Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing, Part 9: Festivals, Residencies and Co-Productions
UPDATE: Joshua Conkel graciously explains the nuts and bolts of his company's working relationship with Horse Trade in the comments section, and Sean Williams has posted this entry, which offers his insights to producing shows in the Fringe Festival (his company, Gideon, has done a total of four shows now at the Fringe; according to Mac Rogers, their experiences have been ultimately positive).
I'll say right off the bat that this entry in this ongoing quixotic and rambling guide to self-producing is going to cover something that my company, Nosedive Productions, has had only very recent - and limited - experience with. Last year, we did two shows at the Brick Theater, one of which (Infectious Opportunity) was part of a festival (The Brick's Antidepressant Festival) and the other (The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol) was a co-production with the Brick. We're not experts on the subject. (Not that we're experts at anything, really, but...you know what I mean.)
Many other companies have more extensive experience with festivals and residency programs, so for you reps from said companies who are reading this, feel free to post your festival and/or residency experiences in the comments section.
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The major advantage with making your show part of a festival - and not only are there a good number of them in theatre towns all year round, but the number of festivals seems to grow year-over-year - is that you can get a (small) leg-up in publicity and a (huge) drop in production costs.
In other words, being part of a festival gets you a free performance space.
And since I had written in one of the first self-producing posts that the performance space is often the biggest expense, having this expense taken off the table can be a huge boon to the would-be self-producer.
Yes, festivals can be a colossal pain in a number of ways. You can end up having a very limited and odd run (a Monday afternoon or 11 p.m. Wednesday night performance isn't uncommon). You have to share the performance space with many other companies (usually right on top of one another; one company may be loading in right when you're doing curtain call). Storage space may be limited to nonexistent. The same goes for tech time (limited to nonexistent).
Being part of a festival will most likely save you money, but it won't necessarily save you work. In fact,
some most fests end up requiring you to do more work than a regular standalone self-produced show.
(Earlier I had written that being part of a festival can get you a small leg-up in publicity. I can't stress how little that leg-up is. Most festivals have pretty respectable to impressive publicity campaigns. The good news is your show will be part of that campaign. The bad news is that it will only be a small fraction of that campaign. Whomever's doing the PR for the festival doesn't have time to cater to your show; he or she will be busy promoting the entire festival. So, you'll still need to be responsible for publicizing your play. But every little bit helps, and being part of a fest that is getting decent mainstream press coverage can't hurt).
Several theatres also offer either residency programs or co-production options where, for either a reduced or waived rental fee, the theatre takes a cut (usually 50%) of the box office. (Again, up until last year, Nosedive never partook in such a deal: we'd just pay the full rental fee and retain 100% of the box office profits.) You should check out to see if the theatres you're interested in renting do such a thing.
(I think this goes without saying, but I should also point out the excruciatingly obvious: that although the plus side of being part of a fest or co-production can mean limited or reduced costs, it also means limited or reduced revenues. You won't be getting 100% of the profits gained from ticket sales. I realize telling you this may sound like a big, "Well, duh, James, but I just figure it's worth pointing out and bearing your ridicule. Yes, I often feel like some overprotective grandmother warning you to put on your mittens and galoshes before going outside as I write these things.)
Residency programs are a little bit of a different beast and require more of a commitment on the part of your company and the theatre. (It's a longer-term investment.) Nosedive's never really done this, but I do know Joshua Conkel's company, Management Co., does with Horse Trade. Mr. Conkel, if you're so inclined, feel free to drop a line and give us a little bit of insight to your residency experiences. But do so at your leisure. I don't want to put you on the spot or anything.
Doing our ninth season with and at the Brick Theater definitely helped Nosedive cut our typical budget down to a third of our typical budgets...
(Sadly, those days of doing shows for $2,500 have been things of the past for our company for a while, since our budgets have typically been from $5,000 to $9,000 for month-long runs. Our budgets for Infectious Opportunity and The Blood Brothers Present were each around $2,500 for limited runs [six performances for Infectious, four for Blood Brothers]. Felt like old times.)
...and brought in really good houses (due to both the limited runs and performing as part of a small festival that had its own regular audience).
So for those of you that may not have a great deal of startup money, or want to produce but keep your budget as low as possible, festivals and co-productions may be worth looking into.
Always trying to pass the buck,
James "Dodgy Executive" Comtois