Self-Producing for Theatre

Andy McGinn (L.), the superb director of ‘Visiting Cezanne’, with its author (Juliann Itter photo)

What do you do once you’ve written a play? How do you move it toward production? Dramatists posed those questions to renowned playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Doubt) during a visit to Seattle four years ago. “Don’t wait for someone to produce it. Go put it up on its feet. Self-produce,” was his immediate reply. That’s what he and writers he hung out with did earlier in their careers. “The only way you know what you have written is to see it brought to life on stage,” he said.

At that meeting I and fellow playwright John C. Davenport were paying attention. It occurred to me that Shanley’s exhortation was a real-life assertion of a foundational principle of scriptwriting: your protagonist must have agency. Stated in the negative, a passive protagonist is a big no-no. A sure way to put an audience to sleep is for your main character to be more acted upon than acting. Agency, so essential to our scripts, may be equally vital to a playwright’s career.

John and I opted for agency. Within two years of hearing Shanley’s advice we had launched Red Rover Theatre Company for the express purpose of staging our own work. Last weekend our third production concluded with a successful run of my new play Visiting Cezanne. Half the performances were sold out in our cozy 50-seat Seattle theatre.

Shanley erased one reservation I had about self-producing – the hubris factor, as in vanity publishing where an author pays to have their book published because no respectable publisher will touch it. (With e-books in our digital age the taint of vanity publishing has largely vanished anyway.) Red Rover’s experience has been that not only has no one looked down their nose at our self-producing enterprise, the respect with which the theatre community views us has grown substantially.

One advantage John and I enjoy is being in Seattle with its thriving theatre community that spills over with way more actors, designers and directors than can be hired by the half-dozen A-list professional theatre companies in the area. All these other theatre artists are in the same obscure pickle as the playwrights – a passion to practice their art with too few opportunities to do so.

A recent profile of highly regarded though little known Australian novelist Gerald Murnane in the New York Times Magazine reminded me of the value of a vibrant theatre ecosystem. Murnane chooses to live in Goroke, an outpost having 200 residents and the feel of “an evacuation nearly complete.” Murnane may be little known for his fiction but he would be downright invisible as a playwright. You can pull off fiction or poetry in isolation but theatre is a collaborative art form. You need access to other theatre artists.

Now that Red Rover has been up and at ‘em for two years I can say without reservation that, outside of writing scripts in the first place, staging my work is the smartest thing I’ve ever done in the theatre. There is so much more to making theatre than putting in time at the solitary desk. Immersion in the full production process – working with a director, designers, actors, and production people – provides an education attainable no other way. A huge reward is witnessing other artists mine your play for riches you didn’t even know were there. There is so much the process teaches you about writing and theatre that you’re not even aware at the time of all you’re absorbing. A bigtime benefit is you become a better writer faster.

For most of us a big impediment to self-producing is money. All I can say is beg, borrow and – well, let’s forget the third option. A theater must be rented, a set must be built, fellow artists, who, let’s not forget, are professionals and should be paid, however modest fees might be. Were a full accounting of compensation done for the theatre world, I am afraid that 95% of us would be found to earn somewhere between five and ten cents an hour. Lest we feel sorry for ourselves, I doubt compensation is any better in the fields of music, literature or visual arts.

I can offer another useful perspective when fretting about money. Tuition in an M.F.A. program at the University of Washington currently runs about $15,000 a year. I would hazard that a writer will learn more by taking one script on the full journey from page to stage than by attending a year of grad school. And a play can certainly be produced for a lot less than $15,000 in Seattle at the fringe level (our equivalent of off-off-Broadway).

Self-producing requires more than money, including:

● Foremost, a strong script. Writers should work with a dramaturg (directors often make good dramaturgs) or a writers’ group and have a reading – several if possible, after subsequent rewrites – to make sure the script is worthy of production. Be honest with yourself and be open to criticism. If the script is not ready, keep polishing or go write another script instead of spending thousands of dollars to produce something substandard. I wrote at least 15 drafts of Visiting Cezanne. After getting feedback on the first draft three years ago, I scrapped it and started over on page one.

● Tolerance for humiliation. It’s really, really hard to write a good play and you’re climbing a mountain to produce it. Theatre is public. Opportunities for imperfection or failure litter the path every step of the way. At one night’s performance of a fringe production I attended last fall, only one other person was in the audience. Ouch. The show went on. (Actors are such brave and giving souls.)

● Assistance in various forms from your local theatre community. You’re more likely to receive such assistance if you’ve offered a hand yourself. Seek opportunities to volunteer on other fringe productions around town. Productions can often use extra hands, just as yours will. Tasks as simple as taking tickets need doing.

● Organizational, marketing and money management skills. If you’re a bumbler or inexperienced in these areas, find collaborators who can fill in. For example, being an idiot at social media, I recruited someone savvy about it. Just because you’re producing a play doesn’t mean anyone will come. Don’t expect hordes of strangers to show up; most attendees at fringe theatre are people who personally know you or others working on your project. You’ve got to beat the drum.

I have found the most valuable benefit from self-producing to be empowerment. Submitting scripts and waiting for a response (often silence, sometimes rejection, the rare acceptance for development) is largely a passive exercise. Passivity combined with being ignored or rejected can over time generate feelings of grievance and victimization. Those are unhealthy feelings that can pollute one’s writing. This has been the case with me anyway. Self-producing has extinguished feelings of grievance and victimization and in their place instilled greater confidence in my work. My newest play (now early in the first draft) and my future scripts are the beneficiaries. I can’t explain how self-producing has increased my confidence or how more confidence deepens my scripts, but I am convinced that is happening. I wouldn’t try to begin putting a price on that.

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