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How To Be an Effective Producer Getting Personal at New Dramatists

How To Be an Effective Producer

After a theatrical work is "conceived" and before it's "born," the producers are the people who gather the elements to put it all together—obtaining rights, finding backers, a creative team, spaces, getting the word out, or gathering the people who will carry out these many functions.

Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) put together a panel of people who have proven themselves successful in these different roles to share their knowledge of the nitty gritty of "Running the Show: What It Takes to Be an Effective Producer." The panel took place at the Dramatists Guild on Sept. 26 and was moderated by TRU President Bob Ost.

One of the first points stressed was that even though the common perception is that producers are "the money people"—and watching that bottom line and finding the money for there to be a bottom line are indeed among their key responsibilities—producers are the last to be paid. They often wind up not getting paid at all. The creative and technical teams, and a production's expenses, must be taken care of first. Needless to say, in this very chancy business, that makes all of the hard work involved even chancier.

So why do producers do what they do?

"I love theatre," says Daryl Roth, whose producing credits include "Three Tall Women," "Old Wicked Songs," "Defying Gravity," and "De La Guarda," among many others. "I just dove into my first project because I felt so excited about it. I've never been an actor, just an appreciative audience member," but she and her co-panelists all found that bringing a creative work to fruition is such a labor of love that the ups and downs are worth it.

The panel included: Victoria Maxwell, whose theatre credits (she has also produced films) include "Dinner with Friends," "Damn Yankees," and "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told"; Shari Upbin, producer of "One Mo' Time" and "Bojangles"; and Ludovica Villar-Hauser, who is not only the producer of "The Countess," but its director, a rare combination.

The first of the "nitty gritty" tasks Ost questioned them about was how they find the properties into which they choose to pour their energies and resources. Word of mouth is often pivotal. When somebody these producers respect recommends a play, they will look into it. That can mean reading a script, or traveling to regional theatres to see if a play taking shape outside of New York (where, it was stressed repeatedly, you'd better be in top form) can be developed for Broadway or Off-Broadway. In addition to regional theatre, the producers attend Fringe festivals, and always keep their ear to the ground for interesting projects.

But that's only the beginning. Roth stressed, "You need an attorney at your side." Rights are one of many legal issues. When it's possible, Roth commented, before embarking on legalistic procedures, "I'll ask the director if we need a given song in the play if it's hard to obtain. If the creative answer is 'yes,' we'll do whatever we can, but I want the creative input first."

She mentioned, and others agreed, that in the case of a new script, holding preliminary readings before approaching investors is a good idea. "I want to find out if it sounds as good as it reads."

Producers often hire general managers who, as Maxwell pointed out, can act somewhat like agents—making deals, such as working things out with a space's landlord, hiring the crew—freeing the producer to focus on the people skills, so to speak, of cultivating backers and working with the creative team. Maxwell prefers this approach.

Villar-Hauser's situation was different, since she herself was part of the creative team for "The Countess." "I was an actress in my early 20s, and waitressing, when I started producing and then directing," she laughs, recalling when she came to New York from London, where her career began. "It's a good thing I didn't know how impossible everything I set out to do was or I would never have done it."

As the panelists discussed the many "details" they must attend to, it was clear that a producer's work entwines both a creative and a business sensibility. They recommended the book, "From Options to Opening" by Donald Farber (Limelight Editions/Proscenium Press) as a standard guide for fledgling producers. The need to obtain money—a task Upbin laughingly described as "creative begging"—is a constant, and was clearly a top concern among those drawn to the discussion. TRU's goal is fostering networking among theatre professionals. The organization can be reached at (212) 714-7628.

As panelists and audience members shared their experiences, it became clear that grants rarely go far enough to finance a play.

Roth pointed out that recruiting potential investors entails getting them excited about a show's creative message or spirit. "I don't discuss money at backers' readings," she said. "Every one knows why we're there. We talk about the show. The financial details are sent out later."

Panelists stressed the importance of cultivating people with a known track record of supporting the arts, especially if they have an interest in the type of work at hand. "If someone tells me, 'I have to ask my accountant,' forget it," said Upbin. "No accountant would advise anyone to invest in a play. It has to be something the person wants to do."

Ost had success finding backers among business people who need a tax write-off and so are willing to take a chance. If the theatrical work makes money, great. If it doesn't, there's that write-off. Different types of plays (commercial vs. nonprofit) are subject to different legal regulations.

A key cost is the performing space. "You can't do anything in New York without a space," said Villa-Hauser. She eventually acquired her own, the Greenwich Street Theatre, where "The Countess" (now at the Lamb) originally showcased, and where she does most of her work. Owning a space freed her of that search and allowed her to do the research that mounting classical works, her specialty, entails. But her dual role as a creative team member is unusual. Assessing potential rental rates is an ongoing factor for the others.

Another major part of the job is hiring the creative team. The producers varied as to how much of a role to play in creative decisions, once the team is in place. Some become closely involved with casting. Maxwell says, "Let the creative team do its work." For the most part, one and all agreed. The producers did not think they should attend rehearsals.

With experience, producers learn how to spot people whose creative judgment they can trust and with whom they can discuss any issues that arise. Problems are, ideally, ironed out after workshopping the play. All agreed that process is a must. "People now expect a lot from Off-Broadway," noted Villar-Hauser. "Even showcases in New York must be excellent."

Maxwell agreed. "You have to be ready, ready, ready here." She mentioned the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Albany's Capital Repertory Theatre as prime places to try out a work just before bringing it to the Big Apple.

Ost noted the importance of marketing. "When the ads for 'Evita' were personalized to show the character, sales took off."

Many factors can go into whether something will "play." Maxwell recalled her effort to produce a film version of the play, "Jeffrey." "Los Angeles wasn't ready to accept a gay work then, especially one about AIDS, so the film floundered."

But times change. All of the panelists were women. Upbin, former president of the League of Professional Theatre Women, noted that most theatrical producers are men, but that when the panel "worked out this way" she suggested that TRU leave it as it was, because "this shows that enough women are producers that it's no longer unusual." Show business, like life, takes many turns. It's the producer's job to stay aware of all of these, to make impossible dreams come true.

Getting Personal at New Dramatists

It was an evening centered on the wit and wisdom of Edward Albee at New Dramatists' "Conversations with Playwrights 2000" series on Sept. 26.

Together with Australian playwright Justin Fleming and New Dramatist member playwrights Honour Kane and Kate Robin, the four member panel, as conscientiously moderated by Mary Gallagher, provided a packed room with some clear and compelling insights into the world of playwriting and theatre, together with some interesting personal asides as well.

Gallagher paid a fair amount of attention to each writer's history, and the writers were good enough to respond. Strikingly, all indicated that they came from backgrounds where they had been exposed to the theatre at a young age. And as with most every exchange during the two hours, it was Albee who provided the most memorable anecdote. Albee indicated that he had been taken to the Hippodrome when he was young to see Rodgers and Hart's musical extravaganza, "Jumbo." He then commented, wryly: "the show had two extraordinary things which were very much alike, an elephant and Jimmy Durante—it hooked me on theatre—especially the elephant."

All the writers also began working in theatre when they were rather young. Albee indicated that he "wrote a three-act sex farce at 12," and Robin "wrote a play when I was 10, about a girl rock band." Kane actually performed street theatre in her teenage years, "we created it ourselves, it was improvisational during the piece, we'd drive around on a truck and call people and then do the shows."

Technique was also a focus, the overriding concern being to rely on instinct and to be patient. The unpretentious, likeable Kane encouraged people to stay with projects, indicating that she had just finished a piece that began in 1984—"I was working on it the entire time." Albee indicated that the play "Attila the Hun" has been germinating within him for 30 years, joking that, "If I write the play, you will know I have run out of material." Kane also warned playwrights against "beating yourself up for not writing—it's just self-abuse." Albee did not seem overly concerned with self-discipline, merely saying that the "plays keep coming, about one every two years."

Albee also went out of his way to point out that he is careful to express the subconscious, warning would-be writers "not to get into the way of what the play is about." Robin also cautioned about excess thinking: "Every time I've had an idea of something to write about, it's a bad idea—I access characters through emotions." Kane thirded the motion, going so far as to say that writing a play "is very much like writing a string quartet." Albee added that he actually wanted to be a composer when he was 11 and "I became the next best thing—a playwright."

The group also got into a detailed exchange about the reasons for writing. Albee said, "We write because we want to change the world, and we write because we want them to act exactly the way they should." The panel all seemed to agree, with Kane adding that she writes because "I wake up in the middle of the night and characters are so loud they wake me up."

Gallagher, who did a terrific job of peppering the discussion with relevant questions when the proceedings ebbed, also got the playwrights going on how a person should write while also having a day job. Kane was very honest in answering that she works in publishing and that "it's a struggle while working 60-hour weeks." She added, "Every job I've had has fed my playwriting," mentioning work as a paralegal, and also at a foundation working on grant writing.

The most interesting exchange occurred when Robin and Albee got into a discussion of Jonathan Miller's production of O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." After Robin praised the unconventional production—where actors talked over each other as in "real" dialogue—Albee shot back a bullet: "Would you like a production of your play where people are talking on top of each other?" Robin, a bit stunned by the interchange, paused a bit, and then was able to say very articulately that, if her play had become a classic, she would be honored by an interpretation that "brought life" and made her play "something new and dangerous."

When the playwrights discussed their role models, some did not have to go beyond the panel. When asked for his hero, Fleming indicated Albee, saying, "Well, Edward's pretty good." And when the playwrights discussed their favorite pieces, Robin mentioned, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," saying, "It's one of the most violently truthful plays that I've encountered." Listening to this, Albee, ever the theatrical monarch, sat in his chair, thoroughly relaxed, a metal object in his right hand, no smile evident.

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