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How to Produce a Stage Play
12 writers, 60 actors, 10 directors, 3 producers, numerous hangers-on and 1 venue. Produce 12 new plays in four months? We must have been mad!
Putting on a play is one of those things that many people get involved in from time to time, but most folks stick to one or two aspects of the production - such as acting, writing, directing, helping with set-building, buying props etc. At the tail end of 2007, I got together with two friends (Liz Lees and Suzy Enoch) with a vague plan to try to put on a play.
But discussions with a funding expert threw up a different challenge: if we wanted financial assistance to aid our endeavour, it made more sense to ask for lots of cash rather than a little bit of cash, that way if we only got half the money, we'd still be able to put on a scaled-down production of some description. So, instead of putting on one play, why not put on a whole season of plays? 12, in fact?
And that is exactly what we did: the Writers and Actors Collaboration Theatre Company (WACtheatre) put on 12 new plays between November 2008 and February 2009. Here's how we did it...
But We Haven't Got Any Money
There are thousands of amateur theatre companies out there who put on productions every year without any proper funding. They often work on the basis of everyone chipping in to help with costumes, sound gear, props, photocopies and most of all - their time. However, WACtheatre was different - the three of us were trained professionals and we wanted to put on professional productions. Granted, we expected to have to use a few talented amateurs, but part of our plan was to get local professional actors on board and produce shows that would go down in history.
All of which requires money. And we didn't have a two-penny piece between us. So...
Early in 2008, with the help of our funding expert, Suzy, Liz and I put in an application to Aberdeen City Council for £30,000. We launched a competition for new writers, then we would take the best scripts, work with the writers to knock the plays into shape, audition actors and stage crew and put the first play on the following November.
It was a pretty crazy plan and none of us would have been surprised if our application was turned down (in fact, we kind of hoped that it would be). But no, they gave us the money, all of it, every last penny. So now we had to do something.
Advertise for Writers
The first thing was to find writers - lots of them, hundreds (if possible) who had all written (or were in the process of writing) a stage play that could potentially be a part of our Season of New Plays. Producing a leaflet was easy, and the response was generally good. The problem, of course, was that some of the scripts we were sent weren't very good. Some of them were bad. A few were frightful, and a handful were unbelievably dire.
However, we did manage to find 12 writers who had scripts we thought we could work with, including my own play The Body in the Bag. (And yes, we did think maybe it was a little bit jobs-for-the-boys that I was included in the group, but my script was judged by Suzy and Liz along with all the others and they were very happy to include it in our selection).
Editing the Scripts
There are two types of playwrights - those who are open to working with editors/producers/directors to improve their scripts as much as possible, and those who aren't. If you value your sanity, this latter group must be avoided at all costs.
Our group of writers were an interesting and eclectic bunch. Many were involved in amateur theatre groups so had some knowledge of the process of putting on plays, but others were new to theatre and weren't sure what would work and what would not work on stage. The most important thing (from our point of view) was that the scripts themselves had to be as good as we could make them. And that wasn't as easy as we'd have liked.
As theatre professionals, all three of us were acutely aware of those scripts where parts of the dialogue were somewhat lacking. Reading scripts aloud is the best way of identifying the bits that need work, but some writers think that every word they've written is sacred and any suggestion of making changes doesn't go down well. Nevertheless, clichés, gratuitously sexist language and repetitive dialogue has to be cut or it will ruin the whole play. Our method of 'editing' those scripts where the writer was unwilling to change things, was simply to speak to the director of the play and to the actors who would be playing the roles on stage. Encouragement from these two quarters would often help the writer to recognise that changes had to be made. In one instance however, the actors ended up improvising some scenes during the performances in order to cut the worst dialogue and make the play just about bearable.
Clearly, this is not an ideal situation, but this was our first lesson and was a mistake we would not make again. At the risk of repeating myself, if writers are not open to editing/revising and so on, Do Not Work With Them. They will drag you down to their level and it will be You, not They, who end up sitting in the stalls on the first night gnashing your teeth and wondering why you ever got involved with these mindless morons.
(I should point out that most of our writers were lovely and were a delight to work with).
When all the plays were agreed and we had done as much as possible to get them to production standard, we started to audition for actors. This was a long process, involving the use of several venues (mostly donated to us free of charge, or in exchange for publicity in our programmes) and we eventually used more than 60 actors in the 12 plays. Some of these were, as we had hoped, professional actors, but many were drama students and am-dram regulars.
Identifying individuals for specific roles can be very difficult, as it demands that the producer allows a certain amount of lee-way between what they see when an actor auditions and what they may end up with on stage. The important points to remember when choosing actors are:
Do they have the ability to take direction? (Can they portray a role in different ways?)
Are they a 'team player'? (Will they work well with the other actors in the play?)
Are they reliable? (This is the most important of all, since any actor, good or bad, can only perform if they are actually present at the performance)
Everything relating to appointing actors also applies to directors. Ideally, any director should have a good grasp of the play - what it's about, what the writer is trying to say, what each character contributes to the plot, and so on, as well as ideas about sets, costumes etc.
One word of warning - directors must be able above all to work with their actors. The actors, in turn must be able to trust what the director does, says etc. In one of our productions, the director proved to have a poor grasp of the task she'd taken on and three days before the first performance, we learned that she had not even begun to rehearse some of the major scenes in the play. The only thing we could do was to sack that director and take over the direction of the play ourselves. The play was performed on time, but sadly, the lack of rehearsal was obvious.
Another lesson learned.
Publicity - Posters and Programmes
We were lucky enough to have the help and support of His Majesty's Theatre - the largest theatrical organisation in Aberdeen at the time of our New Play Season. This helped enormously with publicising our productions, as they included performance dates, times etc on their own website and in their brochures. However, for each play we still needed a poster, a programme and press information.
I took on the task of creating the posters as I'd recently learned how to use Photoshop. Nevertheless, there was a steep learning curve in getting my humble artwork from my laptop to the printer. Important stuff like crop marks, registration marks, colour bars and bleed marks became a bit of a minefield and often meant working late into the night to make the changes that the printer had asked for.
Script for 'The Body in the Bag'
- Smashwords – The Body In The Bag – a book by Colin Garrow
Edinburgh, 1827. In their shabby lodging house, William Hare encourages his drinking partner William Burke to think about an easier way of making a living. When one of Hare’s lodgers dies, the scheming duo take the body to the medical school...
Posters - Points to Ponder
It's a nice touch to have photos of rehearsals in the venue so the audience can see them when they come in for the performance. Most of our rehearsal photographs and some of the poster images were taken by French Photographer Ben Wambergue and the high quality of his work made a big difference to our publicity. It also meant we had lots of pics to use on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and various blogs as well as our website. One of the things audiences commented on was the quality of the publicity and therefore the quality of the photographs, so if you have the option of a professional photographer, go for it.
One of the problems with producing a programme for a show is that often some of the information you need will not be available at the time you want to produce the programme. One of the things we did was to include a bit of spiel about each actor, director, writer etc in the programmes, since this is what audiences expect, but it also means you have to get the information you need from the individuals concerned.
Programmes - Points to Ponder
As early in the process as possible, decide what you are going to include in the programme. If you want info from actors etc, ensure that everyone who has to contribute information gets it to you ASAP. Do not give them the option to do it later, as whoever is compiling the programme will end up chasing folk at the last minute and inevitably, someone will be missed. On one occasion, I spent so much time chasing actors for their bio details, that I forgot to include the name of the writer. Cringe, cringe.
As well as posters and programmes, I also produced the brochure detailing all the shows in the New Play Season, and a monthly newsletter - WACchat - that we sent out to audience members, actors and anyone else who was interested. These promoted the plays we'd already done as well as the ones still to come and highlighted other activities our company was involved in, such as workshops and writing groups.
We had negotiated with our intended venue for the dates we wanted and were able to get three performances for each play. Each week for 12 weeks a new play was performed. The actual performance space did change within the venue itself, since we wanted to try a few different ways of seating the audience and how the play might be presented.
Some plays therefore, were staged in the downstairs music venue, where a smaller stage and an accessible bar were available. This worked well a few of the shows, but not so well for others. After a couple of weeks, we dispensed with the downstairs venue as it was simply too noisy (electric fans from the bar area) and eye-lines from some parts of the venue was marred by several roof columns.
Another tactic we tried was to provide food at some of the performances. This was inspired by the famous A Play, A Pie and A Pint (Òran Mór's successful lunchtime theatre programme in Glasgow). Unfortunately, we could not afford quite the same standard of food and our 'snack' version wasn't very popular with audiences.
Venue - Points to Ponder
Make sure your chosen venue is available on the dates you want (well in advance) and that it will accommodate the audience numbers you are expecting. Also think about food, drinks and accessibility - is the venue easy to get to, does it have a drinks licence? And so on.
And After All That...
Following the 12 new plays, we found we had money left over. This was mainly because of a deal we had negotiated with the venue (Aberdeen's Lemon Tree) that gave us a cut of each box office. Since each show was given three performances (Monday and Tuesday evenings, and a matinee on Tuesdays), we had enough cash to produce more plays. By the time WACtheatre eventually folded in 2011, we had produced 20 new plays, hosted countless writing and acting workshops and given a lot fo people the opportunity to get involved in theatre.
Do it all again? Not a chance!
While the process of putting on even a single play is very exciting, satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable, it is also highly stressful, demanding and utterly unpredictable. I'd recommend it to anyone seeking a challenge, as the afterglow is incredible, but unless you have an abundance of strength, unlimited resources (mainly physical) and the unending support of family and friends, I'd give it a miss.