Lessons from Producing an Equity Showcase
An Actors’ Equity Showcase allows actors who are members of the Equity union to participate in a limited-run show without a contract. This means you can produce a much cheaper play.
However, Equity requires that showcases follow a strict set of guidelines in order to protect its members. Most notably, a showcase production can be performed only 16 times over the course of four consecutive weeks. Actors must be paid more than members of your crew. And the total budget of a showcase production cannot exceed $35,000. Additionally, Equity requires special language in the program in regards to its members.
For a full list of rules, visit the Equity website.
Equity requires that all showcase productions be covered by Volunteer Accident Insurance. This can be purchased online through Fractured Atlas and takes about a week. The cost runs close to $200.
The problem with this form of insurance, however, is that it covers only volunteers. So if you pay your actors anything more than a couple hundred dollars (and you should) they will technically not be covered. Similarly, any stage crew member who is paid a salary will also not be covered.
To circumvent this issue, I also purchased the more expensive Workers Compensation insurance. This policy protected all paid crew members and actors. The cost was $1,200, and while considerably more, it gave me peace of mind that should something catastrophic happen, I would be covered. Workers compensation Insurance can be purchased from the New York State Insurance Fund.
Finally, most theaters will also require you to carry Liability Insurance. This policy, generally a million dollars worth of coverage, indemnifies both you and the theater should an audience member be injured while attending the show. Liability Insurance usually runs about $250, depending on the specifics of your needs. You’ll need to seek out an insurance broker to write a policy for you. Most theaters can recommend one for you.
Here’s a partial list of positions you may need to fill:
Scenic Designer: Designs your set. To save money, try to find someone who can both build and construct your set.
Lighting Designer: Designs the lighting for the show and then programs the light board. For an Equity showcase, it’s rare for the lighting designer to be present during the run. The designer generally teaches the board cues to the stage manager.
Electricians: The electricians physically hang and focus the lights. For a small show, you’ll probably need one master electrician and two assistants for a day and a half prior to the first dress rehearsal and then for half a day at the end of the run to break down the lights, if necessary.
Stage Manager: The stage manager runs the show and is in charge of getting the actors to the theater on time, running the light board, and all the other requirements of maintaining a show. A good stage manager makes the producer’s life much less stressful.
Assistant Stage Manager: Helps the stage manager. Not an essential position but certainly helpful.
Costume Designer: Develops the look of the wardrobe, then either constructs or buys the necessary clothing. In contemporary plays, it’s possible to have actors wear their own clothes. Still, a good costume designer can considerably elevate the look of the play.
Box Office: The person in charge of selling tickets to the public on the nights of the show. In some cases, the box office personnel will need to stay in the house for the length of the show to seat latecomers and to mediate any noise issues.
It’s critical to get things in writing: start and end dates, responsibilities, fees. This protects you and it protects those that you hire. Nothing causes more conflict than confused expectations. This is especially true for those in the set and lighting departments. Be clear about what you’re paying for. For example, do fees include load-in and load-out, breaking down risers and painting the floor as some theaters require? Know what you’re paying for.
Also, remember that anyone paid more than $600 must, in turn, pay taxes on that income. So they’ll each need to complete a 1090 tax form. Download and print 1090 forms from the IRS website and have your crew fill them out as you write checks. It’s much easier to get them in person than to chase people down weeks after the show closes.
There are several ticketing options for independent productions. I went with Ovationtix because their internet interface was simple and provided the flexibility I needed to generate promo codes for discounts and advance tickets that I provided to Kickstarter supporters. They also provided great customer service both by phone and email.
Ovationtix charges roughly $2 per ticket sold and directly deposits money you earn into your bank account.
Additionally, you may, at least initially, want to use papering services that provide free tickets to the public. Sites like Audience Extras, Gold Star, and Show-Score offer their members complimentary seats. You won’t make money on these sales, but they will help you to fill your house.
For each show, you set aside a chosen number of tickets, and you’ll be notified approximately two hours before curtain about how many have been claimed. In my experience, about half the tickets I set aside were used, about four per service, per night. In a small theater, those numbers can quickly add up and make a big difference in an otherwise small audience.
One new service, Show-Score.com, is similar to Yelp or Rotten Tomatoes, where attendees rank your show with a numbered score. Show-score promotes new productions more heavily, offering free tickets to the public, so make sure to ask your friends to rate your show as soon as possible to ensure more traffic.
One drawback to these papering services is that because they don’t notify you until right before showtime, you won’t be able to obtain an accurate head count in advance. To avoid overbooking, use Ovationtix to put a hold on the number of tickets set aside for these services. Then, release unused tickets when notified.
Also worth noting is that many of these services require a membership in order to sell tickets. In my own experience, the publicist handled these interactions. I just told him how many seats to set aside.
Personally, I was generous with giving out complimentary tickets. My overriding principle was that I wanted people to see the show more than I wanted to make money.
Publicity and Marketing
Publicists invite critics to your show to write reviews. Marketers get butts in seats. The two are in some ways inseparable, and you can often find one person to do both jobs or to subcontract the other for you.
Most publicists are reluctant to promise which critics will come to the show, so it’s best not to expect the New York Times.
You’ll also want to sign up for social media accounts in the name of your play. It’s best if Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all use the same handle. You’ll also want to buy a domain for your play as well as build a centralized landing sight for information about your play. Squarespace is an inexpensive and easy-to-use option.
Some thoughts on critics:
Critics are the scourge of the earth. Unless they like your show. Then they’re brilliant.
Remember, literally anyone can call themselves a critic. My harshest reviews were from a subway graffiti tour guide and someone in charge of selling textiles. It’s tempting to want to hit back at these reviewers with an email. Don’t. No good will come of it.
In fact, I heard from more than one producer that I should not read the reviews at all. Have a trusted friend transcribe the best quotes so you can use them for publicity such as hanging them outside the theater. It’s best not to do this, though, until after all reviews are over. You don’t want to tempt your fate by declaring your show’s brilliance while persnickety reviewers are in the house.
Do not make changes to your play based on reviewer’s comments unless you absolutely agree. Then, tread very carefully. In all likelihood during the three or four weeks that your show runs, you’ll lose perspective entirely, including the ability to see the work for what it is. Trust your instincts and don’t make rash decisions.
Unless you have large sums of disposable cash at the ready, you’ll most likely need to raise some money. I used Kickstarter.com to generate a little more than a third of my costs.
Kickstarter was also helpful in creating a built-in audience. My most popular rewards were advance tickets. I sold single tickets for $25 and pairs for $50. By the time I made tickets available to the general public I had already pre-sold a substantial number of seats.
For more information on using Kickstarter to raise capital, see my article, How I Used Kickstarter to Fund My Play.
As a producer, you’ll need to print lots of material. From scripts to lists of ticket holders to reserve seat signs, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for your pages to finish. Buy a faster printer. The Brother HL-L2340DW was the single best investment I made. At just $100, it whips through print jobs at 27 pages per second. The time saved was well worth the expense.
Additionally, you should purchase a scanner to keep copies of all your receipts. I picked up a refurbished Doxie Go Wi-Fi for $150.
Producing an Equity Showcase will not make you money. If you are very lucky–exceedingly lucky–you might break even. In all likelihood, you will lose an embarrassingly large amount of your savings.
Accepting this, you can focus instead on the true purpose of the showcase production, which is to have an audience view your work.