by Mark Rigney · September 8, 2015
Over my last two entries for NYTheater Now, I’ve reflected on the genesis and rehearsal process for my new one-act, The Shout, at the 2015 IndyFringe Fest (Indianapolis, IN). Along the way, I’ve made mention of the perils (and joys) of self-producing, something I’ve tended, as a writer, to avoid.
Now that the show is up and running — by the time you read this, it will have closed, at least in this initial iteration — I can say with great certainty that I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. The great thing about learning things is one can share — one thing at a time.
In no particular order, then, I submit the following “Top Ten” list of lessons learned, specifically about self-producing at a Fringe Festival venue.
1) Pick people you really want to work with. Choose them not only for their talent, but for who they are as people. If you don’t want to see a given person at eight in the morning or during a midnight load-out, recruit somebody else. At this juncture, I feel fortunate in that I am deliriously pleased with my choices of collaborators for The Shout. Their skill, enthusiasm, and professionalism reminds me daily that nothing is more crucial in taking a show from nascent egg to scintillating production than choosing a stellar A-team.
2) Don’t write anything you can’t afford to stage. Sure, writers are supposed to write without limit, let their imaginations fly, etcetera ad nausem. Fair enough. But when you and yours are where the buck stops, you’d better make sure you have both the pocketbook and the technical wherewithal to realize whatever hijinks the script requires. You might make your money back at the festival, but then again, you might not. Best to keep it simple.
3) Delegate, and rely on the talents of your collaborators. For example, I have no particular skills with Photoshop, but my director, Diane Brewer, does. The upshot: she created a terrific logo for postcards, web icons, etc. It’s a flexible, vibrant image that we’ve used in all sorts of ways.
4) Self-production implies self-promotion. It’s not enough to create a great show; you also have to sell it. Who’s handling your social media? Who’s getting postcards and fliers designed and printed? If you’re dealing with a fringe festival, who’s coordinating with other troupes to cross-promote your show with their audiences? Again, delegate—but be prepared (and carve out the time) to do it yourself.
5) Don’t leave the peanut M&Ms in easy reach of the cast. Actors can be told an infinite number of times not to eat the props, but if the props happen to be made of chocolate and feature a fetching candy-coated shell, that effort is doomed. Consider a sweeping re-write.
6) Consider, while crafting your show, what fringe audiences expect. I can’t claim to be an expert here (I’ve never been to Edinburgh Fringe), but at least in Indie Theater, the trend is for productions to be riotous, silly, profane, overtly musical, and broadly comic. “Straight” plays are a rarity; so is serious subject matter. Having relied on contemporary socio-political themes to drive The Shout (it takes flight, loosely, from the events of Ferguson, MO, 2014), I admit to considering a complete about-face should I throw my hat into the ring for IndyFringe 2016. “A bit with a dog,” as Tom Stoppard and Co. put it in Shakespeare In Love, is the sort of thing that fringe audiences most crave.
7) Accept, but not in silence, the vagaries and failures of a found space. The Marott Center, the building into which The Shout was placed, was turned into a functional black box theater for the course of IndyFringe 2015. It works: it has lights, a small sound board, and blackout curtains to ring the room, provide backstage storage, etc. The theater space also abuts the building’s main boiler room, and the windy roar of the HVAC unit has been a constant, eighty decibel presence during tech and performances. After ascertaining there was nothing to be done about the sound (the HVAC can’t be moved or switched off, and the room in which it sits cannot be sealed), I made sure to limit my complaints to a suggestion that in future, when choosing spaces, the powers that be consider ambient noise levels. Maybe that will help some other troupe in the future.
8) Ask detailed questions about seating, especially if you don’t know the space. The administrators at IndyFringe provided a very helpful and very accurate schematic (architectural floor plans, really) well in advance, which made it possible to stage the play right down to the inch. Unfortunately, because the floor plans indicated audience seating on risers, we assumed a fairly steep rake and neglected to ask the height of said risers. Foolish! Turns out, the ceiling in the Marott Center was very low, and the risers went up in very small and infrequent increments. Having failed to ask about this, we blocked several long stretches of the play at or close to ground level: the actors lie down several times, or seat themselves on the floor. This has not served our Marott audience well, and ultimately, this is our fault.
9) Produce a show where at least some of the costumes can be worn on the street in order to drum up interest. That’s right: turn the troupe into a walking advertisement. Fringe audiences are eager to try new things and attend new work, but they also gravitate (just like everybody else) to old favorites, so the immediate competition is local acts that are already known and loved. Since the IndyFringe offices can only do just so much to promote individual shows without pandering or playing favorites, it's incumbent on out-of-town performers to attract attention as best they can. Our best costume in The Shout, and the only one that stands out in a crowd, is a police uniform, complete with a very realistic (pellet) gun. Can’t wear that on the street, no. But next year, should I elect to return, I’ll write at least one part into the piece that requires an outrageous costume—perhaps even a fright wig. Call me mercenary if you will, but fringe performers must become their own best advertising if they want to earn a buck and play to a packed house.
10) Embrace the wearing of multiple hats. In the course of The Shout, I have been writer, secretary, casting agent, props master, craft services, dorm mother, transportation chief, marketing specialist, banker, carpenter, painter, electrician, liaison, barker, and even (on-site) director. Were I working in television, I’d be called a show runner. Thanks to a good deal of careful planning, none of my show running was overwhelming, most of it was fun, and I’ve discovered that I look equally fetching in either a hard hat or a chapeau.
And now the curtain has fallen. It’s time to make a final revision and send out the script to another potential haunt or two. I wonder, where to next? Orlando? Minneapolis?
Papua New Guinea?