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apap2013

If it’s January…it must be APAP!

APAP is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest conference related to The Road, non-profit arts companies and individual artists. I discussed what the APAP conference is in some detail in a previous post. You can check that post out here.

This year, the conference begins tomorrow, and runs through January 15th.

If you’re a producer, presenter, artist, or manager and in the NYC area this weekend, you may want to register for part of the conference and check out some of the action at the Hilton, and one or more of the many varied showcases.

APAP NYC – 2013

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PLAYS ON THE ROAD

Historically, The Road has tended to embrace musicals more than plays, (as one conference attendee quipped, “no one walks out of a play humming the scenery”) but the ratio of plays being booked compared to musicals has been going down even more in recent years. Yet, why is that? It would seem that there would be financial advantages to presenting a good play, and just looking at Broadway alone this season, there are certainly good plays a-plenty out there.

At the Tuesday 5/15 afternoon session, “PLAYS ON THE ROAD,” a panel of presenters, producers and bookers explained why touring plays has become less desirable and more risky economically compared to the past.

Commitment Issues

Much more so than a musical, a play tends to require a “star” to attract audiences when it goes out on tour, and a tour really needs a star to commit a good year and a half to two years out when presenters are beginning to put together their seasons. Presenters don’t want to put a “TBA” in their brochures, and they certainly don’t want to still have any roles “TBA” six months out, yet that is when many stars feel comfortable making a commitment to a touring project since they are more likely to know then if any film or TV commitments would conflict.

Regional Competition

Many touring venues are in markets that have regional theaters and resident theater companies, and these nfps have a tendency to do mostly plays. As a result, Road presenters don’t want to risk doing a title that one of these local organizations would produce on their seasons.

Less Weeks To Amortize

Plays have a tendency to not book as many weeks on The Road as musicals. As a result, plays have less weeks to amortize costs. This reality makes plays much riskier to present compared to musicals, which are more likely to have multi-week engagements and longer touring schedules.

Plays On The Road And Multiple-Week Runs?

By the time word of mouth gets going, a play is often already on its way out of town since plays tend to be booked for just one week (certainly in secondary markets) so on the one hand, plays need to be presented for more than one week in order to mitigate the risk. At the same time, however, some markets, especially those with modest sub load-ins, may not be able to fill their houses enough to make a profit, or hit break-even, for more than a one-week run of a play.

Play vs. Musical Appeal

Another thing that presenters take into consideration is that musicals tend to have the same appeal across markets, whereas a play that is received well in Louisville may not be The Ahmanson’s cup of tea. Therefore, presenters and bookers often feel that finding one play property to fit the bill in enough markets is a far greater challenge compared to musicals.

Changes In The Industry

Another factor that comes into play is price, which used to be a play’s big advantage over a musical. Now, however, the price to present a play is no longer as attractive as it once was in comparison to a musical. A few years ago, a new contract called the SETA contract (Short Engagement Touring Agreement) became available. This contract has a Guarantee cap. As a result, when musicals tour under SETA, the Guarantee is not necessarily much different, and, may even be less is some cases, than the weekly Guarantee for a play.

A New Model?

While the realities expressed were certainly disheartening, one bit of light was that the panelists, as well as other conference attendees, voiced their support of plays, and their desire to still present them, and believed plays could still be booked if The Road could come up with a model that would make touring plays less risky. Here were a few ideas that were brought up in this session:

  1. Perhaps for a 30-week tour ask 3 different celebrities to commit to just 10 weeks.
  2. Tour in rep several plays under the brand “Tony-Award Winning Plays” or “Tony-Nominated Plays” (though Producer/General Manager, Stuart Thompson pointed out that this could be a challenge to get these licenses since the plays could probably earn more on a single license at one theater)
  3. Include a sit-down in New York City as part of the 30-week tour. This might also make the tour more attractive to a star.
  4. Can presenters think creatively to reduce their costs, or negotiate with local unions?

The fact of the matter is, producers, bookers and presenters all really like plays, and have seen the positive impact that plays have had on audience members, but the commercial theater touring industry is a business. It’s a business where both labor costs and risks are high, so presenters have become cautious when considering plays for their seasons, despite how they feel about plays emotionally.

Hopefully, some of the new model ideas that people offered at this session, or other ideas, will build momentum, and plays on The Road will gain the larger presence they deserve.

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THE AVERAGE-SIZED MERMAID runs in The New York International Fringe Festival August 13-27th!

It’s been a busy summer for me, which is the reason for the fewer posts. And, admittedly, this post is not entirely within the mission of this blog, but more of a plug.

I am proud to be a lead producer on a delightful comedy called THE AVERAGE-SIZED MERMAID by promising, young writer, Jessica Fleitman that will be presented as part of The New York International Fringe Festival. I am producing the show via my company, early bird theatricals.

Truth be told, this post actually does fall partly within the scope of this blog. While I don’t see this play touring, I do see it having a future life in small professional theaters and universities, which is part of why I signed on to the project, to support a new work that I think will have life beyond the Fringe, among other reasons.

We’ve already received excellent advance press, including Linda Winer of Newsday and we are a “Voice Choice” in The Village Voice.

When producing a project, it’s important to know why you are getting involved and to really evaluate your expectations. Many have approached me over the years with a show they’re involved with that would be “perfect for touring” not knowing really what goes into getting a show out on The Road. There’s a lot of competition out there and touring a show can also be very expensive, so other options like licensing may be more realistic. Licensing, of course, will not bring in as much money as a tour does, but it also does not have the financial risks, and it is still a perfectly respectable and exciting way to get your work seen. To be published and have your play or musical licensed is a great feeling. I know that first-hand from my writing work.

So, if you’re in NYC between August 13-27, please come see THE AVERAGE-SIZED MERMAID! You’ll be able to say you saw the show first before it made it’s big “splash” out in the world at large. And I guarantee that you will have a FINtastic time.

For your easy reference, here are our performance times and venue info:

SHOW DATES:

SAT 8/13 @ 3:15pm
MON 8/15 @ 9:30pm
THR 8/25 @ 6:00pm
FRI 8/26 @ 9:15pm
SAT 8/27 @ 1:00pm
FringeNYC Venue #7: 
Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th St between Aves A&B

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Amy Polan Clarke

Amy Polan Clarke

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes before, during, and after an engagement takes place in each and every market. And in this case, when I say “behind the scenes” I don’t mean the backstage area before, during and after a performance. The behind the scenes action I’m referring to is related to all the complex operational details that need to be hammered out and continuously managed — deal points, contracts, technical riders, estimated engagement expenses, gross advertising budgets, ticket pricing, ticket discount strategies, and settlements, just to name a few —  and it is the theatrical booking agency that is right in the center, literally. Theatrical booking agencies solely represent the producer of a tour, but they are also the main liaison between the producer and the presenters licensing the show. So, booking agency engagement managers need to find just the right strategic balance of negotiation and diplomacy skills, and also be able to stay on top of a lot of information related to all the different shows they are booking from their roster, and all the vastly different presenters, markets and venues they are dealing with on a daily basis.

I’m lucky to know one of THE best theatrical engagement managers and Director of Operations in the business — Amy Polan Clarke. I got the chance to catch up with Amy recently over email and ask her some questions about the work she has done in the touring industry, her perspective with regard to the current state of The Road, and how producers and artists out there might connect with a booking agency and potentially get agents interested in their projects.

THE ROAD 101: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Amy. Can you describe in broad strokes what a theatrical booking agency does, and what your function has been as a Director of Operations?

AMY POLAN CLARKE: A theatrical booking agency is hired by a Producer and/or General Manager to sell, within a specified territory, performances of the Producer’s production of a theatrical show. After the agent would negotiate the dates and financial terms with Presenters in various markets, it was my job to create an analysis of the offers and submit them to the Producer, looking at the financial terms, ticket prices, history in the market, estimated expenses, Producer’s income potential and the buyer’s break even. We would go back and forth between the producer and the buyer negotiating the deal points and once they were acceptable to all, I would negotiate and create contracts outlining and formalizing the deal. I also kept a running tally of the Producer’s total estimated income for the tour to ensure that they would meet their weekly nut and updated agents as to the status. Once the tour actually began, I acted as the liaison among the agents, Producers, marketing reps, and tour personnel to keep it running smoothly. I also verified settlements and maintained summaries of grosses, expenses, income, and commissions for all performances.  We did not have a database system, so I created spreadsheet after spreadsheet for all the data.  In fact, some producers insisted that other agencies use my formats (this happened to me in the concert industry also – to this day, people are using settlement forms I created years ago). I also did operational tasks for the company such as dealing with new hires, vacation days, maintaining the website and creating the company’s annual roster brochure.

TR101: I see you’ve also been an Associate General Manager. How does that role differ from an operations role?

APC: As an Associate GM, I did similar tasks with negotiations, contracts and settlements, however also auditioned and hired talent; hired road crew, coordinated marketing and publicity campaigns and materials, secured visas and insurance for cast and crew, and handled all financial aspects of the production – budgets, cash flows, royalty statements, and P & L reports to investors. I also approved all tour expenditures and oversaw the sales and inventory of merchandise on the tour. It was much more hands-on to the actual production than being at an agency.

TR101: Wow, you certainly know your stuff!  How did you first get into the theatrical booking industry?

APC: I was the Senior VP of Touring for a concert promotion/producer/management firm where I worked for 30 years (started at age 20). I booked tours and went on the road with shows as a Tour Manager/Tour Accountant (similar to Company Manager). But in 2002 the company was bought and closed down.  I then worked as the Associate GM for an off-Broadway producer (until the show went bust), and I discovered I liked the theatrical business better than the music business so I pursued it.  Simma Levine of On the Road Booking and I had some business friends in common and she needed help.

TR101: A lot of artists and producers consider attending booking conferences in order to meet booking agents, and network. Do you have any opinions about the various booking conferences out there, i.e., WAA, Midwest Arts Conference, PAE, APAP, etc. as far as their usefulness to bookers, and to producers, or artists, looking for bookers?

APC: I think it’s important for agents to get out and meet the people you talk to on the phone all the time. That being said, I’m not sure that all that many new bookings actually come out of it. But for artists, they present a great opportunity to show your stuff to agents and/or producers who might potentially represent you. Getting them to actually come to your showcase is a whole other thing. It’s all very hectic.

TR101: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges facing a tour’s ability to turn a profit these days?

APC: Same thing as everyone else’s challenges in making a profit these days – you want to put out a quality project, but expenses are too high, sales are too low, and you have to keep the ticket prices low outside of the larger cities. And touring also has to deal with transportation costs, over which they have very little control. Sponsorships have also fallen by the wayside due to the economy. One thing I think the theatrical industry does better than the concert industry is offering so many varying ticket prices – subscriptions, groups, students, promotions, dynamic pricing, etc. The concert industry does very little of this. On the other hand, it makes it really difficult for the producer to know what his income might be. Theatre also doesn’t seem to have the scalping issues that concerts have, which is one of the reasons some concert ticket prices are so high (the theory being that the scalpers will get this price, so the band might as well get it).

TR101: Do you have any suggestions as to how a theatre producer, or theatre artist, might get their project noticed by a booking agency?

APC: Find a way to get them excited about the show. Of course everyone wants/needs to make money, but if someone is passionate about what they’ve seen, they just might invest their time in you and try to build you into a money maker.  You’ve got to have something that moves them, though.

 

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Amy Polan Clarke is a veteran of the live entertainment industry, having worked all sides of the spectrum in both the theatrical and concert worlds – for venues, promoters, producers, performers, and agencies. She has toured as Business/Tour Manager for musical performers from the Grateful Dead to Sarah Brightman and has worked on theatrical touring shows such as Hairspray, Movin’ Out, The Producers, and Spring Awakening.

Email Amy: amyclarke@comcast.net

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