Producing At The Fringe
September 11, 2004
- The NY International Fringe Festival
- Technical Issues
- Was It Worth It?
- Cautionary Tales
The following is a collection of suggestions and anectodes that may be helpful for producing shows in the NY International Fringe Festival. While much of the information is specific to musicals and the NY Int'l Fringe Festival, many of the topic covered here are common to low-budget Off-Off-Broadway production in general. Specifically, this material includes my experiences with my self-production of the new musical The Irreplaceable Commodity in 2003 and the rock opera Mossadegh in 2004. Some notes are also included from my work stage managing Last Call at the 2002 festival.
It is a common refrain in theatrical circles that if no one will hire you, you need to get out there and create your own work. If you're not willing to put your own money into your own work, how can you ask anyone else to.
Despite the occasional flashes of warm-fuzzy feeling, the theatrical community is actually a rather Darwinian place where everyone is almost exclusively concerned with their own survival and ability to reproduce. Even the most minimal theatrical production requires an extensive amount of capital and human energy to bring to fruition. The result is a small group of viable theatre companies run by monarchs for their own amusement that are fortresses impenetrable by those the king does not wish admitted. They offer few opportunities for the huge body of writers to get their work produced. And in a field where quality is a completely subjective judgement and cronyism is a fundamental part of the business model, the selection process is dominated by many factors other than merit.
Given those impediments, self-production is a very attractive option for those willing to invest the time and money. Depending on the nature of your material, it is often your only real option. You can spend your time sitting in your room writing and opening rejection letters, or you can get your stuff out there in the world.
The NY Int'l Fringe festival is an option for self-production that provides some of the advantages of association with an established theatrical entity while preserving the freedom associated with self-production. With around 1,000 applications for 200 slots, there is some selectivity involved. But if your material is good and appropriate to for "downtown" theatre, your odds are infinitely better than with a submission to MTC or The Public Theatre.
There are numerous considerations when trying to decide what to try to self-produce. While the artistic vision of the writer is the driving force in theatre, the potential audience and the available budget are more tangible constraints that dictate the choice of material. Simple productions that value strong material and bravura performances over complex physical elements are easier to mount and stand a better chance of succeeding when self-produced.
Musicals: Musicals have a larger potential audience than straight plays. There is a cult of new musical buffs in NYC. But musicals are considerably more difficult and expensive to produce than straight plays. Musicals require musicians and additional staff that, unlike actors, will not work for free. Musicals usually have more complicated sets and a large number of props. Musicals also lean toward larger casts, longer rehearsal periods and longer running times.
Typical Fringe Material: Fringe festivals tend to lean towards work of an offbeat or experimental nature. This is a virtue for self-productions since clever leaps of abstraction and metaphor can also reduce cost. The NY Int'l Fringe Festival leans toward shorter, comedic works that are easily consumed in bulk during the dog days of August. While the highest profile productions from the festival have usually been musicals, the majority of the productions are actually straight comedies - some of them funny.
Audiences: Off-Off-B'way audiences are slightly more diverse than the largely older audiences attracted to Off-B'way productions or the tourists attracted to B'way productions. Friends and family of the performers often constitute a significant percentage of the audience, resulting in the perjorative name "Friends Festival."
The Irreplaceable Commodity, a 90-minute musical about investment banking was my entry in the 2003 NY Int'l Fringe Festival. As the limitations of my future as a musical theatre performer became apparent in the late 90's, I began writing musical theatre pieces in continuation of my hobby of songwriting and home recording. I felt pretty good about my initial efforts, but all my submissions to existing companies resulted in rejection letters. While exploring material for further work, I read a book on the dark underbelly of investment banking. While I was only familiar with investment banking from my view from a temp job in a word processing center, a human story of young 20-somethings selling their youth for 100-hour days, 6-figure salaries and one-night stands seemed strangely universal. I began work on the piece in the fall of 2000, although my work as a stage manager delayed completion of the project. I had a private reading in the January of 2003 immediately prior to my Fringe submission for the 2003 festival. Most of the content of this document relates my experiences with this production.
Mossadegh was my entry in the 2004 NY Int'l Fringe Festival. Following the catharsis of the 2003 festival, I looked back and began thinking about what I could have done differently to make the production a less complicated and stressful experience. For a few years, I had harbored the paradoxical idea of doing a rock opera on a historic subject. In 2000, I had read a NY Times article on the 1953 coup the C.I.A sponsored in Iran. Those ideas came together in the fall of 2003 with the plan of using a 4-piece rock band to perform the work as a concert with a plot. Mossadegh was the resulting project.
Script Development: The development process for musicals is a bit problematic in contemporary American theatre. Given the limited production opportunities for new musicals and the large number of eager writers, a development sub-culture has grown in the New York theatre world. Unfortunately, the process often becomes a recursive stream of readings and workshops, full of sound and fury but leading to nothing. On the other hand, musicals, as complex forms created with myriad simple elements, are often aided by the collaboration and evolution afforded by a development process. Neither of my shows went through any significant development process and they were lesser works because of that. The point being that you may want to put your musical through at least a reading or workshop of some kind prior to attempting to produce it at the Fringe or any venue that involves paying customers and critics.
The fundamental obstacle in all theatrical production is cash. Because of the extensive expenses and limited revenues associated with all theatrical production, the finances of theatre are largely impossible. This may explain why everyone in theatre seems to be crazy and/or immoral.
Most Off-Off-B'way productions seem to be produced with money provided by the producer(s), the producer's spouse, the producer's parents and/or the producer's friends. More established companies can get 501(c)3 status and apply for government and private grants, but the process for getting that money is reminiscent of prostitution - and slightly less remunerative.
Although I have been asked, I have no suggestions of how to raise money since I self-funded both of my productions. There is something to be said for getting a "real job" and using that money for self-funding. One advantage of using personal funds is that you get to be king of a very small world...not an undesirable position in a business where you rarely get to call the shots.
My productions were funded entirely with personal savings, most of which was leftover from money my father had invested in my name before a catastrophic stroke in 1994 left him profoundly disabled. The bull market of the late 90's was good to my accounts and in late 1999, as some were anticipating a market meltdown due to Y2K, I sold some shares in a mid-cap mutual fund and put the cash in a money market account. With the market crash of 2000, this was money snatched from the jaws of death. And with the acceptance of my script for the 2003 Fringe Festival, this money became theatrical magic.
The NY International Fringe Festival
In 1947, the Edinburgh Festival of Music and Dance rejected eight young theatre companies due to "lack of space." Those rejected companies decided to band together and mount their productions around the "Fringe" of the Edinburgh Festival. While the Edinburgh Festival of Music and Dance has long since faded into history, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival continues to thrive and the term "Fringe" has become associated with innovative, new and challenging theatrical productions. (reference).
The NY International Fringe Festival was started in 1997 by the Present Company (a small Off-Off-B'way company) and patterned after the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For two weeks in August, theatre companies from around the world (but mostly from NYC) descend on lower Manhattan to produce a wide variety of plays, musicals and performance art pieces. The festival has grown steadily since it's humble inception and with the hit Broadway transfer of Urinetown (which originated at the 1999 festival), the profile of the festival exploded.
Despite the hype and overly ambitious production designs, the festival still remains basically an Off-Off-Broadway theatre festival. It is an opportunity to produce your show in a high profile situation for as little or as much cash as you want to spend. It can be alot of fun if you are willing to roll with the punches and embrace the gift of the unexpected. It can be a nightmare if you require a climate-controlled, professional theatrical environment and ignore the severe practical obstacles that dictate what can reasonably be done. Please keep this in mind as you consider producing at the festival.
Ultimately, it is not realistic to do theatre seeking fame and/or fortune. Extrinsic motivation sets you up for disappointment and frustration. You have to do it because you love doing theatre.
Application Materials are available on the Fringe Festival website, FringeNYC.org, usually late in the year for the following year's festival. There were two submission deadlines in 2003, the first in mid January with a reduced submission fee ($30?) and a final mid-February deadline ($40?). Submission materials included a cover letter, two copies of the application form, a copy of the script, a CD with score demos (where applicable), bios of key participants (author, director, etc.) and a money order for the application fee.
Cover Letter: Supposedly, the cover letter is critical in articulating your vision for the piece, the practicality of your production plans and your appropriateness for the festival. The following is the text of my submission letter for The Irreplaceable Commodity:
I would like to submit my one-act musical comedy, The Irreplaceable Commodity for consideration in the 2003 NY International Fringe Festival. I have included two copies of the application form, one copy of a draft script, one CD containing demo recordings of four songs from the show, a money order to cover the application fee, and copies of my personal resumes.
I have long harbored an passionate interest in creating theatrical works that embrace the stories and idioms of modern culture while building on the great traditions of the American musical theatre. The Irreplaceable Commodity is a 90-minute one-act musical comedy with a cast of eight that follows three young MBAs during their brief whirlwind careers as investment banking associates. Their journey takes them through the strange, cutthroat world of corporate finance to a discovery of what is truly valuable in their lives. Plus, it's got a danceable beat and tunes that stick in your head like a rusty ax.
I feel the NY International Fringe Festival would be the perfect venue to debut as a writer with The Irreplaceable Commodity. As the stage manager for last year's Last Call, I experienced first-hand the excitement and energy that surrounds the festival. The technical limitations of the festival situation fit nicely into my theatrical vision that values inspired material and performances over complex sets and costumes. The high profile of the festival would open a wider pool of performers to draw from and a more diverse audience that might find this piece appealing. And the experience of sharing a space with a broad variety of presentations by people from many artistic perspectives provides a wonderful opportunity for interaction and discussion.
If accepted I would produce this under an Equity Showcase Code primarily with my own funds. I am currently searching for a prospective director/choreographer. The performers would be cast largely from mail submissions. The physical production would be very minimalist with the most difficult element being a rented sound system and body microphones.
I thank you in advance for your careful consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.
Submission Script: I'm not certain how critical the state of the script is in submission. In 2002, I was briefly involved with the musical, The Boob Movie. It's initial incarnation was as a stage work, then it became a film script, then became a stage musical again. When I left the production two weeks before the start of rehearsals (by mutual agreement in a dispute over nudity), the production script was still a film script with dummy lyrics. The authors had participated in the previous year's festival, which probably gave them a leg up. I prefer to have my scripts in pretty good shape before submitting, but I pass this along for those of you who work best in the crisis mode.
Submission CD: Demo CD's are required for musical submissions. I have heard recommendations that score submission CDs should not be too heavily produced, as this can cover faulty material with technical polish. However, the CD I submitted for Irreplaceable was recorded in my home studio using full synth tracks and featured my voice multitracked to reflect what the score would sound like with a full ensemble of actors. The show was a pop musical that incorporated numerous pop idioms and electronic textures that could not be even remotely simulated with an acoustic piano. Since I was planning on performing the show with pre-recorded tracks, this actually was a realistic representation of what a live performance would sound like. I was accepted, so take this information for what it's worth.
Comedies: Comedies seem to do best at the festival, although there are certainly a large variety of more serious works as well as dance pieces and performance art. When we had our first "Town Meeting" to kick off the festival, all the attending producers were asked to stand up and give a one-sentence blurb about their show. The bulk of the participants were comedies.
Acceptance: Acceptance/Rejection letters usually arrive in late April or early May. Acceptance of a festival invitataion must be made almost immediately (within a week) including a non-refundable participation fee ($400 in 2003, $500 in 2004). As the winter of 2002/2003 turned into an exceptionally rainy spring, the silence from the festival was deafening. My philosophy from a decade of rejection as an actor was to do your best at an audition and forget about it...so any success is always a pleasant surprise and you don't waste time and emotional energy planning for things that don't come true. So, on May 1, 2003 I received the pleasant surprise of an acceptance letter from the Fringe. And the journey began...
When my script was accepted, even though I was planning on producing this with my own money, I realized that I would need additional expertise to do this successfully. I also felt it would look less like a "vanity" production if I had an established company's name on the production.
I have had an association with the Kaleidoscope Theatre Company since it's 2nd production in 2000. I'm their webmaster and I have stage managed a couple of their productions. Kaleidoscope had been considering venturing into the world of musical comedy and was considering a Fringe production at some point in the future. It seemed like a perfect fit and the deal was done. Along with Kaleidoscope came their costume designer, lighting designer and graphic designer. I also chose to hire their publicist. The artistic director took the job of ASM backstage so I could run the show from the booth.
However, this relationship was not without serious problems. The Kaleidoscope people were fundamentally honorable and well-meaning; not a small consideration in a business filled with scumbags. However, thet operated by consensus, tended to wait until the absolute last minute to deal with everything and viewed missed deadlines with a rather casual attitude. Since I'm a make-a-choice-and-get-it-done-now kinda guy, this caused me an unbelievable amount of stress. I chose to do most of my communication via e-mail and the Kaleidoscope people often took days to respond to e-mail, if they responded at all.
I urge you to seriously consider the work habits and organizational culture of any potential producers or co-producers before asking them to join you.
If you fail to plan, you can plan on failing.
One of the first things that should be done is the establishment of a calendar. This can and will change, but it's easier to gauge your progress if you have some baseline schedule to work from. On Irreplaceable, our general calendar was as follows. There are a multitude of missing details, but this should give you some general ideas.
- Week of 4/28/03 (14 weeks to opening)
- Acceptance letter received
- Return contract, tech info sheet, participation fee
- Week of 5/05/03 (13 weeks to opening)
- Pre-production work begins
- Director search begins
- Begin exploration of insurance
- Deadline for setting the title of the show
- Week of 5/12/03 (12 weeks to opening)
- Meetings with potential co-producer
- Meetings with potential directors
- Director offer made and accepted
- Week of 5/19/03 (11 weeks to opening)
- Production meeting
- Begin preparing script and score for distribution
- Week of 5/26/03 (10 weeks to opening)
- Backstage and Playbill Online audition notices begin
- Week of 6/02/03 (9 weeks to opening)
- Submission mailings begin arriving
- Fringe Town Meeting
- Press packet and Fringe program graphics due
- Fringe program ad reservation due
- Week of 6/09/03 (8 weeks to opening)
- Book audition and rehearsal space
- Sign contracts with director and co-producer
- Fringe program ad graphic due
- Week of 6/16/03 (7 weeks to opening)
- Venue assignment received
- Audition appointments
- Meet with publicist
- Auditions and casting
- Week of 6/30/03 (6 weeks to opening)
- Scripts and CDs mailed to cast
- Week of 7/07/03 (5 weeks to opening)
- Photo call
- Music rehearsals start (Friday)
- Week of 7/14/03 (4 weeks to opening)
- Rehearsal week #1 - Staging begins
- Postcard graphics complete and printed
- Postcards due for Fringe mailing service
- Week of 7/21/03 (3 weeks to opening)
- Rehearsal week #2
- ACR box office training
- Week of 7/28/03 (2 weeks to opening)
- Venue walk-thru
- Rehearsal week #3 - work-thru's begin
- Finalize and print programs
- Fringe Central opens
- Week of 8/04/03 (1 week to opening)
- Load-in and Tech Rehearsal
- Programs due
- Festival check-in
- Opening (Friday)
- Week of 8/12/03
- Week of 8/19/03
If you want to be able to use Equity actors in your Fringe show, you must produce it as an Equity showcase. Not all Fringe shows are showcases and being in the Fringe does not automatically make your production a showcase.
If you want the best actors for your production, you should very seriously consider producing as a showcase. While Equity membership does not guarantee talent, skill or dedication, your chances are better with professionals than with the largely unseasoned pool of non-union actors.
The Code: The Equity Showcase Code is not a contract. It is simply a set of conditions and rules that must be adhered to. The only costs are insurance and a modest stipend to the actors (see below). You can download a copy of the showcase code from the AEA document library. You can read an overview of the showcase code an download an application from the AEA Showcase code page.
Approval: Because of the limited number of Equity staff handling showcases and the large number of applications associated with the Fringe, your showcase application may not be approved until your production is well into rehearsal. Showcase applications are rarely rejected, but you may want to get your Showcase application submitted as early as possible to avoid possible complications during the stressful final days of your rehearsal. You may never receive an official cast signature sheet from Equity at all. However, if at your first rehearsal your Equity members elect a deputy, the election signature sheet can serve as a de facto sheet that you should submit to Equity to cover your butt.
Non-Union: The restrictions and requirements of showcases are not onerous at all and represent a bare minimum standard for decent treatment of actors. If you treat all actors in your company the same, regardless of union status, that will encourage a professional atmosphere that inspires professional behavior. If you treat and pay non-union actors differently, it creates a two-tiered division of your cast that can create resentment.
Stipend: While one-shot producers are normally required by Equity only to provide transportation reimbursement. But starting with the 2004 Fringe Fest, Equity attached a side letter for Fringe productions that mandated a $200 stipend in exchange for increasing maximum house size over the normal 99 seats. Given the amount of work actors normally expend on a production and the quality available in the Equity talent pool (compared to non-union actors), this is a fair number. But, it can result in a significant budget item if you are trying to do a large cast musical. Be forewarned when submitting a script with a potentially large cast.
Transportation Reimbursement: Other than the Fringe and established off-off-B'way companies (seasonal producers), the showcase code only requires transportation reimbursement...essentially, subway fare. Rather than exerting the effort to keep count of the number of rehearsals and penny pinching to limited benefit, with Irreplaceable we just purchased monthly metrocards for everyone. The added goodwill and savings in accounting effort was well worth the trivial additional cost.
Taxes: Be sure that everyone understands any money given to them is an honararium and not a salary. Theatre people often collect unemployment when not working and if they declare money you have given them as salary (choosing legalism over practicality), their unemployment checks will get tied up and you may have issues with government agencies asking why you haven't paid employment taxes. My understanding is that for the limited time and budget of a normal off-off-B'way production that no social security or payroll taxes are due. However, you may want to double check this if you think you might ever run for public office.
Deputy: The Equity members of the cast (and only the Equity members) are required to elect a representative at the first rehearsal. Remember to schedule time at your first group rehearsal for a deputy election.
It is usually advisable to get all significant staff relationships codified in writing. The long-running and expensive dispute between Lynn Thompson and Jonathan Larson's estate over Rent should be enough incentive to lock down as much as possible while everyone is alive and on good speaking terms.
Producers: In the case of Irreplaceable I was the author, but because I had a co-producer, they asked that I sign an author's agreement. We used the standard Author's Agreement available from the Dramatist's Guild (www.dramatistsguild.com).
Director/Choreographer: If your director is SSDC (Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers), you and your director will need to use an SSDC contract. Showcases are not collectively bargained so you will need to use an SSDC "Special Contract". This contract has a very limited and reasonable set of rules. You can download a copy of the Special Contract from www.ssdc.org.
Everyone Else: None of the actors or other members of your production staff need contracts and if any ask you for one, you should be suspicious since their contribution to the production will probably not be significant enough to tie you down this early in the life of your play.
Subsidiary Rights: The author will need to make a decision about subsidiary rights to the theatre company and director. The Fringe contract (non-negotiable) takes 2% of author's future royalties. If the producer and director take 2% as well, suddenly 6% of author's royalties are tied up after five performances. Ralph Sevush at the Dramatist's Guild considers the Fringe a scam and strongly discourages authors from giving away subsidiary rights, saying "Why does everyone try to get a piece of authors?" Funny...actors say the same thing.
Our director was more interested in the work than in the money and was content with a reassurance that we would "Attempt to get him a future role or compensation commensurate with his contribution to the production" if the play had a life after the Fringe. The co-producers, on the other hand, were much more hard-nosed and insisted on getting 2% or having the option to buy the 2% should the production go further. In retrospect, we should have said "No."
Be careful. No one in theatre is indispensible.
You will need to set the title of your piece relatively early in the process, both as required by the Fringe producers and to facilitate publicity and postcards. Good titles often seem difficult to find in every media, but since you will be using it alot during your production and it's how your play will be remembered, it should be descriptive and, yet, succinct.
The name Irreplaceable Commodity was too long. It made web graphics and the postcard difficult and nobody could spell "Irreplaceable"...the one fact about our show that made it into the Wall Street Journal.
In the early 21st century, one-word titles seem to be in vogue...think Urinetown. In the 2003 festival, Slut, Scalpal and Lost all did brisk business. The titles certainly made referring to their show easier. We took to referring to ourselves as "Irreplaceable" around the venue and in e-mail.
For the 2003 and 2004 festivals, the Fringe website was organized so that when you went to the page listing shows, the first shows that always popped up were the shows with numbers in the titles. This appears to be true with most website listings. I wouldn't make any bizarre stretch, but if you have a show that can have a number in the title, putting the number at the beginning of the title and using a numeral instead of a spelling (i.e. "1" instead of "One") might get you slightly increased visibility on websites.
The budgets for Irreplaceable and Mossadegh broke down as follows. The projected amounts are in parenthesis following the actual amounts spent:
Total: $13,000 ($15,000)
In 2003, productions recieved $8.75 from each full-price ticket sold. For five shows sold-out shows of full-price ticket buyers in a 99-seat house that adds up to a MAXIMUM gross of around $4,300. Since there will be many people that get in for less than full-price and because you can't count on every performance being sold out (daytimes rarely sell out), your expectations on what you make from your shows should be 50% to 75% of that.
You will receive two checks from the Fringe. One halfway through the festival for door sales in the first week and one around Halloween for the rest.
With Irreplaceable we had initially hoped to make around $2,000 in participation. However, the blackout of '03 dramatically affected the final numbers. Our third show was interrupted by the blackout and since tickets were refunded, we made nothing off that show. Our fourth show had to be rescheduled at an awful time (9PM Monday) and with our measly promotional efforts, had an enthusiastic but compact audience.
Our final checks were postmarked 11/9 (around 6 weeks after closing). Because of Fringe production budget problems, all productions had their final checks reduced by 10%. Our final check was $1,386.23 and together with an initial payment of $192.50, we received $1,578.73 from ticket sales. We received the final 10% ($154.03) on 2/3/2003. Since we spent around $13,000 for the production, the production lost around $11,500.
You should not count on breaking even, much less making a profit, off your performances at the Fringe or any off-off-B'way production. That is why there are no commercial off-off-B'way producers. Unless you can put on a hit production for $2,000 (small house) to $5,000 (large house), the numbers are not even close to being in your favor. This holds true for non-festival Off-Off-B'way productions as well - and you will have additional high theatre rental costs and added publicity needs with a stand-alone production.
Because of the limited time available to rehearse showcases, it is advisable to have your script in the best possible shape. The adage about new musicals is that they are not written, they are rewritten. However, there are things you can do in advance that will save you time during the process.
Complete Script: Although changes will certainly be made to the script and score during the rehearsal process, it is very helpful to have a script that is complete and, at least theoretically, producible before you start auditioning. Anything less will cause chaos as you scramble to put something together in a schedule that is not conducive to creativity. And you can't cast appropriately unless you know what you're casting.
Actors, like all human beings, are more comfortable when they feel that they are being led to a concrete place by people with a clear vision. Presenting them with a complete, well-prepared script helps create that environment.
Fixed Page Numbers: It is helpful to prepare the script with fixed (as opposed to automatic) page numbers and page breaks. This will facilitate approval and distribution of changes since you will only need to hand out the modified pages and do not have to worry about confusion over page numbers. Different versions and installations of Microshit Word will break pages at different places. With automatic pagination, deletions and insertions will change the pagination for all pages following the change.
Scene Breaks: It is also helpful to put clear scene breaks that each start a new page. For some reason, alot of new scripts I have seen simply run scenes together, perhaps in an attempt to imply continuous action. Adding clear scene breaks with scene numbers helps immensely in defining clear rehearsal schedules and running orders and helps clarify the structure of the play. The minimal cost for the added sheets of paper is more than offset by the benefits.
Script Formatting: Use of standard theatrical script formatting with courier font and character names centered on separate lines is also encouraged. While there are formatting schemes that reduce the number of pages, they usually make the script harder to read. This can also be helpful at the submission stage since script readers will look more favorably on a script that is easy to read. While it is bad to waste paper, it is worse to waste people's time.
Vocal Scoring: Completely scoring your vocal arrangements before casting (rather than leaving passages of unassigned vocal harmony) saves valuable rehearsal time that would otherwise be wasted determining voice types and rewrite vocal parts to be singable. Since we used prerecorded instrumental tracks, it was then possible to record the vocal arrangements in advance as demos and distribute CDs with the demo tracks in one channel and just the individual cast vocal parts in the other channel.
While this approach is tedious for a composer, if the CDs and printed vocal music are mailed to the cast in advance of rehearsals, they are generally happy to do the advance work on the music and will walk into rehearsal with the music largely learned. You can cast with an eye towards vocal range.
We had two days of individual/small group music rehearsals, a read-thru rehearsal (with the cast able to sing everything) and one day to touch up the ensembles. This was an extremely efficient use of time and we were able to begin staging immediately with actors confidently singing their parts.
Copyright: Once you have a relatively clean script (and probably before you submit it to anyone) you should register your show with the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright forms and instructions are available from the Library of Congress website: www.loc.gov/copyright. You never know where the life of your play will lead and it's best to cover as many legal bases as you can while things are relaxed and rational.
Authorized Company Representative (ACR)
With the 2003 festival, the Fringe expanded the role of the Authorized Company Representative (ACR) to include work at the box office during the show. In previous years, the ACR was often involved in the production (sometimes as a lead actor) and since there was no one from the production involved with the volunteer-run box office, this led to havoc at the box office and occasional disputes over the final box office numbers. To alleviate this, the Fringe required the ACR to serve as house manager and sign off on the box office receipts after the start of the performance. As such, the ACR could not be actively involved in performing or running the show. The position of ACR also requires a two-hour training session that occurs in the week immediately preceding the festival.
While it is relatively easy to find excellent actors willing to do theatre for no money, it is practically impossible to find competent administrative people that can take time off from their day jobs to ACR your show for no remuneration. My tale of woe regarding my Irreplaceable ACR is given below in Cautionary Tales.
The ACR should be either you or someone intimately involved with and committed to your production (director, artistic director, writer, significant other, etc.). This person should also be an excellent communicator that checks his/her e-mail often.
The only problem is that the ACR duties involve front-of-house work during the performances. This can be solved by finding someone to do the FOH work and transferring the ACR duties to them at opening. This requires this FOH person to do box office training and some paperwork is required so they can sign off on the box office receipts.
For Mossadegh, I put an ad on Playbill Online offering to pay $200 for the run. For around seven hours of work (two hours of training plus an hour of work at each of five performances), this worked out to about $30/hour. I stressed in the ad and in the phone interviews that I needed someone reliable that would commit to the entire gig and that no money would be paid unless they worked through the final performance. I got around 20 responses and settled on a very pleasant and conscientious young lady who was largely maintenance free. Problem solved, but you have to pay for it.
It should be obvious that the choice of a director is critical to the success of a production and is probably the most critical choice you will make as a producer. The trick with directors is that in order to gain the valuable artistic contribution of a director, as a writer you will need to relinquish some (and in some cases, much) of your artistic vision for the piece. Sometimes this is good, although every play is unique. Good teams do bad work, and vice versa. As a writer/producer you have to define for yourself how much of your vision you are willing to relinquish. When interviewing directors, it is essential that the applicants be familiar with the piece and that you feel comfortable with their concept for your work.
Anyone who has been involved with production of original scripts has seen promising scripts hijacked by writers who chose to direct. It is common wisdom that writers should not direct their own work. However there is also the possibility that the problem is not inherent to writer/directors, since there are numerous successful productions that have been created by writer/directors. Perhaps it is simply that some writers simply do not posess good directorial skills. There are also numerous instances of weak directors producing successful productions when there is a strong script and/or strong cast.
With Irreplaceable I made the choice that the production should be driven largely by the director. The relationship was productive, although conflicts with the director added stress to an already stressful situation. He was used to working in professional situations and made choices that unnecessarily pushed the limits of what was technically and financially possible in that production.
With Mossadegh I chose to take the directorial reigns myself. I had some very specific ideas about the physical production that were intimately tied into the way the piece had been conceived and written. While I'm sure there are aspects that could have been improved by a fresh vision and creative spirit, I was generally happy with the outcome.
Given the large amount of music in Irreplaceable, I felt that having a single person as director and choreographer would be the simplest approach. This also reduced the number of paths of communication in the process and alleviate the possibility of director .vs. choreographer clashes that can often paralyze a production team. I also hoped to make a slight reduction in budget by not having to hire two separate people, but this was made moot since the director insisted on also bringing on his long-time assistant director/assistant choreographer.
My first choice for a director was a choreographer I had worked with a couple of years before in an unpleasant showcase at the 78th St. Theatre Lab. The unpleasantness was not the choreographer's fault and I had fond memories of her work on that production as well as other things I had seen her do in other situations. However, she was also an active performer and had directing and choreographing commitments that would not permit her to participate in my production.
I contacted the Production Manager at Theatreworks/USA (where I had worked a a performer and stage manager) asking for a recommendation. Theatreworks/USA produces touring musical theatre pieces for children and because of their stature and reputation is able to attract excellent young directors. The Production Manager had stage managed a 1998 King & I I had performed in and immediately suggested that production's choreographer for our production... as well as a couple of other director/choreographers.
The director and I met a few days later. I had posted a draft copy of the script for him to read prior to our meeting and he seemed extremely enthusiastic about the piece. While I was a bit uneasy about his enthusiasm, I was also interested in locking in this critical production element as quickly as possible. I offered him the position and he immediately accepted.
Then his demeanor became much more direct as we started discussing the production in more detail. While this demeanor was effective in getting what he wanted out of me and the cast, it could often be slightly abrasive. I can be difficult to work with and I'm not sure whether anyone could be more successful in dealing with me, I often wonder whether my life would have been more pleasant with a different person. However, I do not regret my hiring decision and feel that he did excellent work.
If you do not have a director attached to your project, I would highly suggest that you interview multiple people for the position. I suggest expending the extra time needed so that you can be confident you have found the most appropriate available person for the job.
I got a number of additional bonuses along with the director I hired. He suggested an audition pianist who (while not free) worked for a reduced rate and was an excellent musical ear in auditions. He was able to provide a production photographer who did excellent work and only required pizza for remuneration. He had a long-standing professional relationship with an assistant director who also assumed a number of stage management duties. He was the office manager at a small Chelsea public relations firm and we were able to use a clean, spacious, air-conditioned storage loft as a rehearsal space (saving around $1,500 in rehearsal space rental costs). And he was also willing to contribute a significant amount of physical labor hauling set/props and subbed for one show as ASM.
Assembly of a competant, reliable production staff for no money is extremely difficult. While there is a large body of extremely talented actors looking for opportunities to perform and willing to do it for free, the pool of similarly cheap and talented tech people is much more shallow.
It will be helpful if you can find a way to do as much work as possible within an intimate nucleus of staff (ACR, director, SM, board op) without adding additional bodies (and possible headaches) to the production.
Stage Manager: A reliable stage manager can be invaluable to the smooth running of your production. This is worth paying for if you can find somebody. With Irreplaceable, I chose to do this job myself and that made it impossible for me to be ACR, resulting in a chain reaction of problems on the production side.
Actors as Crew: While it's not optimal, shows can usually be staged to make it possible for the performers to make all the set changes. Actors can help other actors with quick changes. If your set and prop list is simple enough, the Stage Manager should be able to get your set up within the 15 minutes setup time while your board-op is checking lights and sound.
SM as Board Op: If your light/sound design is relatively simple, you can get by with your stage manager running both lights and sound. If you have an extensive number of sound and/or light cues, you should probably plan on getting a separate operator for sound or lights. Stage Managers usually run lights, although, as a musician, I have always preferred to run sound.
Backstage ASMDuring my 2002 Fringe production, the director insisted (over my protestations) that we add a backstage ASM. We went through two different unreliable people (who had very little to do anyway) and ended up not having anyone there for most of the performances.
In 2003 I had a similar dispute with my director. The theatre company's artistic director ended up serving as the ASM. While he did prove to be modestly valuable in running the show (and extremely valuable for setup/teardown), I still believe that the addition of personnel adds potential points of failure that should be avoided if possible.
My 2004 production had no real backstage needs, so there was no issue.
Playbill.com: Your best resource for tech people is past relationships and word of mouth from people you trust. If you do need additional staff, the job listing on Playbill Online (www.playbill.com) is an excellent resource, and very inexpensive. While the respondents can be a very mixed bag, I have met some excellent people that were found via Playbill Online.
Timing of Booking: While it is best to try to book tech people well in advance, tech people frequently get paying job offers on short notice and will leave you at the most inconvenient times. You should be prepared with a pile of backup resumes when/if you lose your first choice.
In our 2003 production, the director had a long-standing professional relationship with an Assistant Director and refused to do the show without her. She ultimately proved to be extremely valuable to him technically and artistically and had a very positive effect on company morale.
My personal belief and experience is that casting is the second most critical element of any theatrical production (after the choice of director). A good cast can make even the most marginal material and direction look good (read a soap script sometime). But an underskilled and/or inappropriate cast can turn the greatest script into a mind-numbingly unpleasant evening (e.g. 90% of the Off-Off-B'way Shakespeare productions).
Casting is a highly imperfect and often barbaric process. But until someone comes up with a better way, it's the best process we've got.
If you're casting a musical in New York, you take out an ad in Backstage. Period. Cost is reasonable - in 2003 and 2004 it was $55 for 6 lines (48 words) per week. Two or three weeks is adequate. This was our listing:
Seeking versatile pop singer/actors (5M, 3F) who move well for a new musical about rich, sexy, singing and dancing investment bankers and their bosses. Types range from bright aggressive 20's to jaded aggressive 50's. Several actors play multiple roles. Rehearses July, performs August 2003 at NY Int'l Fringe Festival. Gary Slavin, Director/Choreographer. Send submissions to CASTING, XXX West Xst Street, 8th Floor, NYC 100XX. Breakdown info at www.irreplaceablecommodity.com. AEA showcase (approval pending.)
If you're producing under an AEA showcase code, you should list that in the ad since Equity actors often ignore non-union ads. You will need to have filed a showcase application with Equity or Backstage will not run your ad. Backstage does check with Equity and the resulting e-mail will be filled with bluster and nastiness.
You might also consider a listing on Playbill Online. Not too expensive ($20 for 30 days) and reaches a wide variety of web-savvy actors.
Don't forget to call/e-mail all your friends and anyone who had done readings for you as well.
Mail submissions have significant advantages over open calls. Mail submissions permit you to to filter out people that are not appropriate for your production. While headshots/resumes can often be wildly misrepresentative of an actor, but it beats putting everyone through the ordeal (and expense) of a cattle call.
With mail submissions you will likely receive a huge pile of headshots. 1,000 or more, depending on your breakdown - most of them 20-something ingenues. Unless you live in a doorman building and have an excellent relationship with the guys at your front desk, this can be a problem. Renting a post office box large enough to handle the volume of mail is pricey. If you rent too small a box, supposedly they will charge you extra for the extra mail handling. The UPS Store (formerly Mailboxes, Etc.) is another option, but they are similarly expensive.
With Irreplaceable Commodity, the mail room at our director's office was willing to take the hit. We received around 500 headshots and, along with the people suggested by the director and casting director, ended up seeing around 70 people.
Oddly enough, headshots will continue to dribble in well past the end of your stated submission period and sometimes even after you have opened.
If you are seeking a cast that contains roles that will be even slightly difficult to cast (e.g. musicians, older character actors, specific ethnicities, special skills), you may want to consider using a professional casting director. Smaller casting offices (especially if they are your personal friends) will often work for less than the $1,500 often charged by casting offices. As with apartment hunting, if you can afford the fee, hiring an intermediary can open up a broader array of options than you can find through mail submissions.
Experienced casting directors also often know more about the personality and background of actors than will be apparent in an audition or from a resume. Casting directors will filter out problem children and filter in people that you might have otherwise overlooked.
If you have a piece that uses musician/actors, you may have serious difficulties finding performers through the normal channels. In general, the more specific your casting needs and the more skills you need, the more limited your options of people who will work for little or no money.
For Mossadegh, I needed three male musician/actors and a drummer. My one-week ad in Backstage yielded zero submissions. Thankfully, I was saved by a friend who is a casting director and who was able to provide me with a number of options from their personal files and from agent submissions. Two of my first four choices ended up being cast in another show and rather than trying to negotiate already complex schedules, I ended up recasting.
Instrumental Auditions: If you are using rock musicians, there really is no substitute for hearing them play their instruments in person. While most serious musicians have some kind of demo recordings, actor/musicians often do not. If you need a drummer and/or electric guitarist/bassist you should probably consider having your audition at a musician's rehearsal studio (such as Ultrasound or Funkadelic) that has rooms with drum kits and amps. With Mossadegh we did not do this and when I almost had to recast the drummer, I regretted not having heard all my options in person.
Sight Reading: When using actor/musicians, it is EXTREMELY helpful if you can cast musicians that read music - at least a little bit. With the short rehearsal times and (often) complex structures of theatrical music, you probably don't have the time or patience to do the repetition needed to learn music by ear. Actors will usually overstate their ability to sight read so you need to be sensitive the subtext of their answer when you ask them how well they read.
Backup Musicians: Finding backup musicians to work for free is basically impossible unless they are CLOSE personal friends. Unless you have the cash to buy musicians, you should keep the instrumental needs of your production to a bare minimum (i.e. piano) or use tracks.
Reliability: Humans are unreliable and non-professional musicians are more human than most. I saw a performance of Elephant Man - The Musical at the 2001 Fringe Fest that had to be performed acapella because the pianist had the wrong call time. Interesting and funny, but not pretty. Cancelling a show at the Fringe Fest results in a contractual fine, so you should have a contingency plan if one of your musicians doesn't show up (e.g. tracks).
Backup Guitars: Much to my surprise, I discovered that guitar strings break with surprising, and most inconvenient, frequency. When a guitar string breaks, it throws the rest of the strings out of tune, rendering the instrument useless. Our lead guitarist broke a string in the opening number of the opening night of Mossadegh. Since he had no backup instrument and we had made no plans for pausing the show to restring, the performance had gaping holes where he normally displayed his flashes of virtuosity. Professional guitarists will know to bring a backup instrument to the gig. But semi-professional actor/musicians may not have a second instrument. You will want to plan on how to deal with this situation, perhaps even purchasing a cheap instrument as a backup.
You should begin posting your audition notices four weeks before your scheduled auditions. This will give the actors a couple of weeks to read the notice and give you a couple of weeks to go through headshots and make appointments.
Auditions should occur three or four weeks before the start of production. Having too much time between auditions and rehearsals increases the chance that you will lose a critical actor to another opportunity. Having too little time will not give you time to get the offers accepted and will reduce the amount of time the actors have to do advance homework on the script.
You should probably reserve your audition space around the time you post your casting notice. Remember that the summer is chock-full of holidays and having auditions over a holiday weekend can cause problems.
On Irreplaceable, we scheduled actors at the initial call in 5-minute intervals. This enabled us to schedule 90 actors in an 8-hour day with a 30-minute meal break. Callbacks were scheduled in 15-minute intervals. Remember to book an additional half-hour before scheduled start to set up the room and a half-hour after the final appointment to tear-down and provide a contingency if you're running behind.
A day of appointments and a day of callbacks proved quite adequate for us to find an excellent cast. Callbacks were made on the spot during the appointment day and offers were made the day after callbacks.
You should select a professional audition space located in Manhattan close to mass transportation. A medium sized room (as opposed to some of the closet-size rooms out there) will make you and your auditionees much more comfortable. This is a significant expense.
You should arrange for someone to serve as a monitor. Actors need someone they can talk to who can answer questions about the production. A monitor can also be useful for detecting if someone has an attitude problem. You want to filter those people out at auditions before they ruin the environment and morale in your rehearsals.
The monitor can help keep track of the schedule. To save time, the monitor can bring headshots to the table in groups so the actors only need to go to the piano and go over their music with the pianist.
I personally like it when the monitor announces actors as they enter - puts a nice button on the start of the audition. But my director didn't like that. We didn't announce.
The more specific you can be about what you want to hear, the more comfortable your actors will feel about their audition, the better they'll perform and the better your chances of finding an excellent cast. Saying "Anything that shows off your voice" is a cop-out. You should know what you're looking for and ask to hear something in that vein, as well as a contrasting piece.
You should probably specifically ask for a short piece - 32 bars. Young actors that do a lot of chorus calls will bring in 16-bar cuts and that's really not enough to evaluate someone you are considering for a role.
Irreplaceable Commodity had an electronic pop score and we asked specifically for people to bring in pop songs, not theatre music. Around 75% of the actors brought in theatre music - sometimes not even remotely pop. Be prepared for this if you're doing something with a score that is not traditionally theatrical.
We agreed among ourselves that sides to be much more revealing than monologues. Sides were provided at callbacks. Be sure to give your selection of script excerpts some advance thought since you will have to listen to the same scenes multiple times on callback days.
It will be helpful to your actors if you can put a copy or two of the script in the lobby with your monitory. Gives them a chance to figure out who their characters are and how they should tailor their audition. And whether they really want to do your production.
On Irreplaceable there was some dispute among the auditors about whether we wanted to read people in groups or with a reader. My personal preference was to read people in groups - you get to kill two birds with one scene and you also get to see chemistry between performers. Readers are often inappropriate types for the parts they're reading and sometimes aren't very good actors. The director preferred to use a reader, since a bad pairing of actors can wreck an audition for a otherwise acceptable performer. We used a reader.
All actors should see the audition process from the other side of the table. There are actors that are happy to be readers. If you are producing with an established company, they probably have "Family" members who will be glad to read.
Good pianists are expensive: $30 to $50 per hour. Hopefully your composer or musical director that can play the audition.
At the auditions we asked the actors to fill out a questionnaire with the following information. This info proved valuable at various points in the casting process
- Professional Name
- Preferred role(s)
- Mailing Address
- All Phone Numbers
- E-mail address(es)
- Specifically how often do you check your e-mail (e.g. daily, weekly)
- What is the best way to contact you?
- Known or possible conflicts between 7/11 and 8/24
- Approximate work schedule
- How well do you sight read music (1-10, 10 = excellent)
- Vocal Range (lo - hi, women belt/mix top)
- Men - strength of falsetto (1-10, 10 = excellent)
While the home address of an actor may be irrelevant in a professional film or theatre production, it can be a significant issue for an Off-Off-B'way production.
New Jersey is separated from Manhattan by a river and two tunnels. Regardless of how conscientious and fastidious an actor is, transportation to and from New Jersey is subject to factors that are beyond the control of mortals. One strategically placed auto accident or train derailment can easily cause an actor to miss a rehearsal or, worse yet, a performance. The most talented actor is useless to you if they aren't at the show.
The outer boroughs present lesser but similar issues. However, if you only limited your casting to Manhattan residents, your available pool would shrink unacceptably.
With Mossadegh, my initial choice for a drummer was a guy from Jersey. Really nice personality, strong type and his demo disk sounded great. But a month before the festival he was involved in a traffic accident that left him with a mild head injury that affected his memory. When he missed a rehearsal and didn't return phone calls (he usually took 48 hours to return any call), I almost had to recast. Thankfully, I didn't and his verve and elan was a significant contribution to our production.
You should get home addresses at auditions and weigh that into your final casting decisions.
Experience .vs. Enthusiasm
While talent, resume and appropriateness for the part are the most obvious criteria in casting, they are not the only issues. While you may be able to channel the talent of a busy asshole into a fine performance in the limited, paid schedule of a commercial film shoot, such a person will probably cause unspeakable chaos in an Off-Off-Broadway theatrical production.
Actors with Broadway or soap credits are attractive for the cachet and publicity they can bring to your production. However, actors used to working at a level above you will probably view you and treat you as a level below them. Sometimes it's better not to date a girl that's too beautiful.
Actors are often reticent to make committments to showcases if they are actively pursuing and getting paying work. Usually the more talented they are, the more active they will be. The more active they are, the more conflicts they will have. The more conflicts they have, the harder it is to find rehearsal time and the greater the chance you will lose them... possibly at the worst possible moment. At the Off-Off-B'way level of theatre, you may want to lean toward the lesser but more reliable talents rather than the geniuses that will miss rehearsals to audition or run off as last-minute replacements on first-national tours.
Actors are actors and the charm they affect at auditions may not remain when you are running late at a long tech rehearsal in a hot theatre 12 hours from opening. If you have a strange feeling about someone, you should make a note of that and keep that in consideration when making your casting choices.
With Mossadegh I initially cast an actor that did comedy on weekends, leaving that precious weekend time unavailable for rehearsals. Since I worked days and was in class two nights a week, I should have known it would never work out with the other cast conflicts. It took over a week to get an acceptance from him on the offer. He took a long time to return calls checking availability. When he accepted a role in another Fringe production (assuming we could find a way to build our schedule around him) I had to recast.
Keep in mind that you will need to schedule rehearsals around the composite schedules of the actors, so at the audition you should probably get a general idea about their schedule and information about how they pay their bills.
E-mail is an extremely efficient method for communicating with your cast. However, not all actors check their e-mail regularly. Not all actors have computers. Some actors will give you e-mail addresses but never check their e-mail. If you are planning on using e-mail regularly, find out at the audition how regularly your potential actors check their e-mail.
If an actor takes a long time to return your phone calls, that is usually a sign that they either don't take your production seriously, they are too busy to give your production a high priority, or they are flaky. Unfortunately, it's hard to know about an actor's phone habits until you cast them. One trick is to not leave an offer message on their voice mail but ask them to call you back. If it takes them 48 hours to return your call or you have to play phone tag, that may be an indication that you should just say you're checking availability and move on to your next choice.
Those Not Called Back
At this level of theatre where you are not dealing with an extremely large number of anonymous actors, it is nice if you can give some kind of follow-up to the actors you do not call back and the called-back actors you do not make offers to. If you get e-mail addresses on your questionnaire, you can quickly whip out a bunch of e-mails.
Auditions are brutal to actors and the not knowing whether they are still being considered is just one more unpleasantness in their lives. If you can give them some closure, you will make a friend...one that you might need for your next production.
Keep the following items in mind as you plan a Fringe Festival production:
- You get technical rehearsal time in your venue equal to twice the length of your show.
- You will get very little space to store your set.
- Although you will probably get 30 minutes to setup, you are guaranteed only 15 minutes.
- You need to be able to completely tear down and empty the theatre within 15 minutes of your final curtain
- You must share a rep light plot with as many as 12 other productions, with only 15 minutes to refocus or re-gel.
- No open flame or pyrotechnics are allowed at any venue.
- You may not get a venue assignment, much less specific technical details until as late as six weeks before your first performance
You will be provided with a technical survey form with your acceptance letter that you will need to fill out and return with your initial paperwork. The information provided on this form is used to help determine the best venue for your show and does not guarantee that you will not have to reduce the technical needs of your show to fit within your venue.
Fringe shows traditionally have been extremely low-budget affairs that value material and performances over lavish costumes and sets. However, the advent of Fringe shows that made commercial transfers suddenly brought in a body of people that felt they could stage complex musical productions in a guerilla theatre environment. Since theatre is based on suspension of disbelief, I submit that complex and expensive production elements are unnecessary if you have talented performers and a solid story. Minimalism rules and simplicity will make your Fringe experience much more enjoyable. You are ignoring this, but don't say I didn't warn you.
Sharing Costs with Other Shows in the Space
A number of the topics given below offer suggestions of ways to share costs with other productions in your space. Generous people tend to be trusting and theatre people often seem very nice. It's a theatrical illusion. NO ONE in theatre can be trusted unless their ass is on the line and they have something to lose financially or personally. If you are going to share costs with another production, get the cash up front or don't do the deal. Do not front the cash and expect the other productions to fulfill their committment out of some sense of honor. There is no honor after closing.
In 2002, the productions in the Cino Theatre agreed to contribute $100 toward the purchase of an air conditioner for the space. Only two productions actually came through: ours and the guy that bought the air conditioners. If you want to subsidize your colleagues, that's your choice. But otherwise you've got to take care of yourselfi...because no one else will.
Venues and Performance Schedule
Venues vary widely from nice 300-seat theatres to rehearsal studios. Each company/artist will be assigned to a single venue for the run of the Festival. As many as 12 different productions may share a single venue.
Each production gets around 5 performances and the performance schedule rotates to give every company a fair shot at all performance times. This means that you will most likely have at least one prime weekend evening slot, as well as at least one weekday afternoon slot. Schedule conflicts may impact on the number of performances you receive. Productions in very small venues sometimes get more performances to compensate for the smaller seating capacity.
The Fringe provides two support personnel at each venue: a Venue Director and a Box Office Attendant. The Venue Director is each production's primary contact with both the venue and the Fringe and is responsible for coordinating the logistical and technical operation of each venue. This person can be your best friend or your worst enemy and gentle treatment is suggested. You should also plan $100 or more into your budget as an honorarium for taking on this thankless job.
The Fringe insists that individual productions not contact the venue directly, to avoid overwhelming the venue personnel. However, there is no restriction on visiting the venue as a patron to any production that happens to be running there. This will also give you the opportunity to see how productions look and sound in the space.
Venue assignments are not set until around 6 weeks prior to opening. Technical information (including dimensions, entrances/exits, crossovers, soft goods, etc.) may not be available until very close to load in. In 2002, our venue lost its venue director and since it was not an active theatre, we did not get any technical information until the week prior to load in. As such, you should stage your production in a way that will facilitate adaptation to a variety of physical spaces.
Each venue has a scheduled load-in time. In both of my Fringe productions, that was 9AM on the Monday immediately preceding the Friday opening performance of the Festival. Each company is required to send at least one representative and you're welcome to send more. This load-in is devoted to preparing the space for performance and this can often involve an extensive amount of cleaning and organization of the shit that is in a filthy space. Bring gloves, a crescent wrench and a humble attitude.
The light plot is hung on the load-in day and having your lighting designer there is advised. At Wings the LDs were each trying to redesign the plot to best match the needs of their own shows, and the negotiations were heated. Having your LD there will assure that your voice is heard. The condition of the lighting equipment can be quite dreadful.
Load-in is also the time when you load in your set pieces and negotiations ensue about how to allocate the limited storage space.
Strike occurs immediately following the final performance at a venue. Again, every show has to send a representative. Lights come down and sets disappear. Goes much quicker than load-in...usually an hour...and then everyone goes to the closing ceremonies.
The Fringe festival occurs in August in New York City. Some Fringe venues are un-air-conditioned or under-air-conditioned. You can't know whether your venue is air-conditioned until you get technical information on your venue, which may not occur until well after you have started rehearsals. In 2003, the Fringe producers were under the impression that Wings Theatre was air conditioned when they booked the space. They were wrong and that misconception resulted in a tremendous amount of misery for the 12 shows that shared our space. Gory details are provided below in Cautionary Tales.
The point being... you should consider the possibility that you may be performing in an un-air-conditioned space. This should influence your costuming choices and perhaps even the type of play you want to produce at the Fringe.
Music and Amplification
If you have a score that will work with a single acoustic piano, you should have no problem at the Fringe. A piano is guaranteed if you ask for it and should be tuned once at the start of the Festival. But you will have to provide someone to play it and that can be kinda expensive if you have to hire someone. And single pianos are kinda boring in a world of rock 'n roll and sampled sounds.
Body microphones are generally too expensive and complicated for the Fringe, although it has been done and might not be too unreasonable if your cast is small. Wireless microphones are deceptively complex to handle and mix. Even the best equipment can become unreliable on a sweaty tenor. Radio waves bounce unpredictably in the confined spaces used for theatre - resulting in dropouts and pops. Wireless microphones require a dedicated, experienced sound person who knows what they're doing. Body microphones are not a trivial last-minute detail.
It is possible to use a live multi-piece band, although the volume of the band will present challenges. One drummer will easily drown out your entire cast even when playing softly. Some case studies from the 2003 festival:
- Slut used a four-piece band (keyboard, bass, guitar and drums). Dialogue and singing was entirely acoustic. The trick for them was having the drummer use bamboo brush sticks, which greatly diminished their ability to rock.
- Scalpal performed the dialogue scenes acoustically, but used three wireless microphones for songs. This presented some interesting (and occasionally comical) microphone choreography issues, such as a living actor robbing the microphone from an actor that had just died. The track was not especially well produced either and and extremely hot microphone mix made for a very crude overall sound.
- Rats Are Getting Bigger used a single wired microphone for vocal solos. Group singing was loud enough to balance with the band and the dialogue was largely shouted. Since the piece was largely a performance art piece with interpolated songs, this approach more successful than it would have been with a more traditionally structured narrative musical. The band was comprised of a live drummer and a live guitarist who also controlled a sampler for effects and some underscoring.
Given the severe chronological and technical constraints at the Fringe, pre-recorded tracks have very significant advantages over live musicians. Live musicians (especially rockers) can be very loud and microphones are impractical in many venues. Live musicians require significant setup and teardown time. Well produced tracks can offer a much wider palate of styles and timbres that is possible with a limited number of musicians. And it's often difficult to find quality musicians willing to work for the compensation available to most off-off-Broadway companies.
There is a strong bias against tracks in the NY theatre community and among professional musicians. While I suspect that it is a snobbery based on fragile egos, I must admit that tracks do add a Karaoke quality when not scored or used tastefully. But I doubt whether having a live but bored second violinist can be considered a truly creative part of the production. And if your story is gripping, much can be forgiven.
When using tracks, it is simplest if you are able to design your tracks so they can be run from a single CD deck. This makes it largely impossible to layer effects, such as a phone ringing at a specific time in the script while underscore music plays. This also makes safety vamps difficult. However, it is possible to compensate for these limitations with clever planning, such as planning pauses at the end of vamps.
It is easiest to run tracks on a CD deck with single play mode/autopause. The deck stops between tracks and your board op will not have to pause and advance the deck after each track. Most consumer level CD players do not have this capability and professional quality players with this capability can be quite expensive. However, DJ CD decks are available for relatively reasonable prices (i.e. Stanton S-250 was around $150 in 2003).
It will be helpful to your sound board op if you plan your tracks so that there are no internal pauses within tracks.
The Fringe guarantees no set or costume storage space, although there is almost always a limited amount of space available for storing sets, props and costumes. If your script requires a turntable, rain or multiple slamming doors, I would suggest that you not attempt to produce that script at the Fringe or in any off-off-Broadway situation. Although I've never seen a venue director tell a producer that he could not store a large set piece at the venue, I wouldn't push your luck. And you should ask yourself whether that large platform is really essential to your piece and worth alienating your venue director.
With Irreplaceable our set consisted of three 5' folding banquet tables, five stacking office chairs and one small marble-top cabaret cable (a gift from God, via the garbage at our director's place of employment). Our props fit into three office boxes, one small rolling suitcase and a garbage bag. I doubt that anyone missed the rolling office chairs or maple desks.
It can also be space-saving (and cost-saving) to see if you can share set pieces with one or more productions in your venue. Your venue director will probably send out a mass e-mail prior to tech week so you have e-mail addresses for all the other productions.
In planning your set, you should not neglect to consider what will happen with it when you're done. One nice thing about using generic pieces (like folding tables) versus custom pieces is that you can sell or donate them when you're done.
In 2003, we joined with two other productions to rent a U-Haul (www.uhaul.com) van for load-in and load-out. Sharing reduced the expense to around $20 apiece.
The Fringe guarantees only a basic repertory light plot consisting of at least a front light system, a back light system, and at least one special. Note that you will have to share this plot with as many as 12 other shows in your venue and that your lighting guy/girl will only have the 15-minute setup and 15-minute teardown to refocus/re-gel.
Lighting may be a problem if you expect 150 light cues. You are not guaranteed a computerized light board. At Wings, we banded together to rent an ancient Vision board (at $300, the cheapest thing we could find). However, the ancient dimmers in the venue were taxed to their limit by the heat (as well as poor maintenance and inadequate booth ventilation) and random dimmers would sporadically shut down during the performances.
Since I was uncertain that I would be able to find a professional-quality lighting designer and was fearful that we would only have a two-scene manual preset board, my initial plan was to design a simple lighting plot around five or six different "looks" that could easily be run with limited personnel and technical facilities. This was a the method I used on my Theatreworks/USA tours when dealing with unfamiliar theatrical lighting and a lighting op that was unfamiliar with the show. However, my director and lighting designer had other ideas and we ended up with a 120 cue plot that continued to evolve over the run.
Before hiring a lighting designer, be sure that you, your lighting designer and your director are all "on the same page" regarding what you expect for lighting. Given the limited lighting resources usually available in the venue, if you or your director has even modest light design skills, you might strongly consider doing this job yourself. Lighting guys tend to be an independent bunch with fragile egos and a sense of loathing for everyone else in theatre. You've been warned.
With Mossadegh, the lighting plot was very minimal and as director I decided to design and run lights myself. No problems at all.
The Fringe guarantees only a very basic sound system: amplifier, mixer, two speakers and a dual cassette deck. (Does anyone under 60 still use cassettes?) Note that this does not include a CD player, nor does it guarantee anything about the quality of the sound system. However, most theatrical spaces have CD decks and at least marginally good sound systems. If you need a CD or MD deck, you may have to purchase one yourself or in cooperation with the other shows in your venue.
My 2002 Fringe show at the Cino Theatre (Theatre for a New City) had a low-end mixer, PA amp and pro quality speakers. My 2003 Fringe show at the Wings Theatre was a sonic nightmare and the situation is detailed below in Cautionary Tales. My 2004 Fringe show was in the Greenwich Street Theatre, which had an excellent system with a 12-channel mixer, MD, CD and strong power amp driving professional quality speakers.
Because off-off-B'way venues are often not used for mixing live music, many sound/light booths are isolated by glass or plexiglass from the house, permitting the board ops to make crude remarks about the performers without being heard in the house. However, this makes it very difficult to hear sound levels or mix multiple microphones. Both my 2003 and 2004 shows were in theatres with glass isolated booths and all my offers to remove and replace the glass fell on deaf ears.
The score for Irreplaceable was electronic pop and the music was tracked. We had initially considered renting body microphones to enable the performers to sing in a more pop style and to facilitate blending the vocal sound to the track. At the 2002 festival, The Joy of Sex (the musical) had a professional quality sound system with body microphones and sounded great. However, when we had the opportunity to see a show at Wings, the intimate house and good acoustics led us to realize that body mics would be unnecessary. In addition to the considerable expense ($2,600 rental quote from One Dream Sound), setup and testing of eight body microphones would have eaten up a substantial amount of time, not to mention having to deal with microphone problems before or during the performance. The limitations of the Wings sound system would have dictated bringing in our own mixer/amps/speakers and the space restrictions would have been made this very difficult.
If you need to rent sound equipment, the hot vendor in NYC is One Dream Sound (www.onedreamsound.com). While they're not cheap, their prices are competitive and they have an excellent reputation for quality and customer service.
Because of the number of productions sharing a space, there is generally not enough room for all shows to store costumes at the space. There is also the possibility that one show may accidentally or intentionally take a piece from another production.
As such, it it best if you can find a way to take all your costumes out of the theatre after each performance. In all my Fringe productions, we asked the actors to be responsible for their own costumes. This permitted them to air out the costumes (think un-air-conditioned theatre in August) and clean them at their whim. Since neither of these productions had a huge number of costumes, each actor could fit their costumes conveniently in a suit bag.
Because your tech time is so brief, you will probably want to try to do a dress rehearsal before your tech rehearsal. That way, you can sort most of the costume change and preset issues out and preserve more of your tech time for lights/sound issues.
Projections are extremely tempting because they permit use of complex imagery that would be expensive and difficult or impossible to create with sets, costumes or actors. However they add a new layer of complexity and expense to your production and projections are often used as a crutch rather than an enhancement.
If there is a way to do your play without projections, I would highly suggest that you choose that path when producing at the Fringe or in any Off-Off-B'way situation. If your dominant artistic medium is images, you should probably be doing independent film or new media instead of live theatre.
But if you're dead set on projections, LCD projectors are the way to go. They are expensive, although the prices continue to drop. If you are in a small to medium sized space the smaller projectors used for business presentations will work fine. Equipment for larger spaces is expensive, but if multiple shows in a venue are using a projector, the cost can be shared and reduced to a reasonable level.
However, even the brightest projection equipment adds a significant layer of complexity to the lighting design since the projection area cannot have spill from the lighting used for the rest of the stage. Negotiating projection-appropriate lighting within a shared rep plot will be a serious consideration when your lighting designers are fighting over the lighting design at load in.
Slide projectors are now obsolete and should not even be considered as an option for projections. The equipment is no longer manufactured, so any equipment you can get will be old, cumbersome and unreliable. Slides get stuck or reversed. Projection bulbs burn out at the most inconvenient times. Smooth transitions into, out of, or between slides requires use of two projectors and a dissolver - a complex and expensive setup. Forget slides...they have always been a nightmare and you have to be a masochist or luddite to miss them.
Each Fringe Festival production gets a single technical rehearsal in the week prior to the first Friday performance. The rehearsal length is two times the stated running length of your show. If you do the math, you will see that this is the only way to enable 6 - 12 shows to have time in a shared space within the four days that the spaces are available prior to tech. If you've ever priced theatre rental in NYC, you will also understand why renting a space for an extra week is financially prohibitive.
Given that length restriction, it is usually only possible to do a quick que-to-que rehearsal to set light cues, sound levels, entrances, exits, etc. Unless you have a show with no significant technical elements, you should not expect to be able to do a complete run of the show during your tech rehearsal. Your first complete run with full technical elements will probably be your opening night performance.
Toward that end, any technical work you can do in advance (such as setting the placement and timing of light/sound cues) will be to your advantage. Reducing your shows technical requirements to a bare minimum improves your chances of having glitch-free performances. Every light cue you remove is one less light cue that can go wrong and one less opportunity for an unexpected blackout.
Occasionally it is possible to rent a space prior to your tech for rehearsal. For our 2003 show, this was actually arranged by the Venue Director. The rep light plot will not yet be setup, but at least you will have time to adapt your show to the space.
Since you will be sharing your stage with a large number of other productions, you may want to try to find a way to not have to place many spike marks. With Irreplaceable the venue director allowed us to place 2' numbers on the lip of the stage along with an US center mark. We ended up needing a few other spike marks as well.
Remember to bring your own spike tape, gaff tape and glow tape to load-in and tech. It will probably not be provided for you by the venue director or the venue.
The Fringe requires stating the running time of your performance with your technical materials. This time is used for scheduling performances and technical rehearsals. If a performance runs longer than its scheduled time, your Venue Director may threaten to shut your show down prematurely. Timing can be especially problematic for new works that have never been performed with technical elements before a live audience.
Given the limited amount of tech time, your first full performance with all technical elements will probably be your opening show...too late to make any alterations to your running time.
In my 2002 production, our 2-hour play was running 2:20 immediately prior to our technical rehearsal. The playwright was unwilling to make cuts and the time was made up by significantly increasing the tempo of line delivery. While the play certainly needed an increase in pacing, this approach was frustrating to the performers and, arguably, affected the show negatively.
Given all that, I would suggest that you be liberal with your stated running time, perhaps even padding it with 15 minutes. Show running times will be rounded up to the nearest 15-minute division anyway. You will get an extra 30 minutes of tech time and your venue colleagues will be happy to have some additional setup time when their show follows yours. And if your show ends up running longer than you expected, you save everyone alot of last-minute stress.
Deferred honesty is better than unpleasant surprise.
You MUST spend a considerable amount of money and effort on publicity if you want anyone to see your show. Performing arts patrons in New York have, literally, hundreds of choices on any given night. Publicity (and it's little brother, word-of-mouth) are how you encourage people to choose your production over all the others.
The best production in the city will be meaningless if no one comes to see it. If you are only going to do the show for your friends, you should do a reading in your living room and save the money for a trip to Cancun.
One of the advantages of participating in the NY International Fringe Festival is that you get a leg up in potential audience over independent productions. The Festival is about as high-profile as you can get with Off-Off-B'way theatre. There is a huge audience and they get press in most New York, national and web publications that write about New York theatre. The trick becomes distinguishing yourself among the 200+ shows that are part of the festival. That trick is made harder by the limited budgets associated with most Off-Off-B'way productions.
Postcards are the primary promotional tool for off-off-B'way productions and they are primarily distributed by mail.
For Irreplaceable and Mossadegh we printed 5,000 4x6 postcards. 4x6 seems to be a good size that is convenient for both senders and recipients. While in both productions we had around 1,000 cards left over, the cost for larger numbers of cards is not significantly greater than a small run of cards. It's better to have too many cards than to run out.
Pictures and names are nice, but ultimately, people will want to know what your show is about. Toward that end, you should probably put your blurb and your website URL (if applicable) on your postcard.
Our co-producer's theatre company used around 1,500 for their mailing list. The cast and staff used over 1,000 for their personal mailings.
The Fringe publicist also offers a mailing service to press, agents and past Fringe ticket buyers. Given the anonymity of such a bulk mailing to industry, we chose only to buy the mailing to past ticket buyers. Sent out around 1,000 at a very reasonable rate. Have no idea how effective it was in bringing people in.
tryaflya.com offers a service for dropping off postcards at participating businesses and handing out postcards on street corners. Not sure how effective un-targeted card distribution is, but, again, if you've got the cash, this is a way to get cards out in the world.
Fringe Central and most venues have tables near their entrances where shows can drop off piles of postcards. With 200 shows in the festival, these tables quickly become confusing mounds of cardboard. But you do see people taking cards from these tables, so if you've got the time to do the rounds of the venues, it can't hurt.
Although postcards are important, postcards alone will not fill your seats. For Mossadegh postcard mailing and distribution was the core of our promotional effort. But our 4,000 postcards only resulted in a total audience of around 250. Postcards are not enough.
Doing a Musical
Despite the wide variety of productions in the festival, the musicals often have the highest profile, receive the most press and have the largest audiences. That is not to say that straight plays and puppet shows don't sell out, but musicals can tap into the NY musical theatre cult looking for the next musical hit in it's early incarnations.
You improve your chances of selling well if you do a new musical. But I can say from my experience with Irreplaceable and Mossadegh that just the fact that you're doing a musical at the Fringe is not enough to guarantee you even a modest audience. Musicals also increase your budget substantially. And you will still need to invest in publicity.
The Fringe usually has one or two large houses that they put their big musicals in. If you are one of the chosen few that gets into one of these houses, you will get alot more of the curiosity crowd. But you also will have alot more seats to fill. A house that is only 20 percent full still looks 20 percent full whether it's the Broadhurst or an intimate 40-seat house.
Photographs can be very beneficial to you in promoting your Fringe production. The Fringe press people will often be asked by publications for a photo (any photo) to run as part of an article on the festival. Having your photo in Time Out or even Newsweek can be invaluable free publicity. Photos can also be used for your postcards and included in your press packets (if you use a publicist).
Color photography is essential - all significant theatrical publications use color photos and the days of black-and-white publicity shots with two actors in front of a neutral background are, thankfully, long gone. The artistic quality of the photo and its ability to sum up the essence of a production are more important than if it looks like it was taken during a performance. Natural or quality theatrical lighting will also improve the marketability of your photos.
Because these images are often printed at small size or in low resolution, photos with 2-3 people are usually best. It is also nice, but not essential, if it looks like it was taken during a show.
Sex sells. Maybe that's not what you're about, but if you've got a hottie or two in your cast, they should be in your publicity photo. The winsome young blonde or the bare-chested young stud (essential for gay-themed shows) is, sadly, now the expectation in theatrical publicity. Flip through any collection of actor photos and notice which ones grab your eye. Told ya.
With Irreplaceable, we made a mistake of doing most of our photos as group shots in a room with poor light, therefore requiring flash. The only usable shots were group shots and none of those were appropriate for publication.
One problem with photos is that you need to have them available as early as possible. Since you may need photos before your production is cast (or even completely written), this is a problem. One solution is to simply use some of your friends and setup a staged photo. The do it on Broadway all the time.
For Irreplaceable Commodity, the weekend after the whole cast had accepted their roles, we invited the cast to the director's loft office and staged a number of shots in the office. The director was able to call in a professional photographer friend who took the shots for the cost of film and development. Pizza was provided - actors prefer plain pies or simple toppings like pepperoni over complex things like Primavera.
The Fringe has a resident photographer, although I am not certain of the quality of her work. They arrange setups (for a reasonable fee) about a month before the festival.
Archival production photographs can be a bit difficult to take. AEA prohibits photography during performance (although it is extremely common). With the fast turnaround between performances, it is difficult to setup photo calls unless you are the first or last production of the day and have a cooperative venue director. Actors often resent being called for photo calls since archival photos (as opposed to promotional photos) have no significant professional value to them. Perhaps the best time to shoot production photos is during tech while the lighting director is setting light cues...although this adds a level of complexity to an already hectic rehearsal.
The Program Guide and Blurb
The Fringe publishes a program guide containing a single graphic and blurb for each production in the festival, as well as general festival information. This information is duplicated on the fringenyc.org website. The guide is distributed to pretty much everyone that attends the festival. This is the primary way that people will find out about your production, which is why the quality of your blurb and graphic design are so critical.
Each Fringe production is required to provide a "Blurb" a 40-word description of their show. The blurb is used in the Fringe program guide and you will find it handy on many of your other promotional materials as well.
It's a sales pitch. As people look through the Fringe website and/or program guide, they will pick the shows they want to see based on their blurbs. Here's where your competition with the other Fringe shows reaches it's peak. You must be honest, yet enticing. You shouldn't present your production as something it's not, but there is certainly an inviting, clear, and concise way of describing your production...or maybe you should give more thought to exactly what you are doing.
For Irreplaceable, our blurb:
They're young, sexy and rich. They sing and dance. They're the investment bankers at the heart of "The Irreplaceable Commodity," a new pop musical comedy that follows three freshly-minted MBA's through a whirlwind year in New York's second oldest profession. www.irreplaceablecommodity.com
In 1953, Iran had a democratically elected government. This is how the C.I.A. solved that problem. Driven by a power-pop score preformed by a four-piece band, Mossadegh brings to life a pivotal moment in American foreign policy. Historical. Relevant. Loud.
IMPORTANT: You can also place advertisements of various sizes in the program guide at a rate reduced from that offered to the general public. I know that in attending past festivals, as I was thumbing through the program guide that larger ads caught my eye and led me to attend shows I might not have otherwise attended. The program guide is apparently laid out to place ads on the same page as their corresponding blurbs - a questionable practice that might blunt the impact of the ad, but no one asked me. However, a quick glance through the program guide with the dozens and dozens of blurbs makes it clearly evident that productions with ads have MUCH higher visibility and stand out from the teeming crowd. Bigger is better. If you can afford it, a program guide ad is probably one of the better publicity investments you can make.
Having strong, consistent graphic design for your production is also very advantageous. Using the same iconic image in the program guide, on your postcard, on your program, on your website and in your advertisements will help solidify your show's image in the mind of potential patrons.
You should hire a professional to do your graphic design. Hopefully you can find a professional that is willing to work for less than professional compensation. Experienced professionals also have a working knowledge of the rather arcane technical details involved in printing and web graphics.
If you have a large group of people that will have a voice in approving your graphic design, you should get your design started early. Otherwise, you may miss deadlines.
Our designer created five things for us:
- A postcard (front and back)
- A show graphic for the program guide (sits beside the blurb)
- A paid ad graphic for the program guide
- An animated GIF for a Village Voice website ad
- A banner for our website
We operated under the assumption that a vector graphic would be better than some kind of photographically oriented logo. However, without Cameron Mackintosh's budget to slap our icon on every bus and cab in town, the value of simplicity was lost. Come to think of it, Cameron hasn't had a hit in awhile, has he? The images that seemed to get noticed were photographic. Perhaps people relate better to people than to cartoons.
With Irreplaceable our publicist indicated that the value of posters is probably not worth the added printing expense or the extraordinary effort needed to distribute them. Of course, our publicist didn't do jack for us, so maybe that's a lie.
Despite the decreasing volume and influence of theatrical coverage by print media, a print review or feature can dramatically increase your box office. The gold standard for print coverage is a feature or review in the New York Times and a good mention of any kind in the paper of record will instantly sell out your production. Publications like the Village Voice and Time Out NY also cover the Fringe. However, except in rare cases, access to print media coverage requires personal connections, which you usually have to purchase from publicists.
If you have a production with a specific political or ethnic theme, you might be able to get some radio coverage by WBAI or one of the ethnic radio stations. I had a colleague with a Hatian-themed show who was able to score an interview on the Hatian station, which generated significant ticket sales. I'm not sure how you access those folks, although, again, personal connections or a hired publicist are probably de rigeur.
The value of a publicist is primarily in their relationships with various people in the press. They can send out press packets to their press contacts and, more importantly, follow up with them to make sure they see the show.
Press agents, like talent agents, are not autonomous and usually require you to work with them to generate publicity. If you don't have the time or chutzpa to beat the streets, a publicist won't add much value.
Great care should be given to the selection of a publicist. A good publicist can get you a photo placement or feature that will fill sell out your show. A shitty publicist will take the money and run. We paid $1,000 to a publicist for Irreplaceable and all we got was an interview with the Wall Street Journal that resulted in a brief but insignificant mention in a general feature on the Fringe. And he didn't even come to see the show himself.
The Fringe has their own publicist, but he is hired to promote the festival as a whole, not to promote individual shows. If you can find a way to get in his good graces, maybe you can get something out of him. But all my interactions with him were essentially fruitless and he is basically useless to you as an individual production.
The theory is that productions that share a similar theme, musical style political perspective or ethnic character will have a common potential audience. Therefore, these productions can coordinate their marketing efforts in targeting this audience and achieve synergy. The actual techniques vary widely and will be entirely dependent on the specific niche you will be targeting.
One idea that I heard about in 2002 was a "postcard exchange". Two or more productions exchange a few hundred postcards and place the other show's cards in their program. With Irreplaceable we exchanged cards with another show in our venue. Because of the hectic nature of the days prior to opening, you should probably start exploring exchange partners a couple of weeks prior to opening.
With Mossadegh, we exchanged cards with another rock musical and another Iranian themed show. However, when I saw those two shows, neither actually placed our cards in their programs, instead chosing to place them on the venue postcard table with the dozens of other cards. And, frankly, one of the shows was so awful that I'm actually glad no one associated our production with theirs. So, the moral is that you should probably only do postcard exchange with other productions where you know and trust the people producing the show.
Despite the warm-fuzzy community feeling, the Fringe is actually a rather Darwinian place where every show is almost exclusively concerned with its own survival and ability to reproduce.
NYTheatre.com has a special relationship with the Fringe and is heavily involved in promoting the festival. They have a 60+ person squad of volunteers that reviews every show in the festival. They also provide a "FringeNYC Preview" that gives every show an opportunity to post responses to three mini-cyber-interview questions:
- What is your show about?
- Why should audiences see your show?
- What can audiences expect when they see your show?
The following was our response...
The Irreplaceable Commodity is a new musical about three newly-minted MBAs that join a major NY investment banking firm as associates. Among the hundred-hour weeks and endless business trips, they meet a fascinating array of characters and discover that life is much more than six-figure salaries and one-night stands.
The show is funny and yet has a heart that will speak to anyone who has dreamed big dreams and had them come true in ways they didn't expect. It's a contemporary piece about a contemporary topic that speaks in a contemporary musical language while respecting the great traditions of classic American Musical Comedy.
We have an exciting young group of actors, an irreverant script and tunes that stick in your head like a rusty axe. Perfect for a summer evening in New York.
There are paid advertising offers made by various media to Fringe participants. I'm not certain how effective any of these are, but I include them here for your consideration.
Probably the most effective ad would be in the program guide...see above.
Theatremania.com offers a set of different packages that highlight your show on their site above and beyond their normal coverage of Fringe shows. These also include spam, which you may want to opt out of if you, like me, abhor the practice of unsolicited e-mail advertisement. The cheaper package cost $100 in 2002. I think participation in this program also encourages them to review your show. If you've got some spare publicity cash, it can't hurt.
The Village Voice and The Onion print a similar highlight sections in their print edition the weeks before and during the festival. The Voice cost us $150 for two weeks in 2002. These are huge, generic listings and may not be all that effective
If you've got the cash, the Voice, Theatremania, Playbill and pretty much any NY theatre site would be happy to sell you banner ads. Again, not sure how much good it will do ya.
Because the score for my Fringe shows were tightly integrated and none of the songs would really stand on their own, we chose to do no busking. I personally hate outdoor performing and getting a bunch of actors together in one place at one time is a nightmare. But I'm told that it works (with the few people who actually see you) so you may want to investigate whatever opportunities are made available by the festival (i.e. playing on the stage at Fringe Central or joining in the FringeNYC Follies).
We probably should have been more aggressive with our physical postcard distribution as well. When the Friday night show for Irreplaceable was rescheduled due to the blackout on a late monday night, I should have been handing out postcards to the people in line for earlier shows at our venue that night. Slut, the pre-sold-out hit of the festival in 2003 played at 6:45 before our 9:30 show and of the 100 or so people there, I'm sure a few would have stayed to bolster our meager but mighty 24 patrons.
Programs, Houseboards and Press Packets
You will need cast and staff bios for your press kit, your program and (if applicable) your website. For some reason, actors can be very negligent about turning in biographies. If you start gathering these immediately after casting is complete, you can get it out of the way early. Having actors submit via e-mail helps reduce typos.
Programs also tend to be put off until the last minute. If you get the bios early, you can probably just get them printed and out of the way early. Once upon a time the Fringe had a generic Fringe program into which individual shows inserted their own show programs. Now, all productions just distribute their own programs.
At your tech, you will need to turn in a box with enough programs for your entire run. This means you should probably start working on the program in earnest a week or more before your tech.
You should have a houseboard with the actor's headshots to set in your lobby before the performance. Since you're sharing the space, this cannot be a fixed piece of furniture. But you can easily affix the headshots to rigid posterboard and bring out the board before your performances.
While you're gathering headshots for your houseboard, pick up an additional 15 headshots from each actor and make press kits to distribute to press and industry. The press kit should include headshots for all actors, a program, a postcard, a press release and any other promotional materials for you production and/or company that you see fit.
For Irreplaceable, we had a publicist that wrote our press release, largely based on a draft that we modeled largely on a press release the publicist had put together for one of the co-producers previous productions.
We had very little press presence at our performances - i.e. one bad review by a NYTheatre.com volunteer who would have been there anyway. So maybe you shouldn't take our advise on how to write press releases. The Fringe participant's manual contains tips and as sample if you're interested.
A website is expected for a production that is even modestly serious. However, while the internet is a very effective tool for distribution of information, it is a "pull" medium that has limited value for reaching out to people who don't already know you exist. I seriously doubt the site itself can generate much interest in a production, but you need to have someplace where web-savvy theatre patrons can find more information on your show. If you are doing any online advertisement (Theatremania, Village Voice, etc.) you need something to link to. Our site contained schedule information, ticket info, publicity and rehearsal photos, bios and headshots for everyone, RealAudio and MP3 demo songs from the score and contact information. All this probably resulted in few, if any, extra butts in seats although for Mossadegh it did attract a number of interesting queries from around the world from people who stumbled onto the site while doing web searches about the history of Iran.
Setup: I have modest web development skills so I am able to set up a website for the cost of a URL ($15) and some server space ($50). If you use URL redirection, you can server space under one of your existing sites and saved the server space cost. The more significant expense is finding someone to actually create professional looking web content. A cheap-looking web page whipped out with M$-FrontPage might even do you more harm than good. There are alot of people floating around in the theatre world that do websites and you can probably find someone cheap by networking with your theatrical friends.
Traffic Monitoring: One advantage of websites over print media and broadcast is the ability to measure viewing traffic. Most web hosts provide some kind of traffic monitoring capability...including referring URL, so you can learn how people are discovering your site. In 2003, our peak day (325 page views) was 8/8, which was the opening of the festival and the day when our URL appeared in a Wall Street Journal article on the Fringe. Other days were in the 100 - 200 range and it is hard to know how many of those were actual potential patrons.
Bandwidth: If your site only contains HTML pages and images, bandwidth will probably not be a problem with the minimal amount of traffic generated by a Fringe or other off-off-B'way production. But, if you post MP3s or video files, the amount of bandwidth you get as part of your hosting plan and the cost of additional bandwidth should be a consideration when comparing and selecting web hosts.
Because I had posted MP3s of the entire score for Mossadegh, downloads consumed a significant amount of transfer bandwidth. I had redirected the show URL to a subdirectory of my personal site, which had a 10GB/month transfer limit. My site got referenced by a number of Persian blogs and the subsequent downloads used up that limit in a couple of days. I had never paid much attention to bandwidth and it turned out that the bandwidth costs for my provider were significantly above what was available with other web hosts. I ended up having to find another (cheaper) host for the show site during the weeks of peak traffic. The 50GB/month on the new host was quite adequate for this temporary host and I was able to move everything back when the attention subsided.
Flash: Although it may tempting to create a lavish Flash site, please consider that many of us in the theatrical community still live in a dial-up world and if it takes forever for a huge Flash graphic to load, we will proceed to the next available website and you may lose patrons. While cool graphics are interesting to look at, your ultimate objective is warm bodies in seats at live theatre. A show website is more about communicating information in an interesting but clear way, rather than attempting to mesmerize them with dazzling with visual pyrotechnics. As with projections, if your big interest is Flash animation, there is a whole community of people on the web with an interest in Flash animations that you can reach at considerably less expense than even the cheapest off-off-B'way production.
Callboard: The website proved much more valuable as an online callboard. I was able to setup a hidden subdirectory that contained schedule and contact information as well as PDFs of the script and RealAudio demos of the songs. Cast and crew could access this callboard at their leisure when they wanted to know when their next rehearsal call was or if they needed a contact phone number or e-mail address. Again, unless your Stage Manager or Director has these skills, this is not cost-effective for most productions.
After the Ball: You should plan what will become of your URL and site at the conclusion of your production. Considering the amount of time and money you have put into the production, you may want to keep some kind of permanent web presence as a portfolio of your past work that can be referenced later in your career. URLs are relatively cheap to keep but often difficult to recover, so you should probably hang on to the URL. However, spending money on hosting for a site that will get few hits is another matter. The easiest thing is to place the archival content in a subdirectory of your personal website and use a redirection service (free with most domain registrars) to point the URL to that subdirectory.
Depending on the subject matter of your piece, a site can continue to attract interest in your work. With Mossadegh, the site itself had a surprising life after the production had closed. With the turmoil going in in Iran and Iraq in 2004, the story of Mr. Mossadegh and the 1953 Iranian coup was a subject of considerable interest. Our site attracted the attention of the BBC, Radio Farda (an American propaganda service to Iran) and a number of Persian blogs and the subsequent level of traffic caused the happy but problematic bandwidth issues mentioned above.
Space for rehearsals can be a significant part of your budget. However, rehearsals can and do happen just about anywhere there is a covered space. I've rehearsed in parks, lobbies, apartments, Jewish community centers, offices, and the more traditional rented rehearsal rooms. If someone associated with your production has access to an office and you are doing evening rehearsals when no one is at that office, you can save yourself a nice chunk 'o change. Being able to rehearse in a fixed space also saves you from having to schlep your props and set around to different spaces.
With Last Call, we rehearsed in the lobby area of an photographic reproduction office owned by the artistic director's husband. The smell of developing chemicals probably killed some of my liver cells, but something's gonna getcha. With Irreplaceable, we were able to use a Chelsea loft storage area owned by the director's employer, a medium sized P/R firm.
Rented studio rates vary widely, although you will probably not be able to find a decent sized room for less than $23/hr. We used the 72nd Street Studios (NYSpaces.com) for auditions and the first week of rehearsals for Irreplaceable.
If you are a non-profit organization (or can create some kind of association with one), ART/NY has a rehearsal facility in midtown with excellent rates.
With Mossadegh, the entire production was a performance by a four-piece rock band, necessitating use of music rehearsal spaces The Studio and Ultrasound. NewYorkMusician.com maintains a list of musicians studios. Aside from sound isolation that permits rehearsal at high volumes, rooms in these spaces have drum kits and instrument amps.
You should probably get schedule information to/from your actors at auditions so you don't cast someone who can't fit your rehearsal schedule into his/her work schedule.
Days vs Nights: Since most actors have daytime survival jobs, it is usually easiest to rehearse on nights and weekends. A lot of actors also cater/waiter or have 2nd/3rd shift jobs making it possible to rehearse in the daytime. With daytime rehearsals, you will probably have issues with actors needing time off (on short notice) to attend auditions. However, depending on the group, sometimes days work out better. And rehearsal studios often have cheaper rates during the day.
Number of Weeks: If you do your production as an Equity showcase, you are technically limited to four consecutive weeks of rehearsal prior to opening (including tech week). This restriction is commonly ignored by both producers and performers since most people associated with this kind of production are more interested in the performance not sucking and realize that more rehearsal time is the pathway to that. However, this is a very reasonable restriction and with Irreplaceable we were able to stage a relatively technical production with extensive music and choreography within a 4-week period.
Day Off: I would suggest that you plan a regular day off each week where YOU have no day-job or rehearsal commitments. Equity requires one complete day off after no more than 6 weeks of rehearsal. Aside from the fact that you, as biological being, need a day off now and then, a day off can be time to catch up on paperwork or prop shopping.
Insurance falls into three categories:
- Worker's Comp
If you use a non-traditional rehearsal space, you may need to get liability insurance to indemnify the space's owner in case one of your actors is injured. Check with the space owner well in advance of planning rehearsals in a space. Rented rehearsal studios already have coverage. Normally, liability is only needed to deal with audience accidents during performances.
On Irreplaceable there was some confusion as to what kinds of insurance were needed. My co-producer (an established non-profit) insisted we needed Worker's Comp, even though we were not technically employing anyone. We had disability through the co-producer's existing policy. And we needed liability to indemnify the owner of the space we were using for rehearsals. However, Equity said only that EITHER worker's comp or volunteer accident insurance was necessary. In 2004 the Fringe had a special arrangement with Events Insurance (www.eventsinsurance.com) for "volunteer" insurance for $250 (a $100 savings over their normal rate). Events Insurance was also a company suggested by Equity. A friend who participated in the 2004 NYMF said the festival had worked out a deal with Chubb for Liability and Worker's Comp for $300.
I have also heard that J&H Marsh & McLennan (www.mmc.com) has an insurance package specifically tailored for showcases and CIMA offers volunteer insurance. I'm not sure about the rates or what the plans specifically cover.
Worker's Comp is handled by the New York State Insurance Fund (www.nysif.com). They have an online form that you can fill out to get a quote. Note that in indicating how much you are paying your "employees", you should indicate the VALUE of their work ($250/wk is a reasonable number) rather than what you are actually paying them (which is probably $0).
Given the amount of choreography in our show, my big concern was liability and/or medical expenses in case someone got hurt. Thankfully, that never became an issue. But if you're paranoid, you may want to investigate the insurance issue further.
It is the 21st century. You need to have e-mail to do anything nowadays, so suck it up and get a computer. The preferred method of communication with the Fringe is e-mail and you must have a working e-mail address to get critical production information from the Fringe before and during the festival.
E-mail can also be a very effective tool for communication between your cast and staff. Unfortunately, many people (especially actors) rarely or inconsistently check their e-mail. And alot of people have poor e-mail etiquette and will not respond to your missives in a timely manner, if at all.
The best you can hope for is that most of your cast has good e-mail habits and you'll have to phone the rest.
The following stories are provided as cautionary tales. While most of these issues are specific to the personalities involved, at the end of each tale I suggest a moral to the story that may be of value to you. There are few absolute rules in life, but if you ignore my advice, you can't say I didn't warn you.
Going it Alone
After the difficulties dealing with co-producers and collaborators with The Irreplaceable Commodity, for Mossadegh I made a concerted choice to "Go it alone" and perform most of the creative and administrative tasks myself. This was made possible both by my theatrical background and by the limited scale of the production. It was also eased by the fact that the production was short and had no real choreography, sets or costumes.
I have been somewhat of a theatrical "Renaissance man", althought the better term may be "Jack-of-all-trades". I write scripts, lyrics and music, have some technical background in sound and lighting, have experience as both a professional actor and stage manager, do a limited amount of graphic and web design, and have relatively good organizational skills. So, I chose to be producer, director, publicist, lighting designer, sound designer, writer and stage manager.
This was my first effort as a director, and I think my efforts were successful although not stellar. Directors can be a pain to work with if you're not on the same page. But good directors often come up with bits and ideas that reflect strokes of genius. I am not one of those directors. The cast found their own moments, but I do wonder what other gems could have been added to make the production shine even more.
Another big drawback was the isolation created by the lack of a creative staff to commiserate with when making decisions. Prior to our dress rehearsal, I realized that the only people who had seen the show was the cast and myself. Was it any good or did it suck? The question has no absolute answer, but it would have been nice to talk to someone about it. I did have the resource of a playwright friend who came to the dress and gave feedback, so maybe that was enough.
But the biggest problem was my weakness in the area of marketing. Sales has never been a natural talent for me. The first three of our five shows were very sparsely attended (7 people at a Monday matinee) and the big crowds at our final two performances were largely friends. While the budgetary restrictions and odd nature of the production might have made any additional effort moot, in retrospect I might have done some things differently. The problems with Mossadegh marketing are listed below.
There were only two tasks I could not perform. Because of the specialized requirements of the cast, I had to hire a professional casting director to gain access to the people I needed. Also, the Fringe requires a front-of-house person and since I was running the show, I had to hire someone for that job
- While it is possible to be a one-man or one-woman musical machine, the freedom afforded by not having collaborators does not come without a price.
- Doing it by yourself is a hell of alot of work. But so is fighting with a tempermental lighting designer.
Marketing is Essential
The biggest problem on Mossadegh was marketing.
- I did not take out Fringe program ad, thinking it unnecessary since the ads are usually placed on the same page with the blurb. I realize I was wrong and deeply regret this decision. Buy an ad - it's essential to getting your
- Our marketing was primarily postcards distributed only via the Fringe mailing service and Tryaflya.com. Not enough.
- We didn't distribute postcards to other venues. Not sure how valuable this really is, although you do see people waiting in line for shows that take cards from these tables.
- Only one of the cast chose to do a personal mailing. But you have to cast people who can do your show, not just the folks with the most friends.
- I did not take advantage of advertising deals with Theatremania, The Onion or Village Voice. These may be scams, but it's hard to know. I wonder if we would have gotten a Theatremania review if we'd bought one of their bigger packages.
- We did not hire a publicist and, therefore got no media publicity. I made this choice because of a bad experience with Irreplaceable, but maybe I just should have put some effort into finding a good publicist. I actually got a lead from another Iranian-themed production, but chose to blow it off. Her publicist got her picture in Time Out NY. Her show was packed, mine wasn't.
- The other shows with which we did a "postcard exchange" did not live up to their end of the bargain and place our cards in their programs.
- We were in a small, non-musical venue and could not take advantage of the synergy experienced by musicals in a common space. Nothing you can do about this since you don't have a venue choice. But if you chose to do a big musical, you get in a big musical space.
Ballad of The Bassist
For Mossadegh, I planned auditions in mid-June, with the intention of having a cast set a month prior to the first rehearsal. This would make it possible to get scripts to them early so they could do advance work on the music. I also hoped to meet individually and walk through the show with each cast member prior to the start of formal rehearsals. It didn't quite work out as planned...
5/10: Acceptance letter received from the Fringe. I place an ad in BackStage and on playbill.com requesting submissions. I then go on a previously scheduled 5-day trip to visit family.
5/22: I return to NYC to find NO mail submissions received. Zero. I panic, then contact a friend/casting director who had offered her services. They get me a very nice list of folks from the breakdowns.
6/9: Auditions. A group of three guys that had worked together before come in. Individually they aren't knockout talents, but they look great together and Casting Director concurs with my inclination to cast them as a group. Strange feeling, though, and a bit wary of scheduling issues because Bassist is unavailable on weekends due to a budding comedy career.
6/10: Made decisions but sent list to wrong casting e-mail address. Thankfully, Casting Director e-mails me requesting status, but I don't get list out in time to make calls that day. Because this was thursday, this also meant the weekend would probably interfere with getting answers.
6/11: Started making calls. Other two agents were very pleasant but bassist's agent out of the office until Monday.
6/12-13: Lost two days because of weekend.
6/14: Monday AM agent is busy. I had forgotten my cell at home so we played phone tag. Once I got her on the phone, she didn't know anything about my show. I have her the info and she said she'd talk to the bassist.
6/15: Didn't hear anything
6/16: Called Agent and she said they were "working on something", and that "she could say yes but that wouldn't be the best answer." When pressed for an answer, agent said they should know something on Friday. Also started exploring alternates with casting director. Casting Director tells me Agent is planning on leaving business to practice law. Figures.
6/18: Called Agent Friday late morning. Agent was unavailable so I left a message. Agent never returns call so I call her at 1PM. She remarks that "I call her more than guys negotiating Broadway contracts." Not sure whether that was an insult or a compliment. She says she has a message from the Bassist and would call me back. She doesn't. E-mail Casting Director and ask her to check availability for my two alternates. One of the two alternates has already gotten a Fringe show, but the other is available. Casting Director tells me that Agent has a reputation for being "disrespectful." True.
6/19-6/20: Lost two days because of the weekend.
6/21: Called Agent Monday morning. Agent indicates that bassist will accept. Call bassist. Strange conversation - sounds like he's slightly high. Says he wants his script sent to his agent rather than his home. Strange. Sent e-mail to cast requesting bios and suggesting five possible dates for individual rehearsals. My hope was to meet briefly with all the cast members to walk through the piece so they could do some work on their own and walk in to the first group rehearsal ready to go.
6/22: Casting director "releases" alternate bassist. Bassist responds to earlier e-mail that he is out of town for all of the potential individual rehearsal dates and suggests daytime on 6/29...which conflicts with my day job. I respond with my schedule and ask if there are any times he is available that don't conflict.
6/23-6/24: No response
6/25: Call Bassist and leave a message suggesting instead of an in-person meeting we just do a 30-minute walkthrough over the phone.
6/26: Bassist e-mails back that he got my phone message, but... "I am out of town for the next two weeks but I am sure we can set up a 30-minute phone meeting when I get back. Looking forward to working on the show."
6/26-6/30: Uneventful four days
7/1: Guitarist informs me that he has accepted a lead role in another Fringe show, "All Good Things," but that since our rehearsals are in the evening and the other show rehearses in the daytime, there should be no rehearsal conflicts. However, performances might be a conflict. We agree to wait since performance schedule should be forthcoming soon. Casting Director writes checking status and I respond with concerns about Guitarist and Bassist.
7/2-7/5: Uneventful four days waiting for performance schedule from Fringe.
7/6: Individual rehearsals with two guitarists. E-mail Bassist requesting a detailed conflict list so I can start scheduling rehearsals and booking rehearsal space. Also spoke with Bassist on phone asking that he check his e-mail and respond promptly.
7/7: No response from Bassist.
7/8: No response from Bassist. I am livid and consider releasing Bassist when I get home from work. Check e-mail and find message from Bassist that he has also booked "All Good Things." But since one of my guitarists is also in that show, conflicts will be the same and "I am sure we can make it all work." Also says, "I promise to send you my detailed conflict list in the next 24 hours. Some things are up in the air at this moment." I am livid and don't sleep well.
7/9: Because of pending weekend (when nothing can get done towards recasting), I send off e-mail releasing Bassist and Guitarist. I request confirmation and receive very understanding response from Guitarist. No response from Bassist...ever. Contact Casting Director to check availability of alternates. Casting Director indicates that because of time issues, I should just contact Alternates directly. E-mail Alternate Guitarist and he responds that he has just booked "All Good Things." Call Alternate Bassist and he indicates that he has just started a new job that may conflict with rehearsals. I give him 48 hours and he says he can get an answer by then.
7/8: Alternate Bassist calls accepting offer to do my show. We schedule individual rehearsal for 7/15.
7/9: Audition 2nd Alternate Bassist/Guitarist, but he doesn't sing well and wants $500 to do the show. He's also obviously non-political, which is a disadvantage for a show that is fundamentally political. I have a strange feeling about him so I go to my 3rd Alternate Guitarist who accepts. Ironically, the 3rd Alternate turns out to be the most enthusiastic member of the cast.
7/12: Received performance schedule from Fringe. Turns out that there would have been no conflict in performances with "All Good Things."
7/15: Alternate Bassist attends individual rehearsal. Because studio deskperson did not write down a schedule change I phoned in, we only have 30 minutes but are able to continue walkthrough in the hall. Alternate Bassist informs me that he has booked a paid reading that might conflict with the performance schedule. I tell him I understand, but he will have to choose since the performance schedule is locked down. Alternate Bassist indicates that he has not eaten all day which might explain why he seemed to have trouble concentrating on what we were doing.
7/16: Alternate calls back and says since he committed to do my show, he would "feel like a dick" if he backed out now and has decided to stay in the show.
7/21: First group rehearsal, five days behind schedule.
- Don't cast people in groups unless it is absolutely essential that you do so.
- If an actor or agent asks for time to make a decision, only allow 48-hours.
- Be sure to find out how busy an actor is before you cast him.
- If you have a bad feeling about an actor, don't cast him/her unless you have no other choices.
The few reviews we got for Irreplaceable were vicious, scathing, and, I must admit, not entirely wrong. In conceiving this piece I was focusing on action, technical details and songs. Lost in this was strong storytelling technique, robust character development and gripping through-line. Verisimilitude in a deeply personal story substituted for truth. As one critic pointed out, it was more like a revue with a throughline than a musical play. In retrospect I don't regret not creating a more conventionally structured work since I can't imagine any other way of telling that particular story. But I paid a price in critical invective.
The reviews for Mossadegh were considerably more glowing. Because it was entirely sung, the normal whipping boy, the book, was not around to take a beating. It also rocked and was short and concise. Away from the hot light beating on other big musicals clamoring for commercial success, Mossadegh had a peaceful life. Making no pretense to be something it was not, it was accepted for what it was.
Music in a musical can cover a host of problems and audiences will often let you get away with serious problems with your script if you can keep their feet tapping and touch them in some viceral place. However, jaded critics may not be so generous and will react with hostility at your wasting two hours of their life.
Critics are like Eunichs; They know what to do but can't do it themselves. Although all pointed out symptoms of the problems in Irreplaceable, none cut to the fundamental problem of a flawed story structure. And, oddly enough, no reviewer made more than passing mention of the music or lyrics, which I assumed would be the piece's most distinctive (and perhaps controversial) elements.
Critics are the arbiters of taste in the NY theatrical community althought it's hard to say whether they determine or follow that taste. The established theatrical community is generally looking for something new and fresh only within the context of their established norms. The community is bombarded on all sides by other popular and commercially successful media and draws into itself to shield it's fragile ego and diminishing power. The critics, who are often refugees from that community, court their audience by pandering to their tastes and viciously attacking all outsiders with any different approaches or perspectives.
The golden age of American Musical Theatre was characterized by artistically viable works that still had popular appeal. In an age of high production costs and very limited popular attention, American Musical Theatre often descends into an abyss of self-referential artistic pretension. Tribes of work are separated by a great divide between commercial pablum and elitist inaccessibility. Urinetown, despite a title that seemed slightly risque to midwestern tourists, was a very conventional Brechtian musical with a score that would have not seemed out of place in a Kurt Weill score from the 1930s. There was very little that was particularly novel or cutting-edge about it other than the audacity of it's moniker. Lost, the critical darling of the 2003 festival, was a similarly a dark tale with a brooding semi-operatic score, helped along by the death of one of its authors shortly before the festival.
- If you're going to do a musical at the Fringe and want good reviews, you need to write something using strong conventional storytelling technique. The play's the thing.
- Contemporary musical style is lost on the traditional theatre audience. And the traditional theatre audience is largely what you will get at the Fringe.
- It will help your reviews if you die before your show opens.
Because it is VERY difficult to find competent, reliable stage managers willing to work for little/no money and because I am very particular about my sound mix, I chose to be the stage manager and sound board operator for Irreplaceable. This left me with a need for an ACR that would be free to work as house manager. Kaleidoscope's managing director was unemployed at the time and he volunteered to undertake this role. The plan was for me to serve as ACR until the production was on its feet and then turn the job over to him. This was a critical part of my relationship with my co-producer.
However, things didn't work out quite the way we planned. At the first group rehearsal, the managing director informed me that he had gotten a new job and that this would almost certainly affect his ability to perform the ACR's house manager duties at the daytime and early evening performances. In my haste, I said that was cool and that we would deal with that issue later in the process. As the production preceded, the managing director informed me that he would be unavailable for two of the five scheduled performances due to work committments. Since I had no friends that I could call on to fill in, I stated that as co-producer, Kaleidoscope should take some responsibility toward finding someone to either fill in or replace the ACR.
Since most of the people in the Kaleidoscope family are middle aged and/or have day jobs, the options were pretty thin. After days of waiting, one person was suggested, but he did not fully understand the schedule and proved unavailable. At this point I realized that I would have to solve this problem myself and contacted a stage management colleague. She was available to run the shows on the days the managing director was unavailable so I could fill in as ACR. This cost me more money to hire her.
A few days later, the managing director called me and said that his schedule would not enable him to make an ACR training session. Since I had attended an ACR training session (just in case), I told him to read the participant's manual and that should be adequate.
Two days before opening, the managing director called me again and said his boss had demanded that he travel to Rhode Island, in conflict with show #2. Since my substitute stage manager was planning on training with me that day in preparation to run show #3, I was in a bad way. Thankfully, I had developed a cordial relationship with the ACR for Scalpal, which was also in our space and sharing some set pieces. He consented to serve as ACR and in return elected to cover the costs of the truck we had rented to move set pieces for both of our shows. Yet more money.
The point being...while it's hard to find competant, reliable tech people willing to work for little or no money, it's almost impossible to find competant, reliable people willing to do administrative work for little or no money. In retrospect, it would have been cheaper and easier if I had made a decision to be ACR from day one, served as stage manager for first half of the rehearsal period, and found a (paid) stage manager for the second half of the rehearsal period and the run. The jobs pages of Playbill Online probably would have done the trick. With Mossadegh, I just hired someone to do the front-of-house ACR work. Problem solved.
At 4:11 PM on 8/14/03 during the third performance of Irreplaceabke, midway through the song "Travel The Globe" the stage lights and sound system suddenly shut down. The light board op responded, "That's not good." Since power had been an issue in the space, I assumed that we had simply blown a breaker. But when nothing came back on in a few seconds, I went into the hall to find the venue director. At that point I was informed that "the whole block" was out. We emptied the theatre and the cast sang the finale a capella on the street while the staff shut down all theatre equipment to save it from a power surge when the power returned.
As it turned out, the entire city had been plunged into its first complete blackout since the infamous 1977 blackout. In fact, the power grid over much of the Eastern seaboard into Quebec and as far west as Detroit was down and fears of terrorism immediately flooded the minds of the cast and crew.
By flashlight, the cast returned to the dressing rooms, changed and retrieved their personal belongings while the crew packed up our props and stowed our set. As the theatre was cleared, news began to filter in that this was apparently a purely technical failure not related to terrorism - although it's hard to know how they could be sure of that in such a short period of time. In a stupor, the cast filed away into the sunny afternoon to join the massive throngs of New Yorkers flooding the streets in an effort to get to their distant homes. One actor who lived on 193rd Street needed five hours to walk home. An actor who lived in North Jersey arrived home around 1AM. One actor decided to spend the night with the assistant director rather than make the trek to Astoria. The lighting director "got lucky"
The show following us on the schedule, "Pinafore", began arriving after the blackout had begun. They decided to perform al fresco excerpts of their show on the Hudson riverwalk just west of the theatre. As a group from Los Angeles, they had expended extraordinary effort to get to NYC and had already endured the loss of a performer to pneumonia exacerbated by the stifiling heat in the theatre. They made it through a large part of the first act before the police asked them to leave because they were blocking traffic.
While power began returning to various points in the city around 9PM that night, large areas of the city were still dark as of noon on 8/15. The subway system was entirely shut down and for safety reasons could not restart until 6 to 9 hours after power was completely restored in the city. The Fringe producers met at 1:30PM and decided to cancel all performances for 8/15, but that the shows would go on for Saturday 8/16.
The lost Friday show was rescheduled for 9:30PM on Monday, 8/18. Because of potential scheduling issues with the cast (most of whom had day jobs) and because our lighting director was unavailable, I initially asked the Venue Director not to reschedule us. However, we spoke later and she indicated that she would be able to run our lights and that she could probably get us a nightime performance.
The make-up performance was sparsely attended (25 in a 74 seat house). In retrospect, I realize I should have been handing out postcards to patrons of earlier shows in the venue.
As mentioned above, the blackout ended up shaving $500 - $700 off of our receipts. We received nothing from the truncated show and the Friday show would certainly have had a larger audience than the rescheduled show late Monday. Finally, final checks to all productions were reduced by 10% due to budget problems (blackout related and otherwise) at the Present Company.
Moral: Always keep a flashlight with you in the theatre and always empty the theatre when the power goes off for more than a few seconds.
Tale of the Tables
For Irreplaceable we had initially hoped to use fixed leg office utility tables and rolling office chairs. However, we were concerned about storage and following a venue walk-thru, decided we would need to use three 5' folding banquet tables and five stacking chairs.
For rehearsal we were able to use the chairs and folding tables in our rehearsal space. Two weeks before opening, I ordered three Global walnut finish folding tables from Staples.com and they were delivered a day later. At $28 apiece, they seemed awfully cheap.
It turned out that I got what I paid for. Rather than having a continuous steel apron like most banquet tables, the corners of the apron were plastic and also served as the connection points for the folding legs. As two actors were leaning on one of the tables, it collapsed. Later, one of the actors slapped the surface during a scene and screws started falling out. Needless to say, these tables weren't going to work.
Nowadays, most people use polypropylene folding tables. They're lighter, stronger and cheaper than wood. But we specifically needed 5' tables because of the small stage size and Staples didn't have any 5' tables available. There was a commercial-grade table listed on their site, but it had a 7-14 business day delivery time to ship direct from the factory. That would put the tables arriving after our opening.
We were running out of time. I investigated used tables but couldn't find any. In desperation, I went to officedepot.com and ordered a set of 5' folding polypropylene tables AND (just in case) a set of their three cheap 5' wooden folding banquet tables... a different brand from staples.com. While the plastic tables proved too insecure, the wooden tables were sturdy and perfect.
Moral: Find out what you're ordering before you order it.
As mentioned above, although Equity requires only worker's comp OR accident insurance, the co-producer on Irreplaceable insisted that worker's comp was essential. To use the director's office as a rehearsal space, we also needed liability insurance indemnifying the owner of the office.
At the initial meeting on 5/12/03, we discussed insurance and the co-producer's managing director said he would investigate. Dozens of e-mails later (and after one where he said he had forgotten to follow-up with the agent) we still had no insurance. I had gotten an estimate on Worker's Comp from www.nysif.com, but that needed to go through the co-producer.
One week before the start of rehearsals, we still had no insurance. The managing director indicated that TWO different applications had been lost by the insurance agent. Finally, three days before the start of rehearsals, the managing director forwarded me the necessary paperwork.
Moral: Don't trust anyone to get insurance for you. And stay away from non-profit organizations if you can.
We began a search on Irreplaceable for a lighting designer/board-op almost at the beginning of pre-production in mid-May. We contacted friends and got numerous leads. But when I would send e-mail detailing the limited facilities and the limited amount of tech time, not only did we get negative response, we got no response.
In a conversation with the graphic designer, I discovered that the co-producer's resident lighting designer was deeply offended that he had not received an offer. Having worked with him before, I was deeply admiring of his technical talent but not so fond of his work habits and attitude. However, we were getting desperate and I was concerned about burning a bridge for our co-producer. So, we called him and asked him to come in and interview with the director.
The director had a nightmarish experience with his lighting designer on his previous show and I was concerned that he might have issues with this particular person. However, the interview went relatively well. The lighting director said that either he would get someone to run the light board (and give them his stipend) or run the board himself. Sounds good. A couple of days later, I e-mailed the lighting designer and made an offer.
Silence. No response for days. I called and left a message on his cell voice mail. No response for days. After a couple of weeks of this, I tried calling him again and finally got through. He accepted.
Silence. We left more messages and received no response. Turns out he was really busy with another show. Said he was available to see a rehearsal Friday. We were off Friday. We finally got him to a see a single stumble-thru four days before tech.
My initial idea for lighting was VERY simple. A small set of looks that could be interchanged. The director and lighting designer had other ideas. How about 100 or so cues.
At load-in, the lighting designer showed up and was our representative in the war that ensued over how the rep plot would be designed. The situation was further complicated by an ancient rental computer light board and very finicky dimmers.
At 6PM at the start of our tech, he looked at me and asked where the body microphones were. I told him we had discarded that idea weeks ago because of the small size of the space. He said, "Great, you can run lights." I told him he had made a committment to run lights. He said he had based that on the understanding that I would be mixing microphones and given my simpler job, I should be able to run both lights and sound. I told him I had too much shit to do as SM and that would make my life very difficult...especially with a very arcane and unreliable computer board. We agreed to discuss it later.
Tech was a nightmare, although we did get through the show, thanks to our venue director adding 30 minutes to our tech time. The director and lighting designer were trying to do a real lighting plot with no tech time.
A couple of days later I went by the space to drop off our programs and the lighting designer was there with another show. I asked him what we were going to do about a board op and he finally agreed to do it. Especially important since in our haste to set lights, no one could say just what was on that disk.
Opening and show #2 went relatively well. At 4:11PM during show #3, The northern seaboard experienced the largest power blackout in American history. The Friday show (#4) was cancelled by the blackout and plans started to rescheduled the show, possibly the following Monday. The lighting director said he had a load-in that day for another show and would be unavailable. I spoke with the venue director and told her we would probably not be able to do a make-up show. She offered to do lights and we were rescheduled for 9:30 Monday night.
At the Monday show, the lighting director showed up. Load-in had gone quickly. But he wanted to watch the show from the house?! So the horrendously overburdened venue director was pressed into service. The first sequence of light cues was a mess and the lighting director came into the booth and corrected the sequencing problem. He remained in the booth and the venue director said that if he was going to be in the booth he might as well run the show. He left the booth. He returned a few minutes later to make a critical adjustment to a cue that would have really messed up the show if he hadn't been there. We finished the show and the run.
Moral: Keep your lighting simple and don't work with people who feel that they are at a level above you and don't really want to be there.
Wings Air Conditioning
In 2003, Irreplaceable performed at the Wings Theatre, a 10-year-old company on Christopher Street in the basement of an old Federal Reserve bank building. While the assignment initially seemed quite favorable, the venue turned out to be an extremely unpleasant place to work.
Because of it's basement location, the ventilation in the theatre is extremely limited. This is complicated by the tobacco habits of the resident staff people. While this would not be a huge problem in the frigid days of January, the venue became an EZ-Bake oven in the dog days of August.
Supposedly, the Fringe producers were under the impression that the venue was air conditioned when they contracted the space. When the director and I saw a production there in late July, the theatre was warm but was not unbearable. We assumed that the subterranean location would be cool. We did not take into account the ghastly humidity that enveloped NYC in August or the heat given off by sold-out houses and stage lights that would be running almost continuously from early-afternoon until late at night. The costuming for Irreplaceable was business suits (since it was set in an investment bank) and the sight of actors sweating completely through their costumes and leaving puddles in the seats was painful to watch.
In 2002, those of us at the Cino Theatre were in a similar situation. We ended up pooling our resources and purchasing a pair of large window air conditioners that improved the situation immensely. Because Wings is a basement, this was not an option in 2003.
On the second day of the festival, an actor in Pinafore passed out while waiting offstage and ended up going to the hospital. It turned out that this actor had already been ill, but the message was clear. On the Monday following the Friday festival opening, when the theatre was dark, the Fringe producers rented portable air conditioning units and placed them in the wings SR and SL. The units vented the heat through ductwork that was already in the theatre, presumably from air conditioning that had been there in the past. Numerous portable fans were also placed around the stage and the theatre.
The air conditioners were not adequate to cool the stage to a comfortable temperature, but they helped a little. The actors plowed on through the heat and a slight improvement in the weather helped somewhat.
- Although you are not capable of selecting your own venue, you should certainly petition the deity of your choice for a venue that is air conditioned.
- If you have a production with heavy costumes, you may want to indicate a preference for air conditioning on your tech rider.
- You might also factor the temperature of the theatre in your choice of what to submit to the festival.
Off-Off-B'way theatres are generally very dirty and in a chronic state of disrepair. If you chose to work at this level of theatre, you need to be prepared for less than optimal conditions on- and off-stage.
Irreplaceable was booked at Wings Theatre. Wings was run by generally pleasant and well-meaning people. They were also pack-rats and slobs. The amount of disorganized ancient theatrical material stashed in that decent-sized space was really quite staggering. There was a 12' area upstage area behind the bedsheet, er, cyc that was piled with years of, "Oh, just put it backstage somewhere and we'll hang on to it." Of course, they can barely see any of this since almost all of their florescent work lights are dead or burned out.
Since there were 12 shows in the space, we were in desperate need of storage space. On load-in day we stacked the flats and managed to reduce the size of the junk pile to 50% of it's original size. I am very surprised we didn't see any living or dead animals. With multiple representatives from all the productions, it was a little like a Mennonite barn raising. While we were still tight, this helped the storage situation immensely.
Unfortunately, we were unable to do much with the dressing rooms. Walls of old bottles and piles of ancient props and costumes. Yeah, I guess you could find a use for that shit, but at what cost to the people that rent your space? The venue TD kept a close eye on us and was very picky about what we could throw away.
The disorder and chaos extended to the light and sound booth. The Wings booth was enclosed with a Plexiglas window that required use of an ancient monitor via shotgun microphones for mixing sound. Since the microphones were highly directional, the actual mix was just a guess. One board op theorized that this arrangement was provided so the board ops could smoke during performances. It certainly wasn't set up to facilitate a quality sound mix. The theatre people were adamant that we could not remove the window.
The booth area probably measured 12' by 6' including space for the dimmers, the sound equipment and the manual light board. This left very little space for the board-ops to move, complicated by the fact that the lighting cables were strewn all over the floor and hanging from numerous points on the walls and ceilings. Entering the booth was like walking through dense jungle undergrowth without a machete.
The sound equipment was a trip into the past. The ancient Samson 22-channel mixer was wired very strangely. All output was routed through the aux busses and the masters were completely unused. Some trims and faders were erratic. The main house amp was an old (yet relatively powerful) home stereo receiver. There were two home stereo speakers hung from the grid L and R of the stage but only one was connected, and we couldn't use it because there was no way to adjust the balance with the primary US speakers. The primary speakers were old Fender baffles from the late-60s that had NO high end left in them (if they ever did). The first-generation CD player would not play recorded CDs. The cassette player did not work at all. Oddly, the booth was used for storing a video recorder and two 1/4" open reel decks (including a 4-track) that almost certainly hadn't been used in a decade.
The lighting designers had dreams of grandeur and we banded together to rent an ancient Vision board (at $300, the cheapest thing we could find). However, the ancient dimmers in the venue were taxed to their limit by the heat (complicated by age, poor ventilation and poor maintenance) and random dimmers would sporadically shut down during some performances. Our production had better luck because our lighting plot rarely brought large numbers of dimmers up to 100%.
Although there was agreement among 10 of the 12 shows to contribute $30 toward the cost of the board, I believe only five of the shows actually came through.
Needing a reliable CD player with autopause, we ended up purchasing a Stanton S-250 DJ CD player. I had initially offered the other shows free usage of my deck and tried to coordinate via e-mail. However, some shows required multiple CD decks and one show even rented their own CD and MD players completely separate from everyone else. No good deed goes unpunished.
The Wings speakers were totally unacceptable given the crisp pop nature of our score and we ended up purchasing a pair of EV SX100+ speakers ($850). Unfortunately, we did this after most of the other shows had done their technical rehearsals and most of the other shows elected to stick with the shitty Wings speakers, despite my free offer to use our speakers.
- Prepare yourself, your cast and everyone in your production for poor backstage conditions.
- If sound is a priority for you, investigate the house situation as far in advance as possible and be prepared to rent/buy additional equipment.
- Most Fringe shows operate on a shoestring and you cannot count on timely or significant financial cooperation from other shows if you want to try to get better equipment.
- Find some way of scouting the space as early as possible (perhaps by seeing a prior production) so you can start planning reasonable technical requirements for your show.
Postcards and Programs
The co-producers on Irreplaceable and their associated staff are nice people with good hearts. They are also disorganized and delay everything to the last possible moment.
The graphic designer was hired very early in the process in the hopes that she could use the extra time to read the script and come up with ideas. The ideas were flowing, but none got put into Illustrator until the week before the first program ad deadline. This was complicated by the need to get approval from everyone associated with the co-producer's company - a very slow task given the lugubrious e-mail habits of everyone involved. We got approval from everyone the night before the program guide deadline and Town Meeting.
Hoping to avoid a similar issue with the postcards, we started contacting the designer around three weeks before the postcard deadline. She responded that she was working on it, but two weeks passed with the same response. Finally, she e-mailed a design, but numerous people on the staff felt it needed some spice. Although the front got approved a few days before the deadline, the back of the postcard then became an issue for more discussion.
The postcards got printed just in time. However, the designer was working on two different Fringe postcards and submitted them at the same time, resulting in a billing mixup between the two accounts. From the printer's website, they seemed to be located relatively close to the R train in Astoria, so I chose to pick up the cards rather than take the chance that the courier might not be able to get the cards to me in time to make the Fringe mailing deadline. The website directions were deceptive and I ended up schlepping 50 pounds of postcards a couple of miles across Astoria - writer reduced to pack animal. I counted out 1,000 cards on the train back to the lower east side, dropped off the cards with the Fringe publicist and dropped off most of the rest of the cards with the co-producer for their mailing. So much for my day off.
In the initial discussions with the graphic designer, we agreed that I would create the postcards rather than burden the graphic designer with a task that was more typing than graphics. I didn't think much about it until 9 days before tech (when the programs were due) the managing director asked about the state of the program. I had already started putting the content together and indicated that I would take care of it. The managing director wrote back indicating that because programs represent a lasting legacy of a production that he would insist that the programs conform to the co-producers standard format. I responded that given the impending deadline, I did not have the time or software for complex layout. I indicated that if it was that important to him, that he should take the sole responsibility for getting the programs printed and carted to the venue. Silence. For two days. In that time, the graphic designer sent me a word template with fonts. I wrote the managing director that since he was unresponsive, I would handle the programs, taking into account his formatting demands but making no promises. The programs got done and proofed on time, although I forgot to bring them to tech and had to make a separate trip later that week to get them there. Moral: Get as much graphic design done as soon as possible and don't let them leave things to the last minute. That will permit you to get the program done, proofed and approved early in the rehearsal process so you're not scrambling and adding chaos to tech week.
Was It Worth It?
Gosh, I don't know.
In a financial sense, definitely not. Irreplaceable lost around $11,000 and Mossadegh lost around $4,000.
But, ultimately, theatre people usually don't do it for the money. Most of us are relatively articulate and/or intelligent and can do other things for money. And yet, something keeps drawing us back. Theatre is crack.
Producing is an exceptional learning experience, and it's one of those things that everyone in theatre (including actors) should do at some point in their lives. It changes your whole perspective on the theatre business and makes you a bit more understanding of those scumbag commercial producers.
And I got a nice essay out of it. Hope some of this has be helpful to you.
© 2003-2004 by Michael Minn
Power corrupts. And PowerPoint (tm) corrupts absolutely (David Harvey)