Theatre DIY Don’ts

Don’t Get Too Complicated

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.

After working so many long nights producing my own work and a lot of headaches helping others put their shows up, I have found that there is a good motto about simplicity. While some people like to use the phrase “keep it simple stupid,” I have found that it doesn’t encompass the whole theme. Sure, simplicity is a good motto for the theatre, but why? I will tell you this one phrase and I suggest you get a stone tablet and a chisel to forever engrave it in your life: “simplicity is sustainable.” And boy, did I learn this the hard way.

The first show that I produced under Fronkensteen was a one-woman show. The production was so simple that I walked into my nearest big box store and bought all the props and set pieces for the whole show in a day for under a hundred bucks, minus the supplies for a special makeup effect. I coordinated rehearsals with my actress and my business partner at the time, who was standing in as the light operator and the makeup artist. Rehearsals went well and on opening night, we played to a good audience in the black box space of the local regional theatre. People loved it. After a two-night run, I took most of the set pieces home in my arms and walked the mile or so home with no trouble. I went to class the next day very well-rested.

I learned to ask myself, ‘What is the simplest way that I can do this thing?’

Photo by Wharton Center for Performing Arts.

The next four shows for Fronkensteen all had the same theme: cast and crew of seven or more, a full set that had to be loaded in a truck by two people, and me working long nights to get things done—exhausting both my body and my bank account. After countless hours of work putting up these monster shows, I always wondered why things just couldn’t get done on time, and why there was never enough of me to go around.

Then I began to take a look around at the real cost of putting these productions up, both physical and financial. I soon realized that I couldn’t keep writing checks on this account, both literally and proverbially because the funds were quite low. That’s when I knew that there had to be a change. And this was a lesson that I learned all too late.

My ego told me that I was the only one talented enough to do all the jobs that kept the production afloat. I designed and built these elaborate sets. I was directing most of the shows, and when actors dropped out I was the first to pick up a script and fill in. I also was taking on most of the marketing duties until the last minute when I would hand all of that off to another person, essentially asking them to do the impossible. My ego told me that I could accomplish this Herculean task; soon I learned that only Atlas can bear such a weight without being crushed under it. I had to start looking at things with new eyes. This had to get easier quickly.

I started looking at the next show that I wanted to do and learned to ask myself, “What is the simplest way that I can do this thing?” And that meant unless I could find another carpenter, my set was whatever I could find the weekend before rehearsals. Costumes and props were also limited to what I could fit into two big tote boxes. I even set up the backstage area and lined the upstage with chairs that my actors would sit on when they weren’t acting.

In the theatre world today, more independent theatre companies are cropping up and more theatre artists are striking out to do it themselves. I know in my heart that they need to find what I found and find it quickly.

It also meant that I enlisted more of my friends to direct and share the responsibility. Even some of my friends who had never directed before were given their first shot. I told them that I trusted them and would be checking up frequently. When they knew that I wasn’t going to allow them to look bad, they stepped out of their comfort zone and did some great work. When I stepped back and focused on managing the other artists, I realized that I could focus on the millions of other things that I needed to do.

What I realized as I did this was that when I put all of these limitations on myself up front, it made what were once hard artistic struggles a joy to do. Things that used to keep me up at nights working on them were gone by the time I started rehearsals. Most importantly, I found myself easily building this mythical infrastructure that I found that other theatre companies seemed to have without trying. By the last show Fronkensteen ever staged, I found myself feeling like I could take the system that I was doing and bring it with me to any other show I was doing. And I slowly realized that that was the foundation that every good producer had in her skillset—a tried and true way of doing things that they’ve honed over years of trying and failing.

Now the system that I had might not work for someone else, but that was the point. I found that beautifully simple way of getting things done that didn’t break my body or my budget, and I was fortunate to find it early on in my career. I still see people that have been in the game for years that haven’t quite found it yet. In the theatre world today, more independent theatre companies are cropping up and more theatre artists are striking out to do it themselves. I know in my heart that they need to find what I found and find it quickly. Is what you’re doing now the simplest way that you can do it? Now can you do it again on your next endeavor? How about the rest of your career? I hope you find the answer.

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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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I feel like not stretching yourself to thin is important but I think its necessary if you want to develop in your field. Not cover multiple positions, but pick one and push yourself to your limits to accomplish your maximum potential. So I agree on not stretching yourself across tasks but I really disagree on simplicity is better.