Back in 1996, I had a brand new solo show, and I wanted to produce it, so I went on a search for a good venue. I found many of the NYC black box spaces to be too expensive, too dirty, or too poorly managed. I eventually found one (now out of business) and did my first solo show. A few years later, I created my own performing space, Stage Left Studio. I have never regretted creating the space. I love having somewhere to put up my work, and to perform. I often rent my space to others, or enter into coproduction agreements, and most of the time those transactions occur without a hitch. However, there are occasional issues that crop up, and today I’d like to share with you my top 10 guidelines for dealing with those issues. Most can be addressed before you ever make that first call to the venue. The rest of them can usually be dealt with by putting yourself in the position of the venue manager, and imagining how you would want them to be handled.
Here, then, are my 10 guidelines for self-producing, and for dealing with theatre management.
- Know what you want before you contact the venue manager. Make a list of what you need, questions you need answered. It’s bad form to call or email repeatedly to get more details. And make a note of the answers you get, so that you don’t ask the same questions over and over.
- READ the contract. Every word. Sign it. And abide by it.
- Most contracts require a deposit to hold the date, and they usually offer a time limit within within which you can cancel and not be obligated to pay the rest of the fee. Sometimes you can get a refund of your deposit if you have to cancel, but it’s not typical. So know that if you pay a deposit, you are not likely to get it back, regardless of why you had to cancel.
- Be sure you can pay for the ENTIRE cost of the booking before you sign on the dotted line. Ticket sales are not guaranteed. Anything can happen. I opened my first show the very day the Iraq war started. I recouped less than 1/3 of my $6000 investment. I know another person whose show opened on Sept 11, 2001. He did not sell one ticket. If you cannot cover the tab without ticket sales, you are not ready to sign a contract.
- Have your support staff lined up BEFORE you commit to the booking. You need a director to do a show. There is no way you can be the one on the stage, and the eyes in the house, at the same time. If you already did the show, you can often manage with a friend who can sit in the house and give you feedback. Likewise, if you need a sound/light board operator, you need to know if they can work on the nights you are booking, BEFORE you book those nights.
- Don’t request a contract that requires a deposit if you don’t have the funds to pay the deposit. A good business manager who sends you a contract will expect to receive it, signed and with a deposit check, within five business days. Business owners have lots of expenses and they have to make their payments on time. They expect you to do the same. There are occasions, of course, where you can get a few days’ grace on a payment, but you have to ask for it. As in most situations in life, don’t assume.
- If the venue says they have no storage space, don’t ask them to store your things. And pick up your things when you leave. Venue managers are not responsible for the things you or your actors leave behind. And be sensitive to the amount of trash you generate. If it’s a lot, take it with you when you go.
- Know how long your show is and depart the space at the time stated in your contract. Time in a performance venue is money. If you booked the space until 9:30, that means that by 9:31, the space has been vacated.
- Most venue managers will give you an orientation in the space and on the equipment. Be sure you share that information with your staff (box office, stage manager, board operator), or have them be present at the orientation. It is not the venue manager’s job to do this orientation more than once.
- Do NOT move lights re-focus lights, re-gel lights, undo extension cords, borrow props or decorative objects or otherwise mess around with things without asking permission first. It’s rude and you never know how your actions are going to affect the other people who are using the space.
Most of these guidelines are basic common sense or common courtesy, but anyone who works with the public knows that the Golden rule is often broken and common courtesies often ignored. We professional theatre makers—producers, actors, venue managers, techies, directors, designers and writers—can make it a point to always treat each other with professional courtesy, and make this business much more satisfying.