Producing theater between the poles


Before I helped open a theater for improv, I was an improviser. I've tried to pay attention along the way, to take note of things as an improviser that I wish producers knew or did differently, as well as what performers do and don’t consider about the production side of things. Nobody thinks about trash service and stocked bathrooms the same way they think about lighting and sound, for instance. Those can seem like very opposite ends of a wide spectrum of jobs that need to get done to make this all happen. If you’re going to take this job, that’s how it’s going to be. There are lots of things about it that will seem to be polar opposites. Here are some worth considering before you get started.

"I love what you do / I will never see your shows"
One ironic thing about opening a theater space to promote improvised theater is how very little improvised theater I get to see now.

Before we had a space, it was easy to catch them all if you really wanted to - besides Brave New Workshop, ComedySportz and Stevie Ray’s shows, there was a showcase on Sundays, a student show on Tuesdays and a festival in June. Being in the tech booth at the BNW and running Sunday nights, I probably saw a pretty solid percentage of the improv shows in Minneapolis in any given year. That was how I grew to really love and appreciate the art and so many of the people that perform it. Now I get to see a small fraction of the shows that happen in any given time. I rarely see some of my favorite performers on stage because they're performing at other venues or at our venue on a night of the week I never work.

The other odd thing that takes some getting over is the idea that I go see your show, you go see mine. That doesn't help anybody and you can't take it personally. I will help promote the hell out of your shows, I appreciate every person that comes to see mine, but if you're basing the success of your show on getting other actors and improvisers to come see it I think you have a failing marketing plan on your hands. I already know you do great work. I really enjoy it any time I get a chance to see it, and if I have the chance I will be there. But I'm putting in 40 daytime hours at our theater along with five nights a week. If I get a night off I am not going to spend it at another theater when I have a chance to have dinner with my family.

Before you launch a theater, you need to know that you will see a lot less of this thing you love so much and that drives you every day.

"I couldn't do this without you / I hate everything you do"
Who you're going into business with is a massive decision that will affect the next several years (if not the rest) of your life, so it's vitally important to choose people who are competent and committed. People you love working with. People with a similar vision of what you're building and who can add something important to help you all get there.

There's a big difference between how fun someone is to work with and how fun they are to share a space with. Everyone has their own habits and little things that will drive them crazy. A lot of them you don't find out until you come into work in the morning to the same things someone else has left for you every day. They will be messy in little ways they don't even think about and you hate... and so will you. And you have to work those things out or you will drive each other crazy, no matter how much you like being around one another. Imagine having your college roommate for the rest of your life, only you have to work with them as well.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain / Don't get behind the curtain for attention"
I worked as a technician for many years at the Brave New Workshop. I learned countless valuable things there that I use every day, and this might be one of the biggest: Nobody wants to hear how many hours you put in or how hard you work to make this happen. In fact, if you tell people about it, that will ruin the fun of the shows you put all that work into producing. Nobody goes to theater to marvel at the amazing amount of work that went into it, and if you want people to come marvel at your work, you shouldn't get into producing theater.

Yes, if you're going to do this you are going to put in more time, energy and effort than anyone will ever know. And knowing that has to be good enough for you. Because you have an opportunity and responsibility to set the tone through the hard work you do.

When I was working over tech week the cast knew I was in before them and that I was going home after them. Everyone is putting in a lot of time and energy. Everyone is tired. Everyone could probably get more credit for how far above and beyond they go. And if you're the guy everyone knows is pulling the long hours, you have an amazing chance to keep everyone positive and energetic instead of tired and complaining, just by shutting your mouth.

Complaining about how nobody knows what you put into a production is such an attractive and easy spiral to get into, and you're going to be surrounded by people that will happily go that way with you, but it doesn't help the show and won't ever make you happier.

When I came in to work in the morning as a tech, I was always asked by someone (who was also working their ass off trying to put up a great show) how late I was there the night before and/or how early I got in. I learned eventually that the best answers are "Not too late" and "Not too early." You know what you did. Be proud of it even if nobody else knows how long it took.


Now playing

The Hothouse

The Hothouse

See it this week at Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House in Minneapolis. Presented by Dark & Stormy Productions.

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Mel Day

Mel Day

Mel Day Assistant Directs The Hothouse playing at Artspace Grain Belt Bottling House this month.

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