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