentations that playwrights only make $30,000 a year off their playwriting, or that theatres with an audience base of 15,000 subscribers are unable to expand it to 20,000, I can't even comprehend how that's being revealed, or seen, as some sort of problem.


Maybe this is because I never had any idea that I'd make money off my playwriting. As in, ever. The goal was to be produced, get seen, possibly get published. But making money? Considering Arthur Miller was (at the time I was graduating college and wanting to get my plays staged in the real world) one of the few playwrights making a living from his work, and even that was due in part to selling the movie rights for the scripts, I never saw playwriting as an avenue for earning a livable income. Not once.

I dunno...if you wanted to make a killing on compromised creativity, why not go into screenwriting?

(I also find it odd that the bulk of the talk centering around the economic slump in the theatre world is also alien to me and many of my self-producing brothers and sisters. 2009 turned out to be a very good year for Nosedive creatively and financially: we didn't have to put in a nickel of our own money for our two shows - Infectious Opportunity and The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol - and ended the year with a small but respectable surplus to serve as the startup budget for The Little One. Does that mean that our 2010 season will be a success? I have no idea. But the fact that Nosedive, like Gideon, Flux Theatre Ensemble and Vampire Cowboys, is unencumbered by any debt and has the financial means to produce this year shows that the economic situation of institutional theatre has little-to-no bearing on the world of self-produced indie theatre.)

To paraphrase Dave Sim's Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing and equate it to theatre, theatre is one of the few fields where rank amateurs with no experience or track record can play in the same field as seasoned professionals. Combining that with the conclusion that many bloggers writing about Outrageous Fortune (and am I the only person who's noticed a sense of fatigue from the bloggers writing on this subject?) seem to be getting at being that the institutional theatre game is shitty and rigged, self-producing to me doesn't seem like some weird alternative option so much as common sense.

Okay, enough quasi-philosophical quasi-ranting. I'll bring this series back to more practical information and (too-many-to-count) stories of how Nosedive dropped the ball in years past. Until then, I need to finish Under the Dome.

Next: More practical information and (too-many-to-count) stories of how Nosedive dropped the ball in years past.

Wondering how Barbie and the gang
are going to stop Big Jim Rennie,

James "This Shit Got Real" Comtois

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some valuable information on self-producing that came from your friend Mac Rogers bear repeating in your guide.
From Mac Rogers, I think the key strategies for building an audience Off-Off Broadway are:
1) Good branding (consisting of a logo, a website, email and snail mail updates, and individual show promotional materials that are tied together by some sort of visual strategy)
2) A consistent record of good shows. (I’m being idealistic by putting this at #2.)
3) Widening the group of artists you work with. When you see good work from other companies on other shows, poach their people. No one’s making any money, so people are drawn to good work. If you’ve got the goods, people will be interested in working with you. For best results, extend this beyond actors to directors, writers, and designers. Extend into other kinds of theater. In the next year and a half, I’d like to write a play in collaboration with puppeteers, for example.
4) Tirelessly reaching out to media. If you last long enough and bug them diligently enough, eventually they will pay attention.
5) Carefully crafting non-pushy, non-obnoxious email and snail-mail updates about your shows and your company’s progress. (This is really hard.)
6) Fair and polite treatment of everyone you work with. I’ve stayed away from shows on occasion for no reason other than that the people who made the shows, while talented, were jerks. People won’t forgive you for being a jerk unless you’re super-successful.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, thanks for unearthing this from the bowels of the archives! Yes, this is great and practical advice from Mr. Rogers that bears repeating. And all of it his points are essential.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that #6 is the easiest one to accomplish, but so many of us (myself included) find it difficult to hold to it.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I don't know about you, but it blows my mind when I hear about people violating rule #6 in brazen ways. I've heard horror stories, and they just boggle the mind.

Not to toot Nosedive's horn, but on the occasions when people say they had a fun time working with us, I find it a little odd, since I don't think we do anything particularly above and beyond. We're just not active dickheads to our collaborators. But apparently this is beyond some folks. Odd. Truly odd.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Carin said...

Stephen King has only gotten more awesome since his retirement.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

True, so true.

12:04 AM  
Blogger macrogers said...

Whoah, I said that stuff? I haven't said anything that smart in years! Though I have been living by those pointers, to the extent that a fallible human being can. Most of the cast and team of my last show, for example, was acquired through poaching from awesome shows I saw.

To those six I would add (as my co-producer Sean admirably says relentlessly): Go see other people's shows! You can't see all of them, of course, but see as many as you can. Watch them, talk about them, think about them. Help your colleagues learn from watching your reactions. Learning to be an audience member is vital to being a theater artist, and makes people want to see your next show.

1:02 AM  

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