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November 30, 2007

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Ian Crawford

“So how do we keep that feeling that a show is well produced with a certain amount of craft and care while also maintaining the immediacy and raw energy that comes from doing theatre on a lower budget level?”

Hmm. This is a question I see as sort of a no brainer, but I know it’s a real problem to a lot of people- at least in New York.

I think a big part of the problem is that people don’t think about design all that much, being able to think in that way is a real skill that needs to be developed and I don’t think its all that common. Most productions that are put up on the "DIY" level are actor and acting driven. I think a good production needs about as much time on design before rehearsals even start as is spent on the rehearsal process itself (and then the design makes adjustments through the rehearsal process as well).

Even with a tiny budget you can make amazing designs that are striking, support the story, draw the audience in, and look really beautiful. But it does take effort, creativity, borrowing or stealing a little, and a lot of time.

This is of course an uphill battle, like you say, all other more commercial theatre can afford to build outrageous sets, and we are so bombarded by the realism of television and film that we have lost our creativity. We have forgotten how eager the audience is to suspend its disbelief and see something as another. Audiences want to be amazed but that doesn’t have to mean millions of dollars. String can be amazing if you just play with it and see what it can do. By thinking simply and sticking to the principals of good design I think amazing “production values” are possible on a DIY budget.

James Lantz

Since you asked about how these issues play out in other parts of the country…

I’m a playwright/producer in Burlington, VT and for the past year or so I’ve been an avid reader of many NYC theatre blogs (thank you, Isaac) to ‘see how you guys do it.’ I always felt that you had it much better than we who are living in small towns all across America and, in particular, we who are 40 miles from the Canadian border.

However, I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.

For comparison, over the past year and a half, I’ve self-produced two of my own plays up here and the support we received was good. Really good.

For instance:

BUDGET: for both plays we were able to raise over 10K each from advertisers and individual sponsors which allowed us to pay our entire cast and crew a decent wage. People up here really ‘get it’ when it comes to supporting the arts.

PRODUCTION VALUE: we kept it high with an incredibly talented artistic staff, cast and crew. Burlington is a university town but also, I’m always surprised by who lives next door.

PRESS: we received great coverage, pre-show and reviews from a very receptive and supportive press – full pages in the local paper, a 15 minute interview on the local NPR station.

AUDIENCE: for both productions we had great houses (about half were sold out shows) running up to two weeks with prices ranging from $20 - $29. There’s an audience up here for new work.

You might find all this hard to believe but really, I’m not kidding.

And it’s not just me – I don’t know if it’s true for other small towns but there’s a surprising amount of DIY theatre hitting Burlington stages. Just in the past year and a half over a dozen original plays have been mounted in our small town – some very cool, cutting edge, creative work.

For instance, this week an original musical that’s dubbed a ‘folk opera’ is being mounted up here by a talented musician who records on Ani DiFranco’s label (… and to help things her picture takes up the entire front cover of our arts weekly, and she received a full page pre-show article in the local newspaper).

Of course, like you, we work hard and it always feels like a slog - we raised our budget ‘bake sale style’ selling ads in our program and soliciting the kindness of sponsors – and this takes a lot of time and effort.

But in reality we have little to complain about – there’s support here, and an audience – and for both of those things, we should feel quite lucky.

Anyway, that’s all the news from frigid Vermont where it’s 10 degrees this morning.

Feel free to check out the websites for both of our shows www.AmericanMachineThePlay.com and www.TheBusThePlay.com. ... I'll be producing my third play up here this summer which I hope to enter in this year's NYC Fringe - maybe I'll see you there.

Karl Miller

Interesting discussion, Isaac.

Here's another regional comparison -- something close to a control sample, maybe.

We did columbinus in suburban Maryland: 150-seat house. $30 tickets ($10 for seniors, students, and professionals). Paid $400/week. Two out-of-town actors put up at the Hilton for three months.

Same show in NYC: 199 seat house. $60 tickets ($20 on some Sunday evenings, I think). Paid $500/week. Two out-of-town actors told we should be so honored to couch surf.

The sound, set, lights, and props were absolutely identical -- no extra bells and whistles added between the two.

So that's a 33% capacity increase and a 100% ticket price increase ... for a 25% salary increase. Not accounting for the disproportionate cost of living (and, in my case, relocation) in NYC.

A lot more money went in ... very little came out. And because the production values were exactly the same (and the basic accommodations much less), there's not much else to account for the lopsided revenue stream.

Except real estate and marketing, right?

Karl Miller

Interesting discussion, Isaac.

Here's another regional comparison -- something close to a control sample, maybe.

We did columbinus in suburban Maryland: 150-seat house. $30 tickets ($10 for seniors, students, and professionals). Paid $400/week. Two out-of-town actors put up at the Hilton for three months.

Same show in NYC: 199 seat house. $60 tickets ($20 on some Sunday evenings, I think). Paid $500/week. Two out-of-town actors told we should be so honored to couch surf.

The sound, set, lights, and props were absolutely identical -- no extra bells and whistles added between the two.

So that's a 33% capacity increase and a 100% ticket price increase ... for a 25% salary increase. Not accounting for the disproportionate cost of living (and, in my case, relocation) in NYC.

A lot more money went in ... very little came out. And because the production values were exactly the same (and the basic accommodations much less), there's not much else to account for the lopsided revenue stream.

Except real estate and marketing, right?

Sean

Two thing on this...

1) Given the restraints that you've delineated, it seems to me that it's possible to do theater with incredible production values that don't require the added financial problems, but it does require that we alter slightly your definition of "production values".

Last night I saw a play at the Brick Theater that... wait a minute... you directed part of it and were IN it! There were basically no props, no costumes, no helicopters or chandeliers and, frankly, I was astonished at the production. I'm a grouchy guy nearing 40, sitting on a pillow on the floor, and I still got the wind knocked out of me.

Yes, of course, the term we're using doesn't mean what I'm using it for here. But I walked away from the show glad to have spent the money and glad to have spent the time. I'll go a step further... had you wasted my time with set changes and costumes changes, I would have felt that you didn't understand the evening.

The producers of the evening steered the value toward the artists and away from flats and paint and firepots. Qui's piece was just marvelous, and didn't just follow the whole "if you can't hide it, feature it" ethos, it transcended that.

(I thought your piece was particularly fantastic, especially the treatment of the Garces material and Sybil's plays.)

2) Our play this summer was produced on a shoe-string because even though the Fringe allows us access to larger houses than we could afford renting, it still required that we give over a large chunk of our ticket sales.

That being said, we spent almost nothing on the sets and costumes because we were willing to invest the *time*. Yes, a living room set might have to be cobbled together, but if you comb craigslist and every friend's house and every garage sale and yard sale in the area, then you get to still create a dynamic and visually purposeful production.

It took a lot of searching, but our set was completely black, white, grey and red, and the costumes followed the piece. We wanted a big black leather couch, what we used was a small black fabric couch, bought from a non-profit second hand store for under $50... that kind of thing.

3) One approach is to make sure the people are paid, and to save money everywhere else. We've found that if we pay our actors and our SM more than they were expecting, it's easier to ask them to come to a cheaper rehearsal space out in Queens or Brooklyn. If we pay a designer, she's more likely to be excited about a limited budget.

4) Every play one produces in New York should be considered, in a business model sense, as R&D, not as Production. There are companies dumping millions of dollars into perfecting the perfect bubble gum, they aren't trying to sell a work-in-progress to the public. We are developing pieces of theater, and the more we develop, the better chance we will come across something that can be published, sold for a tour or move into the larger public's mind.

As an artist, you shouldn't be worried about this or even thinking about it, but as a producer, this is extremely important. A production company is designed to make money by bringing to the world a fresh and innovative piece of theater, and the only way we will find those pieces is to produce what we may like on a small scale and see how it works. No other business expects to make money on this part of their production, neither should we.

Tony

(Thanks for the shout out)

I think a good test of both the DIY model and the opposite end of the spectrum is pretty simple. If there are only actors telling a story does it work? If not no production values or business model really can save it.

Regardless of form, production values, ticket prices, advertising, or any other areas we can tweak and play with; if the story's not good, it is hard to connect with people. Just like building a house on a crappy foundation, without a good story it's hard to keep people in.

I've written about this before, but in this area marketers are doing a far better job than artists. Not that it has to be this way.

Leonard Jacobs

Great post, Isaac. I had some thoughts on this and posted them on my blog:
http://clydefitch.blogspot.com/2007/12/production-values-question.html

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