AFTER MORE THAN 30 YEARS of loving theatre, writing plays, studying the craft of playwriting and having my plays selected for readings and workshops; after years of submitting those plays to theatres large and small around the country (and England) and receiving many a glowing (albeit boilerplate) rejection; and after finaling at Sundance, fellowships, labs and a couple of prizes along the way, I decided, however foolhardy, to produce my own play.

“What—why—how—?” People asked. And not just people—friends; trusted allies in the slog through life. All good questions, but ones that ultimately only served to strengthen my resolve. As to why I felt compelled to do this, the reason that comes quickest to mind was: If I didn’t self-produce, then it wasn’t clear—despite all the aforementioned time and effort and minor success—that my work would ever see the light of day. Oh, yeah, it could happen; and I live in hope and engage in many forms of positive thinking. But in practical terms, it was looking more and more unlikely. And it became obvious that if I wanted to see my work onstage before I needed a walker, I was going to have to produce it myself.

My first play was produced and directed by Dorothy Lyman—an auspicious beginning 23 years ago. Then life intervened. I had a child, we moved a couple of times, the child had ambitions, which kept me away from pursuing my own goals. But with my son off to college, I found myself starting over. In starting over, however, where exactly does one start? It’s not that I’d ever stopped writing, but I’d dropped out of the game and most of the principal participants had changed in the interim. Dorothy closed her theatre twenty years ago (not my fault!) and moved to New York. I didn’t have any friends with theatre companies anymore and though I hung around a few before I jumped into this madness, no one was buyin’ what I was sellin’. So there was another reason I needed to do it myself.

Over the next few months, I’ll be writing about the journey of how I came to be brave (or silly) enough to self-produce my own play, Villa Thrilla, along with recounting the minefields, pitfalls, fears and yes, joys! that have occurred along the road to getting it on its feet in front of a (mostly) paying audience. I’ll give you the what, why, how and where, as well as all the angsty decisions about money, selecting a director, finding a co-producer (you didn’t think I was stupid or brave enough to do everything myself did you?), choosing a theatre, actors, the union, designers, publicity or lack of it, and bad reviews. My goal is not to scare anybody but to give other playwrights the confidence to produce their own work, to arm them with some information about how they might do that and the resilience to see it all through.



WHETHER YOU’RE AN ACTOR, director or playwright with a couple of scripts to choose from—select the play that is most likely to achieve your desired ends. Is it to get an agent? Is it to get good reviews, move your show to a larger venue or develop a Google presence? It’s worth considering before you leap forth with your 120 page, 20 character drama about torture in the Roman Empire.

Actress/Producer/Director Deidra Edwards was smart when she decided to self-produce, casting herself in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig. She was right for the role and she selected a play/playwright with a following. People came and the show, as well as Deidre, succeeded. It may not be as easy with an unknown playwright.

Once you decide to self-produce—unless you’re writing, performing, directing, doing your own costumes, lighting design, publicity, ticketing and set-construction, etc.—you’ll need other people. It’s actually one of the best things about putting on a show—the collaboration. So in choosing what to produce, consider the play that will attract a director, actors, co-producers, and designers. This is especially true if you are not part of a theatre company that comes with a built in support network.  So pick the play people want to be a part of that others will want to see.

My own goal in self-producing was to restart my career after I abandoned my early successes to raise a son. I also wanted to give myself something to think about instead of the empty nest. In retrospect, these goals weren’t enough and were driven more by emotion than any sort of business sense. Of the two plays I thought were ready, one was a four-character dramedy about an Apollo astronaut with Alzheimer’s Disease (but really, it’s funny!) and the other, a ten-character murder-mystery/farce called Villa Thrilla. Two very different shows that would speak to very different audiences. To help me decide, I consulted friends, fellow playwrights and others in the industry and it was generally agreed that without a known actor starring as the astronaut, the astronaut play would be the harder sell. It would be difficult to put an uplifting positive spin on the story so that people would come see an unknown, in a play by an unknown. So I went with the farce, which was beset with its own set of hurdles: a cast of ten and more expensive set, which in turn required a larger theatre, which would cost more.

Looking back, with the issues we faced, I wish I’d chosen the show with the smaller cast. And speaking of coin, the next two posts will be about getting the money together to pay for your show.



ONCE YOU CHOOSE THE PLAY to produce, there comes the question of paying for the production. Where do you get the money? Do you bankrupt yourself like Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman? It worked for him, though I wouldn’t advise it.  From going into debt, to stolen money to crowdfunding, there are several ways to make your show happen.

My first thought was to ally myself with a theatre company because doing so would help spread out the risk, the costs and the workload. Theatre companies often join forces to co-produce with individuals and other theatre companies. They need shows to fill their theatres and plays in which their members can perform. It’s a win-win. But of course it depends on the company and the productions. And there’s always a trade off. You may need to cast the company’s members in your show, which may not be in your play’s best interest. Neither you nor the company will get everything you want but when it works, it works great.

In the early days of Villa Thrilla, I had a theatre company interested in a co-production. We spent months trying to agree on the details: How many company members would I need to cast? Who will be responsible for what portions of the budget? Who would direct? Sadly, we couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds on much of anything and we parted company. I didn’t want to hand off a lot of important decisions to someone else whose opinions, though valid, were so divergent from my own. Unfortunately, this decision came late in the day, leaving me with a rented theatre space and not a lot of time to put the rest of the elements of the production together. I worried whether I’d made the right decision in parting ways and I almost bailed on the project out of fear I couldn’t pull it off on my own. Ultimately, though, I forged ahead, somewhat blindly.

If offered a co-production, explore it. Because doing all the work yourself requires not more money, more time and lots more effort, some of which in retrospect, I’d like to have back. But if you go this route, make sure before you get going that both you and the company share a vision for the show and that you are clear about what elements you and they will each be responsible for. And write it down! This is a contract and best not left to a verbal understanding.

If you either don’t have or prefer not to work with a company then you’ll need to come up with the money on your own–from finding an outside financial backer like a rich uncle or through donations and crowd funding, which will be the subject of the next post.



When I lost the theatre company as a potential co-producing partner, it fell to me to raise the money for my play. And as I faced that daunting prospect, I again turned to people who’d self-produced before me. Some had trust funds or wealthy spouses—I didn’t; some were ex-TV writers with big bank accounts—ditto; an actuary friend financed his show by calculating life expectancies—who knew? Most, however, used some combination of their own money, loans and crowdfunding.

Eight to ten months from opening, my plan was to sell my house (Don't worry, Suzi Orman, I wanted to downsize anyway) and use some of the profit to pay for the show while also creating a Kickstarter campaign in the hope that my friends would give me $20-50 each to raise $15,000.  I reasoned that whenever I get hit up, I give at least that. But as things turned out, by the time I parted ways with the company, it was too late to put together (what I thought would be) a quality campaign, considering all the producing and rewriting I was doing.

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on crowdfunding: You can be successful but it’s no longer a new idea and may have lost much of its appeal to donors. If you’re going to do it, you need to develop your campaign so it attracts investors you don’t know as well as those you do. Running a crowdfunding campaign is like having another project instead of being an easy means to an end. It takes a lot of time. You need compelling photos, text that “grabs the reader”, video and enticing giveaways for donors to participate. Then you need to publicize the crap out of it, while continually adding updates. You need to get people excited about being part of your project enough to give you money and forward the links to their contacts--all with the hope of going large with your fundraising.

There are now hundreds of crowdfunding sites so start by sifting through them to see if there’s a perfect fit for your project. I won’t list all the possibilities; just Google “great crowdfunding sites” and you’ll find them. Regardless of how many options there are, however, most people end up on KickstarterIndie-Go-Go or Hatchfund. There are differences so read the fine print and do the cost-benefit analysis. For example, Hatchfund likes to say the artist keeps the entire donation but they add a fee to what the donor wants to give, which they don’t see until they “check out”. To me this feels like a trick. It’s not cool if your friend intended his total give to be $20 and now he has to do some math in order to keep it there. Kickstarter and Hatchfund require you to make your entire stated amount before they release funds while Indie-Go-Go lets you keep what’s been donated even if you don’t make your nut (even though they’ll take a larger fee for your right to do so).

Depending on how much money you need, it might be better to go to a few well-heeled individuals you know and say, “Hey, I’m trying to raise money for my show. Could you possibly give me $500 and I’ll give you 4 tickets and passes to the opening night party?”

In my case I should probably have anticipated that things might not work out with the theatre company and developed the campaign ahead of time. I also should have found a hungry, young aspiring theatre producer early on who might have been able to take over some of the production duties, freeing up some time for the crowdfunding campaign. In the end, it was the house sale that came through. When something is not likely to make its money back, one should always risk other peoples’ money but I didn’t have that privilege and I’d grown tired of waiting for my mystery benefactor to appear. And seriously, at my age (55) and a woman--? The chances of that happening were about as likely as being offered the casting couch. There aren’t many “emerging” playwrights my age, unless you want to define “emerging” as people nobody knows finally getting a production. So, like the lioness Theresa Rebeck and many others before me, I needed to be my biggest fan and self-produce my own work. Put your money where your mouth is.

Next up: Your Budget and Trying Not to Break it



There’s a basic rule in budgeting—at least for Equity Waiver theatre in Los Angeles where I live and work: A third of your budget buys your set, a third goes to theatre rental and a third to everything else. Presumably if you are paying market rates and you figure out what a third of the troika will cost, you’ll know how much money you’ll need for your show. Of course if a theatre tells you that you can use their space for $500 and a cut of ticket sales, throw out the rule.

I started with a vague idea that my show would cost about $35,000. Where did I get that number? From asking other self-producing playwrights what they spent. Everyone I asked said $30-$40,000. Damn, that’s alot, I thought. But it seemed to be another rule. These same playwrights were also very generous about showing me their physical budgets, which helped me prepare for the little details like Dry Cleaning and Bulb Replacement, which I never would have thought to include. Having it all in print, also showed me who I needed to hire and how much it would cost. I didn’t know, for example, that lighting designers, who often quote their fee in the neighborhood of $1500 to “design,” don’t usually hang their own lights. Who knew I’d need to hire another person? My friends did.

Clearly, LA is only one market but wherever you are, you can start to get an idea of what specific line items will cost by asking people who’ve gone before you. Theatre people are usually generous with their time unless they’re in the midst of producing themselves. You can also get alot of information online. Get hold of a sample theatre budget that shows the specific line items. Then search in your area. (e.g., “Costume Designer, Baltimore.”) Call people and ask for a resume and what they charge; take meetings. Another way to go is the names of “play consultants” in the back of The Dramatists Guild Magazine. But get their credentials and make sure they know what you need to find out before hiring them. It might turn out they only know about producing plays in Cincinnati.

Once you have allocated the money you have to spend across your anticipated costs (all those line items filled in with dollar amounts) you can start your hires. There aren’t many people who will work for nothing and you do get what you pay for. But everything’s a negotiation and as you begin to talk and meet with designers, contractors, etc., do ask if they’ll take less. Maybe you’ll catch them when they aren’t busy and they’ll accept a lower rate. Maybe your show is so interesting and you have an awesome cast lined up that will make people want to be involved. Or perhaps you can pull in a favor. But no matter what—write things down! Write down the duties and fees you’ve agreed upon. Eric Rudnick, who produced his own Day Traders, to great acclaim, said his biggest budgetary mistake was the one he didn’t get a quote for. He never pinned down one of his key designers and the budget ballooned. And don’t pay anybody everything up front. Put that in writing too.

If you’re working with union people (Actors Equity, Union of Stage Directors) there are contractual amounts and schedules you’ll need to adhere to—all very obtainable info online or by calling the union in question. But make sure you budget for this if you want union people.

And as a budget should reflect what might come into your bank as well as what leaves, I’m linking to a piece by Steve Apostolina, an LA based actor/writer/ director/ producer. It originally appeared as a Facebook post in response to the threat to LA’s 99-Seat plan. It addresses budgets and the expectations of all involved in the intimate theatre scene and will go a long way toward helping self-producers understand what to expect. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1507815836104686/permalink/1613642405522028/ 

The last “rule” I’ll mention, which also, funnily enough, applies to building a house: Things always cost more than you think and take longer to complete. So prepare, get things in writing and give yourself the time to satisfy those line items before crunch time. The good news is, no matter how many things might go wrong on your road to getting your play onstage, the miracle of theatre is the show comes together just when you need it to.

The next installment: Choosing your venue.



Where you put your play up is important. On the other hand, if you can get a great review by the mainstream press of your no-name-cast, experimental, comic melodrama having its run in an abandoned missile silo in Sylmar--light years from where most of your audience lives--sure, you might get people to make the drive and location is less important than I claim. Sylmar does have a lot of free parking. But I digress…sort of.

The sheer act of putting on a play is not going to put butts in seats—at least not for any sort of extended run beyond which your friends refuse to drive 60 miles in 2nd gear traffic to see it again—no matter how great the reviews. Yet to many a playwright/producer, choosing where her play gets put up is no more difficult than selecting a brand of toilet paper. She thinks all she has to do is get her show on a stage--any stage--and people will come. Maybe. But she might also want to think about what she’s asking people to endure in physically getting there. 

I went searching for a theatre for Villa Thrilla the way a mother-of-the-bride might choose a wedding venue. I wanted lots of free, safe and easy parking, I wanted clean bathrooms and separate dressing rooms for men and women. I wanted the theatre to be close to freeways and easy to get to, increasing the chance people would come. Pretty simple criteria, right? Wrong. You cannot believe all the tiny, uncomfortable (for both cast and audience), rentable spaces there are in LA located in areas you wouldn’t want to walk at three in the afternoon, let alone 10pm! And you will be walking because there’s no parking. When I go see a show, I don’t want part of my theatre experience to include hoping somebody will pull away from the curb within five blocks of the theatre. Unfortunately in LA, mass transit is difficult at best so the reality is people drive and need to put their cars somewhere while they see your show. You may think I’m being overly picky but I’m not alone. Part of the reason Elin Hampton selected the Greenway Arts Theatre for her Bells of West 87th was because there’s a dedicated parking lot and good bathrooms!

And there are other things to consider:

How large a playing area do you need? For Villa Thrilla, we wanted a stage with height and breadth to create the illusion of a grand, 2-story house.

Can you rehearse in your performance space? For actors, being able to rehearse on the stage on which they’ll be performing is a treat. They have a chance to get used to it. It’s good for designers as well and usually means the set doesn’t need to go up in a matter of days. But this is a luxury and can increase the budget substantially. I do recommend trying to load in at least 10 days prior to opening so everyone can get used to the space.

Will you be sharing the theatre with others either during the day/evening when you’re not using it?

This isn’t a huge deal but it can present scheduling headaches if the space is booked solid with classes, meetings and the like and you need more rehearsal than you bargained for. Try to negotiate to “own” the space 10 days prior to opening for whatever might come up.

How big do you want your “house”? Obviously, theatres with fewer seats are easier to fill. In fact I’m convinced one theatre company in town creates madness around its shows because there are only 29 seats. They always get to say “Sold Out!” Yes you’ll bring in less money but better to sell all of those 29 seats than sell only 29 seats in a 99-seat house.

As you start thinking about where to do your play, draw up a priority list of what is most important to you, while at the same time considering your prospective audience. There will be tradeoffs—easy parking vs. lousy bathrooms; getting to rehearse in the space vs. far from your hoped-for audience. Thinking through what you want will help focus your search and decide what’s most critical for you. Start by approaching theatres and theatre companies you like and ask them if they rent space. Many do. Getting the choice 6-week slots will be costly ($1500-$2500/week) but sometimes you can get a deal for a weekend or two, sandwiched between larger productions. I’ve known ambitious playwrights for whom this scenario has worked well. They have been able to generate buzz over a short run and use it to move their shows to bigger, better theatres.

Often, when a show is successful, where it’s being performed truly doesn’t matter. “They” will come. But, if it’s important to you, why not choose a venue that will give your show the best chance of becoming successful with the resources you have? Don’t be afraid to negotiate for the deals you want. Life is a negotiation and you’re an artist. Negotiate creatively.

Next Week: Choosing your Director



When a playwright finds her ideal director, she finds the person who doesn’t just “get” her play but has a vision of where the play could go beyond what the playwright imagined, someone who will interpret the script and add something to it. That’s my take. Some playwrights, however, simply want a director to follow their script, without changing or embellishing—someone who won’t get too “creative.”

This is where having some self-awareness is vital. Are you the type who wants a say in every aspect of getting your play to the stage? If so, consider directing the play yourself. Alan Ayckbourn, the English playwright, built a theatre so he could direct his own plays. Maybe he’s a control freak or maybe he simply enjoys directing his own work. Some say he does a fine job directing his plays but more than a few directors I know (of course they’re directors) say other people direct Ayckbourn better than Ayckbourn directs Ayckbourn. The point is, you can save yourself some angst if you know how much you’re willing to let go before you hire someone. Granted, this is determined, to large extent, on whom you get to direct your play and how much you are able to trust them with your creation. If someone with the reputation of a Dan Sullivan or Emma Rice wants to direct your play, it might be easier to hand off artistic control but how many of us in low-budget theatre can afford them? (That is if they’d even deign to read our plays.)

There’s nothing to be lost by trying for your ideal choice of director but the simple challenge for most of us is finding a director you can work with, who you can trust, who’s available, whose work you respect, whom you can also afford.

Start your search by seeing a lot of plays produced in your geographic region, particularly those that are a genre similar to your play. If you have money to bring someone in from outside that’s fine but see their work, talk to other playwrights and actors about the reputations of prospective directors and filter those opinions based on reviews, genre of play and budget. Once you’ve found some prospects, contact them and ask if you can send your play. If the prospects act like they don’t have time for you, they’re probably not a good fit.

Another place to look for a director is at local universities offering a MFA in Directing or Performance Arts. A recent graduate might be thrilled at the opportunity to direct a new play and you might find a wunderkind.

Once a few directors have read your play, meet with each of them and find out what their work process is. Some don’t want the playwright around. Some, like the director of Villa Thrilla, wanted me at every rehearsal. At a talk back with Jonathan Tolins, the author of Buyer & Cellar, I asked him this very question. He said he sits in on rehearsals for the first week, during read-throughs and character work to answer any questions and then he goes away unless the actors or someone else on the production has a problem he needs to solve. He says the director and actors need time to bitch and moan about the play without fear of offending the writer. Also, not being at all the rehearsals gives him time to write something new (not a small thing for a writer).

You should also discuss the budgets and ideas for Set Design, Costume, Lighting and Sound with your prospective directors. Often they will have people they’ve worked with in the past and sometimes they are able to get key designers to lower their rates. Beware the director who gets big ideas about expensive things your show needs after you’re already in rehearsal. Ideally you can avoid this by talking things through ahead of time and by finding out a director’s reputation prior to hiring him or her.

What you pay a director is a negotiation like any other and the pay range can be anywhere from $500 to $4000 depending on the schedule and how much work is expected. Some directors are members of the SDC (union) so their rates are set. In other cases, you might negotiate a profit-sharing arrangement, with playwright and director sharing a piece of the show’s future success. If you decide to do this, I’d advise building a buy-out fee into the contract, should it turn out the partnership doesn’t work out.

In closing this post, find the director who is keen on directing your play whose personality and vision for your show meshes with yours. Putting on a play is a collaboration and sort of like a short-term marriage. Spend time researching and choosing your partner and you should have a great working experience.

Next: Finding (and keeping) your actors



When you’re preparing the perfect meal, you need quality ingredients to make it turn out the way you want, right? Same thing with a play. Without actors who can bring your words to life, you’re going to get a soufflé that won’t rise or gnocchi that won’t gnock anyone’s socks off. But where do you find these people? If you’re producing your one-woman show for your best friend to star in, you’re set. If you’re using the member actors of the theatre company you’ve partnered with, ditto. If you’re intimately familiar with the theatre scene where you live and know all the actors personally, you may be able to cast your show just by calling them.

But if you don’t have access to your needed actors, then hiring a casting director is the way to go. A casting director can legitimize your production, not only with actors but with agents who will then be more likely to encourage their actors to audition. A casting director will also provide a range of choices you might never have considered and provide access to actors with specific skills (e.g., French speakers who can juggle fire), whom you might have limited knowledge of.  A good casting director will also organize your open call (should you have one), post a breakdown, as well as run the auditions, call-backs and deal with agents—should there be any. A casting director will determine an actor’s availability and will often know whether a given actor is a team player or a diva who might make getting your play up and running—a process that should be fun—an ordeal.

Initially, I hoped to partner with a theatre company and our deal was that five of the ten actors needed for Villa Thrilla would be members. It seemed a fair trade-off for what the company would be bringing to the production—reputation and cash. We agreed we’d network among our contacts to find the other five actors. But as mentioned in an earlier post, “artistic differences” put a kibosh on the co-production and so when we parted, I was in a time crunch and needed help.

Even though I knew a lot of actors and considered myself knowledgeable about the casting process—I’d auditioned and been hired (as well as not hired) enough times to pick up a few things. I figured I’d just call my friends, my Facebook friends and acquaintances and ask them if they wanted to be in the show. But three things soon became apparent: (1) I knew far fewer people who were right for the roles than I thought, (2) most of the people I thought could do it were unavailable and (3) casting the play was a big job that I was ill-equipped to do. So I looked at several playbills for local shows and there were a few casting directors whose names appeared over and over. One of them was Raul Staggs. Raul had cast me in a new play a couple of years before and he was very good. He was personable, professional and I knew he knew the Equity Waiver scene in Los Angeles as well as anyone. So I called him up, we talked, settled on a fee (CDs can charge anywhere from a few hundred to $3000 for an Equity Waiver show, depending…) and that was that.

Raul was wonderful to work with. He was very well organized and did all the heavy lifting. All the director and I had to do was show up to the auditions and make choices, which was hard enough. Raul was the necessary buffer between us, and the many actors we saw, keeping things moving and on schedule. And, as hoped, having Raul on board increased our credibility factor. Actors and agents know him and his reputation so having his name on the project made actors and agents more open to submitting. This was vital-- especially with respect to those actors who were hard-to-find. We needed to cast a wide net beyond our circles, to find them.

One pretty cool thing happened during casting, which requires a little backstory: Early in my TV career (or late, given what didn’t occur after), I worked with Doris Roberts in the waning days of Remington Steele. On that show, we had a fight over an urn. “Back off Blondie,” she told me. “That’s MY urn!” Doris got her urn and I went to jail. But when I first began writing Villa Thrilla and created the role of Camilla, the toilet bowl heiress, whose voice is heard in the play, it was Doris’ voice I heard in my head. Other actresses had read the role as the play was being written, but I couldn’t move forward with casting anyone else until Doris had said “No.” Through our publicist, Lucy Pollak, I contacted Doris’ managers. Then I wrote Doris a letter and was floored when she said she would be the voice of Camilla. She’d always been a fan of small theatre and wanted to help. Raul was the one who encouraged me to ask her, proving you never know until you ask.

This has some bearing on celebrities generally. We’ve all heard about how TV networks, web series, video game producers are all vying for “eyeballs.” Theatre in LA is no different, though we use “butts in seats” as our goal. On Villa Thrilla’s opening weekend, as many as twelve other shows opened in L.A., and we did not get one of the more influential critics to the show. Of course we were hoping for a good review from a good outlet so we could promote the show using stellar quotes. We got a few stellar quotes, but not from the main news source that mattered—the LA Times.

Having a known entity—read celebrity—in your show elevates the chances of getting not only critics to see your show, but paying audience members’ butts in those seats. So note to self: Next time, hire someone in the cast who people will come out for. As Tim Wright, Artistic Director of Circle X Theatre and Producer of the hit, Trevor, told me, “Get Laurie Metcalf in your show and everything else pretty much falls into place.”

Next Post: Choosing Your Design Team