Producing Advice from the Company that Named Themselves “Team Awesome Robot”

Part One

The beauty of live theatre, for me anyway, is in its ephemeral nature. It's dependent on the audience being in the room at the precise moment it exists and when it's over, poof! These disposable communities are exclusive by design, so it should come as no surprise that you probably don't know anything about me or my company, Team Awesome Robot. This series is about chronicling our journey as artists-turned-independent-theatre-producers as we put up our next show, in the hopes that you may find some applicable value in it. Whether you're staring down a monster project with a bank account that begins with "zero" or you're a super successful producer interested in seeing how we do the thing at our size, we want to share our experience with you.

Over the next few months, Team Awesome Robot will be sharing our process with the HowlRound community as we produce our second official production in the hopes that y’all may glean something useful to your own endeavors. Or at least, learn from our mistakes.

This is what Team Awesome Robot is all about! We're interested in extending the collaborative spirit of our work to the audience. We develop and produce new plays in New York City from a place of generosity; offering ourselves in service of the play as it exists with an audience. Managing Director Yvonne Hartung and I have been operating unofficially as an artistic partnership for over three years and bring nearly a decade of “do it yourself” producing experience to the table. It got to a point where we acknowledged both the good thing we had going together and our exhaustion of working for people who weren’t supportive of our ethos. So we formed Team Awesome Robot, took our time, gathered our people, gathered our resources, and produced a solid production of the play Rush by Callie Kimball in October of 2015. Now we’re planning our next play!

blurred figures on stage
Rush. Photo by Katarina Voegeli.

Over the next few months, Team Awesome Robot will be sharing our process with the HowlRound community as we produce our second official production in the hopes that y’all may glean something useful to your own endeavors. Or at least, learn from our mistakes. This is the beginning, people! Let us begin by where we, Team Awesome Robot, began.

A redundant list of needs to produce a budget to produce a play:

  • Content: A script; a concept; a message; an experiment. Whatever it is, you need one.
  • A location: A theatre; a park; an apartment; a van down by the river. A place for the content to exist and a place for the audience to be while witnessing it.
  • Collaborators: They say “no man is an island,” and they’re wrong, but those islands are generally really, really stressful to visit, so ask for help, OK?
  • An Ethos: Know what you’re asking of your collaborators before you ask them to sign on and lay out those expectations from day one. I cannot stress the importance of this bullet point enough.
company name on a napkin surrounding by beer glasses
Photo by Christopher Diercksen.

So where are we right now?
It’s early June, 2016, at the time of this writing, and here’s what we’ve done:

We have a play, sort of. In this case, a collaborator with an idea: Daniel John Kelley has always wanted to write a play about Lorenzo DaPonte, the Italian poet best known as the librettist for Mozart’s big three operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutti. But this guy lived a crazy life, born an Italian Jew in a Ghetto of Venice and died a Catholic Priest and the first Chair of Italian Studies at Columbia University in New York City. He is one of the original Self-Made-Men that lived what we now call the American Dream…with a little help from his servants along the way. The idea to explore this person’s life resonated with us for reasons that will no-doubt be explored over the course of this blog series.

Built a budget. We know how much our last play cost to produce (about $11,000), how much we made on ticket sales (about $4,500), how much we were able to raise through crowdfunding (about $5,000), and how we want to implement changes based on lessons learned.

Developed a production timeline. Based on our script development, fundraising goals, location scheduling (both production and rehearsal), and our own personal lives, this puts us at a year-long process. Take the time to set it up right, friends.

Developed a short-term script development strategy. Our playwright is writing the first draft from our protagonist’s very untrustworthy perspective in four parts: Venice, Vienna, London, and America. We’re holding apartment readings of each part once a month. Then we’re going to start challenging his version of the truth in draft two, come September. We’ve held our first two readings (Venice and Vienna) and will hold our third (London) this month. Next month we’ll read part four (America) and then have a day where we read them all back to back (to back to back).

Identified some key collaborators. We don’t have a play yet so there aren’t too many elements set in stone. That said, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll need an actor to play DaPonte, so we’ve nailed down a guy who’s signed on for the long haul.

Started planning a fundraiser. We’re asking some of our friends who are more well-known in the theatre community to go on stage and play Dungeons and Dragons in front of an audience. We will be providing this audience with alcohol and incentives to donate to the company. Our playwright is going to be the Game Master. We’ve already started writing and testing the adventure. Next, we’re looking to nail down a location for August, then set a date, then confirm the players, then market the crap out of it. Yep, we are really, really fun nerds.

Reaffirmed our commitment to collaboration. This is our ethos when it comes to approaching the play-making process. “The play’s the thing,” someone once said, and we’re all working towards that as a group. We don’t have the money to pay everyone who works on our projects a living wage yet, but we can find the money to make sure everyone gets paid at least an equity showcase code stipend. At this time, payment is an acknowledgment of equity among our collaborators, of respect for the quality of their craft, and that the truest payment must come from our mutual commitment to why we are doing this in the first place. Answering in the affirmative the question, “Would I choose to work on this project with these people simply because it brings me joy to do so?”

That’s where we’re at! Yvonne and I met recently to go over logistics for the fundraiser and talk making the jump to registering as a 501c3 so we can take tax-deductible donations and apply for grants. But more on that in the next installment of this series! We’ll catch up in August where I hope to discuss the following:

  • A successful fundraiser!
  • A script that is in phase two of its development!
  • Becoming a registered 501c3 organization!
  • Our upcoming development retreat!
  • Locating and securing performance and rehearsal space!
  • Identifying collaborators!
  • And other things that happened that cannot be foreseen!

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Thoughts from the curator

Theatre company Team Awesome Robot documents their production timeline.

Team Awesome Robot producing series 

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As someone who has been determined to start up their own creative business hearing about your experience is extremely useful. I'm curious though how long did it take to get Team Awesome Robot (absolutely love the name) on its feet? Were there ever times you felt defeated or that the possibility of success seemed impossible? Do you have any advice for talking yourself out of these moments and how to just keep working at your goal? I have a lot of aspirations and goals I would love to see happen in my life but I just worry about two things: resources and doubt. You say you were able to fundraise a good chunk of money and you had funds from your previous show, but how do you start a company off with little to no funds? Is this more of a long term process or do you feel that it's fairly simple to brainstorm easy ways to make an extra buck? I really admire your drive to create your own company and build it from the ground up. I wish your company the best of luck in your future endeavors!

Congrats Christophe! And thanks for adding me to your Team Awesome Robot mailing list!I'll be curious to hear the details of your application process for charitable status as I'm deeply involved in a non-for-profit playwright organization her in Calgary. (http://www.albertaplaywrigh...) It would be great to hear how things differ or overlap.

All the best on the production, but more importantly to you and your beautiful new bride!

Neil FlemingPlaywright - Calgary ABwww.aplaybyneilfleming.com

Oh my god. I can't believe I'm reading this. The Reading Theater Project had the same itch about Lorenzo Da Ponte. We created our own opera (composer Chris Heslop, librettist Vicki Graff) and it's opening next week. Reading Theater Project usually does new work and we try to have it connect to our area (Reading, PA) as much as possible. Da Ponte actually had a connection to Reading when he travelled between Sunbury and Philly. Anyway, it's so cool that you all are writing an original piece about him too. Here's the title of ours (which pretty much says it all and more): "Da Ponte: The Outrageously True and Charmingly Infamous Life of that Glorious Jewish Catholic Priest, Genius Librettist who Inspired Mozart-of-All-People, Master of Italian Literature and Bringer-Of-It to America, Toothless Businessman, Pennsylvania Resident, Superb Lover of (All) Women, and So Many Other Topics and Situations." Good luck with your work!

Greetings! I sincerely appreciate the way you and your collaborators continue to return to your ethos as a source of strength. The part of the process that is missing for me is "target audience". For whom are you creating? What are their expectations, their theatrical/storytelling vocabularies, and aesthetic expectations? Is this something you talk about?

Looking forward to more posts!

Jeffrey Lentz, Artist in ResidenceDepartments of Theatre and MusicALBRIGHT COLLEGE

Greetings Jeffrey!

Firstly, thank you. I'm thrilled to receive the compliment.

You bring up a good point about knowing the "target audience" as a part of the decision to produce. In many ways, this is question applies directly to a company's overall aesthetic: knowing what type of theater I like to watch informs the kind I like to create and as the director it's my responsibility to create theater that I would like to watch. Taking that leap in assuming that other people will enjoy the same experience as you is where the director's ego lives, and ultimately drives the decision to take that position. However, as producers, the decision begins with the selection of the play. Do we find this project to be valuable to more than just ourselves? Is it self-serving, or worse a vanity-project? Who will this serve?

Perhaps the passage should have read like this:

"A redundant list of needs to produce a budget to produce a play:Content: A script; a concept; a message; an experiment. Whatever it is, you need one, and you should know why you're sharing it with the world."

For Team Awesome Robot, this is what keeps us coming back to new and developing work. The play was written at this time by a particular person for a particular purpose. We aim for that purpose, that spark of creation and go from there.

There will be much more about the specifics of this play as the months go on that I hope will shine some more light on this topic. For now though, thank you for reading and I look forward to continuing the conversation along our journey.

Great Jorb!

Best,Christopher

Glad to follow along here. I think this information is missing especially in academic circles and this conversation is not happening enough amongst those of us doing this with our lives.

One question I have is, how, if at all, do you hope/plan that this turns into something that can provide living wages? Is there a 5 year thought? A 15 year thought? Does it include ensemble work, or only envisioned employment for the creative hierarchy?

Is it a goal? Or is it a dismissed dream?

Also interesting to know along the way, is how the outside work that is paying the wages, comes into conflict with the project via scheduling, energy levels, artistic equity among the varying jobs that people carry that demand different things from them.

More questions, but I know space is limited.

Brad BurgessArtistic DirectorThe Living Theatre

Hi Brad! Sorry for my delayed response, but I had to go get married this past weekend. :-)

Yes! The question of economics looms large over all of us in the industry and we are no exception! It's a complicated thing to become an economically viable artistic institution, so our answer is equally complex. Yes, we hope to provide living wages for our collaborators (as well as ourselves) in the future and are taking gradual steps to plan for this. Our timeline for this is dependent on multiple factors, many of which are outside our control, so we are taking a slow and steady approach. But our ethos will remain the same: We are all a part of making this play and all shall be compensated as such. If there's a question of paying either myself, yvonne, or one of our collaborators, then it's always going to go to the collaborator first.

Which brings me to your next question about balancing outside work with production work. We, as most theater artists, have full-time jobs outside of the industry. This relegates our Team Awesome Robot efforts to nights and weekends (Yvonne and I have taken to calling our meetings "Laundry Days" as they often happen while I'm doing laundry). This is where taking the time to do it right comes in. If Team Awesome Robot were our full-time job, our production timeline would be significantly shorter as we would have the time and perhaps more importantly, the mental energy to dedicate to each project alone.

As the project progresses, I'll be sure to go into more detail about this aspect and more, especially as it relates to incorporating designers into the process.

Thanks for these questions, Brad and I look forward to continuing the dialogue over the coming months.

Best,Christopher