So You Think You Can Produce: Festival Edition

I’d like to step sideways from my last post to talk about something close to my mind and near to my heart at the moment, as The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival is midway through its performances.

Festivals are a great place to try out producing your work. That’s a big part of why they exist. My company got its start producing in festivals, and whether you’re aiming for the Fringe or for the New York Musical Theatre Festival (or its Chicago equivalent, hint hint nudge nudge), you can learn and get a lot out of participating in one.

There are tricks to making the most out of your festival experience, and I’d like to share some with you while I still have Festival Fever.

Read the Contract



I can see you rolling your eyes, but you’d be amazed at how often this step is neglected. Maybe I should reframe it as “Read the contract carefully.” In fact, I’d recommend that you re-read it at stages during the preparation process.

From personal experience I know that when you read it the first time, what’s going through your head is, “Of course, I will do whatever you want, thank you so much for accepting me!” And your takeaway is often, “I’m in a festival!”

But there’s more in that contract, believe you me. It doesn’t seem important now, but the day before tech, when you realize that they are not, in fact, providing you with chairs or a keyboard setup and you have no idea where to find those things and you haven’t budgeted for them, you’re going to wish you paid more attention.

Be sure to hold the festival to its side of the bargain as well. The contract is there to protect and help both of you.

Rehearse a Tight Show

A festival will often have a strict time limit for its participants. This is important, because the producers will have built in just enough time for you to set up, perform, and take down before the next group needs to be in there.

Again, it may seem obvious, but make sure that your show consistently fits within the time limit. If it doesn’t, you might need to cut it down a little bit. Believe me, that’s better than having the lights come up and the audience ordered out just before your rockabilly Macbeth fights surfer pop Macduff. Maybe you could take out a little bit of Motown Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Red Spot” number. Does she really need three choruses in a row? We get it, she’s feeling guilty.

A less obvious component to rehearse is your setup and takedown. Practice these like they are fight scenes or dances. Assign specific responsibilities and duties and choreograph it out. You don’t want anyone to be fumbling around with a folding table as the audience sits and waits for the show to start.

Attend the entire tech period granted to you. Seriously. With every member of your show. Make the most of that time.

Market Yourself

Like this, but with more info about your show.

Like this, but with info about your show.

The festival will almost certainly be doing some marketing, but spoiler alert: that’s going to be for the festival as a whole. In the end, you are responsible for getting people to see your specific show. Audience members will be looking for which shows they want to see, and you need to convince them that out of however many choices, your production is one they can’t miss.

To this end, create your own show postcards and posters. Get them up and about. Be active on Facebook and Twitter, and try to make connections with other people participating in the festival before it even starts. If you make friends with other shows, you can cross-promote—they might let you stand up after their show and announce the details of yours, if you allow them to do the same.

Attend as many pre-festival events as you can. If there’s a preview night, jump at the chance to participate. Mingle and talk with other participants, and be sure to hand them postcards so that they can remember the timings of your shows.

Once the festival has begun, plan to hang out in the area beyond the time you absolutely need to be there to perform. Go see other shows. Hand out postcards for your show to people lined up for other performances. Go to the opening night party or the festival headquarters. Chat up the people running the festival. You know that your show is worth their time, but they might not…yet.


An audience at the Orlando Fringe Festival. (Photo by Heather Hesington.)

An audience at the Orlando Fringe Festival. (Photo by Heather Hesington.)

At a festival, you have a chance to perform for people who don’t know you, who decided to stop by your venue because they were in the area and pumped for a full day or evening of theatre. That means that they are much more likely to be honest when talking about the show than your Aunt Poppy who’s just so glad that you seemed to be having fun up there.

Try to honestly gauge the reaction to your show. Are people laughing where they should, or do they seem appropriately moved? What are they murmuring to each other once the lights come back up? What are other groups saying? Have you gotten any feedback, either in survey form or from festival producers or just from hanging around and listening to what people are saying?

Take note of the reactions your show is getting. A layperson might not be correct in their diagnosis of what the show needs to do to improve, but they almost certainly have identified an area that does need improvement. Look at those aspects of the show when revising or bear them in mind for the next show you work on.

Enjoy It

A festival is a great chance to get your work out there and meet like-minded people without the stress of dealing with venues and crotchety patrons. Enjoy yourself!

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