Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What I’ve Learned: The Benefits of the Open Dress

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Rebecca Comtois.


I truly believe that tech-week in the Off-Off-Broadway world is a special kind of hell that we inflict on ourselves again and again and then move on only to do it all again.  Like an abusive boyfriend who we argue deep down really loves us, we return to the theater with our black eye and broken nose, telling the war stories as humorous anecdotes and saying to ourselves that “this time it’s going to be different.”  As a result some of the lessons learned get lost in the pandemonium that is mounting a show.  Having just last week opened The Little One, Nosedive Productions' 10th Annual flag ship production (shameless plug) I am going to take this opportunity to let you all in on what I have finally learned after years working in the Off-Off world.  Yes, this has taken me far too long to figure out, but I will argue that the open dress is essential for those of us working under such serious time constraints within the space.
We all know in the world of Broadway they have weeks of previews before the shows are what they consider “Open.” Meanwhile in the Off-Off world, we’re lucky if we get 4 days in the space before opening.  And that’s with exclusive rentals. Often you get only a handful of hours here and there to re-block the play for the space, focus lights, bring all of the technical elements together and cue the show. All the while praying that a legitimate run without holds can be made before the opening night. Sure it can run smoothly sometimes- but there are those times where that terrifying race against the clock begins to look like one you’re gonna lose.  
I’ll tell you the story of one such time.The night of our final dress was in fact just part 2 of the longest cue to cue in the history of man.  The result being that there was no full run before opening.  The terror backstage was palpable as we prepared for our first audience, but there was a glimmer of hope.  We all believed we knew what we had to do, and that we could get through this. Yes, one of the vignettes had been cut from the show that morning, and yes we re-blocked one of the pieces immediately before the run, but these were things we felt we could overcome.  As the opening music swelled, and the lights came up – the adrenalin took over and off we went- head first into the biggest shit storm of a performance I have ever been a party to. 

Right out of the gates the pyrotechnics weren’t working. I am standing center stage, holding a “baby” (read: flash pot in swaddling clothes) talking about the flames and vamping while absolutely nothing happened.  Not the best- but not the end of the world either.  The second piece comes up. A clean slate and things seem to be back on track when, from backstage we hear a loud crash.  We come to find that the headlights to our car set piece fell off and shattered onstage during the scene.  We then go through the rest of the show and, quite literally, break every single piece of glass in the entire show.  Meanwhile- our poor beleaguered ASM is up in the booth without having had a chance to redo his call sheet since the piece was cut and so 90 percent of the cues are off- and during some scenes- the lights were just off.  As the final scene comes around another actress and I have 15 seconds backstage during a quick change to re-block our final fight.  Since at this point the stage is COVERED in broken glass both of us think dragging her across the floor isn’t the wisest course of action. By the end of it all the audience looked confused and the cast looked... well the cast looked like shell shocked refugees surveying the wreckage of what was once their home. They all had that sort of shattered-soul glassy-eyed stare about them.  
We didn’t quite go this route last week for the opening of The Little One.  Not only did we have a legitimate run of the show on Tuesday, but we were able to have an open dress as well.  I can’t sing the praises of the open dress highly enough.  It’s great to have a small friendly audience, who knows that you aren’t fully open, that their may be holds, and who will bear with you.  It forces everyone to get it together before the honest to god opening night, and gives you something to push for.  It also has a great way of forcing you to be honest with yourself about your limitations as an Off-Off-Broadway producer.  And for the actors I would say that it may seem a bit terrifying at the time, but no more so than having that first real run of the show be one with press.  


Monday, June 21, 2010

Guest Blogger of the week: Rebecca Comtois

We would like to thank Leigh Goldenberg for her unique perspective and thought provoking blogs last week.

We are excited to announce the guest blogger for this week, Rebecca Comtois.

Rebecca Comtois is originally from New Hampshire Rebecca moved to New York in 2005 because it’s damned cold in New England.  She is an actor, producer, and designer with Nosedive Productions, and can be seen currently in their production of The Little One going up this June and July at the Kraine Theater.  Other recent productions include Viral (Gideon Productions), Infectious Opportunity (Nosedive Productions), As You Like It (Boomerang Theatre Company), The Blood Brothers present... The Master of Horror (Nosedive Productions), Suspicious Package (The Brick Theater), The Adventures of Nervous Boy (Nosedive Productions), and Q&A (The Brick Theater). 


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Price is not the problem

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Leigh Goldenberg.

After years of producing Off Off, while learning from fabulous Arts Administrators Off Broadway, I jumped ship for regional theatre in Philly where I now focus on Marketing. I've found this focus is a good combination of creativity and numbers, while close enough to the actual work so I don't forget I work at a theatre. Here's something I've been thinking about from Off Off land that totally applies to my marketing universe.

Price is not the problem

Equity caps Off Off's ticket prices at $18 (or a whopping $25 if you have made it to the Seasonal code). Even if you aren't using union actors, this is probably the limit you will charge for a ticket since it's the market price. You may charge even less. You may make up discounts for students, seniors, community groups. You'll probably give comps to fellow artists, friends of cast members, people you are trying to impress, the press.

In the scheme of things, Off Off is a ridiculously cheap way to spend an evening, especially among the vast, overpriced options of New York.

Does the fact Off Off is a ridiculously good deal mean that your audience is packed? Absolutely not! (It still may be packed, and if that's the case, please share the formula for success with us all!)

I'd even venture to say that because Off Off is so cheap, this might even deter people from forking over their money to sit in our theatre, if only because something cheap can't possibly be as good as something overpriced. (All marketing tactics aside, wouldn't most people rather return from to their trip Big Apple bragging about spending $200+ to see Nathan Lane from 100 yards away instead of your big ideas up close in a Lower East Side basement?)

In the regional theatre scene, I feel like we talk about price all.the.time. Should we discount? If so, when? How much? Should we raise prices when something is popular? Who are we alienating? Who are we subsidizing? Why aren't we making ends meet even when our houses are full?

With less flexibility in pricing in Off Off, this conversation doesn't seem to happen so much.

But the fundamental issue is the same in both situations - how much a ticket costs has very little effect on if people will want to come. Our challenge is to make sure that what we put on stage is relevant, intriguing, and worth seeing. Potential audience members have to be convinced somehow that the 2 hours they spend with you is the most valuable thing they can be doing with their time. It's not just good for them, but fun and, maybe more importantly, hip.

Our job as theatre makers is to create plays that can't be missed, part of the culture, desirable.  The bigger challenge from a marketing standpoint is to communicate that your play, whether it costs $100, $10 or nothing at all, is unmissable.

How will you do it?


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

2nd Annual Indie Theatre Midsummer Classic


for the
2nd Annual Indie Theatre Midsummer Classic
(Softball Game and Picnic)

Saturday, July 24th
noon to 4pm
Field #1 of the Great Lawn in Central Park

Picnic (bring your own) - noon to 1:00pm
Softball Game - 1:00pm to 4pm
Drinks at a nearby pub TBA - 4pm til they run out of beer & hot wings

Your team captains Tim Errickson and Michael Criscuolo ask that if you have equipment to please bring it and to be prepared to share a glove with a neighbor.

It is a great way to celebrate the summer, share community spirit and engage your fellow OOBers in a little friendly sporting rivalry.



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everything I learned about Arts Administration, I learned Off-Off-Broadway

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Leigh Goldenberg.

I work in a regional theatre that's not in New York City. So why should I be writing for this New York Theatre blog? Because I credit the majority of my knowledge and experience in theatre management to my years producing Off-Off-Broadway in NYC. If you are looking for a career in the theatre, I cannot recommend more highly the value of producing your own work with no money and even less of a clue. Fundraising, marketing, budgeting, advocacy, contracts, season selection - you name it. Everything I learned about Arts Administration, I learned Off-Off-Broadway. (And how appropriate that I'm following Connie's post about restaurant school's lessons - inspiration is everywhere!)

"It's the people. It's people."

This overly simple line was in Stone Soup's first original show The Seventh Song about human rights in China. (We were so ambitious in our early 20s!) In the years to follow, this remained as our thesis not only in the types of shows we created and but the way in which we created them.

I'll be honest and say that no one was ever paid for their work with Stone Soup. (This is probably true for lots of Off Off companies, especially as we re-invested our money into expanding the company however we could.) Since we all worked long hours beyond our day jobs, for no money, we had to at least like each other! Many companies start as a group of friends with a common interest. At some point, if you want to grow, you have to find other people to join you on your noble mission. Backstage ads might work for finding actors, but if you want people to roll up their sleeves to also build your sets, work your box office, AND send a fundraising letter to their aunt in Michigan, it takes a lot of trial and error, and whole lot of clarity.

I've found that the companies that are most successful have a clear mission and values, simplifying that opt-in process for a newbie. Certainly people come and go (with more or less drama, depending on the situation), but you'll know you've been honest from the start. This is what we are, take it or leave it. This was never more important than in the volunteer world of Off Off exhaustion. But in Arts Admin, spending your full time job at a place that doesn't align with your own values can be even more soul sucking than working somewhere corporate where at least (maybe?) you have some financial benefits to outweigh long hours away from the rehearsal room. Call me an idealist, but I hope I'll always work somewhere that does plays I really like to watch.

The lesson of relationships extends beyond the people you are creating work with to the people you are creating work around. Learning from peers is essential, especially if you are starting from a common place of knowing nothing and having an empty bank account. Each year, hundreds of us graduate from college and want to put on a play. I'm sure 99% of our mistakes have already been made, so it's up to you to find the people to warn you or at least commiserate with you. The Community Dish was definitely that haven for me on many occasions. You need that support network to know you aren't alone in having crazy theatre landlords or issues with the Equity Showcase contract or an audience smaller than your cast size. I've found the same with Arts Admin jobs. Search for any professional development opportunity you can that will introduce you to people with similar positions at similar organizations. Use these people to safely vent, ask questions, learn from their successes. Celebrate and support them.

So, readers: What relationships have been valuable to you in your theatre projects and careers?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Guest Blogger of the week: Leigh Goldenberg

We would like to thank Connie Hall for her fascinating blog post last week.  Lots to think about.

We are happy to announce this week's guest blogger, Leigh Goldenberg.

Leigh Goldenberg co-founded Stone Soup Theatre Arts, a socially conscious Off-Off-Broadway company with fellow Marymount Manhattan College grads in 2001. For 8 years, she served as the company's managing director, producing new and previously published works on contemporary social issues. During her time in New York, Leigh also worked in administrative and production capacities for Pearl Theatre Company, HERE Arts Center, MCC, Young Playwrights and Primary Stages. She is a proud alumni of the  Women's Project first Producers Lab, served as a peer judge for the IT Awards and was active in the Community Dish. Since moving back to Philadelphia in 2007, Leigh was the Marketing Director at Lantern Theater Company and produced two Stone Soup works for the Philly Fringe Festival. Currently, Leigh is the Marketing Associate at Arden Theatre Company where she oversees press and social media. 


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What I Learned About Theater from Restaurant School

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Connie Hall.

Let me start off by saying that I am a CHEATER. I offer you “What I Learned About Theater from Restaurant School.”  This is not an original post.

I cheat in the interest of cross-pollinating some pro-active, inspiring, and not-whiney conversations that are going on right now among independent theater makers.  This was my first post as a grantee and contributor for The Field’s Economic Revitalization for the Performing Arts blog.  Fellow grantee-bloggers Jon Stancato of Stolen Chair, Caroline Woolard of Our Goods, and Joanna Mendl Shaw of Equus Projects, as well as the Field’s executive director Jennifer Cook, have been totally brave and inspiring in embarking upon their projects and sharing their successes and failures, so I wanted to point you all in their direction.

I also cheat in order to offer a prelude to a Creative Conversation I will be joining LIVE at WNYC’s Greene Space on Monday, June 14 on the subject of “501(c)3: Is it working for me?”  It is hosted by ELNYA and moderated by Melissa Dibble of EmcArts. It should shake things up in a good way. I was asked to join because I have decided not to incorporate as a not-for-profit. At least not yet. Please come.

What I Learned About Theater from Restaurant School Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, an actor-run ensemble theater company. We create live episodic performances about a fictional ensemble theater company that runs a fictional restaurant.  But, the food is real.  The actors themselves make the meals from scratch, and we serve family-style to the audience seated at communal banquet tables.  (Read about how we create our menus on The Jew and the Carrot.)

Last year, with concurrent project support from the ERPA program and a scholarship from Women Chefs and Restaurateurs I was able to attend the Culinary Management Program at the Institute of Culinary Education.  I like to think of it as a form of extreme dramaturgy for my role in the show as restaurant manager.  I went hoping to apply the for-profit business model of a restaurant to our artist-driven theater company.  Sounds simple enough, right?  With some time to reflect, here’s what I learned about theater from restaurant school:

Lesson #1: Our problems are not unique.
The class met three times a week.  Two out of three classes were taught by Vin McCann, former VP of Boulder Creek Steakhouse Group and current owner/operator of the Wells House in the Adirondacks.  Vin’s favorite thing to say was, “The restaurant business is a disease.”  By this, he meant that it was a risky, labor-intensive, heavily-regulated, low-margin, business with a high burnout factor, and that the only reason to do it is if you just can’t help it.  Sound familiar?

Like theaters, restaurants have limited seating and face the problem of limited distribution.  Each restaurant has an optimum sales volume given the seating capacity and the service style of the house.  This is the point when sales plateau because you cannot turn tables faster or raise prices further without losing customers.  The only remaining course to increase profitability is to control food and labor costs.  We were quizzed on this concept, with the bonus question “What is the optimal cost of labor percentage?”  The answer was supposed to be as little as possible, but I wanted to pay my ensemble members as much as possible.  I answered the question wrong on purpose. 

Because of this inherent limitation, restaurants have a lifecycle.  It averages about seven years.  After that, a new restaurant needs to open in order for the business to keep growing.  Pause.  I wanted to strengthen and give longevity to our existing group, not grow for the sake of growth.

Vin’s second favorite thing to say was “We are not artists.”

Lesson #2:  We are not artists.
Our class represented the most diverse collection of oddballs (geographic, economic, cultural, education level, age, you name it) that you could possibly put in a room together.  But we all wanted to open a restaurant.  One classmate, a Bahamian former bar owner, wanted to provide for the public what her grandmother provided for her family.  By piling the table high with good eats and offering a warm welcome, she could give people the feeling that they had enough. For the fabulous club kid from Vegas who was getting a restaurant for his 21st birthday present, it was the promise of a glitzy design all his own and the spectacle of tall food served by runway models.  For the Korean who wanted to open a fried chicken shop, it was an essential philosophical response to life: Since the one thing human beings have to do in order to stay alive is eat, you should do that one thing well.  Most of my classmates had a strong vision and felt personally compelled to do their work despite many practical incentives not to. 

But we are not artists?

No, because we have to serve the diners (aka audience).  It doesn’t matter if a genius chef knows that a certain combination will make a better dish if no one will eat it.  It doesn’t matter if we like red when the customer wants white.  Above all, we cannot fall in love with an idea.  We have to be willing let it go, fast, and re-coup our losses if it just isn’t working.  We are not creating something for our own self-expression. 

I wondered if maybe artists couldn’t afford to be artists anymore either.

Lesson #3:  The best restaurateurs are stage magicians.
The third class each week was taught by Steve Zagor, the director of the program and former manager of Shelly Fireman’s Trattoria dell’ Arte.  He was a not-so-closeted theater geek, who liked to try out his different accents on the class and erupt into spontaneous role-play situations in which you were obliged to participate.  Steve’s favorite thing to do was give examples of extreme hospitality, and to point out situations where, with no extra cost, you could impress your guests with how much you care that they have a great time.

Like theaters, restaurants provide a live, subjective, temporal, experience.

The best restaurateurs know that the product they are selling is theater and not food.  Customers rarely complain about the food, and most often comment about the service. External marketing and advertising is most effective in bringing in initial business and first-time customers.  After that, it is all about internal marketing intended to bring in repeat business.  A great meal (aka play?) doesn’t always make a great story. Complainers are powerful, and customers remember and repeat the worst experiences because they make the best stories.  But when the manager notices you don’t have an umbrella and goes out of his or her way to surprise you with a complimentary one, you will repeat that story.  Personal attention also makes for good stories.

We had to write service scripts for what a customer should experience from the moment they made a reservation to the moment they walked out the door. Are there good signtlines? Is the chaos of back-of-house operations concealed from front-of-house?  How does the menu (aka program) orient you to the experience?  What does the place smell like?  (There is a whole industry of manufacturing scents to impact consumer behavior:  Ladies, this holiday season, watch out if you detect vanilla being pumped through the vents.  It makes you buy more.)  How is the table set?  How is the server trained to reply when asked for extra lemon?  Are the bathrooms clean?  Does someone say goodbye?  Do you send a thank-you-for-coming email?

All of this script-writing is called “four-walls marketing”.  The term makes me as squirmy as “audience development” or “donor cultivation”, with its connotation that money is always an underlying ulterior motive for kindness or consideration.

Where is the sincerity in this?  See Lesson #4.

Lesson #4:  Compensation is not the most important key to retaining staff. Or, the reason to go into the restaurant business is to have fun.
The most important person to keep happy in a restaurant is the dishwasher.  The seamless operation depends completely on him or her, and he or she is generally the lowest paid worker.  Restaurant workers tend to be either unskilled low-wage workers or those with career aspirations in other industries. Many actors, not coincidentally, are waiters.

More than compensation, the statistics show that the most important factor in retaining staff is a positive work environment. People like to feel like they are a part of something that matters, like they are empowered to solve problems, like they are hosts rather than servants.  Happy staff create a happy place.

Lesson #5:  People are willing to pay for theater! 
No one knows the real price of a theater ticket in the not-for-profit sector.  Tickets are so heavily subsidized by contributed income that audiences have no idea what it should actually cost.  Restaurants have done a much better job of relaying this information. A word of advice from their industry to ours:  Never offer discounts. It is a slippery slope that causes people to devalue the experience.

People pay for theater every time they go out to eat.  Consider the theater of the New York City  A hamburger that costs the same amount to make ranges widely in price depending on the venue.  I gladly pay twice as much for a hamburger on an interesting geometric plate with nice lighting accompanied by soft music than a hamburger in a dive bar.  And I still think that’s what it costs. 

In a restaurant that is doing great food costs account for 25-35% of sales.  The difference between the cost and the price is the margin. This margin is why I haven’t given up on this pricing experiment yet. Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant seeks to price our theater tickets at four times the food and beverage cost. The payment for the theater is in the margin, and it is more than we are used to getting from ticket sales. I strongly believe that we theater artists are uniquely qualified to create live experiences that are more memorable and transformative than any restaurant. We just haven’t taught people how to pay for it yet. 

Lesson #1:  Should theaters have a lifecycle?
Lesson #2:  Does a theater artist have a bigger responsibility to him/herself or to the community?
Lesson #3:  Assignment: Write a script for what an audience member experiences at your theatrical event.  Hint: It starts before and continues after they are seated for the play.
Lesson #4:  How important is it to sustainability that actors in a production have a voice?
Lesson #5:  What tangible thing besides food could you offer to audiences as a basis for ticket pricing?

Meet us for dinner in Massachusetts this summer!  OBERON in Cambridge, Sundays July 11, 18, 25 and August 1. www.cluboberon.com

Monday, June 7, 2010

Guest Blogger of the week: Connie Hall

We would like to thank Jon Hoche for his progressive and astute post.

We are happy to announce that our guest blogger this week is Connie Hall.

Connie Hall is the producing director of Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant. She has helped to create and mount over 20 new plays in New York, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, France, Canada and Thailand. She has been a contributing writer and performer with several New York ensemble-based theater companies, including Knife, Inc., Saga Theatre, SaBooge, and International WOW and at such venues as St. Ann’s Warehouse, La MaMa e.t.c., and Repertorio Espanol. She has performed at the Ohio Theatre in the title role in Robert Woodruff’s Godard (distant and right) directed by Robert Woodruff, as Dr. James Barry in Deborah Wallace’s Psyche and with the International WOW Company’s Death of Nations cycle. Connie is currently a grantwriter on staff at New Dramatists. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and she is a graduate of the Culinary Management Diploma Program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Independent Theatre Cares Initiative

    The League of Independent Theatre is pleased to announce the Independent Theatre Cares Initiative. Indie/OOB companies all over the city will spend the first two weeks of June using audience appeals and other methods to raise funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

    Founded in 1992, Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS is the nation's leading industry based HIV/AIDS fundraising and grant-making organization. They fund the social service work of The Actors Fund and award grants twice a year to AIDS service organizations nationwide. Through audience appeals and annual events like the Easter Bonnet, Gypsy of the Year and Broadway Bares, BC/EFA raises millions of dollars each year to help those in our industry suffering from H.I.V./AIDS.

    Over the first two weeks of June, many prominent Indie/OOB theatre companies will be using audience appeals to raise funds for BC/EFA. It’s our way to say to the community that no matter your Equity tier or ticket price, we’re all in this together and good can be done on any level. Catch some great Independent Theatre this month and be as generous as you can; help us show that not only do Broadway and off-Broadway care, but Indie Theatre cares as well.

For more information on how you can get involved, e-mail tom.berger@redirectionstheatre.com.