Archive for May, 2010

The 2010 Spring Road Conference is underway and there have been many interesting panels and breakout sessions.

A session I attended yesterday was called, “Reimagine…” where a panel of esteemed Road Presenters from across the country discussed their experiences with programming and producing smaller shows in their markets.

The panel included, Jeff Chelesvig, President & CEO of the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, Judy Joseph, Vice President of Programming at Straz Center for the Arts, Gina Vernaci, Vice President of Theatricals for Playhouse Square Foundation and Randy Weeks, Executive Director of Denver Center Attractions and was moderated by Tom Gabbard, President of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

The general message from the four panelists was that they all like to present and produce smaller shows when they can, but that, ultimately, smaller shows can be very costly in the long run, so they have to plan and choose carefully, and even then the results aren’t always successful.

There have been success stories, though. In October 2002, Chelesvig programmed a show called TRIPLE ESPRESSO into the newly created 268-seat theater space in the Masonic Temple in Des Moines. Though only a three-person show, he put it on the Broadway Series and hoped it would run for eight weeks.

It ran for sixty-eight weeks.

For Vernaci, JACQUEL BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS was a big success story, running for two and a half years in their cabaret space. She admitted, though, that just when you think you have it all figured out, you realize you don’t have it all figured out, and you have a “train wreck,” as when she created a show from dollar one without a subscription load-in and had difficulty covering costs. She also made bad chair choices. Her subscribers were apparently used to the comfy style chairs in the mainstage theaters, not the hard chairs and high backed stools she selected for the cabaret space.

Weeks had great success with small shows when at one point he had two titles run for a total of eight years. He said his train wreck happened when he chose to produce a fantastic, but esoteric production that he loved, THE LAST FIVE YEARS.

What about a long run for a small show? Joseph remarked that doing small shows on subscription for, say, four months could be very cost prohibitive, even with the small cast because the performers would need housing, for example. To make it work in those cases, she likes to use local talent and designers. She also noted how hard it is to market small cast shows that are unknown. When asked to define a small cast show size, Joseph replied, “as small as possible,” and specifically said that an eight-person show is as high as she’ll ever go. Weeks said he currently had a show running that had only two performers.

Each of the panelists said they liked to co-produce shows with other presenters or producers when there was the opportunity to work with people they knew and trusted. Working with a partner takes some of the risk out of producing smaller shows. Additionally, each entity has something to contribute, and they can also each learn things from working with the other.

So what’s the takeaway? While seemingly inexpensive on the surface, the small show is actually tougher to produce and present in many ways than the large-scale show with a known title. Unless you have a surprise hit, the potential financial return is very small in relation to the time and attention required to get it up and running and properly marketed, making it a risky proposition. That said, small shows also have the potential to be long-running successes, and they also offer theater-goers a more intimate experience. So, while the overall news spelled out here will likely be discouraging to those who have small properties that they are hoping to tour, it was heartening and encouraging to hear how these presenters were still interested in producing and presenting smaller shows at their venues, and how they are continually looking into innovative ways to make this happen.

So, maybe your small show will be the next big “small” thing that runs for sixty-eight weeks in Des Moines.

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Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post that gave a very basic overview of the Short Engagement Touring Agreement, a contract, established as a result of the combined efforts of The Broadway League and Actors’ Equity Association, that could be applied to tours that had more modest guarantees. Generally speaking, before the SET Agreement existed, most touring shows that had more modest guarantees would go out non-Equity because there was not an agreement available that allowed a Producer of a smaller-than-blockbuster tour to use union actors in a way that made sense in relation to the tour’s expenses and profit expectations.

I’ve noticed a lot of searches about the SET agreement over the past year, and I have also received a couple of direct questions on this blog about it. While purely from an AEA perspective, an article in the May 2010 edition of Equity News sheds light on some of the specifics of the SET agreement, as well as what some of the benefits are:

“The Short Engagement Touring Agreement — Recapturing Lost Equity Employment”

When the 2008 Production Contract negotiations discussed touring, it became clear that both sides were looking for changes in the lower-cost one-week and split-week markets. Presenters across the country were opting to book tours with weekly guarantees — the amount of money the Producer is assured weekly — under $220,000, while most Equity national tours were asking over $350,000 or $400,000 in weekly guarantees. This left Presenters to book non-Equity shows into their seasons, and Equity members began to lose access to touring opportunities aside from the blockbuster road shows. Both sides wanted to capture these lost opportunities, and decided to build on the working model developed for the Production Tiered Tours, which were negotiated in 2004 and effectively drove out the non-Equity competition in the one-week and multi-week market.

Using our extensive historical, economic, and anecdotal knowledge about touring, Equity and the {Broadway} League met for six months and negotiated terms for the Short Engagement Touring Agreement, an attempt to similarly recapture lost employment in the split-week and one-week market. One year into Equity’s newest national agreement, there has been broad interest by Producers to use the Agreement in the very areas where Equity members had previously been denied access.

By the fall of 2010, the Short Engagement Touring Agreement will have been used by Producers in all three regions of the country, on a wide spectrum of shows: small-cast dramas in the one-night market, long-running musical tours which historically would have closed and re-opened as non-Equity tours, even large-cast tours of less-successful titles which, without this Agreement in place, would have gone out non-Equity from day one, if at all.

The minimum terms and the Agreement itself (labeled as “Language Not Finalized” while the parties agree upon final wording for the Media Rule) can be found online in the Document Library at www.actorsequity.org. Here you can read the qualification requirements as well, which include well-documented expense and budget information, detailed itineraries, and guaranteed number of Equity members employed. In order to capture as much of the touring landscape as possible for our membership, there are six categories of tour size with their own financial terms appropriate to the different levels of touring.

In each category, though, when the Actor is more than 50 miles away from home, the Producer must provide free housing to the Actor, in addition to a per diem to help defray the cost of life on the road. The scheduling rules for both performances and travel itself have been eased to a small degree in order to accommodate split-week realities. The added flexibility allows the tours to play in some venues that have not booked Equity productions in many years. Members are reminded that these tours may be under working conditions that are different  from Production Contract tours that have been out in the last several years, so they should evaluate the itineraries and financial offers carefully before accepting the SET Agreement tour to assess their individual touring and financial concerns.

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