Post-Mortem on I LOVE YOU BECAUSE, February 2014
When I was thirteen, I co-directed a middle-school production of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. In retrospect, it was an absurd thing to ask for, and absurd that someone allowed us to do it. It was a real show: auditions, sets, posters, tickets, lots of actors, an orchestra; even an audience. My conspirator Dave Mihal and I wrote parts for all of the characters not in the official script (Pig Pen, Franklin, Marcy, Woodstock, and others), in total ignorance of contractual or copyright issues. When I was in high school my goal was to become a director. I allowed myself to be talked out of it.
Fast-forward thirty-one years. During that time I made a career as a stage lighting designer, working with dozens of directors and thousands of performers on hundreds of shows. I finally started college at 33 and earned an MBA when I was 40. Directing is essentially management, and I’d amassed a toolset.
My choice for a second directorial outing was spiritual cousin to CHARLIE BROWN. I LOVE YOU BECAUSE wants to entertain, to elicit laughter, to gently prod one to love better. It’s not earth-moving theater, and it hasn’t been copied to death. I’d offered it to four directors over five years, thinking I’d like to perform in it. Nobody accepted. In the spring of 2013 I watched a friend suffer through a community theater audition process, waiting in vain for a call that never came. I told her I was directing a show, and she would play the lead.
I believe difficult things are worth doing; by extension, I LOVE YOU BECAUSE was more valuable than I’d anticipated. Finding a venue was a challenge, from unreturned calls to filling out forms and signing insurance waivers only to be told it wouldn’t work out. The venue we ended up at had no stage, chairs, lighting or sound, so all of those had to be borrowed and transported. (I joked at one point that I might be the only director in town who acted, directed, paid the royalties, designed the poster, set up the sound and lights and also drove the truck.)
The remaining actors were selected based on relationships, arguably a better predictor of success than auditions. We lost one performer to another project, which is how I ended up taking a part. Everyone was given scripts in November with instruction to be ready by January 19th (we had a dinner party read-though in December.) They did it, with kudos to our music director who offered private appointments as needed before rehearsals began.
The first rehearsal week we put the music together, meeting Sunday-Thursday. The second week was choreography and blocking, with our first run-through just 13 days after we’d started. Because actors weren’t called on nights their material wasn’t rehearsed, they had between 5-9 nights of practice before the first run. I’d planned a “safety day,” intending to give everyone the night off before we opened. On that day we had a snow storm and I told them the show was ready to go; they all wanted to rehearse anyway.
I take little credit for the success of what happened on stage, except that I managed the environment. Because I acted in the production, I didn’t get to watch it once run-throughs started (the technical crew, choreographer and music director gave notes.) Every night, I saw my fellow performers refine, sharpen, become funnier and more harmonious. As the audience would soon discover, the magic was in the emotion and relationships they brought to life on stage. It’s a tribute to the production that we didn’t have a single “dead” audience (we did have one unlively audience member) – reaction was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and appreciative.
Everybody deserves another curtain call – I was privileged to be part of this troupe. Music Director and Pianist Greg Unangst, Choreographer Mamie Bowdish, Stage Manager and Light Board Operator Sarah Bord, Followspot and Sound Board Operator Susan Bord, Liska Savage, Janet Engle, Kat Krumbach, Ben Hirshfield, and Anthony Razzano. Until next time, my love to all of you.
The iPad is a great theatrical tool, but finding good apps requires trial and error. Alcorn McBride’s Lighting Pad ($20) is simple and reliable, if you don’t need softpatch or more than 100 cues. Luminair for iOS overcomes those issues at a steeper price point ($139), but I still haven’t found a lighting app that offers split dipless fading or lead/lag timing options. Also, lighting apps require a wireless router and an interface to convert the Ethernet signal to DMX; I chose Apple’s AirPort Express ($99) and ENTTEC Open DMX ($261). (It sounds steep until you compare the setup to a programmable lighting board, most of which start for well over $1000.) For sound cues, I tried FXLive ($10 and continously locked after loading the first cue), SoundCue ($15 and wouldn’t output to a Bluetooth speaker), and finally Go Button ($20 and worth it.) Our speaker was the amazing Bose SoundLink Mini, a Christmas gift, that was placed in the midst of the set and provided plenty of volume and didn’t need to be wired. The only issue was the unit would shut off after 30 minutes if no audio feed was detected, so we added cues to ensure that wouldn’t be an issue.
Wenger platforms are great to perform on but they are heavy and awkward and must be transported via truck. The same goes for 60 steel chairs. U-Haul trucks cost about $100 between Utica and Rome, and use an absurd amount of fuel (they get about 6 mpg.) On the other hand, they only charge a single day’s rental if you pick up at noon one day and return by noon the next.
Facebook throttles page views as you get more visitors. I finally spent $25 to “sponsor” a post, which drove traffic to the show page – I also watched every other post get more views once I gave them some money. In the larger scheme, it was cheap and I probably should have done it sooner.
Ticker River was easy to work with for online ticketing, if you can live with them keeping all of the revenue until the event closes (fingers crossed that they send me a check within 5 business days, as promised.) BUT, we didn’t have an easy way to check sales that happened between 5:30 PM (when I printed the guest list) and show time. We ended up trusting that people had purchased tickets if they said so (almost nobody printed theirs at home, and who can blame them?) and double-checking later.
Vistaprint has many hidden costs, not least of which is shipping. I ordered 50 posters, which were shipped in 21 separate packages, and ultimately received only 49 posters. The one hanging next to my desk, signed by the cast and crew, looks great though.
Staples will print 325 12-page programs in B&W for $202 (color covers would have added $250) but they are very touchy about reproducing what they feel is protected material. I’d used Playbill Online to create the program, and they charge $50 for the right to print, but that doesn’t include a release form, which Staples insisted on, and Playbill didn’t respond when I called for help. The day was saved when a Staples manager recognized Ben’s name on the program – they’d gone to high school together.
It is difficult to create fake “stage” beer (iced tea is great for whiskey.) Yuengling is cheap and looks like several more expensive beers, and actors seem to like it.
Little things add up. My budget for putting on the show ended up almost twice what I’d originally planned (chalk that up to inexperience), and the audiences were smaller than we’d hoped for. I believe a second weekend would have benefitted from enthusiastic word-of-mouth.
Offering concessions for sale at intermission is a LOT of work and returns just about what it costs to set up. I’d do it again because it adds a feeling of hospitality (and might have produced some profit over a longer run.)
Pay the cast and crew. I’d hoped to offer a $100 stipend to the actors, to help pay for gas at least. (Commuting to Rome can easily consume several tanks of fuel.) Most community theater productions I’ve participated in also expect actors to contribute costumes, props, and to purchase their own tickets. I assume the logic is that actors benefit from being onstage, and should be expected to pay for the privilege. My show didn’t break even, but I considered it a good investment to give everyone a little bit. It’s a sign of respect.