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 (www.tixbayarea.org).

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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