A few weeks ago I had just hopped over from teaching/directing a teen workshop production of THE TEMPEST into full-scale rehearsals and promotion for the OUTSIDE THE LINES fest. (Yes, I scheduled the fest to open only 1 week after the closing of what had been an awesome but exhausting 3-week Shakespeare workshop with teens. This was obviously wishful thinking on Past-Tiffany’s part and something I will remember next time scheduling comes into play.) As we went into tech, I was pretty much spent – and yet, there was so much more to do, so much more to give, so much more to wrangle…
At the end of our fest, I’d gone about 16 days straight in the theater without a day “off” and was tired, grumpy, and demanding a lot of caffeine. But I was also incredibly grateful. Because both events, while wildly different, had been successful – YAY! – so my fatigue was well earned and well-rewarded with the satisfaction of having led both events to fruitful completion.
But I couldn’t have done any of it without the awesome team of co-directors, actors, and playwrights I was working with.
A few days after the festival closed, I got a Tweet from a playwright named Kendra Augustin (aka QuietGirlRiot) who told me that after reading about how I created my own festival for female playwrights, she had decided to do the same. How cool is that?! Another intrepid woman taking charge and making things happen?! I was stoked! She asked me for helpful producing advice, and I promised her a post as soon as I got caught on up sleeping and eating… and then I turned off my computer while I recovered… and then I turned my computer back on but had to spend all 0f my precious e-hours prepping for class this semester.
Well, I’m finally all caught up on sleep, thoughts, and class-prep (not true – I still have one more syllabus to polish, but I can do that this afternoon!), so I’m finally finishing my little love note to Kendra.
(Kendra, I hope this helps!)
The first time I donned my producer hat, I was a struggling actor wrangling a bunch of other struggling actors. We had decided we would take LA by storm and self-produce our own actor showcase. We hired a director, we picked our scenes, we locked in a location, and we plunked our money down.
And then I began to pull out my hair, ever so slowly, strand by strand, day by day, as these actors who had invested their own money into our venture cancelled rehearsals we had already paid for, failed to mail invitations, and generally made me question why I had agreed to manage any of it.
Even though the stress along the way was monumental, the showcase wound up going really well, but I walked away from the experience vowing to never again “produce” anything because HOLY HELL, the anxiety, stress, and frustration were unbearable!
Umm, fast forward a decade, and I’ve not only made producing somewhat of a habit, I actually march into an annual new play festival with a smile on my face.
So what changed?
Well… I did.
I became a playwright. I worked with some fantastic theater companies in LA as literary manager where I learned how to organize events, rally playwrights, and excite actors. I absorbed as much as I could from my experience at those companies – paying attention to how they operate, how they produce, how they make the magic happen… and my skill set expanded as a result.
Then I moved out of LA, to a town where there were tons of hungry and passionate actors and directors who were doing theater because they loved it. I started working up with a community theater that was excited to partner with me on the ONSTAGE Project. These two HUGE pieces of the puzzle are directly responsible for making ONSTAGE possible.
Because producing is a lot of work. You have not be passionate enough about your project that you can convince all the other necessary players to be passionate about your project – and sometimes that passion is the only thing you can pay your artists and co-conspirators with.
You have to be patient, because not everything is going to go well the first, second, or third time you don your producer’s hat. Hell, there’s probably going to be some kind of “major” SNAFU pissing you off at some point during every production. It’s only once you push past it, get free of it, and look at it in the rearview that you’ll be able to tell if it was really major or just super duper annoying. (And if it was major, that’s when you toast yourself and that rear-view mirror with a tasty adult beverage.)
You have to be creative. And I don’t just mean in an artistic sense, I mean in every sense. You are now a marketer, director, logician, box-office manager, actor-therapist, and playwright-liaison. Even if you have amazing partners handling some or (lucky you) most of these other areas, you will find yourself needing to make important decisions about each of these areas at some point or another – and creativity, patience (yes again) and ingenuity will be your friends.
You will need to manage the people helping you with respect and care. This is SO important that I’m going to say it again- treat the people helping you with respect and care. And appreciation! Appreciate the hell out of them – because without them, none of it would be possible. You’re only one person – these artists are the means by which the whole dream comes true. They are amazing – even when they are a pain in the ass Remember that sometimes you’re the pain in the ass in their books… smile a lot, laugh often, and make sure everyone knows how valuable they are to you. You can handle feeling the pinch – that’s you’re job now. You’re there to make their lives easier so that they walk away from your event feeling awesome and hungry to do it all again next time you get a crazy hair up your creative butt.
Make friends with local businesses and other arts companies. Sometimes our readings take place in galleries or bars because, hey, space is hard to find! Some of these events have been our most successful because the audience is getting a broader experience: new plays and art? Score! New plays and beer? Double score! Even if you have a reading space, is there a way to partner with other businesses to host a reception, or cross-promotion? Don’t underestimate the community these businesses have cultivated – their community might also be yours.
Don’t let obstacles overwhelm you. Try to tackle them with an entrepreneurial spirit. Sure, it’s hard and tiring and sometimes you will want to throw in the towel and drown your sorrows in a tall bottle of pinot noir… but put that problem-solving, pinot-noir-swilling playwright mind of yours to the task and ask it to help you create some real-world solutions! Ask your co-pinot-noir-swilling friends to help your tired, somewhat tipsy brain out when it gets stuck. Invite conversation, invite innovation, and never be afraid to think outside the lines (see what I did there?)
And at the end of the day, remember that theater is messy. Your first fest isn’t going to be perfect. Oh, who am I kidding… none of them will ever be “Perfect”. Perfection and theater are opposites. This is why theater is so vibrant, so intoxicating, so wonderously fullfilling (and frustrating!); it’s alive, just like us. And, just like us weird little humans, it’s a miracle it even exists! So when things get hiccup-ish (which they inevitably will do), accept that this is part of the process (and the ride).
Sometimes, all the craziness of producing still makes me want to pull out my hair. I’ve wrangled several new play fests other than ONSTAGE, and there’s always at least one day in the middle of things where I ask myself “What is wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this?!”
But then I see one of the plays I’ve been rooting for come to life in such an honest and moving way that all my anxiety melts away. Sometimes an actor comes up to me after a fest and thanks me for trusting them with a new play, and I am so rewarded to see how exhilarated they are to have been a part of our unique event. Or a playwright sends me a note with so much exuberant appreciation to all of our artists for bringing their play to life in so many cities, and I feel the deepest satisfaction and contentment in knowing that I was part of – in fact, the crazy person who made happen! – this happy playwriting moment.
So, Kendra (and all you other new or aspiring playwright-producers out there), I hope my soap-boxing is helpful for you. You are going to have so many adventures, and they won’t all be easy, but they will be rewarding. I hope your project goes beautifully, and that you are afforded the sweet, sweet satisfaction of success at the festival’s close! I hope that, like me, you walk away from the experience tired (because of course you will be) but grateful, thrilled by what you and your cohorts have accomplished, and with a skip in your step and a to-do list in your head as you begin planning for the next one.
More articles by Tiffany about self-producing and fests: