So You Think You Can Produce, Part 1

As I mentioned in my first post, one of the greatest things about being a theatre professional in Chicago is that you can actually produce new work. There are enough reasonably-priced venues for even a small company (or group of individuals) to rent a space and put on a fully-realized production.

“That’s great!” I hear you say. “So…how do I do that?”

Good question, gentle reader. I’m currently in the midst of producing a festival, which is like a really large and complicated world-premiere. Let me give you some tips on how to start once you’ve decided you want to stage your musical.


Nobody wants to be the person who worries about the money (well, that’s not true, but few artists do), but you’re going to face up-front costs before you start to get ticket sales in, so you’re going to need some funds. Before you do anything else, you’ll need to figure out a budget.

Just take it from Liza and Joel.

Just take it from Liza and Joel.

Do a little research on how much the types of venues you are interested in cost per week. Remember that your first ticket receipts will come in from one to two weeks after opening, so you’ll need to be able to pay rent until then. You’ll probably want to budget at least a few hundred dollars each for lights, sound, costumes, and set, depending on how minimal your show is. Don’t forget rehearsal venue, unless you can find a place that will let you rehearse for free.

Finally, following the old adage that “it takes money to make money,” you’ll need to budget for marketing—posters, promoted social media placements, potentially print or online ads, whatever you think will best get the word out.

If this is your first project, consider setting up a Kickstarter or an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money, or see if anyone related to the project is willing to make an up-front investment. Be sure to get any agreements in writing. This part can be uncomfortable, but you’ll be glad you know just how much you have to spend.


Backstage at the Old Luxor Theatre in Rotterdam. Photo by Tammy Breigh Canavan.

Backstage at the Old Luxor Theatre in Rotterdam. Photo by Tammy Breigh Canavan.

Once you know how much you can afford, you need a venue, stat. Depending on venue costs and seating, you might want to adjust your budget estimates. As tempting as it is to think you’re going to sell out every night, try to be realistic and to err on the conservative side when it comes to estimating how many seats you’ll fill for each performance. It’s much better to be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed.

Reach out to the venue managers and ask for a walk-through of the space. This is a chance to start envisioning the logistics of your show. If you’re not a techie, bring one, or ask one what kind of questions to ask. You’ll want to know how many channels the sound board has, how many lights are in the air and whether they are included in the rental price, whether they have a proprietary ticketing system, and when you can get into the space for tech. Also, be sure to ask about payment schedules and whether there’s a security deposit. You don’t want to be caught short when a payment is due.

Review the contract carefully before signing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or for revisions if you think something isn’t right or fair. The contract will be your best friend if you get it right, but if you miss a loophole, you can find yourself in frustrating situations without any recourse.

Production Team

Who will sit at this table? (Pictured: the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.)

Who will sit at this table? (Pictured: the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.)St

Who will sit at this table? (Pictured: the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.)

Who will sit at this table? (Pictured: the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.)

Before you get actors and musicians, you need the people who will keep the operation moving smoothly. A director is probably the first person you want on your team, because the director will want insight into the rest of the hiring and casting. Post ads for a capable stage manager, ask through the grapevine, find one however you can—this person will save your life. Make sure in the interview process that you ask about challenges they’ve run into in other shows and how they solved them. Also, a pro tip—if they’ve never SM’d for a musical before, they might not be the right choice.

You want to get designers on board quickly too, so that they can start coming up with ideas and have enough time to adjust for feedback. You’ll need lighting, sound, scenic, and costume designers at least; maybe props and makeup as well. Specify when hiring whether or not the sound and lighting designers will also be expected to operate the equipment during the shows or if you’ll be hiring a separate sound and light op. Ideally you’ll be able to have a meeting between designers, SM, and director to make sure you’re all on the same page before casting.

I cannot recommend highly enough hiring a production manager. This is the person who will take care of logistics on a macro level, from working with the venue to making sure that tech is happening smoothly to ensuring that your front-of-house is accounted for. If you can only pay two people in your production, make it the stage manager and the production manager. You’ll thank yourself later.

Are you ready to get started?

Questions to ask before you move forward:

  • Do I have a budget and the money I need to get started before any ticket receipts come in?
  • Do I have a venue booked and favorable contract signed?
  • Do I have my production team assembled?
  • Do I have rehearsal space and do I know exactly when I can use it?
  • Do I know what I’m looking for at auditions? (Will they be reading sides or doing monologues? Singing a cappella or accompanied? Do I have an accompanist? Should they sing a full song or just a few bars? What kind of song? Where will auditions take place and for how long? How long do I want audition slots to be?)

Once you’ve answered all these questions, you’re ready to go into the audition process. And that’s a post for another time.

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