Theatre Blogs

I talk a lot about the power of blogs for theatre, but other than the ones at artsjournal.com, I haven’t seen too many.

Well, thanks to the power of google, I found a handful. The first I found was an entry appropriately entitled “Where Are The Theatre Blogs?” People who made comments to the entry actually pointed out a few to look at which was lucky because I never saw them listed on Google.

One of the best examples of what I championed in earlier entries about artists blogging about the process they go through can be found on my London life. The blog is currently following Paul Miller, a London based director (and author) who is in the process of directing a play in Japan. He has been blogging since August and has been really regular in his writing about his process and artistic experiences. Clicking back to November, one finds he had flown out then to cast the show, flew back to the UK and then back to Japan in January to direct. Guy has to be exhausted!

One of the most surprising links I came across was a story on Elisa Camahort who is not only a professional blogger–paid to blog for a company–but she is being paid to blog for 3 theatre companies in the San Francisco Bay Area! I haven’t really read the different blogs in their entireity. The recent focus seems to be on news about the theatres’ current and upcoming seasons and theories about acting, marketing, etc. I will be reading a bit more as I have time. (One of the best things about writing a blog–you can follow your own links to do additional research!)

I also found a person with a blog connected to Shakespeare Magazine. The blog covers stories about Shakespeare productions and projects in the US and UK. It also lists stories about the Bard himself, including recent articles about the writer having syphilis (and stories refuting that theory)

There are some interesting discussions about art coming from Canadian sources as well on a website called The Flying Monkey. While the author admits that the discussion is dying down (though there is apparently more occuring on a message board), what was really interesting is the stated purpose of the blog–“An online discussion, from the point of view of the performing arts, about the audience: who they are, what they want and what we can give them. Excerpts from this discussion will be reprinted in Ruby Slippers Theatre’s annual publication, The Flying Monkey, at the discretion of Guest Editor Adrienne Wong.”
(06/09- The old blog is gone, replaced by a new one which does not have any of the old conversations.)

I thought it was really interesting that they would include the discussion in a print publication as well. As many people as there are reading blogs, etc online, it is good to remember that there are a lot of passionate supporters out there who aren’t online and they deserve to be included in the dialogue in some fashion from time to time.

Last theatre blog I wanted to direct folks to is not for live performance, but actually a movie theatre. Some intrepid folks apparently quit their high paying corporate jobs right around Christmas and moved to Springfield, MO to renovate and open a small movie house. They basically discuss every step of the project from applying to get a Small Business Administration loan to deciding how what type of soda to serve and the size seats to put in the theatre. (You want a lesson in economics, check out the Jan 8 entry –unfortunately they don’t have a way to link directly to the entry)

Say What?

Even before I took my current position, I was familiar with the unique situations one might run into while working for a theatre in a university setting. There are the competitive bids you must solicit for everything, the triplicate forms, the purchase order process and four week wait for people to be paid.

Then there is the fact the state doesn’t like to pay for services in advance of receiving them. If you are using Equity actors you often must post a bond and as I noted yesterday, when you present performances, you often have to pay deposits in advance. Many times you end up explaining that this is the usual way of doing business over and over to people.

Today there was a bit of a new twist. A person from the business office comes over and says I have to sign a statement on the purchase order saying that I will personally reimburse the university if it pays the deposit and the artist doesn’t perform. Now given that the deposit is usually at least $5,000 or more, that isn’t something I really want to be responsible for.

I have never had a performer fail to perform. However, I am sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific. Just regular problems with airplanes can pose a problem much less other acts of God, war, strike and all the other variables found in a force majeure clause. Most force majeure clauses stipulate that an artist will return the deposit less any expenses. Given that purchasing airline tickets to Hawaii will probably eat up the deposit amount by itself, the chance of me retrieving the deposit in such a situation is probably slim to none.

I lodge a complaint to my division chair who is as incredulous as I. He says to check with my counterparts at other campuses to see if they face the same problem. I heard back from one of them before I left for the day and his answer left me even more flabbergasted. He does sign the reimbursement pledge when he pays deposits–however he often crosses that part of a contract out so he only pays when he really has to. Now this is the same guy who crosses out the catering portion of hospitality riders so I am wondering how the heck he manages to get anyone to perform for him at all.

I guess all my talk yesterday about the basic requirements one will have to meet for most presenting situation has quite a few more exceptions to the rule than I thought. I need to talk to some more people though. I really don’t want to sign the thing, but I also don’t want to eliminate a whole pool of potential performers too because the university won’t pay a deposit.

Primer in Presenting

I thought I would do a quick run through of common terminology, features and expectations of the presenting business for those folks who aren’t familiar with them. I had done an article some time ago on how misunderstanding about common expectations can lead to uncomfortable cancelation situations. I thought it might be good to talk about some contractual features as well.

Deposit It is common for performers to require you to send a 50% deposit to them or their agent about a month or so before they are set to perform as a security. They usually require the balance in their hands right before or right after the performance.

Force Majeure-Better definition than I can give found here. Pretty much every contract has them. They are about as ubiquitous as a Miranda warning on a police/lawyer show. It doesn’t take long before you can recite the clause in your sleep.

Insurance– One thing I see quite a bit is the expectation that the presenter carries about $1 million in insurance to protect performers and crew from any mishaps. If you are renting a space, it will most certainly be included as a requirement for space use. In many cases, it is included in the performers contract as well to protect them.

Advancing the Show – Usually the road manager or the artist does this a few weeks to a month before a performance to discuss details of the technical rider, transportation, sound check times, food, accomodations–basically anything they are concerned about.

Backline – Essentially any sound equipment and instruments that the performers aren’t bringing with them that they expect the presenting venue to supply. It makes a tour a lot cheaper if they don’t have to haul pianos, extra guitars, amps, drum kits, etc across the country. Pay very close attention to this because many performers are very particular about the name brand of the equipment that they use.

Tech Rider– List of technical equipment and services that a performer requires. It includes the backline, but will also encompass lighting, special effects, stage layout, power requirements for tour buses (as well as places to park said buses and trailers), size and composition of running crews.

Hospitality– Essentially what people want to eat and when they want to eat it. It can be very simple or very complicated. They say an army travels on its stomach and so does a tour so this is very important. I recently had a guy tell me he crosses catering off contracts immediately. I have no idea how he gets away with it.

I always double check this section when advancing a show. Many times vegetarians or people with food allergies join a group and they don’t change the rider. I also order more than I need–girlfriends, best friends, surprise visitors, etc tend to show up in the dressing room unannounced and are invited to chow down. If you do your checking and pad the order in advance, it saves a lot of hassle on the performance day.

Hospitality will also encompass other aspects of how performers are treated. Some people will want irons and garment steamers and towels both backstage on on stage. This section might also specify that the performers want food served on real plates rather than paper or paper is okay, but styrofoam is not.

Transportation– Another big variable in the presenting calculation. Sometimes you have to pay airfare, sometimes cab (or limo) fare, other times the performer is driving themselves and absorbing all the costs. Sometimes you have to do the driving yourself. This is actually the reason I decided to do this entry. I had a slight disagreement with an artist’s manager over this recently.

When I worked in New Jersey, we would drive people to and from the airport one time in 20 to 25 instances. Here in Hawaii, we generally arrange for cars for people to drive around. A contract I got recently specifies that we pay for their ground transportation and provide a map and directions to them. A similar contract for their opening act specifies having a sedan for him. My assumption then is that we are providing cars for them, especially since they are coming early with wives and girlfriends so they can see the sights.

The group manager tells me that he reads the contract to mean that we have to pay to have them driven around and haven’t I ever done a concert before. Now I am thinking he means we are to pay to have them driving around the island sightseeing and shopping and I tell him we can’t do that. He actually meant that he wanted a ride from the airport to hotel, hotel to venue and back and then to airport again. (My mistake was telling him we couldn’t do it before I understood exactly what he was asking for. One of my prime rules is to never worry travelers to unknown places unnecessarily.) It was an easy mistake to make, but also illustrates why you should read over a contract carefully and discuss any gray areas during the advancing calls.

Security– This can be a sticky area. I have almost never had to use professional security people for backstage and front of stage security. Actually, it is never. The only professionals I have used were for gate security to screen for alcohol. On the other hand, the volunteers I have used were people I knew I could trust and looked as if they were keeping an eye on things and weren’t going to let someone by unchallenged. Yes, some were big and tough looking, but most were just determined looking.

Because we had the right looking dependable people, no tour manager, etc ever really questioned our security measures whether they had asked for professional shirted security folks or not. We always made it clear that we had a volunteer security force back when we signed the contracts as well.

Whether you can get away with it is another thing altogether. My advice is, as it is for all things, cultivate a good group of volunteers and note which ones might be trusted for special positions for future events.

That is about all I can think of as a summary of the major points of a presenting contract. These are just basic generalizations. Your milage may vary.

Know When To Cut

So, as promised, a quick recap of my attendance of the event Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke at last evening. It was a big affair. The line to get in stretched around the block and limos bearing consuls from about six countries pulled up as we were all filing it.

I was sort of disappointed because I thought he was going to speak about the NEA. However, he said he had spoken about it at two other gatherings already and didn’t feel like doing so again. Apparently I was not important enough to be invited to those meetings!

Actually, he didn’t speak until about an hour into the meeting. There were a lot of speeches whose whole point seemed to be the gratuitous mentioning of names over and over again to applaud and thank. Then there were exhibitions of performing talent to show the diversity of the arts in the state that ranged from the stinky to the sublime. It has been a long time since an NEA chair has been to the state so I understand why people wanted to show off as much as possible.

Mr Gioia was as good as speaker as I had hoped a poet would be. He spoke about the value of the arts, but didn’t harp on it too much and actually spent much of the night reciting his own poetry, most of which was pretty good. The anecdotes and commentary surrounding them really made his presentation.

The one thing I really noted was a poem he said he originally wrote at the request of National Public Radio on the turning of the new year. It was originally 36 lines long. However, after he had recited it, he decided it needed some trimming so he removed two lines, then another two, another two, and more and more by twos (except he skipped 14 lines and went right to 12 according to his story.)

Ultimately, it ended up being 8 lines long and no longer about the new year at all, but rather about what goes on inside oneself.

This was the real gem that I took away from the night. When we learn about creating art, be it written, performed, composed, painted, etc, we are often told never to become so invested and married to something that you are afraid to cut away extraneous bits or make changes. The best sculptors often talk about freeing the shape within the material rather than imposing their vision upon it. The best writers are not afraid to edit. Actors are taught to react to whatever changes in energy and situation might be occurring on stage rather than delivering the performance that got the biggest applause last week.

Of course, it rarely happens that way. Taking the leap of faith to discard or change is easy to talk about, but hard to do. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Gioia for having the confidence in his talent to be able to do that.