This post was contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jeffrey Keenan.
Everything in my life is big. My first apartment in New York City was (is) a two-bedroom in Chelsea. My personal (and amazing) recipe for Macaroni & Cheese easily feeds six people (unless one of them is Jason Bowcutt and then it feeds, um, well, only, um, Jason Bowcutt). A single pair of my pants alone could easily house as many as three different Vietnamese families.
Everything in my life is big.
The first show I produced so many years ago began production with a budget of nearly $30,000. At the time, being a naïve, first-time producer/director, I assumed that amount was entirely logical. Hell, I’d heard that some Broadway shows were costing into the seven figures back then (the mid 90s) so $30K was a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Except that I didn’t have $30K. I didn’t have anything close to $30K. At the time, I was working as that pathetic voice you’d get in the morning when you called to complain that your Washington Post landed in a puddle and was unreadable, or you were going on vacation and didn’t want newspapers piling up outside your front door, or perhaps the damn thing didn’t even come at all. I was that shlub you screamed at at 6:30 in the morning. And for that wonderful abuse, I was paid $12 an hour.
Not having the capital to throw at the show from my own life (I'm from very humble beginnings in rural Ohio: Dad, a pastor; Mom, a substitute teacher), and having no formal training in business (I got a BA from one of those small, pricey private Ohio colleges for which I’m still paying back loans), I did the only thing I could: I decided to pay the damn thing off on the back end.
A business decision like this would only be made by a very, very stupid person or an incredibly optimistic one. Luckily I qualified as both. "Paying on the back end" is the process of using the profits of the show to pay for it. If you can't immediately see the flaws in that plan, send me an email and I'll enumerate them for you. The first show I produced in DC was called Party: an amusing one-act excuse to get seven naked men together on stage.
DC was, and still is, a rather conservative cultural town and no one at that time had ever seen seven penises gathered in one place at the same time outside of DC’s notorious gay strip clubs and the occasional Republican Congressman’s house party. It was my fervent belief that the impressively sized gay population of DC would support theater if it A) made them laugh and B) made them hard.
Turns out I was right.
I started advertising the show six months from its opening date. I begged, borrowed and stole from everyone I knew to get the barest minimum of cash together to put a deposit on the theater and to buy the materials for the set. I believe I didn’t pay rent on my apartment for three or four months prior to opening (luckily, one of those impressively sized gay DCers happened to be my landlord). Another friend had just started an event ticketing company and he was anxious for clients so I signed him up immediately. With the ticketing work and patron care spoken for, I concentrated on publicizing and producing the show.
The DC gay press let me set up business accounts to charge my full and half page ads, one of which I ran every single week three months prior to opening. I convinced The Washington Post to do a news story about this young, gay upstart (me) bringing liberal gay theater to DC. I got local bars to promote the show and pay for personal appearances of the cast. During the gay pride march of 1997, I convinced one of the buildings along Dupont Circle to allow me, just for the day, to hang a huge promotional poster of my mostly nude cast that could be seen for blocks. I borrowed a friend’s sports car and rode the scantily clad boys through the parade route handing out thousands of postcards. And somehow, the show opened to a sold-out house on a Friday in late June.
The first check I got from the ticketing vendor the following Thursday was for nearly $18,000. And we were sold out solid for the first six weeks. The show ran a total of fourteen weeks before we closed it for another show already contracted to come into the space. It grossed a total of just over $160,000. And in Washington DC in 1997, I paid my actors $300 a week.
Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. While this story reflects a lot of luck and a huge amount of hard work, it’s still ample evidence that there is no reason on the face of this earth why you can’t work to make your shows happen. Money is a minor obstacle. Faith in yourself is a vastly larger one.
As a betting man, I’m pretty sure you can do it. If you’re willing to do it. (And you have enough actor friends who don’t mind getting naked.)
Question of the Blog: How important do you think audience response is to your goal?
Coming Soon: Rough Waters Ahead!