Friday, January 29, 2010

A New Self-Producer Chronicles His First Time Out

In the comments section, Kent Barrett recently brought this to my attention. Fresh out of grad school with a script, some startup money, and a few potential collaborators, Kent started this blog to chronicle his efforts in putting on his first show in the city.

I'm hoping to continue writing more self-producing guides, but for now I'll remind Kent (and other first-time self-producers) that my entries are not exhaustive nor immutable. You'll realize as you go along, that some things that worked for Nosedive may not work for you (and vice versa). To paraphrase what Dave Sim wrote in his Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing (which, again, was Pete and my bible for the first few years after we decided we were an actual company), very little in this field can be taught, yet almost everything can be learned.

Self-producing in a number of ways is about carving out your own path and doing things your way. But really, you'll figure that out pretty quickly. Hell, from what it sounds like, Kent already has a bit of a leg up than Pete or I did, so you sound like you're so far, on the right track.

(And Kent, if you come across a road block, feel free to ask me in the comments section or shoot me an email at and I'll try to offer any advice I haven't covered in the entries so far. That goes for anyone trying to start up their own productions. Pete and my expertise may be questionable - our experience in the indie theatre scene is our own and not exactly the same as that of CollaborationTown, Management Co., One Year Lease or several other self-producing companies - but it never hurts to ask.)

Having sad all that, I'm very curious to follow his trajectory and read about his experiences. And of course, see the show once it goes up (his target date is in May).

Okay, that's it for now. Have a good weekend, folks. I'll catch you on the proverbial flippety.

Corrupting the youth,

James "Mental Sodomite" Comtois

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

Jerome David Salinger, the legendary and reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, died of natural causes at the age of 91.

One of the many insufferable people who believed
Catcher in the Rye was written just for him,

James "Just Another Phony" Comtois

Labels: ,

Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing, Part 7: Publicity

SK made my job a little easier for this entry by reposting Mac Rogers' ranked list of things a company needs to do to build an audience from our online dialogue a few years back. Here it is below (in bold), with Mac's recent addition:

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.

7. 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.

For the would-be self-producer, I cannot stress this enough: print up Mac's list, make copies, give the copies out to your producing partners and all of you tape them to your fridge.

* * *

I think this would be the time where I'd tell you to hire a good publicist to successfully market your company. Well, I'm not going to do that. Not that there aren't great press reps out there (there are), and not that they can't get you good publicity (many can). But, in a way, it's kind of cheating. A press representative - at least a good one - can be quite costly (the good ones range from $1,000-$8,000, maybe more), and in my humble opinion, I think starting out the gate just outsourcing the role of reaching out to the media (#4 on Mac's list) and washing challenges away with the money hose may not be the best option. (I also think if you're starting out with a ton of money and are already set on the business model of "solve all problems with money," these self-producing entries are of no use to you.)

Plus, I think it's a better idea to interact and reach out to the media outlets on your own. If you're in this for the long- (or at least medium-) haul, you should have at least some personal interaction with the press, since this is all about getting the press to know you and about you and vice versa, right?

(Also, if you'd like, the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan sells mailing labels for agents and press outlets at reasonable prices. Just be forewarned that they're neither comprehensive or fully up-to-date. We bought them for our second and third pays, Allston and The Awaited Visit, but found cultivating our own contact list was easier, more efficient and cheaper.)

With a couple of singular exceptions, Nosedive hasn't used a publicist. Press agent duties were delegated to Yours Truly from the start (just as filling out the Equity and insurance paperwork was delegated to Pete from the start). Our publicity efforts for Monkeys was relegated to being listed on the theatre's Web site, emails blasts, and promotional postcards (which were placed at every and any bar in the neighborhood and surrounding areas as well as mailed to friends, family members and vague acquaintances).

Since then, we've found sites, blogs and publications that list theatre events and review plays and send them press releases (we used to snail mail them, but we've since joined the Internet age and email them) and photos, if we have them early enough.

(I'll admit, Nosedive's always been a little late in the game with photos: you really should have some sort of photo to go along with the press release. Even if you haven't designed the show yet, you'll have it cast and you know the story, so you should send something that vaguely kinda, sorta resembles what the show may look like. And if you're not wild about those preliminary pictures, when you're in tech - which [ulp] is usually when Nosedive takes and sends them - you'll have another option to send the press outlets photos.)

Ideally, it's good to send sites the press release about five to six weeks before opening, and send another personal invitation/reminder about press nights about a week and a half before.

(In terms of what your press release should look like, there are many acceptable formats, but keeping it clear and concise is, I think, the best way to go. It should convey all the necessary information about the show: who's in it, who's producing it, what it's about, and all the whens, wheres and ticket information. For those really curious, here's what Nosedive's typical release looks like.)

In terms of where to send your photos and releases (without giving you Nosedive's list, which, no, you cannot have), there are a ton of sites and publications out there. You know which ones to send to. Hell, Google search the term "[your city] + theatre listings" and you'll find a ton of sites. Not only that, but check out the publicity from other companys' shows. They often have blurbs or foam cutouts of reprinted reviews in the lobby or on their postcards or Web sites. Which outlets reviewed them? Look into them and invite them to the show.

Also, you can personalize. Some magazines may not regularly list or review plays, but their target audience may have some interest in your show (there were a bunch of Stephen King fan sites out there that we let know about our Blood Brothers Present...The Master of Horror show, since it was an anthology of original plays based on King's short stories. Also, many other companies like to personalize and individualize their press packets to tie in with their show).

The real perk about doing this yourself (at least, at first) is that it enables you to not only expand and refine your contact list on your own, but to also show these publications - both online and print - that you're here to stay. Remember: they may not come see your first show, but if you keep sending them releases about your third, fourth and fifth shows, they'll start to recognize your company's name and realize that you're not going anywhere.

As Mac said, if you last long enough and bug them diligently enough, eventually they will pay attention.

In terms of getting a publicist (and again, if you can already afford one for your first production out of the gate, why the hell are you reading this site?), I think it's a good idea to work with your press rep, not just hand them the money and wait for the flood of press requests. If you've been doing your own PR work at first, you should have created your own press contact list. Make sure your press person is inviting everyone on your list as well (if and when you do your own publicity, you may stumble upon some smaller outlets, such as new blogs or student newspapers, which your PR person may not have).

Also, if and when you do have critics coming to see your show, it's a good idea - though not mandatory - to have press packets for them. What should be in them? It's really up to you: whatever you think the critic should have to make writing their review easy for them. For us, we often put in the headshots & resumes of the cast, the program, the press release, occasionally a printout of past positive press quotes, Pete and/or my business card and a copy of the script (some folks don't like giving critics a copy of the script: we do. Having reviewed shows, I always appreciate having them, just in case I need to make a quick reference to a specific line or scene). You can also include a CD-ROM of photos and other information.

It's really up to you.

Wanting people to notice me,

James "Attention-Starved Ham Sandwich" Comtois

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

While I Work on the Next Self-Producing Entry

I was hoping my entry on publicity would be finished by today, but alas, it was not to be. But have faith! It will be posted soon. I'm dancing as fast as I can.

Over at 99seats, J. Holtham offers some very good pushback to my previous entry and articulates his fatigue with the ride he's been on as well as argues the importance of the discussion of the economic situation in the world of professional theatre-making. It's well worth a read.

I'm hoping that writing about self-producing will help people starting out in the theatre world as well as show others with some (perhaps unhappy) experience that there is an alternative to what seems to be a very emotionally and creatively draining ladder-climbing process for many people.

For me, I feel despairing and depressed when I consider the world of institutional theatre, but feel energized and optimistic when I see or take part in good work in the indie theatre world. In many ways, it's as simple as that.

Years ago, my directing partner Pete Boisvert relayed to me a particularly depressing epiphany he received after going to see the remounted Rocky Horror Show. As he was watching a once kinky cult work created by personal inspiration turn into an antiseptic family-friendly tourist trap, he realized this was the "cream of the crop" he could expect in terms of top notch well-paying directing work. Directing a Broadway show was the apex of the mountain, so to speak (in the way that directing a big-budget, feature film financed by a Hollywood studio would be the apex of the mountain for an aspiring filmmaker). It turned him off to the idea of becoming a Professional Director (in Title Case). (I also recall Patrick and I having to talk him pretty strongly out of his "why bother?" funk about directing. Fortunately, he did indeed snap out of it pretty quickly.)

Yes, much can be learned and gained from institutional theatre as both an audience member and as a participant...

(I'll be getting into Mac's great advice from our online dialogue a couple years back that sk posted recently, but for now I'll just concur that it's imperative for theatre-makers to see as many plays as possible, not just to see the value of polished work with high production values, but also to ground any thoughts of one's own originality in reality. Although I won't name names, I do recall a number of indie theatre-makers that pride themselves both on their originality and on their refusal to see other plays, which is, needless to say, silly. How do you know if you're being original if you're not seeing what's out there?)

...however, it may not be the best place to go in terms of a final destination. Once again, I'm reminded of another parallel in Dave Sim's Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing when he clarifies his thoughts on self-publishing comics versus working for a major corporation (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc.):

"There can be nothing more beneficial on many occasions than going for a cool and relaxing dip in a swimming pool. Likewise with the companies. A dip into their pool can be very relaxing, lucrative and prestigious. But you should get in and get out within a certain time frame. You don't want to live in a swimming pool no matter how cool and refreshing it is, do you?"

Likewise, I don't think there's anything wrong with garnering work in the institutional theatre world. But I think investing all ones hopes on finding creative and financial satisfaction within a very flawed system that neither fosters creativity nor pays great sums of money may lead to a great deal of bitterness and frustration.

(Over at Nosedive, we've had a number of professional designers - meaning, whose primary or sole source of income was from designing jobs - work for us for either free or well below scale because of the creative freedom and, dare I say, fun, it afforded them. To them, it was a tradeoff: getting well-paid to be a glorified technician [one designer's words, not mine] in one arena and working for little-to-no money to be an actual designer with actual creative input in another.)

Anyway, the next entry focusing on publicity will be coming as soon as possible; hopefully by Thursday.

UPDATE: J. Holtham just linked to this by Adam Thurman, which is also worth a read. It's quick and to the point: good independent theatre can and will help institutional theatre.

Dancing, always dancing,

James "Astaire" Comtois

Labels: ,

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

Labels: , , ,

Friday, January 22, 2010

Another Interruption

I guess I'll continue the trend of leaving Friday's blog posts reserved for non-self-producing errata. For those of you that are interested, the commentary bits for my Top 50 Films of the Decade have all been completed.

Click here for the top 50-26.

Click here for the top 25.

Regular blogging on self-producing will resume next week.

Until then, have a good weekend, folks. BE somebody.

No one in particular,

James "Him?" Comtois

Labels: ,

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

Labels: , , ,

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

Labels: , , ,

Friday, January 15, 2010

We Interrupt This Series...

...of nostalgia-encrusted self-help posts to bring you the final episode of Entrenched, which played at the Saturday Night Saloon.

Entrenched: Episode 5 from Pete Boisvert on Vimeo.

Written by Yours Truly
Directed by Patrick Shearer

Peter Brown - Rebecca Comtois - Bryan Enk - Mac Rogers
Antonia Stark - Ben VandenBoom - Christopher Yustin

Video by Marc Landers

The entire five-part series can be seen here. Regular posting on self-producing will resume next week. Until then, have a good weekend, folks.

That shitty teacher you had
(and hated) in the seventh grade,

James "Edutainer" Comtois

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little Jimmy's Guide To Self-Producing, Part 3: Landing the First Show

I realize, somewhat sheepishly, that my last "Next" tagline for this part of my "Guide to Self-Producing" is a total, or at least incomplete, lie. I still need to wrap up some aspects of staging that first play before getting into nattering about Incorporation and 501c3 paperwork, company-building and flashing forward. As always, I've gotten ahead of myself. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me (albeit slowly over time).

For this entry I still need to write a bit about how Pete and I did some (meager) promotional work with our first play, Monkeys, then skip right to the end with how the show went down, then go into what we learned from the whole experience. The following entries from here on in will be more "overviewish" and "how to-ey" (those are real words, right?).

* * *

I don't think I'll get too much into the rehearsal process, since how you organize your rehearsals is really up to you. Plus, how long or how short you want to rehearse is your call. Pete and I have our methods, you have yours. I see no point in offering any coaching tips, however direct or indirect, on the subject. I'm not teaching you how to direct (I couldn't even if I wanted to) and not explaining to you how to organize your cast's schedule. Those are tailor-made real world headaches that you're just going to have to figure out on your own, unfortunately. (If you're super-curious, we usually do 3-4 weeks of rehearsal with one week of tech, but that's just how we roll.)

Although we ended up getting decent attendance for our first play due to emailing everyone and anyone we've ever heard of to come see the show (and the sheer novelty of us dipshits putting on a play six months after moving to New York compelled many of our out-of-town friends from Boston, D.C. and Manchester, New Hampshire to come to New York to see what all the commotion was about), we didn't do a whole lot in the way of publicity aside from designing a promotional postcard (which can be found here), printing 5,000 of them (we used 212 Postcards at the time but now make business card-sized promotional cards through, and mailing them to friends & family members, handing them out at every party or get-together we were invited to (or crashed) and dropping them off at virtually every bar, coffee house and tattoo parlor below 14th Street.

Our publicity campaign for Monkeys was simultaneously as low-grade and pathetic as you can get but also our most tenacious and energized. We weren't listed in any sites or magazines as far as we know (aside from being advertised on the Surf Reality's Web site), but we were more aggressive in badgering everyone we knew, everyone we kinda knew, and everyone we had just met - in person, over email and over the phone - to come see our goddamned play. Fortunately, there were many people in the cast for whom this was their first play in the city as well, so several of the cast members were equally tenacious in getting their friends, acquaintances and borderline enemies to come see it.

Nowadays, it's just a matter of writing a press release and emailing it to our press contacts list, emailing our mailing list and posting the plugs on this here blog. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I'm just kind of marveling at how much literal footwork we were all willing to do when we were in our early twenties.

(It wasn't until putting on our second play, Allston, that we knew about theatre listing sites, such as, or ticketing agencies, such as or But of course, you know about those places - and many others - because you're much savvier than Pete or I ever was, or ever hope to be.)

Both Adam Heffernan and Dave Townsend gave us some examples of promotional postcards from other shows, and it was Adam that told us to come up with a production company name to make us seem more "legit." I already knew the name we'd use: Nosedive Productions, the name of a fictitious production company I made up in high school (and would doodles on my notebooks, complete with a logo of a face with a shit-eating grin offering a very enthusiastic down-turned thumb). There wasn't any discussion there: we had bigger fish to fry and more important things to worry about. Since we didn't consider ourselves a company at the time, the last thing we cared about was what our name would be. Yes, I'm still vaguely amused that a company that's been producing theatre in the city for over 10 years has such a ridiculous name. No, I don't regret it one bit.

Although we didn't seek (or receive) any reviews, or go through any online ticketing agency, it's just as well. It was our first show and we weren't quite ready to get bitch-slapped by any negative press, and it wasn't like we really needed to do any "crowd control" or advanced sales. No; we charged $10 (I would keep $5, Pete would keep $5), which I collected from the audience members and put in an empty coffee can.

(I don't recall anyone flashing their Equity card at me, but perhaps that's because they saw that the "box office" consisted of a dorky 22-year old holding a coffee can and simply didn't have the heart to use it. Who knows?)

The show went up, and our houses ranged from respectable (12-20 people) to a couple full (45-50). For our closing night, we had 60 people in the house, and the owner of the space brought in more chairs. It was definitely a nice way to go out on our first show.

How'd we do financially? We garnered a total income from ticket sales of about $2100, a $300 loss from our final budget of $2,400. Which means Pete and I each took a $150 hit. That was fine by us.

Spending $150 to put on a play? That was more than fine by us.

At the end of the day, staging Monkeys was an extremely fun learning process, and a good stating point to figure out how we wanted to proceed next. In a way, getting the show up of its feet showed us how easy it was to stage a show, provided we weren't getting into self-producing for fame, fortune or glory (and believe me, we weren't).

In a lot of ways, you're on your own, so it depends on if that concept thrills or terrifies you (obviously for me and Pete, it's the former). There are some community-building organizations in New York to help you feel less alone, such as ART/NY, the Community Dish and the League of Independent Theatres. In terms of providing resources, they're great. In terms of them holding your hand every step of the way or footing the bill for your next show...well, no. Think of those groups as the equivalent of our Adam and Dave.

It also wasn't until much, much later that we became a member of Fractured Atlas (something that we should have done sooner than we did) and even later still (i.e., are doing now) became an Incorporated Company and started the paperwork to becoming a 501c3 not-for-profit company.

However, it was only until we put up our next show, Allston, nine months later that we made one of our biggest blunders.

Next: Our Big Blunder, and now flashing forward, joining Fractured Atlas, becoming an actual "company."

Wondering if he should have written, "our biggest boner,"

James "Nah, Let's Keep It Classy" Comtois

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

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, Beginner's Guide." I'll get a little more technical later in the series, just you wait.

* * *

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

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Little Jimmy's Guide To Self-Producing: An Introduction

Well, the theatre blogosphere has brought up the subject (as it apparently does every few years or so) of self-producing, and with Mr. Freeman's post here and Travis Bedard's suggestion that I offer the "hows" (rather than the "whys") of self-producing, so I think it may be time to quit stalling and offer a very one-sided, Jimmy-centric Guide to Self-Producing (in a similar vein to Dave Sim's Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing, which Nosedive Productions cohort Pete Boisvert and I used as our bible for Nosedive for those first few formative years when we decided we were in fact a theatre company and not just two dudes putting on plays). After all, Nosedive is now kicking off its 10th Anniversary season, so what better time than the present is there for me to natter about the trials and tribulations of self-producing my own work for the past 10 years?

One major perk about writing such a quixotic "how-to" guide like this is, whenever the conversation in the theatrical blogosphere invariably comes back to the subject of self-producing, I can just post a, "check these out" links every few years and call it a day.

Bear in mind that this "how to" dealie, like with all "how to" dealies, contains a great deal of bullshit. I'm basing this all on my personal experiences with self-producing through Nosedive, which is quite different from the experiences many, many other playwrights and directors have had with self-producing. Like I said, this is extremely Jimmy-centric here.

I call this upcoming series of entries quixotic because I don't think this will do very much in the way of getting people afraid to self-produce to jump in and self-produce. Much of the world of self-producing is that of "trial by error," which these entries won't offer. But at the very least, I can point the folks interested in self-producing in the right direction (the way Adam Heffernan and Dave Townsend pointed Pete and I in the right direction when we first moved to the city and ultimately formed Nosedive Productions).

* * *

I guess before I get into the "hows" of self-producing, I should take some time in this introduction to get a little bit briefly into the "whys" for Nosedive (which are part-and-parcel with the "hows"). It wasn't for high-minded or idealistic reasons: we weren't trying to stick it to the institutional theatre model or to get a foot in the door of an off-Broadway or LORT theatre. It wasn't for any financial reasons: we knew that self-producing was going to cost us, not gain us, money. It also wasn't for tangential career reasons: we weren't self-producing as a means to get noticed and whisked away into fame and fortune by a Big-Timey producer (I'm sure we wouldn't have minded, but Pete and I are stubborn, cynical New Hampshire men and are pretty realistic-to-pessimistic about garnering real world success).

Simply put, Pete and I wanted to put on plays, were impatient about doing so, and realized that staging them our damn selves was the best option available to us.

I moved to New York from Boston in the summer of 1999 and wanted to have my plays staged in the city. I had asked a few friends of friends how the hell that would be possible. Most of the options were the same: either form some relationship with a theatre so that they may (may) do a staged reading of my work in a year's time (though most likely longer), or spend a year filling out the paperwork to become a 501c3 (not-for-profit) entity.

My reactions to both options were the same: Fuck that.

Meanwhile, Pete Boisvert, someone I had gone to high school with but fell out of touch with during college, had also moved to New York at the same time and was having a similar experience trying to find directing work. The short story: no one hires a director just out of college with no real world experience.

So, we met up in the city (reunited by our mutual friend, Ben VandenBoom) and commiserated to one another about our respective "going nowhere fast" experiences.

Sometime in September (or October, I can't quite remember) of '99, Pete had asked to read a couple of my scripts. I obliged by sending them to him. Fortunately for me (and for him, since he didn't want to engage in an awkward conversation about how unimpressed he was), he liked what he had read, particularly one play, Allston. He called me one night to talk about him directing Allston. Although I wanted Allston to be staged, I actually wanted another one, Monkeys, to be staged first (for some reason, I wanted this to be my first play in New York and Allston to be my second; don't ask me why).

So, we started talking about the idea of renting out a theatre and putting on Monkeys. Since I didn't - and still don't - have much of a desire or aptitude for directing, and knew someone who wanted to and could direct (and, more importantly, wanted to and could direct my stuff), I absolutely dug the idea of us working together, finding out how to stage this show (and, if it went well, Allston sometime further down the road) and splitting the costs, grunt-work and eventually box-office earnings (if they existed) of the production 50-50.

The bottom line is the two of us were eager impatient to get started. We didn't move to New York to wait around for years for some theatre company to deign to give us the time of day at their convenience or spend a year or more working on paperwork to become 501c3. If I tried that route, I'm sure I would have gotten frustrated and left the city within a year (Pete tells me he'd have probably done the same).

(I should point out here that we here at Nosedive Central are not the most business-savvy individuals. However, one of the huge perks about self-producing is that you can control how much or how little the business aspects take up your time. The more business-savvy of you reading this will probably have the drive, organizational skills and common sense to create your Web site, fill the not-for-profit paperwork, write your mission statement and print your business cards all while staging your first play. We here at Nosedive did - and are doing - many of those above-mentioned things years later. For good or for bad [often, it's been a bit of both], it's always been about putting on the show first and foremost for us. But I've gotten way ahead of myself.)

So, about two months after moving to the city, Pete and I had the project we wanted to do: my play, Monkeys, which Pete would direct. If the process of getting this show up on its feet wasn't a disastrous experience or financial fiasco, we would then stage Allston. Awesome. Super. Fantastic.

There was just one problem: we knew exactly fuck all about how to go about doing this.

Next: Getting a little help from our friends, staging our first play, and revealing the most basic, paired down, nuts-and-bolts way this came about (with helpful tips for you, Dear Reader!).

Bending your ear,

James "Senile Grampa" Comtois

Labels: , , ,

Monday, January 11, 2010

Preview: A Brief History of Murder

With the final Saturday Night Saloon of the season over and done with (and man, what a freakin' blast) and with The Little One still several months away, it's time for me to shamelessly plug someone else's work on this site.

Opening this Thursday at the Brick Theater is Richard Lovejoy's latest epic, A Brief History of Murder, directed by Ivanna Cullinan. It's actually two plays - Part One: The Detectives and Part Two: The Victims - that cover the same story/chronology from different perspectives.

A Brief History of Murder is concerned with a series of bizarre, brutal murders in a small Oklahoma town. The Detectives centers on a private investigator and her colleagues in the police department working to track the killer, or killers, down. The Victims deals with residents of the town and their connection to the murders and the events behind them. Both deal with some really, really freaky shit related to the murders. There ain't any kind of, "I needed to get my hands on the victim's will and change it," motives going on here.

I've read early drafts of these interconnected shows and am very much looking forward to seeing them (and since the Web site promises "graphic nudity and gore," I'm doubly sure to be there). I'm of course also excited to see these shows because they're the follow-up to Lovejoy's Adventure Quest, which was one of the best plays I saw last year.

In sound-byte terms, the two pieces remind me what would have happened if David Lynch rewrote and directed the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the season where the Mayor is the Big Baddie, for those of you who are blanking). Only, y'know, not safe for network television (or basic cable, for that matter).

Yes, there's some freaky shit going on in these shows.

Both plays are independent of each other and can be seen separately or together, and in either order. I think seeing both (it doesn't matter if you see The Detectives or The Victims first) offers a better level of understanding of the overall story: the two plays (at least, the drafts I've read) complement and inform each other. Lovejoy talks a bit more about this ambitious project with Matt Freeman here.

A Brief History of Murder plays at the Brick Theatre in Williamsburg from Jan. 14-31. You can get tickets here. There's also a special ticket package that lets you see both shows for $25.

Never going into the woods again,

James "Mayor" Comtois

Labels: ,

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Final Episode of The Saturday Night Saloon This Saturday

I really almost can't believe that the final Saturday Night Saloon of the third season is upon us, going up this Saturday at the Vampire Cowboys Battle Ranch, featuring six awesome pieces of episodic theatre, including the final episode of Entrenched.

Nosedive Productions

in association with

The Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company



A five-part WWI/Time Travel serial play by James Comtois

Two men fight in the trenches.

One has died twice.

The other has a plan to save him.

Directed by Patrick Shearer

As part of the Vampire Cowboys' Saturday Night Saloon.

Also featuring

by Dustin Chinn
(Member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab)
directed by Kel Haney

by Mac Rogers
(Universal Robots; Viral; Hail Satan)
directed by Jordana Williams

by Crystal Skillman
(The Telling Trilogy; 4 Edges; Birthday)
directed by John Hurley

by Brent Cox
(The Dog & Pony Show)
directed by Padraic Lillis and Courtney Wetzel

written & directed by Jeff Lewonczyk
(Babylon, Babylon; Macbeth without Words)

Saturday, January 9
at 8 p.m. at the Battle Ranch
405 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn


Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Do It...Just Do It

As we're all ready to wrap up our first week of the new year, I'm slowly and steadily adding commentary to my Top 50 Films of the Decade list(s) and more slowly and less steadily looking for a new day job.

As you may have noticed, there's been a great deal of discussion going on in the theatrical blogosphere about diversity, quality, bleak survey results, MFA programs and lotteries in the theatre scene and it seems that a consensus and solution is emerging: institutional theatre sucks, self-producing may be the way to go (I’m being horribly reductive here I know, but then again, I’m a horribly reductive person).

I've been a big advocate for self-producing for a while now, but it's always a "preaching to the choir" situation. Those that want to self-produce will do so with or without me or anyone else posting a blog entry about it. Those that don't want to self-produce will never do so, no matter what I or anyone else says.

I'm kind of torn between wanting to write more on the subject and thinking I've already written too much (like I said, preaching to the choir here), but for now I'll just say that self-producing bypasses a lot of the roadblocks many playwrights have to face in getting their work produced and maintaining creative control over their work. Although there are some pitfalls and problems inherent to self-producing, at the end of the day, they’re very small prices to pay.

And hey, to quote Jordi La Forge, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Puttin' up his own silliness,

James "Resourceful Hobo" Comtois

Labels: ,

Monday, January 04, 2010

Top 10 of 2009

Well, folks. I hope you've all acclimated to our new surroundings going by the name of 2010 and are ready to get this new year started right and get this new year started quickly. It's time for me to stop dawdling and deliver to you the list of my 10 favorite theatrical experiences of the year.

Despite the economic turmoil we faced in 2009 (and are still continuing to face), this past year turned out to be a great year for theatre, not just in terms of content (although there was that) but in terms of audience. This is by no means scientific, but I had noticed that virtually none of the shows I had gone to see this past year had that clichéd and embarrassing 2-3 people in the house: almost all of the plays I saw had respectable to full to sold out houses.

When being interviewed by Patrick Lee to plug Infectious Opportunity over the summer, I brought this observation up over the course of our brief phone conversation. Patrick agreed that that had been his experience for the year as well (and he saw quite a larger number of shows than I had). Why was this? I couldn’t begin to guess. Will that be the case for 2010? Again: no idea. Suffice it to say, from my theatre-going experience, the general audience for theatre seemed to be large and strong.

2009 was also the year I saw remounted productions of previous Top 10 list shows, such as Mac Rogers' astounding Universal Robots and Vampire Cowboys' gleeful Fight Girl Battle World. Obviously they weren't contenders for this year (based on my self-imposed rules for this annual list), but they still were exceptional theatre-going experiences for me this year.

As always, I missed a number of "hot ticket" and critically acclaimed shows, such as Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, the Production Company’s Meg’s New Friend, and Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult, as well as many other shows I’m sure would be contenders for the list. I’m sorry I missed them. But there you are. There’s always a show or six out there that I didn’t get the chance to see, so once again, take this list with the grain of salt or seven.

Also, a number of friends and colleagues made it to the list as well (though I must point out a couple of these connections were made after having seen their shows). Some of you may roll your eyes at this. The rest of you have seen their plays and know why they’re on the list. Hey, what can I say? I associate with a number of talented bitches.

What’s the final tally of plays I saw this year? Alas, I lost my tally (yes, I write down the plays I go to for the year) after being laid off (the list was on my work computer). But the final count hovered around 60 or so (i.e., a little more than the number I saw in 2008).

Well, okay. Like I said: enough dawdling. Here’s my Top 10 list for 2009…

10. Dream of Me
(Mainspring Collective, written by Alexandria LaPorte, directed by Hilary Krishnan, at the Players Theatre)
Inspired by Charles Mee's Fetes de la Nuit, Mainspring Collective's multimedia collection vignettes dealing with New Yorkers trying to make romantic connections and deal with the loss thereof offered a great deal of entertaining insight and commentary on a subject 99% of New Yorkers could relate to. The excellent ensemble cast played around with stories and scenes concerning new benefits/stumbling blocks to the rules of relationships and breakups, such as cell phones, text messaging and the Facebook relationship statuses of exes. I found this show simultaneously funny, sweet and poignant, but at no time did I find it false.

9. Put My Finger in Your Mouth
(The Right Brain Project, written by Bob Fisher, directed by Nathan Robbel, at the RBP Rorschach in Chicago)
That's right: we got a Chicago production on my list. There are no geographical borders here. This production of Bob Fisher's lurid Neil Gaimanesque fairy tale about two sisters confronting loss and the forces of evil in polar opposite ways walked the line between contemporary real world story and mythic fable without being confusing, cloying or self-indulgent. I had an absolute blast seeing this play. Thanks to Fisher's script, Nathan Robbel's smart and slick direction and the ensemble cast, Put My Finger In Your Mouth had a whole lot of style and didn't get too caught up in its own aesthetic.

8. Birthday
(Rising Phoenix Rep, written by Crystal Skillman, directed by Daniel Talbott, at Jimmy's No. 43)
This sweet, sad and low-key comedy written by Crystal Skillman and directed by Daniel Talbott about a lonely woman sneaking away from a co-worker’s birthday party to talk to a quiet and isolated man shows New York as a place where one can find the urge to scream out one's life to total strangers out of sadness and desperation. Having this show (which took place in the back room of a bar) performed in the back room of a bar was a really nice touch and reminder of one of the (many) advantages theatre can have over film. Although both plays are radically different in style, tone and overall content, Birthday shares with Dream of Me the theme of the unique isolating effects New York City has on its inhabitants and the low-key solace found in making an unlikely connection with a stranger.

7. MilkMilkLemonade
(Management Co., in association with Horse Trade Theatre Group, written by Joshua Conkel, directed by Isaac Butler, at Horse Trade UNDER St. Marks)
The work of Joshua Conkel returns to my list with MilkMilkLemonade after the excellent and haunting The Chalk Boy, his Lynchian take on Our Town, appeared on last year's list. Much of the fun with this play about a young farm boy, his emphysemic Nanna, his best friend (a chicken that wants to be a standup comic) and the local hellion he plays house with, is watching Conkel, Butler and the superb cast get away with such relentless silliness and touch upon some genuine pathos in all the preposterousness. As one can no doubt deduce from its title, MilkMilkLemonade revels in being immature yet manages to have flashes of poignancy throughout. This show was a pure delight from start to finish.

6. Penny Dreadful, Episode 11: "The House Where Bad Things Happen"
(Third Lows Productions, written and directed by Bryan Enk and Matt Gray, at the Brick Theater)
I was a bit unsure as to how exactly to feature the second season of Bryan Enk’s and Matt Gray’s 12 episode sci-fi/horror time travel epic, the watching of which was a monthly routine for me for the latter part of 2008 and the first few months of the year. Should I post Penny Dreadful as a whole on the list, a batch of episodes, or just one episode in particular? And if I pick one episode, which one, and why? Although there were many excellent episodes in the serial and wonderful moments in various episodes throughout, I ultimately decided that its penultimate episode, “The House Where Bad Things Happen,” really encapsulated the best of the series and of my experience watching it month to month. Both funny and thrilling, silly and shocking, this episode of Penny Dreadful had me at the edge of my seat. And…well, you can actually see for yourself. This is one show on this list that is available on video here (as well as the entire series here).

5. Adventure Quest
(Sneaky Snake Productions, in association with the Brick Theater, written by Richard Lovejoy, directed by Adam Swiderski, at the Brick Theater)
From the Brick Theater's Antidepressant Festival. Beckett by way of DOS-based adventure video games (with hints of Groundhog Day). What starts off as a cheeky sendup of a specific type of video game from the 1980s and '90s turns into something more profound without being even remotely pretentious. Adventure Quest comically - and sometimes bleakly - shows how free choice is just an illusion and how life is like a video game: frustrating, repetitive and endless.

4. Glee Club
(Blue Coyote Theatre Group, in association with the Brick Theater, written by Matthew Freeman, directed by Kyle Ancowitz, at the Brick Theater)
The second play on this list (after Adventure Quest) that hailed from the Brick Theater's Antidepressant Festival. I guess Matt Freeman script + Kyle Ancowitz direction + Annual summer Brick festival = one of my favorite plays of the year. Mr. Freeman made my list a couple years ago with his An Interview With the Author, and now returns with Glee Club, a bleakly funny show that left me with a dopey grin on my face and a slightly queasy feeling in my gut. It's about a glee club in Vermont getting ready to do their most important gig of the season, but discovers that their best singer, a recovering alcoholic who’s recently gone on the wagon, can no longer sing without the sauce. Glee Club was the feel-good tragedy of the year.

3. Soul Samurai
(Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, in association with the Ma-Yi Theatre Company, written by Qui Nguyen, directed by Robert Ross Parker, at HERE Arts Center)
What would a Top 10 list be without the latest Vampire Cowboys show? Soul Samurai took elements from '70s blaxploitation films, The Warriors and martial arts movies to offer 100 minutes of pure unadulterated fun. Qui stepped up his already spot-on game with his storytelling in this Tarantino-structured narrative, Robert brought some new touches to the show that I'd not seen in a Cowboys show before, and the tight five-person cast makes you forget you're watching a small ensemble and not a huge company of 30. Every year I always look forward to the latest Vampire Cowboys show the way a young child looks forward to Christmas. And unlike some Christmases, the Cowboys never disappoint.

2. Viral
(Gideon Productions, written by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams, at the SoHo Playhouse)
When I had originally written about my experience seeing Mac Rogers' play about a group of death fetishists who hire a woman to kill herself on video, I wrote that I was unable to write a formal review based on my close ties with many people involved with the production, including my own sister. However, this was easily one of the best plays I saw this year, and to not include it on this list for self-made quasi-political reasons would render this list utterly valueless. Viral is a unique story that brilliantly taps into our modern culture. It's very dark, and very disturbing, and not in an, "edgy New York theatre" way. But it's also very funny. Viral is one of the best plays I saw in 2009 and if you saw it, it was one of the best plays you saw in 2009.

…and the Number One play I saw in 2009:

1. The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
(The Amoralists, written and directed by Derek Ahonen, at PS 122)
I knew after seeing writer-director Derek Ahonen’s The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side that it was the best play I had seen so far in 2009. A couple weeks after seeing Ahonen's show about a commune of utopian anarchists living above a vegan restaurant, I was pretty certain it would be the best play I’d see in 2009. It simultaneously dealt with both abstract ideas and physical human behavior in such a fun and insightful way. This was such an immersive theatrical experience for me that by the end of the show, I didn’t feel like I’d been watching its characters so much as I’d been living with them. Even with a nearly three-hour runtime, I was sad that the show was over when it came time for the curtain call. The Pied Pipers, which enjoyed a well-deserved extended and transferred run, was a fun, thought-provoking and sometimes intense play that reminded me why I love theatre.

So, there you have it. My "take it or leave it" top 10 list for 2009. Let's see what 2010 has in store for us.

Everybody dance now,

James “Freedom” Comtois

Labels: ,

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.