Seth Lepore Explains How to Self-Produce Your Own Theater Production
Before you go self-producing your work dear friends you need to ask yourself a few questions:
1) Are you ready to work a ridiculous amount of hours to make it happen knowing that you might not even make a profit?
2) Are you organized? I mean super duper organized or are you kidding yourself?
3) Are you insane?
The last question is probably the most important one to answer. It also depends on your definition of insanity. I like this one: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I’m realizing quickly what works and what doesn’t, however there is no science to this kind of existence at all. There are so many factors that can make a run have high attendance and lots of buzz, as well as unseen elements that can cause you to lose your shirt even if you repeat the same system that worked the year before. Believe me I just experienced it first-hand.
Keep in mind there a few different ways to self-produce your work and each one has it’s positive and negative components but one thing remains true: it’s shitload of work. People constantly ask me if it’s worth it. I honestly don’t know. Do you have a kid you need to support? No. Are you nomadic by nature and don’t mind sleeping in strange places constantly and don’t have an apartment you’re paying rent on while you’re on the road. Maybe then it’s a better idea.
I estimate that for every hour of performing on stage I put 40-50 hours of admin work in, which includes research, marketing, publicity, fundraising, budgeting, booking, contract negotiation, social media outreach, database management, finding the proper technical staff, outsourcing design and incredibly mundane and rote cutting and pasting of information across various spreadsheets and documents.
Although I’ve learned and created systems that help with my productivity it still takes way longer than I think it will since I’m a one person operation. Even if you have a great intern who is on top of it, there’s still a huge amount of work to do.
For my monologue Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee I did a combination of the Fringe Festival circuit along with self-producing shows on my own. For SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious I set up shows mostly on my own and decided to only do one fringe this year. Below I explain why. There are other festivals as well and I will briefly discuss what I think about the whole she-bang.
This means everything is on you. Every. Thing. Did you see the list of tasks, of multiple hats I wear up above? I’m not kidding. I do all that shit and it’s crazy-making. This isn’t like being in a band where you set up a gig at a club, drive eight hours to get there, hope people show up and that you walk away with gas money (although that life is difficult enough in and of itself). This is different. You are having to pay the venue, usually a black box theater up front for the space including rehearsal time and having to pay their tech person and box office staff. That’s before you even enter the venue for your tech rehearsal.
You cross your fingers that you not only make all that money back from ticket sales but that you make a decent profit on top of that. This is one of the main reasons you need to know how to fundraise which I talk about more below. Having the upfront money to pay for a self-produced tour is expensive.
There are many different theater festivals throughout the US and Canada as well as Internationally. One of the more popular circuits to tour is the Fringe circuit. Based on the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland (which is the oldest and biggest fringe in the world) the Fringe aims to be uncensored and unjuried.
The thing is that each fringe in the US and Canada are run individually and although they are in communication with each other, they all have their own way of operating. Some have corporate sponsors, some rely on grants, some are incorporated as a Non-Profit and have a paid staff, some are completely volunteer run. Some are actually juried after all which brings up questions as to their “fringeyness”. I could care less really. What I want to do is go to festivals whether I’m either going to make bank or create a network that will lead to bigger audiences and places I can constantly return to.
Let’s put it this way. I did the Boulder Fringe in 2010. Just that one. In 2011 I did Minnesota, Capital and Indy. I made the same amount of money in 2010 as I did in 2011 and worked three times as hard and was on the road six weeks vs. two. However I wouldn’t trade in going to MN for anything. In fact it has led to amazing opportunities for me on a self-producing level and a huge network in one of the best theater towns in the states.
With Fringes you are paying a participant fee up front (similar to self-producing) BUT you have built-in audiences who know the festival exists and you can use that leverage to get people to come to your show. Certain Canadian fringes are known to be more financially viable. At any rate, you need to be a shameless self-promoter. I would spend 8-10 hours a day promoting my show to audience members coming and going from other shows at the festival.
There are also solo festivals I’ve applied to that are extremely competitive to get into such as Uno, Solo Nova and All for One. I have a spreadsheet with all these festivals as well as the info on dates applications open and deadlines. Want it? Oh, I know you do. Contact me and I’ll send it to you.
This is the direction that I (and you should) be headed. There are four major conferences (as well as some smaller ones) where the intersection of Arts Presenters, Booking Agents, Managers, Talent Buyers and Artists congregate to network, go to artist showcases and create new business relationships. They are also super weird because they are trade shows in essence. Booths upon booths, candy bowls, nice looking glossy brochures. It’s a total game and you either have to be willing to play it or not. The big monolith that happens each January in NYC is the Association of Arts Presenters (APAP).
Then there are the regionals: Western Arts Alliance (WAA), Midwest Arts Conference (MAC), Performing Arts Exchange (PAE). I’ve attended both APAP and MAC and will be attending WAA this fall and MAC for the second time. Again these conferences are expensive, some require that you get a booth unless you are represented by an agency or manager, which is the main reason I’m going to these. I’m hoping to find the right match with someone who understands the scope and vision of my work and wants to work with me for the long haul.
For now I pay all the registration costs as well as showcasing costs (they’re separate). MAC cost me close to $900 all and all. I was lucky to piggyback on a friend’s badge for APAP and got in and showcased for under $400. This is unheard of. APAP usually costs at least $1500.
I got a gig out of APAP and am still working the relationships with people I met at both APAP and MAC. It’s an ongoing process but meeting with people face to face is essential. It changes the dynamic to one of humanity. You’re not just another email in their inbox. You’re real. However not every presenter is right for every artist and vice versa. Some presenters just book stuff that will sell. Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, stuff that’s been tested and approved. That’s ok, there are plenty of presenters wanting alternative, provocative work.
It’s an investment, a big-ass one but I would rather sign a contract that says I’m walking away with between $750-$1200 at the end of the night than doing all the self-producing work and counting heads in the audience backstage and running the numbers before I even get out on stage.
I also am on a regional roster for a touring through the New England Foundation for the Arts. This gives arts presenters in New England motivation to hire me because NEFA will pay half my fee. There are programs like this both regional and statewide and you need to take advantage of them.
I am a press whore. I want as many quotes about my work as I can possible get my hands on and it’s definitely been helpful. Keep in mind that you can get a ton of press including preview articles, reviews and radio spots and it might not make a difference in the attendance of your show. Why? There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Actually there is. Word of mouth is way stronger. A person posting something on Facebook or Twitter about how much they liked your show carries a lot of weight UNLESS the person reviewing the show has a heavy influence on audience members.
Connecting and keeping ongoing relationships with the press is essential to your career because ultimately these people are advocates of the arts and you want them on your side.
This is where your skills as a social media maven need to come into play. Whatever platform you prefer (or multiple platforms for that matter) you need to engage your friends and followers in a way that makes them excited to see updates and posts from you. There’s all sorts of “experts” out there with programs on how to do this most effectively but I can narrow it down for you in two words. Be yourself. That’s it. If you aren’t, people are going to know and you’ll just get lost in the feed.
It’s important not to overshare and over promote for sure but if you’re fakin’ it people aren’t going to respond well. Besides Facebook, Twitter and Google+ I do outreach to people on Meetup, I research local organizations that seem like they would be interested in my work, I contact local professors, student groups at colleges, whatever seems appropriate. Marketing and outreach is your bread and butter. It gets butts in the seats.
Crowdfunding is the new black. Now anyone can raise money online for any purpose they can think of. When my good friend Karen had to have an emergency surgery that cost $11,000 and didn’t have the insurance to cover it I started an online campaign to raise the money for her through GiveForward (they specialize in medical expense fundraising) and we exceeded our goal in three weeks time.
I have done three separate fundraisers for my theater projects and each time have gotten better at how to do it. I use Indiegogo for multiple reasons. They are easy, anyone can set up a fundraiser, they take a small cut and if you don’t reach your goal you still get whatever you raised minus their cut. I’ve also heard good things about Rockethub.
Kickstarter is much more well known but the problem with them is that if you don’t reach your goal they give all the money back to the funders. All that work for nothing. Yeah it might motivate people to give if you’re begging and pleading in the wee hours of your campaign but I’d rather not get an ulcer, thank you very much.
I wouldn’t be able to tour without doing these fundraisers. The upfront costs associated with festival participant fees and self-producing on your own are way too much to handle. Plus grants although amazing when you get them are becoming more competitive than ever. Speaking of which…
Getting a grant is awesome. It’s free money right? Not always, sometimes they are reciprocal grants where you pay everything up front and then get reimbursed once the event is over. Stupid? I think so but that’s how some agencies operate. How about we give you $1000 but you need to raise $1000 first. Yup there’s those grants too.
Some of the better grant programs include the Puffin Foundation, Creative Capital, and The Map Fund. The last two are extremely competitive but are huge in the amounts of time and additional support that comes with them. They are both cutting edge in terms of how granting agencies should operate. The thing with grants is that you have to look at them as gravy. If you get them that is so cool but the likelihood is slim unless you’ve been doing art for a long long time and your grant writing skills are solid.
Not fun for most but necessary. I suggest not doing this alone. I’m fairly practical but my friend Karen is my go to person for pragmatic advice and second opinions. She was the CFO for the Boulder Fringe for three years so she knows her shit.
Coming up with projected expenses and income can be daunting and is often being pulled out of your ass so it’s good to be as specific and realistic as possible. For example with the last Indiegogo campaign we had a certain amount of money once the campaign was over that we could work with for the upcoming expenses.
Certain elements of the tour had to be tossed because we didn’t make the amount we wanted but this helped with covering what could happen without breaking the bank.
CONTRACTS/ Working with Theaters
There are black boxes that rent out space and theaters that do splits with no money up front. I think we can all agree that the second option is preferable. It’s more rare however and can require just as much work. Read your contracts carefully people. Seriously. Some contracts have clauses that can put you in a very awkward position if you don’t understand them fully.
Don’t be afraid to ask the production manager (or whoever your point person is) what something means. Clarity around contracts is of the utmost importance. Don’t fuck around with this.
For the love of all that’s holy don’t start a non-profit. I talk about this a lot. We don’t need anymore, we really don’t. You can easily get fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. They are super great. It allows you to have a lot of the benefits of being a non-profit but without having to have a board, have complicated insurance and other non-profit headaches.
They also have relationships with Indiegogo and Rockethub to make fundraising less complicated. Plus if you are fiscally sponsored you can give your donors a tax write-off which is a big motivation for people to give. They have a ton of courses called Fractured U which can help you get a grip on the business side of art. You want to do your art, not run an organization. Believe me, you’re already doing too much as it is.
MONEY (THE REALITY)
There is absolutely no stability in being a self-producing artist. It does come with time for sure. The stronger the word-of-mouth about your work the more you can depend on a given range of money that you can walk away with but there is no magic formula. I’m going to repeat this because it’s important. You can do everything “right” and still have a crap run.
It’s best to have low-end projections and high-end projections of income when creating your budget. You need to be prepared for disappointment and if you do really well don’t think I’m making shit up. The next year could suck ass. Sometimes it’s a matter of you changing your marketing plan, reading more up on social media strategy or it could just be a case that that year sucked all around and there’s no reason for it. Usually it’s a combination of it being your fault and not being your fault.
This is where you need to think about multiple streams of income as an artist. What kind of products, programs or other merch can you sell to make money from other sources? For example, I’m making a voice demo to get voice-over work, I’m working on a podcast and writing a series of different books and have some ideas for some future merch ideas. I’m putting all the information that I’m talking about in this article into a course for self-promoting theater artists to take.
Don’t get scattered on this. It’s really easy to run in 15 directions and end up procrastinating all day. Look at what you’re good at, what you know a lot about and exploit that while still remaining yourself. It’s always good to bounce your ideas off people who know you really well so they can ask you practical questions like “How many hours are you prepared to commit to that a week?” or “Ummm, that’s a great idea in theory but do you get what it’s going to take to make it a reality?”
MY COURSE: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF BEING A TOURING THEATER ARTIST
I’m in the process of developing a course on all this madness. I have a crazy amount of information that I’ve gathered through multiple hours of research, trial and lots of error as well as interviewing multiple artists who tour for a living.
I’m aiming to launch a course in June. There will be a series of podcasts dedicated to understanding what it takes to be a self-promoting theater artist which include detailed pdfs with a ton of info and helpful links. You can do it all on your own time.
Getting a grip on how to do this is imperative and nobody’s going to do it for you. So take a breath. It’s ok. We can do this thing together. If you are interested in taking the course contact me letting me know your interested by putting “nuts and bolts” in the subject line. I’ll keep you updated on the launch. I’m also available to consult on this nuttiness in person one-on-one or for groups. Contact me if you you’re interested in that too.