TO NOT BREAK THE BUDGET
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.