Creating Theater in 2023

Creating Theater in 2023

A Watershed Moment

COVID-19 will prove to be the watershed moment in defining the history of the 21st century. Apart from our communal human experience of the virus and its reverberations across the human spectrum, the arts and in particular theater must learn to surf the waves of change.

Remember body surfing the waves when you were a kid? The key lesson was to learn to relax and float on the surface of the water when the wave hit. Resistance and rigidity would result in dragging you down into the undertow – not a pleasant experience.

As theatremakers, how do we relax and float in the face of the tsunami of change hitting our industry? Let me tell you what won’t work: resistance and rigidity, holding tight to the model of what was instead of facing the challenge of what is.

Facing the Wave

The way I see it, the waves of change encompass the economics of theater, audience demographics, and the need for inclusive storytelling models.

First, economically, theater’s been devastated.  I’ll leave it to others to provide charts and graphs on the precise numbers, but as a broad perspective we’re facing an industry where many of our brightest and talented workers have left theater (and left NYC) because they needed to survive. Those who stayed are now faced with rising costs on everything, fewer opportunities to work and even fewer opportunities to work on projects they like. Producers and artistic directors are also facing rising costs of everything, including the realization that we must pay our artists a dignified living wage. At the top of this theater food chain, where will this funding come from? Historically artists have been funded by the government, the Church or by wealthy patrons. How’s that working out in the current climate? We must look for a broader economic baseline, much like video and film has had to do earlier. In the meantime, major non-profit arts companies like the Roundabout are making major programming cuts.

Secondly, our audiences are literally dying off. We must change our offerings to suit younger audiences (like the Met’s decision to concentrate more on contemporary work). How do we plug into current culture? By being open to younger artists and taking their creative expression seriously, and being open to embrace the change that’s already here. If art reflects the culture that creates it, we marginalize any artist at our own risk. Remember when Off-Broadway used to be a place for experimentation and risk-taking? Where is that place now (other than TikTok)?

Finally, as times change the way we tell stories must also change. We know that the use of technology has changed the way we process events and tell them. The dramatic imagination is more cinematic and visual than ever before, and it intrinsically changes our storytelling structure. As an industry we must make way for more inclusive storytelling models, not just in terms of whose story we’re telling (although we definitely need more non-western, non-Anglo-centric perspectives) but how we’re presenting these stories. We must allow ourselves space to think outside the proscenium. People today crave experiences where they are immersed in an environment where they retain agency, much along the lines of the interactive video games they grew up with. I’m not saying that we should all follow the Sleep No More model, but marketers around the world have become aware that designing and staging experiences heightens economic value and customer satisfaction.  If we want audiences to crave theatre, we have to provide those theatrical experiences in innovative and compelling ways.

Keep Your Eye on the Current

Just as you would never body surf without checking the weather beforehand (at least, not as an adult), so should you understand the cultural and economic currents of the moment. I’m concentrating on smaller cast sizes, deepening audience’ engagement and clarifying the emotional journey. No matter what the story, I’m remembering that essentially theatrical experiences are about the audience’s encounter with the story.

Above all, remember that this moment too will pass. Enjoy the ride and let your audiences do the same.

What Type of Reading?

What Type of Reading?

While Broadway continues to recover post-covid, there is a noticeable increase in the number of readings being offered. This is a good thing – many of the shows written during the shutdown are now ready to try out in front of a live audience, and I see it as a positive sign of recovery. Is your show ready for a reading?

I had the privilege to see five readings last week (two of them were my own). They were all different types of readings, and they give a good example of the different stages of development of a play or musical.

The Private Table Read

Most of us are familiar with a table reading, or “pizza reading,” where we gather actor friends to cold read our script and get their feedback in return for feeding them dinner (or pizza). It’s a good first step, after you have a full read-through with your dramaturg or writing group, people you know and trust.

I actually had a zoom reading of a work that we’ve been working on for almost four years. Why a Zoom reading? It was the right choice to try out the latest changes in the script in front of an audience. Our actors were mainly involved in the hip hop music industry, so it was important to test out the script and get their thoughts before we produce a bigger staged reading in the Spring. We could have had an in-person table reading, but as our actors were music artists some were on the road and couldn’t all be in NYC at the same time.

This is an example of why Zoom readings are useful: your actors and creative team can gather from anywhere in the world to experience the script together “live” at the same time and get immediate feedback. I have to stress that a table reading this early in development is still a private invite; you need to protect the work at this early stage of development and only invite in people you trust for feedback.

Another form of an early reading I attended was more public, although still recognized as a very early developmental step. It’s a unique program put together by Lincoln Center for NYC musical theater folk called the Across a Crowded Room Fellowship, which pulls together a librettist-lyricist-composer team in one networking event to produce a 20-minute musical in 6 months. One of my writers participated and presented his 20 minute musical in front of a panel of Broadway musical professionals, who gave their feedback. This was a very public presentation of a new work in front of an industry audience who is familiar with the process of development. If you can get this level of feedback this early on, you should do it, although I normally wouldn’t advise an early reading in front of 100 people!

The Local Staged Reading

Not every show should immediately hold an early staged reading in NYC, even if the creative team lives there. Just like the old model where upcoming Broadway shows had their “out of town tryouts,” if you’re able to produce an early staged reading with actors on their feet at music stands locally, then do it.

I’m partnering with SUNY Cortland in upstate NY to develop new musicals away from the high costs (and high visibility) of the industry. Colleges have professional programs training the next generation of artists, with talented directors and state-of-the-art theaters. We held a first full read/sing through of a new musical that was first developed in Chicago. We’re so excited by what we’re seeing we’re hoping to transfer the reading to NYC in the spring. By developing it upstate first, I’m buying time for the creative process to happen at a lower cost but still with trained and talented professionals.

Another local staged reading I attended was on Long Island at a tiny arts council storefront. The script still needs work, but just listening to an audience react (or not react) I’m sure was helpful to the team, and it was funded in part with local grant money using local actors. A win-win.

The Investor Invited Staged Reading

The fifth reading this week was staged uptown, out of the regular theater “box” midtown. This was a very smart decision by the producers. They staged the reading about a black star (Marian Anderson) at the Marian Anderson Theater at City College in West Harlem. a beautiful theater with magnificent acoustics – perfect for the show. I attended an earlier staged reading midtown (the second one they offered, I believe), and this latest presentation demonstrated all of the hard work the team has done on the script. The show is ready to be produced, and the audience’s reactions proved it.

But remember – this was achieved after quite a few years of work, and was the third or fourth staged reading presented.

Don’t Rush Development

Sometimes the baby needs more time than you think it does to be born. Trust the process. Trust your actors and your early feedback. Don’t be precious about your work, and be open to change it based on the reactions you get from the audience. Don’t resist change – ultimately it’s your friend. The audience doesn’t lie.

At the same time, develop it privately as much as possible, and listen only to voices you trust, especially early in development. And although these five examples are musicals, new play development is the same.

Keep writing and re-writing, but check in with an audience periodically. Ultimately it’s for them.

Marketing Your Show: the Basics

Marketing Your Show: the Basics

Marketing is NOT a Choice

If you know me then you know that I’d much rather spend all day every day helping you write your show than marketing myself. Marketing is not my favorite thing.

However, I have to remind myself that marketing shows is how we get audiences into seats (butts in seats). Likewise, marketing myself helps me meet more talented writers.

If we are going to engage in commerce at any level, then marketing is not a choice. It’s the basis of business – how you put yourself out in the world and what you do.

Here’s Where to Start

Every show should have the following:

  • LOGO for the show
  • Tagline
  • Short Synopsis: Describe the journey of your show in 3-5 sentences (sometimes you will need a longer synopsis, but not often)
  • Website
  • Quality demos of your music (for musicals)

Who is your audience? Find a person that best represents your audience. Discover everything about that person. Build an “avatar” and speak to that person in every bit of copy you write about your show.

Ask yourself:

  • What does my audience member value? What do they want?
  • What type of job does my audience hold?
  • Where does my audience live (for the most part). Search any demographic Information online that will tell you more.
  • What challenges does my audience member have?
  • What types of products does my audience member buy? Where do they shop, Whole Foods or McDonalds?

Find Your Audience Online

Hopefully you’ve been building an email list of people that have contacted you about your show or about other shows. This is an important list to cultivate, nurture and grow.

How? Get on Social Media. Begin to talk to people that are interested in your show, or who like theater. Facebook groups and LinkedIn groups are also helpful.

Planning a reading? Write a Press Release and send it to Broadway World to be published. Push the press release on social media, and put it on your website.

You Need a Website. That’s not a choice either.

More on that next week! Have any questions? Post below.

Schedule 10 Tasks to Get Produced

Schedule 10 Tasks to Get Produced

Success is a Choice

Following up on last week’s blog, I want to reiterate the above: SUCCESS IS A CHOICE.

Do you want to be a successful playwright? Then hang out with successful playwrights. Put yourself in the company of producers and artistic directors – then make friends with them. I encourage everyone to network both online and in person as much as possible.

Do what winners do and you will be a winner as well.

Wait! You say you do that, and you’re still not being produced? Is there anything else?

Yes. Commit to taking ACTION.

Schedule Time to Submit Your Plays  

You can’t say you’re doing everything unless you are doing the following on a regular routine basis:

  • Join the Dramatist Guild and look over their submission calendar weekly
  • Subscribe to Play Submissions Helper. Check it weekly as well.
  • Join the Playwright Binge email group at playwrightbinge@groups.io. Read the emails.
  • Set a goal of _____ submissions each week/month (the number must be realistic for you)
  • Make it your business to achieve that goal weekly.

As a successful playwright you must find time in your day to both write new work and promote your existing scripts as much as possible, on a regular routine basis that works for you.

Make a plan. If you schedule time to do this routinely, chances are that you will.

Create Systems to Make Life Easier

I organize all of my work in Dropbox. You may prefer Google Drive, hard-drive files on your laptop, or some other organizing tool that I’m not aware of. Just make it work for you.

  1. Set up online files for each play to submit:
    • Text of your script as a pdf
    • Blind copy of your script as a pdf
    • Your bio (both long and short)
    • Production History
    • Previous director bios and cast rosters
    • Set and Production Requirements
    • Casting Breakdown
    • MP3 files (if a musical)
    • Possibly short samples of your script (add when a theater requests your first 20 pages, for example)
    • Photos
    • Reviews, Recommendations and Testimonials
    • Awards, grants and sponsorships
    • Recordings of readings, cabarets, concerts and showcases (add full-length and edited versions)
    • Sizzle Reel
    • Marketing graphics: logos, marketing copy, etc.
    • Legal Paperwork (contracts, LOAs, publishing documents, etc.)
  2.  Create a Submission Tracking Sheet for each play (excel)
    • Dates of submission
    • Theater
    • Contact Information
    • Track communications and replies
  3. Create a Productions Tracking Sheet to track productions in excel
    • Production Dates
    • Theaters
    • Producers and Artistic Directors
    • Contact Sheet listing creative team, producing team and cast

As you add to your information, keep it ready and accessible in your online folder to make future submissions as easy – just reach into the file and attach the documents to the submission.

Licensing Your Script

Regular licensing agreements were typically after an Off-Broadway run or a NYC non-profit run. You should still submit to the major licensing houses. Below is from an article written by Kaelyn Barron:

  1. Theatrical Rights Worldwide
  2. Broadway Play Publishing
  3. Heartland Plays
  4. Pioneer Drama Service
  5. Eldridge Plays and Musicals
  6. Brooklyn Publishers
  7. Off-the-Wall Plays
  8. Plays Inverse Press
  9. Scripts for Stage
  10. Stageplays
  11. Hominum Journal
  12. Gemini Magazine
  13. Silk Road
  14. The Courtship of Winds
  15. The Playwrights Publishing Company
  16. Smith Scripts

Concord Theatricals and Playscripts Inc. accept submissions from agents or literary managers only.

However, you could also try to self-publish through Kindle Direct or promoting your script through ACCT (American Association of Community Theaters). You should definitely also join the New Play Exchange and create an author page for yourself and your plays to be discovered by regional theaters and others. 

Always Be Pitching

Where else can your plays be constantly pitching themselves?

  • YouTube promos on your own channel
  • Your Website
  • Social Media accounts

Submit your work everywhere. Memorize your pitch and network.

If you’re a writer, you write. But you also must promote. 

Hey, if it were easy everyone would do it. I hope this helps!

How to Succeed in Theater

How to Succeed in Theater

Success is a Choice

I need a constant daily strategy to focus on what needs to be done to achieve my top priorities. Meditation and a daily practice of reviewing my top goals for my business (and life) are the only ways I’ve found to manage constant distraction, and to move forward with what I know is my main mission: to help develop and create new plays and musicals and then get them on stage.

If success is a choice, what does success look like? If you don’t know what it looks like, how do you know when you achieve it?

For me, the simple answer of ‘I’ll be successful when I get a Tony’ is too far off. I’ve come to know that my success means helping writers first get their scripts to “work” and then to guide their projects through development to a production on a stage somewhere.

Can you answer the question “I will be successful when …..?”

I’ve found my own success by doing the following:

  1. Defining what success means to me and relentlessly moving forward
  2. Constantly be selling myself, my ideas and my shows
  3. Addressing our big issues through theater in order to be a catalyst for change
  4. Constantly investing in myself as an artist and as a human being

Maybe these will help you as well.

Name It and Claim It

If I just held myself to a far-away measurement of success like receiving a Tony then I would be a mess for years thinking I was a no-good failure. But, as I teach my students and writers alike, if you’re not failing at something you’re not trying. 

In reaching for a goal you’re first defining what your BIG GOAL looks like and then figuring out how to consistently move toward it. There’s no such thing as failure if you learn from it.

What do you desire enough to keep you moving toward it daily, weekly, yearly? What keeps you motivated over the long haul? Find it.

Name it and claim it as yours, and don’t let anything (or anyone) stop you. Not family, not money, not even time. (Well, death will certainly stop me, but as long as I’m alive and kicking I’ll keep producing theater.)

Find your motivation.

Constantly Be Selling

I hate this one. I’m a theater artist, not a salesman! But I constantly have to sell myself, my writers and my projects (your projects) to get our shows on stage.

No man is an island, and we all need people (who need people) to move ahead. Theater is the most collaborative art, and it’s not just in the creation of a script. We need other people in the creation of our production, in the creation of our artistic business and in the creation of our lives as artists.

Constantly be selling yourself and your shows. Constantly be submitting and pitching. Memorize your pitches, and learn how to pitch better. Constantly network so you can do the first three more often. Develop those relationships until you can call them a friend.

No one said it would be easy, and if it were easy there’d be more people doing it. Uncomfortable but necessary.

Speak to our Problems

In business the way to success is to address people’s problems and then solve it with your products.

In the arts, people’s problems – are ALL our problems. Society’s problems. As a theatre artist I constantly try to present stories that make us better human beings. I would like to think that I have made the world a little better by my being in it and doing theatre.

Can you solve society’s problems with theater? The Exonerated was able to overturn the death penalty in Illinois. It saved many innocent people’s lives. The Laramie Project helped overcome prejudice and intolerance by telling and retelling Matthew Shepard’s story on stageMany of the most financially successful plays and musicals highlight serious contemporary social issues – and they always have, dating back to the Ancient Greeks.

The Ancient Greeks were pretty smart; they knew an explosive platform when they saw one.

One of the quickest ways to get noticed is to address a significant contemporary problem and then to dramatize it for us. (Please do this – we are sorely in need of inspirational storytellers.)

Be a significant storyteller for our times, and you will get on a stage. It’s impossible not to.

Invest in Yourself

Remember the meaning of “priming the pump”? You have to pump the well vigorously enough to get the water flowing “effortlessly.” I constantly invest in myself by learning new technology, trying out new ways of storytelling, and opening myself up to new ideas and perspectives.

Writers also need to “invest in yourself.”

You may need to self-produce to build your “product.”  You will definitely need to invest time and money to build “assets” like the following:

  • Your website
  • Readings (for photos and video clips)
  • Demo recordings
  • Showcase productions for promos, videos, reviews, audience testimonials
  • Sizzle reels and producer pitch decks and reels

Invest in yourself  first in order to get noticed, and then to allow someone else to invest in you. 

What are your dreams? Did this help you?

Please comment below!

Should You Produce Your Own Play?

Should You Produce Your Own Play?

Should you produce your own show?

That depends. Is your show ready for a full production? (Check out my latest blog posts to answer that question.)

If, after much careful thought and input from trusted professionals around you, you determine that your show is ready for a full production in front of paying audiences, then you must honestly assess your own capabilities as a potential producer. The basic question question to ask is, “Am I ready to raise money to put my show on stage?”

If the answer is a “not in this lifetime” no and you don’t have a rich uncle to help, then you must

  • a) play the submit game to submit your play everywhere,
  • b) promote the assets that you have online to create an email list of an engaged demographic,  and
  • c) network extensively to interest potential theaters and producers to produce it for you.

But guess what? B & C are the steps you must take to raise money as a self-producing playwright anyway, and A is a strategy I advise every writer to take even if they have the money to produce the show themselves. This is sometimes a very long game;  often writers get tired of waiting. To “jump start” the process many start to consider producing the show themselves. At least it’s an action that they can make happen; it beats the passivity of waiting [endlessly] for someone else to produce it.

So it seems that the journey ends the same way; only the timelines are different. Kuddos to you if you’ve written enough plays and have submitted often enough to have many plays being developed simultaneously in different places. You’re a rockstar writer, and everyone wants to be like you.

However, I say whenever you can to “choose yourself” and go for it – but educate yourself first to NOT fall into the common money traps that take advantage of novice playwrights and line others’ pockets with your good money. Be wary when others  want to “produce your show” without giving you the majority of the ticketing revenue or offering you a “theater space” without walking you step by step along the process to actually put on a full production. I’ve seen this happen to too many writers over the past many years. I’m tired of it, and angry that other ‘theater professionals’ are so ready to take advantage of those trying to get their plays onstage.

More on this later. First, a brief overview of the common ways most writers self-produce.

Showcases, Fringes and Festivals

Showcases were originally a term that meant a developmental production that independent writers or actors would stage to promote their work and get seen by agents, producers or directors – they would “showcase” themselves. The various Fringe Festivals and other theater festivals that now exist across the globe are producing entities where clusters of “showcases” can produce collaboratively and share expenses of venue rentals, marketing expenses and audience engagement.

Most Fringes and theater festivals can be a useful place to produce a new play or musical that’s in development; many things can only be learned when you put the work in front of an audience. Usually the expense is less than the cost of producing a showcase yourself; however, be aware that you probably will have to do everything yourself.

Reason to produce in a festival: to invite audiences into a performance to learn how they react, with the highest quality  production elements that you can afford.

The AEA Showcase Code

If you are thinking of producing a showcase, you will want to consider the highest level of production that you can afford, in terms of set, lights, sound and talent (designers, director and actors). To cast union (Actor’s Equity Association) actors, you will be asked to comply with the AEA Showcase Code.

Showcases are relatively “cheap” to produce. The Equity Showcase total budget is limited to $35,000, although that doesn’t include the cost of the venue and rehearsal space rentals. There is a limit of 12 performances over a period of four consecutive weeks, and there may not be more than one two-performance day per week. Rehearsals are not to exceed a total of 128 hours scheduled over a maximum of five consecutive weeks, limited to 32 hours a week, no more than six hours/day except during the final week of rehearsal when the director may schedule three eight-hour days. Musical productions may use 5 additional hours for learning music during the first or second week of rehearsal.

The most important point is that no person engaged in any creative capacity for any Code production receive more remuneration than any AEA member.

I like to produce Showcase productions with the goals I would use for a Workshop production – that is, to use production elements to further the storyline and to illuminate character. The good thing is that you will be learning AND receiving some income from ticket sales. Make sure that you include a link in the program for a survey or other way the audience can communicate with you about what they thought after the show.

If you can afford to pay extra to video a performance, do so. Check with Equity for up-to-date rules on this. If you have a non-union cast, think about livestreaming a production as well. A two- or three-camera shoot will allow you to keep an archival recording to send to interested theaters or producers, allow you footage to edit into a sizzle reel or producer pitch, and to re-purpose into content on your YouTube channel or website. What counts today are digital assets that can work to pitch your play or musical 24/7 online, and sharing your clips to interest people to follow you or sign up to your newsletter.

Fringes & Festivals are coordinated by other entities that help get your work onstage. The world’s biggest Fringe Festival is the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland, followed by the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia. In the United States, Festival participants are always on a Showcase Code (if you want to cast union actors), so make sure you apply at least three weeks before you open (the earlier the better).

As a participant in a Fringe or any festival, always make sure you understand the production rules and values behind the festival before signing on. Read the fine print and make sure you understand every detail. Ask for clarification if you don’t.

Better yet, do your due diligence before signing up. Make sure the festival has a good reputation – good enough to bring in audiences. YOUR audiences.

CABARET, VIRTUAL AND MORE

Alternatives to a showcase production are available, The most common are the cabaret (or concert reading) for musicals, or virtual productions (that are honestly more like films) that are created for plays.

Cabarets are useful for musicals – especially when the music is great, but the book needs work. Cabaret performances may also be livestreamed (and ticketed) and recorded without charge, with the permissions of the actors. Like showcases, cabaret readings and performances can be saved as archival videos, or edited and uploaded to YouTube and shared on your website.

Get Help

There are a few online communities where you can find your “tribe” and learn and grow by joining in. The best way to learn is to watch others. There is an investment cost, of course. If you’re interested in joining CreateTheater’s Experts Theater Company (ETC), our resident theater company, we’re opening our doors for registration in September.

Email me at cate@CreateTheater.com and we’ll get you off to a good start. Schedule a free 15 minute consultation here.