Training Theatre Artists to Make a Difference
If only it were that simple.
By: Amanda Zeitler
I began considering producing my play La Llorona at DC Capital Fringe about a year ago when I read an article online about self-production. I can’t remember for the life of me what it was called or who wrote it, but I can tell you that after I read it, I walked away with the impression that if I never self-produced I was never going to get “discovered” or have a successful playwriting career because the American theatre system is messed up and no one accepts blind submissions from emerging writers anymore and blah, blah, blah; that’s a whole other blog entry. Bottom line: I wanted people to see my work and the article I read convinced me that if I wanted that to happen, I shouldn’t wait for someone else to give me permission. I should do it myself. So I did.
The idealistic artist in me was beyond excited for this project. Immediately I started recruiting my team; I engaged the services of a couple of incredibly talented ladies from the CUA acting department, I drafted in a rockstar stage manager (also from CUA), and somehow managed to sweet-talk a brilliant director from the Woolly Mammoth internship program. By mid-March I was ready to go! I’d been accepted to the festival, I had a budget, and life was rosey.
Then May came around and rehearsals started and the idealistic artist in me… Well, I wouldn’t say it died, but it went into a coma for about 2 months and in the meantime a realistic, sleep-deprived, under-paid manager took its place.
All right, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But it turns out self-production is a lot harder than it looks. Some of you may have read the piece I wrote last year about my experience in the 2013 Fringe, in which I participated as an actress in MO2’s production of Apples & Oranges. In that blog entry, I lamented that acting in a Fringe festival is a lot of hard work. But self-production was harder (“duh” says the realistic, left side of my brain). I had a vague idea of what would be involved when I took on the project – I had to fundraise, I had to market, I had to hire designers, I had to scrounge up a set, I had to convince press to give me the time of day; the list goes on. But I never quite realized the scope of it. Or how much time all of these chores would take.
And did I mention that throughout this process, I was also working two part time jobs?
This is not to say that I did not enjoy or appreciate my producing experience. On the contrary, despite all of the difficulties and sleep deprivation, I kinda sorta loved it and if I get the chance to do it again I absolutely will (though maybe not this year… I do have my thesis project to focus on, after all). I liked being involved in every aspect of the production. I liked being able to participate in the rehearsal process whenever and however I wanted. I liked calling the shots and making the final decisions about who to hire and what the priorities of the piece were. (And if I’m honest, I liked seeing “Producer: Amanda Zeitler” written in my program – that was neat.)
I would be remiss if I did not, once again, emphasize what a fantastic and supportive team I had to work with. Not only were they all patient, collaborative, talented, and willing to put up with my last minute re-writes (which occasionally happened in the rehearsal room), but they also treated the production like a professional project (a respect that not all Fringe productions seem to receive) and were always read to step in and help when I needed it. In particular, my director turned out to be a God-send when I realized how little I knew about producing. I cannot count the number of times she saved my bacon and soothed my nerves when I called her about details that used to seem inconsequential (“Should we send the press release out in an e-mail blast or to writers individually?” “If a someone donates $99 or less to the Indiegogo campaign should be call them a sponsor or associate producer?” “Who do we know that has a truck and can help haul all these set pieces to and from the Fort?”).
But let me be clear when I say that that self-production is not for the faint of heart.
Yes, I was on a steep learning curve. But that was OK. Because it was Fringe! Not that I think anyone should treat Fringe shows with anything less than deep respect – people work really hard on these shows (really, really hard – see above paragraphs). And I know that there is a lot of controversy around Fringe – that stupid button rule they have, for example. But this experience reinforced for me what I already thought about Fringe; the Capital Fringe Festival offers our theatre community a chance to learn through experience and experiment in a relatively safe environment. And I think the value of this is beyond measure. La Llorona could have been total flop (for the record, it wasn’t – we got great reviews and the show is going to Wichita State University to be produced in November), but it would have been all the pain and sleep deprivation because I now know what it takes to be a self-producing writer. I have a better idea now of what my future career has in store from me than I ever did. And my respect for people who produce on a regular basis and start their own theatre companies has increased ten-fold.
In a town with as many new and emerging theatre artists as DC, one can argue that opportunities to break into the professional theatre community abound, but to me, Fringe is special. It’s a low pressure environment with a basic built in support system where novices have a chance to ban together and call the shots. It’s a platform for us to meet, mingle and learn, so that (hopefully) we can leap into bigger, better, and more complex projects. I can honestly say that after this summer, I feel far more prepared to start work on my thesis, and eventually graduate and embrace the world beyond the classroom.