Theatre DIY Don’ts

Never Spread Yourself Too Thin

It's so tempting for playwrights to want to self-produce in this day and age. This series seeks to show people how to run a theatre company into the ground so that they can learn from my mistakes.

It was the summer of 2011 and I arrived at my first summer session of the Hollins University Playwright’s Lab. When you meet new people in the department, inevitably the first question all of your new colleagues ask is, “So what have you done before?” I would tell them the story about graduating from college and starting my own theatre company. I started to realize that something was wrong with my story. Every time I told them since January of that year I directed, produced, and designed the set for three full productions in six months, most of them would visibly wince like I had hit them. I was surrounded by theatre professionals and professors that had done this for years and that story made them look at me like I was crazy. Any theatre professional who has done just one full production before has gone pale in terror. Apparently none of them would have thought of doing more than two productions a year if they were doing it all by themselves. And I was already planning another production that would start rehearsals right after I got back to Tennessee. I had scurried to produce the third show of my new theatre company’s first season before I hopped on the bus to head to grad school. And that production almost broke me.

The only directing that I had done before this was for one main stage production at my alma mater, a one act for the directing class, and a production in the library with a student organization I started with friends. A lot of the time management there was hashed out for me by a professor or another person who was acting like a producer. I was great at making rehearsal schedules but when I first started producing, I forgot that the rehearsal is not the only thing that you have to schedule. There are things like tech and building the set, production meetings with everyone, and marketing. Did you know that you have to tell people that you’re doing a show, and that as the producer you’re responsible for ticket prices, and knowing what to do with the money? That list of duties should be obvious. What comes next are all the little disasters that you have to manage at the worst times.

The kick to the head came when I woke up on the day we were going to be loading in the set for the third show. I had just printed out tickets and had to change the program at the last minute to make a change of cast. My male lead dropped out of the show very abruptly and I had to step in and do the role. I had to take the entire day to learn lines...but I couldn’t take time out because I had to build the darn set! And I needed to call someone to come pick up flyers and put them all over town. I was needed in five different places that were all over town and the one thing that I could have desperately needed was some more time.

I started rethinking everything I had done over the past six months. I remembered all the sleep that I didn’t have and the food I didn’t eat, all the worries and headaches, and all the tears and heartaches I could have spared myself with more time.

group of people watching a speech
That's me on the stage talking to cast and crew. I had been up thirty-six hours and hadn't had lunch yet when this picture was taken. Photo by Robert Tonner.

I remember that when I was setting the dates for these shows my associate at the time told me that we probably needed to put a couple of months between them so that we could have time to prepare for each one. But all I could see was that in a month I was going to be out of town for six weeks in grad school and I wanted to get these done now. I felt I could get these shows done in the time allotted with the tiny bit of money that we had; when a question or problem arrived I just figured that someone would do it. The problem was that I sort of assumed that that someone would be me whenever I was done with whatever I was doing at the moment. Of course I should have been able to put on my cape and do it all. I’m young and super human right?

The third show of our opening season opened and ended. Not only did I have to play the lead, but also another one of my actors was in a car wreck and my associate had to step in thirty minutes before the curtain of the second performance. The audience that we begged to come see us enjoyed the performance and cheered as we all bowed and then walked off the stage. As we all picked up a hammer to tear down the set, I realized that I hadn’t slept in a day. For the past two days I had lived on nothing but soda and gas station egg rolls. We threw the rest of the set in my partner’s truck and dropped it in my backyard. We had gotten the show done. The show did go on. But as I threw myself into bed that night smelling of sawdust and stale soy sauce, I could only think, “At what cost?” before I succumbed to sleep. I would end up sleeping off and on for two days.

During that summer session at Hollins, more and more newfound colleagues added their voice to my impromptu survey. I started rethinking everything I had done over the past six months. I remembered all the sleep that I didn’t have and the food I didn’t eat, all the worries and headaches, and all the tears and heartaches I could have spared myself with more time. And I saw briefly into the future the next show I was planning. I could already feel my stomach churn at the phantom taste of another gas station egg roll. It was then I emailed my business partner and asked a single question, “Maybe we should move the next production to the fall.”

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Thoughts from the curator

In this series, Ricky Young-Howze shares his experience of starting his own not-for-profit theatre company and offers advice.

Theatre DIY Don’ts by

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Congratulations! I think you have learned about theater the only way anyone can learn about it, by doing it. I too, learned it that way. I could have learned what not to do from others, but because I learned from what I did wrong as well as what I did right, I learned the lessons well and for life. I also did some innovative things that others would never have known to advise me to do. I stayed in ramshackle and dangerous places and ate questionable food, but I and the wonderful memories survived. I was fueled by enthusiasm and so were the productions. I'm not sure I would do it a second time, but I would very definitely do it the first time. I love your story.

I am tempted to say YEAH! That's how you do it! The first time. ;-) But producing your own work for the first time is the way to learn if you're suited for it (or not) and what NOT to do next time. Well written and detailed...I can smell the gas station eggrolls. You've won your stripes. Wear them proudly.

An excellent cautionary tale, one I can both sympathize and empathize with.

But now I have a mysterious desire for Chinese food...

I love this article. The one serious lesson I've learned from forming and running Boston Public Works Theater Company is that I will never, never lay track in front of an oncoming locomotive ever again. I will take the time that's needed.