Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Self-Producing: A Case Study

When’s the last time you saw the phrase “all remaining performances are completely sold out”? It’s everyone’s dream but how often is it a reality? A few weeks ago, I was among those that got to see a performance in the sold-out run of Becoming Julia Morgan at the Berkeley City Club (it closed January 9th). I was struck by the steady stream of audience members filing in (and those turned away) and was even more inspired by the fact that Becoming Julia Morgan is a self-produced project. I checked in with Belinda Taylor, the playwright, and producer Sabrina Klein to see how the experience of self-producing played out.

Former Theatre Bay Area (then Callboard) editor-in-chief Belinda Taylor finished her first play a few years ago after being commissioned by Klein (who at the time was the executive director of the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts and former executive director of Theatre Bay Area. Becoming Julia Morgan, a play investigating the life and legacy of the architectural legend, had an award-winning, sold-out run in Sacramento in 2006. The next step seemed obvious: mount a Bay Area production. But Taylor found it a bit harder for the idea to gain traction than she had anticipated, especially since Klein had since left JMCA. So what to do? Klein came on as producer and Barbara Oliver (legendary director and a founder of Aurora Theatre) joined up as director, and the nucleus of a huge self-producing project began. Klein says, “It’s not like we said ‘Hey, let’s produce the play on our own!’ It was more, ‘Ok, no one else believes in this play as much as we do, so let’s make it happen on our own.”

Once the core group was established, the planning began in earnest. Luckily, this trio of esteemed professionals had varied experiences and a network of resources to tap into. A wide array of new contacts became interested in the show and supported the road to production. Playwrights Foundation became the fiscal sponsor. After a nudge from a colleague, Taylor found a couple who owned a Julia Morgan home and was willing to offer it up as a venue for a fundraiser. Various vendors contributed wine, food and other items for a silent auction at the fundraiser. Add to that list the performers who donated their time to the fundraiser in order to give attendees a preview of the show, and this first fundraiser raised about half of what was needed to get the show going. A second fundraiser at a private residence raised the remainder. After securing pro bono PR work from Taylor’s colleague Gary Carr of Rising Moon Marketing; PR, things really started moving. Peets Coffee in Berkeley came on board and store manager Scott Soo-Hoo (of the Vine Street location in Berkeley) even created a “Julia Morgan Roast” for the run of the play. Taylor says, “My friends in Bay Area theatre and in Bay Area media were definitely an added bonus.”

Klein refers to a number of benefits of self-producing: “We were not tied to any mission outside this one show. We could brand ourselves strictly as experts on Julia Morgan and as three women who love architecture, history and Julia Morgan’s work, giving us a common bond with a lot of non-theatre people. We had no reputation to prove or to overcome (the flip side of having no reputation to build on!), which can be a positive. We were incredibly agile, responding to opportunities as they came up. Many small companies are like that, but we really felt it was a strength in our case too.”

Her biggest recommendations for the self-producer: Ask for advice and build on existing resources. In this case, what the team lacked in both infrastructure and access to a deep rolodex was offset by the expertise of those in the team members' inner circle. The members relied on their fiscal agent, Playwrights Foundation (to help with insurance, Actors' Equity and liability issues), CentralWorks (to help them understand what it would take to produce and perform in the space), neighboring theatre Shotgun Players (who provided a number of referrals and recommendations for the creative and support team) and, of course, Barbara Oliver (whose reputation helped bring quality designers into the mix). And you never know where someone in your circle will lead you. For example, Anne Smith got an invitation for the first fundraiser in March (the show opened in December) and instantly invited the team to appear at the Commonwealth Club in August. About 50 people who love Julia Morgan (or architecture, or historical female role models, or some combination of the three) showed up, including four who ended up as donors and one who ended up as a volunteer and who then made even more connections for the production in the world of architecture.

Klein closes her advice with a note that a great ticketing service matters. In this case, the Julia Morgan team used a combination of Brown Paper Tickets and, yes, Theatre Bay Area’s own TIX (

Aside from logistics, were Klein and Taylor pleased with the final results? "It was an experience like no other," says Taylor of watching her play performed at the final preview. "Everything came together: costumes, lights, sound, scenery, props, actors. My play was on its feet. I was somewhere on cloud 9. Dazzled. Astonished. Grateful.”

Have you ever self-produced? If so, what was the experience like for you? Have you ever wanted to self-produce? What’s holding you back?

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Invitation to the Party

A while back, I was asked to be a panelist at a local event: SQUART (Spontaneous Queer Art), curated by local artist Laura Arrington and sponsored by The Lab. At the event, 40-some artists assembled at the venue and were split into four teams and given parameters for a performance. Two short hours later, each team performed a piece that they had developed collaboratively. After each team presentation, four panelists from the field commented on the work (check out the January issue of Theatre Bay Area for some more thoughts on that experience!). Scores were given based on agreed-upon parameters (and even some wild-card parameters: on my night, nudity got extra points). The highest scoring presentation won a small cash prize.

I was, in a word, amazed. Even though some of the performers didn't know each other, let alone know their teammates' respective skills, I was completely impressed with how well they handled being thrust into a collaborative performance. The ability they all demonstrated in being able to come together, absorb the given parameters and present a performance was remarkable to me.

Acting as an audience member in the performances was just as exciting as being a panelist. The festival actively engaged audience members in the performances by adding an "audience participation" component to the given parameters. Because of this component, an interesting dynamic arose. One of the performances began in a darkened room and delivered very stern, clear instructions about how we, the audience members, should watch and behave during the piece. The piece continued and no further instructions were given. The performance progressed to the point that if an audience member (like myself) continued to follow the initial instructions, he wouldn't be able to see or hear anything that was happening. The other panelists quickly abandoned the initial instructions and followed the mass of people in the middle of the room to see what was happening. I found myself with a choice: do I follow? Or should I trust that the initial instructions will offer a payoff that I might miss otherwise? I opted for the latter and was somewhat bitter that there was no payoff and that, from my vantage point, I missed 95% of the performance.

I don’t mean to criticize the artists involved. In fact, I was told from the people who did experience the full performance that it was actually quite extraordinary. But my experience does highlight an interesting question: In the fully-staged productions that we work on for weeks, or months, or years, how do we give our audiences an invitation to the party? Or do we invite them at all?

As an avid theatergoer, I am in tune with the protocol of attending theatre. But do patrons new to theatre know what traditional protocols tend to be? They might wonder: Why is texting or tweeting during a show such a hot button? Why can’t I get up and walk on the stage during the show? How quiet should I be during the performance? What if I have to go to the bathroom? In an age of shrinking arts education in schools, where people often miss any early exposure to theatre, these are real questions. Does an audience member’s uncertainty around doing something wrong generate a fear that keeps them away? Have they attended theatre before and felt burned by doing something others thought was inappropriate?

During my SQUART experience, I didn't feel like a theatre veteran. I felt as a person entirely new to theatre might feel. How often do our audience members feel like they are missing out on the full experience of being an "insider?" Do they feel "invited" to the experience? And if not, what are we doing to welcome them? This issue isn't simply about house manager announcements or usher rules or instructions. This is about the artistic choices that we make. What do you do to involve theatre "outsiders?"

Check out the next SQUART happening Sunday January 09, 2011 at SomARTS. Info available at

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