Like Broadway and Off-Broadway, producing a show Off-Off-Broadway has become a costly proposition in recent years. With the increase in theatre rents leading the way, each element of putting together a stage show is becoming more expensive, at least partly due to the state of the economy.
Back Stage interviewed independent producers, managing directors, and artistic directors to examine budgets for both Equity showcases (shows that utilize Actors' Equity Association talent under a special agreement with the union) and nonunion productions. By learning how these budgets are put together, novice producers can get an insider's view of what it takes to put a show up in the Off-Off-Broadway arena. But actors and other performers should also take note of these figures, since many careers are jump-started by self-produced showcases and one-person plays.
Options and Limits
If you're going to produce a show in New York and you're planning to go the Off-Off-Broadway route, you basically have two choices. One option is to cast your show with nonunion actors and present it without an Equity contract. The other option is to work with Equity and produce under a Showcase agreement (you can get all the details and application forms at www.actorsequity.org) so you can hire union performers at a reduced rate. Equity has a similar setup in Los Angeles called the 99-Seat Plan.
Along with the showcase application, you must also submit a breakdown of your budget and financial backing; proof that you've secured the rights to perform the play; proof that you have volunteer accident insurance; for an outdoor production, copies of permits approved by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation; and the producer's name and contact information, among other things. The Basic Showcase Code provides for up to 12 performances in four weeks (four additional performances are allowed, but each Equity member must be paid $10 per extra show). All Equity performers must be reimbursed for their travel expenses to and from rehearsals and performances.
Another consideration when it comes to deciding whether to produce under this code: Equity requires that productions charge no more than $15 per ticket. That will almost certainly have an impact on your box office income.
As president and co-founder of Theatre Resources Unlimited, a network of New York producing organizations, Bob Ost often sets up panel discussions about Off-Off-Broadway issues. One recurring topic is that of Equity contracts. Here are a few basic requirements that he suggests you keep in mind:
"Equity has a maximum budget that a producer can spend for a showcase. Currently it's $20,000, which was raised from $15,000. Another clause in any Equity contract is the producer is not supposed to pay any one person more than what the Equity actors are getting paid. There is also an Equity Reading Code available. Under that agreement, you just pay the performers' transportation costs. However, the only thing that Equity stipulates for a reading is you can't have sets, costumes, props, and the actors must hold scripts."
Though the budget for a one-shot Equity showcase cannot exceed $20,000, producers of nonunion shows have no limits and are constrained only by the amount of money they're able to raise (and willing to lose).
The range of Off-Off-Broadway budgets cited by those interviewed runs a wide gamut—from frugal to luxurious. Producer-director Debbie Williams reveals that her latest project, "Under My Apron," is being produced as an Equity showcase as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival with a budget of $2,416. Writer-performer Elisa DeCarlo's show "Cervix With a Smile" is a nonunion production costing about $5,500, but she admits that "it looks like it will go over budget, unfortunately." Cheryl King's upcoming nonunion project, "Not a Nice Girl," will cost $8,000, while Amy Coleman spent $15,000 on her recent Equity showcase.
Brad Fryman, co-producing artistic director of the Oberon Theatre Ensemble, says, "As part of a festival, with a number of productions sharing the same space every day, our set and lighting budgets for 'Feasting on Cardigans' are limited because of the constraints of time, space, and equipment. Plus, it's only a five-character piece, so I hope to keep the budget well under $10,000." Tony Sportiello's Algonquin Productions is the consulting producer for "The Chosen Wife," which had a budget of $15,000, and A. Scott Falk's upcoming showcase has a budget of $20,000.
Actor-producer Nora Armani's budget for the limited run of "On the Couch With Nora Armani" ranges from $5,000 to $10,000 "depending on advertising," she says, and for a longer run it will be $25,000–$50,000, "again depending on advertising." Maitely Weismann's most recent nonunion project tops them all, boasting a budget of approximately $80,000.
Money for this level of theatre can come from the producer himself or from donations. Weismann's and Williams' budgets were raised from personal and private sources, King had a private investor join him to create an LLC (limited liability company), and Sportiello had an individual investor who covered the entire budget. Falk says his capital comes from a combination of producers and investors with whom he's worked before and friends who can afford to support the production.
Armani's budget came through individual, business, and corporate sponsorships and donations, as well as by selling advertising space in the program. Coleman also employed various fundraising techniques, seeking out companies to place ads in the program and taking out a bank line of credit. Fryman notes that throughout the year his theatre company has fundraisers for the season and a board of directors who are becoming more and more involved in those endeavors: "We also receive grants, private donations, and matching funds. We graciously accept donations and we are a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, which enables donors to receive some tax benefits."
DeCarlo paid for her show out of her own pocket, although she has had help in the past: "I knew this show was coming up, so I saved for it. But last year a man who admired my work gave me $10,000 to do a backers' audition for a show we wanted to produce. However, something like that doesn't happen very often. I managed to do the backers' audition for about $7,000 and the [Midtown International Theatre Festival] production with the remaining money. That show, 'Toasted,' is now being optioned for Off-Broadway."
The budgets of most Off-Off-Broadway shows are composed of certain standard expenses, but often what varies is the percentage of a show's budget that each item requires. Here is how the numbers generally stack up:
The main items are 1) the rental of a theatre and rehearsal space; 2) publicity; 3) costumes, sets, and props; 4) compensation to performers, directors, musicians, and others; and 5) production costs.
Our panel cites theatre rental fees as the largest portion of their budgets by far. Falk notes that "given the strict limitations of the Showcase Code, after rent there is very little room left over for anything else." Williams agrees that for her, theatre and rehearsal space are the most costly items: "They each represent a little more than one-fourth of the budget, although there is usually no theatre rental fee if you produce through a festival."
Fryman agrees that renting space is the most expensive part of the venture and will usually account for a third to half of his budget: "We're on the Seasonal Tiered Showcase Code, which guarantees our Equity actors about 20 percent of our budget. I would like to say our administration gets the remaining 10 percent, but the reality is our administration has been working on a completely volunteer basis for eight years. This is something we're working on addressing to ensure Oberon's survival for the next 10 years."
Coleman estimates theatre rental as 60% of his total budget, King says 65%, and Sportiello states it can easily be 70%. He elaborates: "Theatre spaces range anywhere from $1,000 a week for smaller houses to $4,000 a week or more for larger, 99-seat houses in prime areas. Then there's rehearsal space, set costs, lighting/sound rental, props, costumes, insurance, Equity travel, script copying, programs, postcards, fliers, etc. Every showcase is different and the percentages are different. For example, the set for 'Waiting for Godot' could be $100, whereas the set for our production of 'The Chosen Wife' was $2,500."
Weismann's line sheet contains less money budgeted for space rental—about 30% of her total costs. She breaks down the other expenses as follows: press and marketing (22%); production staff salaries (10%); performer salaries (10%); insurance (2%); designs and materials, including set, lights, sound, costumes, props, and music (10%); front of house costs, including box office staff, house manager, and displays (1%); printing of posters, postcards, fliers, tickets, programs, auditions sides, and rehearsal scripts (5%); mailing costs, such as mailing list rentals, a bulk mail permit, and postage (5%); and contingency/miscellaneous costs (5%). She adds, "The percentage varies from show to show, and each estimated percentage is based on actual figures from my previous show."
DeCarlo, on the other hand, lists personnel and publicity fees as her two biggest expenses: "I would say between salaries and expenses, those two items represent about 60 percent or more of my budget. I hire a general manager, a stage manager, and a publicist. I used to do my own publicity, but it's worth every penny of the extra cost to hire a good press agent. You've got to get your show out there so people notice it; otherwise, you're just playing to your friends."
Armani also feels that the most important line items are publicity, marketing, and promotion: "These represent 40 percent of my budget normally. Most of the funds go for promotion and advertising and not so much on the actual production itself. Of course, everything is relative."
To Showcase or Not to Showcase
The talents profiled here have worked on many Off-Off-Broadway shows, a large portion of them produced under an Equity Showcase agreement. Fryman, for example, has worked on 36 Off-Off-Broadway plays and just about all of them were showcases. He says, "I think that this is very important, especially in New York City, where there are so many professional actors already making huge sacrifices. Although [Oberon] cannot offer huge paychecks for their services, we can offer them opportunities to play great characters in professional surroundings while staying in New York City."
Sportiello estimates the number of shows he has participated in to be in the "hundreds," while DeCarlo says she has worked on "too many to count." Weismann has worked on about a dozen Off-Off-Broadway plays in the past five years, and over half of them were Equity showcases. Coleman has been involved in at least 10 Equity showcases. Falk has done two Equity Mini-Contract shows, as most of his work has been in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. "This is my first showcase," he says.
According to the panel, the difference between a nonunion production and an Equity showcase usually comes down to the union budget cap. Weismann feels that Equity Showcase budget limits are very restrictive, but Armani counters, "Equity Showcase Codes have a few guidelines that need to be respected, which puts a restriction on what is possible and what is not. This is [to] the advantage of the actors and other personnel as well." Falk adds, "There is a definite advantage in being able to hire Equity actors and stage managers." "Mostly it's the insurance you have to pay, and the carfare for the actors," says DeCarlo. "There isn't a huge difference." Sportiello agrees that the main difference between union and nonunion budgets is travel reimbursements and insurance, both required by Equity.
It's common knowledge that, like everything else, theatre budgets have skyrocketed in recent years. Our panel speaks to why this has occurred and what can cause a budget to go over an initial estimate. Weismann points to the rising costs of real estate and advertising and the fight for limited free marketing opportunities as contributing to ballooning budgets: "Budgets also can easily go over the estimate when designs get too complicated, or the proper research is not done beforehand. It's usually a small error that can add up to a big problem."
Sportiello agrees, offering specific examples: "The biggest change has been the cost of theatre spaces. In the early '90s, you could rent the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row for a relatively decent price—maybe $1,600 a week. Now it's more than twice that. Most 99-seat theatres run over $3,000 a week, which makes it impossible to break even on showcases. But that's not what causes a budget to go over, because that's a fixed price. The designers are generally what make a budget go over. No matter how much you give them, they need more and, believe me, they'll spend it if you let them. Also, no one ever includes a load-in or strike as part of their budget, and so those items go ignored until it's too late. Many times designers are justified because producers tend to expect miracles on no money at all, but if you have a miscellaneous fund (and you should), this is generally where it will go."
Armani notes that publicity and promotional costs can also be underestimated: "Usually a play takes a long time to catch on. A show needs strong publicity and promotional backing. In order for a play to be given a chance, it needs survival time…as word of mouth is the best advertising in the end. But that means so much more rental money and so many more ads. It's a vicious cycle. One without the other does not exist, but the two together feed each other so much that the budget sometimes goes overboard."
Falk feels that another important element is increased expectations: "Creative teams want to do more and more impressive productions even at so simple a level as a showcase production, sometimes in order to get the press to take your production seriously. No one wants to put on a show that's seen as being worth 'only $15' —although that is the limit on what you can charge for a Showcase Code production. As far as exceeding a budget line, this is always a danger, but it's more treacherous on a showcase production, because Equity will not permit any cost overruns."
Budget makers do have several options when it comes to controlling rising production costs. For instance, Weismann is a fan of resource sharing when it's mutually beneficial to two companies or two shows: "Two shows can easily share one space if they have similar sets, or if they share über-creative designers. Then they can split the costs of space rental—maybe even rehearsal space if booked in bulk together—designer costs, and materials. In some cases, marketing can even be done together, which would save on printing and mailing costs, among other things. Perhaps box office staff can also be shared—and maybe some tech staff as well. It takes a lot of communication and advanced planning, but it can work if each show or production company respects the boundaries of the other. Also, this is assuming that the two companies complement one another in core areas, such as their mission statements and their level of professionalism. The scheduling kinks can always be worked out if you have two very professional parts that complement one another."
Coleman reminds, "Be realistic about costs from the beginning. Everything [will] cost more than you think it will. Make sure you concentrate on making the piece in and of itself as good as possible. Don't hope to fix it with impressive costumes, sets, etc. And small casts are always a good idea."
Falk says it is necessary to be ruthless in controlling costs when a showcase budget is tight: "We don't have the option of throwing more money at something, because Equity insists that the budget may not exceed $20,000. For every dollar that the set goes over budget, for example, it becomes necessary to cut that amount from another budgetary line item, such as advertising. Suddenly you have a wonderful production that you cannot afford to promote, and then where are you? The producer or general manager needs to keep strict control of all expenditures, and any items that are not preapproved cannot be reimbursed unless they fit within budget. In addition, the producer or GM needs to stay completely in the loop to make sure that the director, designers, prop shoppers, and so forth are all working within their budgets."
Sportiello warns, however, that sometimes producers can't control those costs: "Emergencies happen and that's part of the business. An actor can break a leg or get a job and a new one has to be brought in, which adds to the rehearsal time, redoing the postcards and fliers, perhaps a new costume, etc. Also, what you must do with designers is be very open with them up front. Tell them, "This is the money you have to spend. If you spend any more, it will come out of your pocket. If you can't do it for this [amount], that's fine; then let me find another designer."
Fryman concludes that when all else fails, go back to relying on the kindness of volunteers: "At Oberon, we are very fortunate to be surrounded by people who really believe in the medium and essentially volunteer their talents and energies to make the impossible possible. If not for some very dedicated members, we would not be in existence today."
As a self-producing writer and composer, Bob Ost has another option he wants to share with fellow producers who are looking to mount musical projects while keeping their budgets down: "My usual route is to develop a show in a cabaret venue. Normally all you have to spend to develop a show at a venue like Don't Tell Mama or the Duplex is approximately $75 for the room charge, which also covers your tech rehearsal. That's your total venue expense. If you plan to do a theatre run, I don't think you're going to find a theatre for much less than $150 per performance, and a nice theatre is probably going to be significantly more than that—I'd say $300 to $500 a show. So I develop projects in cabaret, and then the only expenses I normally have are a stipend for the performers and the fee for the music director. You can never get around the cost of a music director, who also functions as the piano player. You have to find a pianist who can also teach the music, though—it's too expensive otherwise."
Ost cautions that Equity also has requirements for cabaret productions that utilize its members: "Equity does have cabaret contracts, so that's something that interested producers need to look into. In most cases, your show is not going to have to perform through an Equity contract, and so you're free to use Equity or non-Equity people within a cabaret venue. But it has to be primarily a music-based show; when you start including scripts in cabaret, or when you have a certain amount of character development and dialogue happening on stage, Equity needs to be involved."
Ost is now writing, directing, and associate producing a show that is about to make the big leap: "The show that I'm currently working on is called 'A Musical Journey,' featuring the songs of Brel, Weill, and Aznavour. It's a one-woman show starring Vickie Phillips, and we're doing that for three performances in the Midtown International Theatre Festival, but it's been optioned for Off-Broadway. So the show went from something that's going to cost about $2,500 to do three performances in the festival to an Off-Broadway budget that we've estimated at $700,000. Once it hits the Off-Broadway level, I'm going to drop out of the producing part of it and let the new producer take over."
As the marketing director for the sixth annual Midtown International Theatre Festival (www.midtownfestival.org), Ost definitely has experience with festival shows. He relates that producers who are unable to raise the funds necessary to put on their own shows may want to submit to one of the many theatre festivals that take place in New York every year, from the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theatre Festival to the Summer Play Festival and the Spotlight On festivals.
"There are different ways of putting up a show," he explains. "Festivals are another area of development. How much does it cost to get produced in a festival? You can probably produce for slightly less money in a festival than you would if you were producing on your own, because your theatre costs tend to be less. However, you will probably get less revenue at the door, because you're usually sharing your box office with the festival. So it's a tough decision for a lot of people. You don't make as much money because you're splitting the box office, and in some cases you're giving your whole box office back to the festival organizers. On the bright side, you normally don't have to pay for insurance, because that cost is usually covered by the festival."