Theatre DIY Don’ts

Don’t Neglect Your Greatest Asset

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.

We had just finished a production on a show that I wrote. My buddy and I were busy with whacking away at the set, trying to clear the space before they charged us for another day. And he and I started going over the list of people who were no longer working with us after the past year. We soon discovered that it was a rather long list. Sure we had a long list of great artists who had been with us in the last four shows, but there was also a long line of bridges that we burned. And I don’t mean a bridge that was a cleanly cauterized stump in my past. I mean burning wrecks that I could still turn around and see the glowing orange sky in the distance. And a lot of it was my fault.

What you learn mounting an amateur production, and even professional shows, is that sometimes people just don’t gel over time. There are actors that come in for one show and move on. You have boyfriends and loved ones enlisted to help out backstage that change frequently, and you learn to accept that. But then there is a turnaround that you as the producer can completely prevent, and that is the burnout and the flameout.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that your reputation isn’t how big your last production was, but how well you treat and protect your people.

Flameout is one of the most preventable phenomena in the amateur theatre, but it’s rarely recognized before it’s too late. Yet, there are producers who see it happening and duck their heads, hoping that it will all blow over. I was one of those producers. While I was in Virginia during my first summer at the Hollins Playwright’s Lab, I had to have a couple very tense e-mail conversations, which turned into a phone call telling one of my good friends that he was no longer welcome in the company. I was furious. Not because this surprised me, but because I had seen the signs about a month before and I should have dealt with it then. To this day, I vividly remember hearing complaints and remarks from other actors about him, and me telling them that it would work itself out. We had two very different ideas about what the aesthetic of Fronkensteen was. I was uncomfortable with some of his practices and I should have ended it there, but I chose to ignore all of the signs out of convenience.

Flameouts like that can be handled very easily, or avoided completely if you’re willing to meet red flags head on. When people feel that the administrators at the top aren’t listening to them or setting limits, then they start to lose respect for them. My biggest shortcoming was refusing to put my foot down or address a concern because I was afraid that they would leave the show. I was sending the message that I needed them to stay more than I needed them to do a professional job. You might realize that’s the kind of message you don’t want to send to the people who think of you as a leader.

Left to Right: Zach McElroy, Sara Schichtel, Ricky Young-Howze, and Lauren Cobb. Of the four actors in this PR photo only me and Zach stayed on to the end. Photo by Sara Schichtel.

Burnout, however, is sometimes unavoidable because you can’t control how much passion people have in a project. Without your knowledge, a young actor you cast for a role can attack his part with gusto upfront. By the time tech rehearsals roll around, you find that his tank is dry and he can’t stand the pressure and stage fright. Sometimes artists can write checks that their bodies and spirits can’t cash and you have to account for that. But there is a burnout that you can avoid and that is how much responsibility you give to people and knowing not to give anyone more than they can bear.

This burnout comes both emotionally, physically, and economically. Sometimes you've run a very emotional scene in rehearsals too many times and you can just tell that your actors are feeling the strain and you have to give them a break. You can also ask too much of your cast when you’re not only asking them to remember their lines and cues, but also come in on the weekend to help build the set and hand them a stack of fliers to advertise the show. I've also seen actors that have to drop out of a show because after a long day waiting tables, they have to drag themselves into the car and eat a stale bagel all the way to a rehearsal for a show they aren't getting paid for, wondering how they’re going to have gas to get home. Most artists are willing to put their hearts, bodies, and wallets on the line to do a show that they care about. It’s your job as the producer and/or director to not let them. At least that’s a lesson that I learned the hard way.

That’s why now, whenever I’m asking an actor or crew member to volunteer their time, I ask them what food they like to eat and make sure that I can give them money for gas or parking if they ask. I’ve learned to be very upfront about the boundaries I have as a producer and what I consider appropriate behavior. If there are any kind of complaints from actors or crew, I address them promptly. The people that choose to let you lead them are not cogs in your machine, but precious resources that should be taken seriously and properly cared for. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that your reputation isn’t how big your last production was, but how well you treat and protect your people. At least that’s the only reputation in my opinion that’s worth having.

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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.

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