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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2015

Notes from the Field: Commercial Theater Institute’s Introduction to Commercial Producing Intensive

Monday, June 8, 2015   (0 Comments)
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Interview by Laura Brueckner

In late April, TBA managing director Dana Harrison headed to New York to attend a three-day intensive course on producing commercial theatre, held by the Commercial Theater Institute (CTI). Harrison has been working as a producer since 1998, first on a large-scale, hybrid performance installation titled The Abduction Chamber of the Nebulous Entity (Burning Man, 1998), then forming her own production company, Post-Playa Productions. She chose to attend the CTI course because she plans to revive a PPP show, How to Survive the Apocalypse, as an immersive theatre experience, in partnership with artists in San Francisco (she’s reportedly also always wanted to do a production of Pippin as a Buddhist allegory, with the Leading Player as the demon Mara).


Photo: "Dreams of New York" by Thomas Hawk on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

While “How do I get my start in/expand my skills in producing theatre?” is a question we hear frequently at TBA, there’s not really any course on the West Coast that really compares to the CTI intensive, much less for nonprofit theatres (even at this year’s TCG Conference, oddly). So we caught up with Harrison to ask her about the experience, to give Bay Area theatre producers a taste of what a course like this provides. And who knows? Perhaps it’ll be Bay Area theatre producers that launch the nonprofit version of this gathering, in our own backyard! 

View a PDF of CPI's Commercial Producing Intensive course agenda here.

LB: What did this three-day intensive course offer to attendees?

DH: Unbelievable access to experts in the field. We were exposed to everyone significant in this world, from the top lawyers, general managers and marketing people—plus Tori Bailey from TDF and Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League—to the most famous and celebrated producers of this era: David Stone (Wicked, Next to Normal, If/Then), Barry Weissler (Cabaret, Chicago and Pippin revivals), Hal Luftig (Mame, Kinky Boots) and Kevin McCollum (Motown, In the Heights, Avenue Q, Rent), as well as lots of early- and mid-career producers. 

A deluge of information and resources. Basic information about who’s on a producing team, in which order to hire people and who does what; budget templates, boilerplate contracts and marketing plans; war stories and hard-won lessons from the front lines; the process of how to make a pitch, plus the opportunity to watch two pitches get critiqued live; different models of producing and different paths to a commercial production.

Massive networking opportunities (mostly for folks in New York). Less helpful for us regional people, but if I were wanting to produce in NY, I’d have been all over it. 

Inspiration. About 80% of the successful producers we met started with some kind of introductory class at CTI (often this very course); then they met people, continued to build their knowledge and connections, and made great things happen. 

As a producer, did you learn anything that really surprised you?

Not so much surprised as deluged by information. I did feel a little bit glad that I dove in and started working as a producer before I realized how much I didn’t know—although there’s a lot I could’ve done much better (and saved myself a lot of trouble) if I had known! I think this kind of education is incredibly useful for folks who want to produce, but most useful if you’ve already worked enough to have some context in which to hear what you’re being told. The friend I went with has a background mostly as a director, for example, so she found the budgeting and legal sessions fairly excruciating, whereas for me a lot of that was the super-useful meat. 

Who else was there taking the course?

The range of people there was huge! Some folks were lawyers and CPAs who work at larger firms that deal with entertainment issues—they were there to get some comprehension of this world so that they could better understand and communicate with their clients. Some were designers, composers, playwrights, etc., trolling for jobs and opportunities. Some were directors who were wondering whether they might want to produce. Several people had properties for which they were trying to find a producer. And then maybe 20% were smaller/less experienced producers who were looking to enhance their skills—as well as experienced producers who’d, perhaps, screwed up and were looking to retool/reset. The very vast majority—I’d say north of 90%—were from NY, though, so it definitely felt different to be from a regional market. 

What were your most useful takeaways from this producing intensive?

Other than the tons of very specific, practical and tactical info and materials, I’d say: 

1. You’re not truly ready for an audience until the entire team knows and can articulate clearly and succinctly (and are in absolute agreement about) not only exactly what you’re trying to get across to an audience, but also why this show now

2. Who’s on the team, and the chemistry among those folks, really matters, beyond how talented any individual might be.  And each person really has a specific role to play, so you need each person. It doesn’t work, for example, for the producer to also act as the general manager, because the GM must be able to hold the line firmly on costs, say “no” a lot and be an enforcer of rules. Meanwhile, the producer has to support the team, reinforce the vision, and be the “voice” of the team to the world. 

3. You’re in a lot better shape going into the final stages of development and production if the creative team doesn’t think they have a finished, perfect show.  No doubt, once you really start to work things through, bring in other voices (like a director or choreographer or designers) and get the show in front of audiences, you’re going to find things that need to change—and it’s much easier to work together if the creative team is open and flexible to change. 

What do you think earlier-career producers would get out of this convening?

A massive wealth of information, exposure and ideas. I’d recommend it highly to anyone—with the caveat that, as valuable as it is, non-New Yorkers will have a different experience than folks looking to produce in NY. Non-commercial/small-scale producers will have a different experience as well, though all the info is still useful in context/at scale.   

There were also some absolutely irreplaceable experiences, like watching the two shows do their 30-minute pitches (and having our own responses to those pitches), then watching while the experienced producer panel critiqued the pitches. They told us what they saw, what variables they were considering, what they thought that the presenters did well/not well and how that related to the likely underlying strengths and weaknesses of the shows. I feel like that one experience—which lasted about 90 minutes—was worth years of my own in-the-trenches learning!