Producing In The Fringe

We have shorthand for most things here at Gideon Productions. We have a codephrase for enthusiastic but under-educated producers, we have shorthand for just-out-of-college playwrights, we have shorthand for meta-meta-META-jokes that we ourselves barely get… but our most useful shorthand is “After You, Dear Alphonse”. This is an example of our producing style, where we find ourselves always in the position of downplaying expectations and holding doors and generally bringing our more Southern charms to the down-n-dirty indy theater scene.

Because of the way we are, it’s difficult to pretend to be experts at anything, but when it comes to the New York International Fringe Festival, we’ve done enough things wrong, and enough things right, that I feel like I can at least speak about the event with some *experience*, if not expertise. I’m writing this as a companion piece to James’ great self-producing series which, if you haven’t visited, you should.

We have been in the festival on four separate occasions, winning three major awards at three different times, and in addition to that, I’ve acted in two *other* productions in the festival, so you can at least be assured that everything I am telling you is supported by experience, and only suspect because of my somewhat limited intellect.

1) You could end up with a great space for a fraction of the money. For instance, our shows have gone up at The Lucille Lortel, The Soho Playhouse, the Bleeker St. Theater (formerly The Culture Project), and The Harry Du Jur at the Henry St. Settlement. Yes, these are all off-Broadway theaters, and our only cost was $550 to The Present Company. As a point of reference, The Soho Playhouse costs $7500 a week to rent, and we ran there for two months (including the extension)

2) Publicity is enormous, at a fraction of what it would normally cost you. Fleet Week was reviewed by the NYTimes. Hail Satan was covered by David Cote in his blog. Viral was reviewed everywhere. Again, the only up-front cost is the fee to the Present Company, although they offer bargain basement rates on extra publicity through Ron Lasko at Spin Cycle. If you decide *not* to pay Ron, he still works for you by publicizing the entire festival.

3) You are now associated with a festival that has a proven track record. Urinetown, of course, but that’s the bases-loaded home run, there are a hundred other success stories and a thousand word-of-mouth stories associated with the festival.

4) You are getting in bed with extremely decent people, and that should not be overlooked or under-appreciated. Elena Holy is as good a person as you’re gonna find, not just in the performing arts, but in any industry. There is a dignity to the festival, overall, a home-grown, artist-first approach that doesn’t exist everywhere in the city, and when you are *in* the festival, you know this. I’ve produced all of our shows, but Mac Rogers wrote them, and I know that Elena, as fond as she might be of me, has a great deal more fondness for Mac. He is the artist, I’m the administrator, and that actually makes me even more fond of *her*.

5) The community will support you during the run of your show, and if you live here in New York, it will support you long after the show has closed. Last night, at a reading hosted by KEF productions, I ran into the director of a fringe show I acted in in 2004. We gave each other a huge hug. When you work inside this festival, you are afforded the opportunity to associate with hundreds of other independent theater producers and artists from around the world, and, if you choose, those relationships will last as long as you cultivate them.

1) We’ve lost more money on these successful runs than we have producing on our own. Yes, I said you can save a lot of money, but there’s no point in saving money when you’re making theater. These have all been high-profile shows, so we have done the best we could to get a great cast and take care of them. We’ve had Tony Nominees in our shows. That means, we rehearse in midtown, at the same location the whole time, we pay everyone *more* than the Fringe asks us to. We pay for the extra marketing and publicity, we actually send out the postcards and pay for the canvassing.

Also, because the houses have all been 175-350 seats, the place feels empty if your standard 32 people show up. And when the house *feels* empty, it will give you the sense of the show not being worth seeing. It’s live theater, it isn’t a streaming video, you HAVE to get the house filled. So, if you don’t blow your wad on publicity, you’re a fool.

2) Yes, the festival has had successes, but that has led to a backlash. We were a bunch of punk indy producers when we did our obnoxious gay-rights musical, and the most common criticism was that we were “trying to be the next Urinetown”. Simply because we were part of the Fringe Festival. For the record, we were, in no uncertain terms, NOT trying to be Urinetown.

Because of some of the past over-the-top crazy shit that has gone up in the festival, it’s very difficult to make a sober production resonate. David Cote, though he very much liked our show “Hail Satan”, and even though he stated that he hadn’t seen very much in the festival, still eye-rolled and shrugged the whole thing off. Of course, as an indy producer, you will be used to the established guys rolling their eyes at your shows anyway, so this won’t be a shock.

3) The festival is NOT your show. The festival is the festival. This festival has been marching along for YEARS, producing more than 200 shows a year, utilizing the skills of thousands of people and although they love you and really do cherish the work you’re doing, but it’s a bit like the way you feel about your own mitochondria. The publicity and press arm is going to focus on making sure the festival continues to succeed, and that is what they *should* be doing. You have to fight for your own artistic voice to be heard, the festival is not going to fight for you. The more you give them, the more you will get in return, but know that the money is easier, the venues are better, but the work is actually a vast upgrade on your time and energy.

4) You get less than 2/3 of the ticket price. It’s closer to half, when you consider all the free tickets and fringe passes. So you have to sell twice as many tickets as you think you do. Everyone in the union gets in free, so don’t think you’re gonna sell out on the backs of the actors who love you. Our budget is usually around seven grand, half the ticket price is $7.50… that math is pretty easy. To break even, we’d have to have a thousand people come to the show.

5) The benefits I just mentioned are fleeting. Most people *in* the festival don’t go see other shows *in* the festival. There are too many shows, and too many of them are terrible. This is by design, and if you were to complain to the decision makers about the overwhelming impact of the festival, they would say, “tough. That’s how we like it.” If there are 200 shows, and each show has 20 people involved, that’s four thousand people. But, if 20% of them see five shows each, that’s eight hundred people seeing four hundred shows. That’s two audience members per production. And believe me, that’s a pretty good average.

The only way to get your head above water is to keep treading water and let the rest sink. This isn’t a competition, but there is simply no shortcut to “having been there a while”. You may think the money and the publicity is enough to make a difference, but it simply IS NOT.

As an example, we sold out five shows and had a sixth added at the Lortel. That means, we had about 1700 people see our show “Fleet Week”, and in the program was an ad for our next production, going up at the end of October. We messaged the same people who saw Fleet Week and did the same publicity… and we sold about 175 seats. Total.

Why? Because the audience had only seen ONE SHOW of ours. It didn’t matter. If you drive past an intersection and there’s five fast-food joints, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, a Taco Bell and a Gerald’s, what are the chances you’re gonna go to Gerald’s? My point is that one of the drawbacks is that the benefits won’t automatically translate. You can have the best show at the Fringe Festival, it’s still only ONE show. You have to develop a track record.

6) A warning – if your show sucks, it will still suck. We’ve produced four shows in the Fringe Festival, three of them won awards. No amount of festival support or our mother’s love could have done anything for the fourth. There’s no secret to this, if your show is terrible, people will know it’s terrible. A lot of people will know it.

It remains a shell-shocking experience for us. There is nothing quite like writing, producing and paying for a show that you don’t want to watch…

1. When submitting to the festival, put your artistic foot first. Lead with the show, not with the management, not with the stars attached. Let them know what the show is. When they read a fun script, they get excited, but when they call the number on the script and they get a literary agent from Abrams, the producers start feeling like you’re gonna use the festival as an out-of-town tryout, and that’s not what they want.

2. Larger houses mean larger expectations. If you’re accustomed to producing for a 55 seat house, be prepared to find 187 seats *staggering*. When “Viral” was extended, we were excited for about three minutes, and then we looked at each other and said, “we have a thousand more seats to sell, and everyone we know has already come…”

3. Get your marketing materials to them as early as possible. Whatever date you’ve set for it, get it to them a month before that. When you get your acceptance letter on May 15th, have pictures ready to go.

4. Sell out one show. Focus all your energy on selling ONE NIGHT, not the whole run. As soon as one show sells out, a giant sign goes up saying “August 17, 9 PM show, SOLD OUT” and you’ll sell even more tickets. In other words, if you can sell 130 tickets, try and get everyone focused on buying on the same night. If you’re looking at the presales, and your list looks like this “127, 8, 2, 7, 11”, then you’re doing it right.

5. Use it as an opportunity to raise the market awareness of your company. If you decide to make a company for a one-off, the Fringe Festival might not be the right place for you. It’s half the money and twice the work, and if you’ve done the work and lost the money, you should work on capitalizing later.

As a post-script, the Fringe Festival has made us. There’s no other way of looking at it, our success is in no small part because we have a symbiotic relationship with the festival, and it has worked really well for us.