Theatre DIY Don’ts
Don’t Settle for Your Venues
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.
The main venue for my first forays into production was a small hippie nightclub that was used to hosting indie rock and electronic music acts downstairs in its basement. There was a tiny rickety stage supported with a multi-thousand-dollar sound system and a few lights. There were no chairs, but there was a skateboard half-pipe along the back wall. It was painted in all kinds of colors, and dark and cold all the time. For a death metal concert or rave with scores of mosh pit regulars, this would have been the perfect place. For a theatre troupe it needed some work. On top of that, they did some work promoting each show; because we were the only theatre group on their list, they didn't really know how to promote us. So why was this the spot that I chose to place my productions? They didn’t ask for the money up front. Back in my greenhorn days that was a huge bonus to me.
What makes me kick myself over this decision now is that our first production was in the best possible venue we could find in the local regional theatre’s black box space. Sure it wasn’t perfect but it was a working theatre space and theatre people knew where it was. When the name of our show hit that big marquee we had the biggest crowd we ever had for our shows. The artistic director loved me and the show that we did and invited me over anytime that I wanted. The one reason that I left? They wanted to keep all of the ticket sales in return for giving us the space and promotion for free. Back when I started, I was greedy and wanted my shows to pay my bills. Now I would jump on that deal in a heartbeat.
And as much as it hurts, a venue that can reject you or charge more money means that they know what they have and they have standards.
I found out the hard way that all of the wrong venues are the easiest to get. That’s mainly because deep down they know that they’re not that good and they’re willing to take just about anyone. You really do want a venue that makes you jump through hoops and has some demands (within reason). That most likely means that they have some pride in their building and have enough demand that they’ve worked out the kinks in their facilities. And as much as it hurts, a venue that can reject you or charge more money means that they know what they have and they have standards. If you have to compete to get in and they do take you, they’ll be willing to put in the work to maintain the facility and promote your show.
Your relationship with the owners is crucial. I now have a rule that if I wouldn’t have gone to see a show there, I don’t want to bring my show there. If I don’t like the venue, I won’t be willing to invest in a good working relationship with the people that work there, which is important. You want the people running the venue to like you and have a good impression of your show and venue, or else they may not go the extra mile to help you.
It’s also crucial to make the right agreement that’s best for you and to make it up front in writing. Make sure that you can do a whole season in the space without breaking the budget.
It’s also crucial to make the right agreement that’s best for you and to make it up front in writing. Make sure that you can do a whole season in the space without breaking the budget. Also make sure you can load everything in without breaking your back. Before you sign any papers or even make a verbal agreement, make sure that you tour the space and know you’re making the right choice.
You also may be thinking that it may be way easier to do it all yourself, and rent the building to make your own venue. The couple of companies that I know in my hometown and elsewhere that tried that route told me it was a mistake. Putting all of your money into renting a space and making it into a theatre venue ties up resources at best and is very risky at worst. When you have the capital and the audience, go for it. When you just have a handful of shows that you want to produce on your own while you’re not working, it’s best to just go through the established places.
But most importantly, consider your audience and ask yourself if they would come to this place to see you. The first shows we did worked OK in a nightclub setting, but I had a shortlist of family shows that I wanted to do in the future. Families didn’t ever go to that side of town, let alone in the building. Look at the shows you're doing and ask yourself who would be coming to see them. If your venue doesn’t match that, it’s best to try somewhere else.