Producing Problem Part Two

So, this won’t be quite as long. I really don’t have the time to write, but I want to get this down while it’s fresh in my head.

Why Producing Theater is Bad Economics

I know that I said in my previous post that theater was inexpensive to produce, and there for there was maybe too much for us to be able to be discerning as audience members, but there is a difference between the idea that theater is inexpensive to produce, and the idea that it is bad economics

The cost of making a play

I’m gonna divide this arbitrarily, but this will give everyone some idea of the bare bones economics that we go through to make a play happen. I’m gonna set down the ground rules for producing at this level because they are the realities we deal with. We’re gonna assume that we’re talking about a play that you are either given the rights to for free, or a play where the playwright is dead, and on top of that we’re gonna asssume a Showcase code contract running three weeks.

Yes, yes, maybe two weeks is more realistic, but I’m trying to show how money can be cut back and possible money coming in can be enhanced. Just let me stick to this.

Artistic Stuff and The Rooms Art Happens In

We’ve got a play that has six actors in it, and we’re gonna rehearse for three weeks. Normally what happens is that you offer each actor either a monthly metro card, which helps them get to and from rehearsal on the train, or the fiscal equivalent. These actors maintain “day” jobs, which often are at night, in order to survive. The director and the stage manager are offered the same, and no-one makes more than the actors.

8 X $76 = $608

The rehearsal hall is around $20/hr. You rehearse four hours a day, five days a week for three weeks.


The performance space is around $2000 a week. No, that’s not a typo, that’s 6 grand. Which is why most people do two weeks. I’m doing three, I’ll scale it back to two when you see how insane this is.

You are just over


Cool Shit That Makes Your Project Competitive

Look, the fact is, we go see a lot of crappy theater that is actually lovely, it just looks crappy. And it looks crappy because of that number just up there. The thing that makes your show cool and competitive is that it has a singular vision throughout, the writing and casting and directing are good, let’s say, but then you need a set that looks like it all comes from the same world, you need costumes that all come from the same world, you need a way in which the story is told that remains consistent from beginning to end.

5 Characters at $100/character – $500 Costumes
Set that becomes all the locations in the play – $1000
Sound design/ Fight choreographer/ choreographer – $76 each, per union rules.
Props/Disposables (A prop is a plate, a disposable is a sandwich) – $500

You are just under


Before I go any further, this is a bare bones production, but it is certainly quite grand. Anyone who is reading this is laughing and saying “how come you don’t do the book rehearsals at someone’s apartment? Why would you hire a sound designer?” and yeah, I think the same thing. I’m giving the budget without corners cut.

So, what you have here is a show you can be proud of, one that has given a tiny bit of employment to a group of people, and provided the team you’ve assembled is capable and inspired, then you’ve got a show now that is about to open and everything has been paid for.

Butts In Seats

So, if this is all you do, and you send out some emails to your friends that your show will open, and your grandmother brings her bereavement group, then you will sell about 75 tickets. Which is unacceptable. Figuring you have 60 seats in the theaterl, you have five shows a week for three weeks, then you have 900 seats to sell.

Advertising? Well, where? You can focus your attention on the print media and online media that feature the same subject matter as your show, and I’ll return to this in my “Solutions” blog later, but these ads cost money. You can try to get reviewed, but the only shows that get reviewed are show that run longer than four weeks, you simply can’t send out a press release and expect to get attention.

Theoretically, the best way to get your show noticed is to hire a PR firm or at least a publicist. All of this cannot be covered in a single blog entry, or in a complete years long blog, or even in a large book, so I’m gonna just add some costs on here.

Publicist (cut rate) – $2500
Advertisements – $2500
So, this part comes to


So you’re at $15,000, which is the close to the limit the union wants you to spend on a showcase code show.

Of the 900 seats, 100 of them need to be held aside for industry and reviewers. The math of this is non-negotiable, in order to sell any seats at all, you have to have reviews, 900 seats would be impossible for a Broadway show if they didn’t have a single reviewer.

More important than a review is a popular young director who’s working on two other projects, or an awesome older singer who has fifty students, or a grande dame who’s having a dinner party the next night. These are the people that need to be comp’ed. These are the people who are gonna sell more tickets than any online snotty theater zine.

But look at the numbers. If you sell out your 800 tickets at $15 a piece, you’ve brought in $12,000.

But let’s be honest.

Your budget is actually $7200 less than the budget I quoted here, because there’s no set designer, no costume designer, no publicist and no ads. Your costumes are all clothes out of the actors, or your, closets, the set is your couch you dragged on stage, your black box will stay black, your lighting design is whatever you and the stage manager, who is also running the lights, can figure out. Your show looks like crap, but your actors are dedicated and the play will be more or less letter perfect to the script.

But also, you don’t have three weeks, you have two, and you don’t have 60 seats, you have 50, and that’s plenty because you can’t sell 800 seats. You can sell 400 seats, if you put every ounce of energy you have into it.

And that’s what most producers have learned. Two week run. Three week rehearsals. Your couch on stage, The actors’ own clothes and a metro card for everyone.

Final Analysis

So, in the end, a person could make back their money, or at least not lose their shirts entirely. So why is this bad economics? Because, this production is a dead end. A movie, once made, can be shipped overseas for no extra money. The whole thing is done, it’s on a four inch piece of metal and plastic. An album, once invested in, can be enjoyed for decades, it lives on and on.

The producers don’t own the play, they own the production, and they can sell the production, but they don’t own the script. Investing in plays is a terrible idea. There are altruistic reasons for investing in plays, but plays are bad economics. Even if you hit big, your chances for hitting big are smaller than in any other art form.

Oh. Right. Yeah, don’t worry. I’ve got solutions. There are more kinds of investment than economic ones, and there are economic ways to be paid back.