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October 14, 2009

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Josh

From a marketing standpoint you're quite right. That's why I like language like the following:

"See this show or be stupid!"

"Pretty people watch _______!"

"See ____________ or I won't like you!"

And so on.

Tony Adams

word

Moxie the Maven

Ugh, yes. No facebook message is more dreaded than "come support my show!"

Actually, maybe "come support my band!" is worse.

Dianna

"come support my show" is right ujp there with "please join my mob/sorority/farm/mafia family"

Joshua James

Seeing as that most of these shows (I'm assuming the majority of them are showcases) are simply not able to make money due to rent, running costs, etc ... it is technically correct, is it not?

Even if a showcase in nyc sells out, will it make money? Just asking ... but yeah, it is hard to see the "come support" emails ... I want to see something cool, so tell me how it's cool.

August Schulenburg

I think that's true if we're talking straight up show business.

But if we're talking about the not-for-profit theatre, an audience member should be empowered to believe their attendance is a form of support, and as such, should require a greater level of engagement from the theatre company receiving that support. When done properly, the language of support should entitle and empower an audience as much as the artist.

Also, I don't think "this is how this show is cool" is mutually exclusive with "seeing this show supports our company".

More thoughts here:
http://fluxtheatreensemble.blogspot.com/2009/10/community-supported-theatre-vs-dont.html

Chris Ashworth

Word. Word word word. May that phrase be banned from theater marketing forever.

And may the phrase "I say thee nay!" see increasingly common usage.

Isaiah Tanenbaum

Josh: It depends on the show. It's difficult, but entirely possible, for Showcases to make (a little) money. Such productions usually feature small casts, streamlined costumes and sets, and ensemble structures that keep stipend costs down. The companies that survive past one or two shows are the ones that set and meet break-even capacity goals.

For instance, $18/ticket (the absurdly low Equity Showcase maximum), when all is said and done with comps and discounts, might yield an average actual price of $15. So a production that averages 60 tickets per 16 shows means that 960 people saw the show, and the total intake is $14,400. A 75 seat NY theater might cost ~$2500 a week, for a total rental cost of $10K (three week run plus one week tech). This leaves a company with $4,400 for everything else, including director salary, set and costume budget, marketing materials, and rehearsal space. Do-able if they have access to cheap or free rehearsal space and few practical costs, but most companies supplement this with a donation drive that might give them a bit of breathing room.

Another show might only expect 150 people to come. They could run for just a weekend, with little or no tech, in a much smaller theater (three sold-out shows in a 50-seat, for instance). Their total budget is $2250, but the theater might only charge $1200 for a weekend, leaving them with 1K to pay everyone else. Next to impossible but still okay if you're doing a modern-dress show, can rehearse in your living room, and have generous parents who will toss a bit of cash your way because they love you.

But some shows will never break even, regardless of either aesthetic quality or audience attendance, because they have not thought through all theses costs. I was in a show once at a tiny theater in Brooklyn that had no marketing budget. The theater's marketing plan was "do a show with a big cast and don't hand out comps -- the actors will get their friends to come."

That theater closed down within two years. "Support me because I'm in a show" is not enough. But as Gus points out, if it's done properly it's very empowering. The "support" has to consist of more than just coming to the show, though. Check out the FluxBlog for more thoughts on that.

Aaron

I've come to take these calls for support at face value, especially when I'm figuring out what to see in an especially tight week. That is, I assume they have honest reasons for seeking support: they've got a good show, and as a theater-lover, I should see it.

However, it's a double-edged sword (and why this plea should only ever be used honestly): if I "support" your show and it turns out to be awful, I'm not going to make seeing your next show a priority. I suspect that's why, as Isiah said, that particularly shady theater closed down.

Support needs to work both ways: you lean on me for money, I lean on you for entertainment, and we meet in the middle.

RLewis

If anyone is buying Isaiah's math, please get back to me, cuz I got this really nice bridge I'd like to sell.

I joke, but it is a good point though: can a showcase make money?

I say NO... unless you're doing it on the backs of your artists.

There is mention above of a director salary, but not for the playwright, actors, stage manager, set/light/costume/sound designers, board ops, and press rep' or whoever marketed the show with no budget, etc. And don't even get me started on insurance(s).

Travel reimbursement is not salary; and frankly, I'd be embarrassed to make money on a showcase where I only reimbursed artists.

It's just another thing that I wish we discussed more often in this ever-dwindling theatrosphere.

Isaiah Tanenbaum

"On the backs of your artists" is a tricky term. As I said, working within an ensemble structure can help mitigate the costs of paying directors, playwrights, actors, designers, postcard photographers, etc. -- to put it bluntly, if they're ensemble members they will (often) give back those stipends. At least for a few years.

As a member of a young ensemble like Flux, I don't feel abused if I'm working my ass off but guaranteed to be in a full production every year -- maybe even two or three depending on our season -- and am first in line for all the side projects we do, too. That we produce consistently quality work, and that I have an artistic say in such work, is an added reason to count myself happy to be a member. I'd trade five mediocre OOB shows for one Flux show, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

I don't feel "abused" to take photos and design postcards for our shows, free, but it is fair to note that as we've grown as a company some members have stepped back from burn-out-inducing roles within the ensemble, and others have stepped back from Flux completely. I won't speak for them or their reasons; all I can say is that I'm happy and there has been no shortage of people likewise happy to step up to fill the gaps left by those stepping down. I feel like the hours I'm putting in now are worth it of themselves, and also are building towards something more commercially viable in the future.

On the other hand, I don't have any children to support, and a decent set of dayjobs, so I can afford to sweat it out a few years until Flux goes Off-Broadway.

As for being able to produce under the Showcase Code and actually make a profit, I don't know of an indie theater out there today that consistently survives on ticket sales although, as I said in my first post, it might be theoretically possible with a couple of big "ifs" (low production values, a healthy spirit of volunteerism/investment, a generous dayjob boss who lets you rehearse in your company breakroom).

To put it another way: on average, each time an indie theater puts on a show, it loses money. One of our shows actually did make money, with the help of a $750 grant; all the rest have been subsidized by our annual appeal and by various benefit parties we hold during the year. Counting those, though, we are breaking even, and as our budgets have grown our production values have improved and we are starting to pay everyone a little something.

But we are the exception, I think. Many companies don't survive; those that do must constantly send out the "support us" letters that prompted this whole thing (although as Gus said, such language can be done right and when done so, empower rather than annoy). The movement for Showcase Code reform hopes to address that, primarily by doing things like raising the maximum ticket cost and making it easier for successful shows to extend or remount their runs (typically, a Showcase production's most profitable week is its last -- we often have to turn paying audience away on our final weekend simply because we're out of seats to put them in, but the Code disallows an extension or NYC remounting within a year). Whether any of that happens remains to be seen.

Joshua James

Isaiah,

I've produced as well, my partner and I produced quite a few shows as showcases in nyc (the last one, personally produced, was in 2003) ... one reason we stopped is because, while we had good houses and made small amounts of money on every show we did ... we could see that where costs were going, it wasn't going to be sustainable, not due to the work, but due to rental costs for rehearsal and performance (Raw Space closed right around that time) ... the last show I produced made a one dollar profit on a one week run.

One dollar. Yep.

That was six years ago ... I know rentals have gone up since them, a lot. As has subway prices (which matters when you travel to the show) ... actually, everything has gone up, right? And ticket prices are the same, are they not?

Personally, unless you can find a space to sponsor you (which does happen, and should happen more) I don't see how a company can do it and make enough money to make it worthwhile ... I say that while acknowledging that A) there are many who do theatre for reasons other than making money, I understand completely ... it's why I was doing it then ... but money certainly is an issue when you're broke, right? B) just because I don't see how it can't be done doesn't mean that there aren't people doing it ... and I'm happy to hear how people are sustaining themselves via showcases in nyc ... share any stories you have.

Personally, I don't care much about the money, I was doing shows with my buddy because we were having fun and we loved doing them ... we were lucky in that we had an audience that followed us, too ... it wasn't about the money.

Without money, however, you can't do the show. Spaces won't let you come in a do a show for free (not anymore, I think, I remember some that used to) ... so money has to be a consideration ... if you don't have it, you won't produce a show. And it's unlikely anyone else will produce it (these days) if you can't or won't.

So it won't get done.

But if I'm wrong, this is one issue where I'd be happy to be proven wrong ...

Isaiah Tanenbaum

Like I said, Flux does this by meeting those "ifs" I mentioned in my first post, and by subsidizing productions with benefit parties, events, and an annual appeal.

Most critically, we have access to free rehearsal space through our Resident Artist status at NYR Studios (each member volunteers ~2 hours a week at the front desk in exchange for this space); before that, we mostly rehearsed at one member or another's office conference room (we're still in such locations from time to time). And when outside artists come in, we pay them. Someday members, too, will keep our stipends rather than returning them, and someday after that we will draw a living wage from our company. In fact, we mapped out exactly these milestones during our annual company retreat in August. But neither will happen until we can get into a more affordable performance space, generate more ticket income, or both.

But we refuse to run on a deficit and in any case, wouldn't be able to for long. As I said, the fact that there are stable indie theater companies out there is itself proof that it's possible to remain economically viable over the long term if your business model includes fund-raising outside of ticket sales and an ample in-company supply of volunteers.

As for changes since 2003, the maximum Showcase ticket price went from $15 to $18 from $15 in 2005, and the code was very recently altered to be a bit more flexible in terms of rehearsal time and performance scheduling. But neither change is nearly enough to offset the costs that have spiraled out of control, most of which you mentioned in your most recent post. If it was hard in 2003, it's harder now, and much harder than it has to be.

RLewis

"...someday after that we will draw a living wage..."

Even Oscar at The Public admits that they don't pay actors that.

I'm just saying, do what you want, but it will work better if we all stay reality-based.

Joshua James

Right, the ticket prices did go up $3 (which I maintain actually hurt indie theatre, but that's another issue entirely) ... so I did miss that.

However, unless you get a sponsor to let you use space either free or at a greatly reduced rate, is it possible to produce a showcase and make money?

I've done it wherein I made my money back (and a few bucks on top) but I don't see that it's possible for anyone except those who have a space sponsor, so to speak, and how that happens is arbitrary, is it not?

Again, I'm happy to wrong on this ...

www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=165600381

I couldn't agree more, Isaac. As a musician, nothing drives me up the wall more than someone asking me to support their band, show, or even a genre of music! Not to mention the ubiquitous "support live music", which is perhaps a slightly different issue -- and it still grates on me.

People have a reason for liking certain things and not others.

Isaiah

Re: the public. Their mission includes the very expensive, yet free, Shakespeare in the Park. I gotta think that's a big reason that Oscar said that. Do you have that article handy?

In any case they're still paying an equity off broadway rate to their actors. To my knowledge these actors don't have dayjobs. So is that not, therefore, a living wage?

From my experience our company has been very "reality based." A living wage from a shwcase: never. That's not what the Code is built for. But I don't think it's unreasonable to model ourselves on other ensemble theater companies that have gone off-Bway after a decade or two and paid their members accordingly.

RLewis

"Do you have that article handy?"

I know that we're about done with this thread, but just to answer the above: I was at a kick-off event where Oscar spoke, lamenting the fact that OB pay (including his theater) of under $500 a week (for just a few weeks) is hardly a living wage in this city, but it's the going rate.

What I think is important about being honest on this issue is that it moves the debate to a much better place, and it says to actors today – diversify, diversity, Diversify! It’s an important lesson to learn, because actors cannot sustain themselves in this business otherwise. If you don’t sing or dance like a fool then you better work the commercial world, do print work, industrials, voiceovers, indie films, or day-player and background acting. (Or don’t quit your day-job.)

Think of yourself as a stock portfolio, and spread your skills over different markets. That’s the way to make your living as an actor. But if we’re gonna just keep pretending and lying to our friends about how much $ we make, it hurts the field today, and leads to yet another generation of disillusioned young actors. Accepting this sad truth will do the community-at-large better and the actors in particuliar, too.

Melissa Fendell Moschitto

Theatre marketing is often abysmal. The show descriptions are either lifted from grant language (where too often we fall in the trap of trying to sound really smart and intellectual and artisty) or they fall into the trap that you've described in your post.

We rely on individuals to support our company through donations and that support goes to growing the company and to the development of work. I'd like to think, though, that our show - by the time we're done developing it which can often be a lengthy process (e.g. 10 months) is so compelling/amazing/moving/awesome (choose your adjective) that people will WANT to see it.

We produced our first full production in June and made a profit AND also made a donation to a nonprofit (New York City Coalition Against Hunger). And all artists were paid. This was accomplished through individual donors, grants, ticket sales and a business sponsorship.

But back to the point - use your email marketing to make me excited and intrigued by your show (not to guilt me into seeing it because I'm your friend and this is obligation theatre). And we'll try to do the same!

Thanks for the post!

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