How to stage your own fringe theatre production and maybe even make money doing it
A brief how to guide for actors.
There are a lot of good reasons to put on a play; You’re sick of waiting for the right job to come along and want to do the thing you love. You want to stretch yourself artistically. You’ve got a couple of grand you’re keen to get rid of but feel like burning it would be too easy. Putting on a play is a good way of achieving all of those things. Sometimes you can even make money as well. But how do you go about it?
The first thing to ask yourself is what play are you going to do?
Consider the challenges. Shakespeare, Chekhov or other period playwrights have the advantage of being out of copyright and therefore free to perform (George Bernard Shaw plays go out of copyright next year, so expect a lot of fringe productions of his work). But a major hurdle here is that often these plays are written for big casts. Also they can be very challenging texts. And many people have been dragged to a lot of mediocre productions of Shakespeare already so it can be hard to drum up interest. For these reasons unless you have a burning passion for the play, a very clear reason for doing it or a novel adaptation it is not recommended for a first time project.
You can, of course, apply to get the rights to a more recent play. You will have to pay for these although be aware even if you have the money, very modern plays can be hard to get the rights for if you're a company with little track record. You might be better off looking at plays from the 80s/90s first time round. There are lots of great plays which may have been forgotten. They’re likely to be more affordable and available.
Alternatively, find something brand new. Put a call out online for new writers to share their work. Find writers' groups and ask there. If you’re interested in political work Theatre Uncut release new plays every year which can be staged copyright free.
The final option is to create your own work or work with a writer to create something. This can ultimately be very rewarding but if you do decide to go down this route be aware that it may take a lot longer to come up with something good. This process shouldn't be rushed, you'll be much better served doing something wonderful than hurrying to produce something which isn't quite ready.
What should you look for in a play?
You need to love the play. Not like it. Love it. You’ll be spending potentially stressful months (or more) of your life fighting to keep it on track. So find something that speaks to you and you believe the world needs to see.
Logistics. How easy is it to stage. This can be broken down into two sections. Firstly, the cast. Every additional extra actor makes it harder to make money and harder to schedule rehearsals. Secondly, the world. Plays that demand a lavish setting or props needn’t be an issue if your company uses physical theatre or imaginative staging. But if you’re doing a traditional fourth wall production and using home furniture to decorate a nineteenth century mansion it’s going to distract from your acting. So work out how much it’s going to cost to do it properly, in the style you want and budget for it. If you can’t afford that, find another play.
Where and how should you put it on?
Next you need to find a venue. This is a minefield of considerations. Theatres in London, New York, Los Angeles – and many other major cities in the world – are expensive. Very expensive. If you’re a new company it might be worth doing a small test run first before committing to three or four weeks at a venue. This is a great way to gauge audience reaction and maybe even get a quote or two for your posters for a longer run. It might be hard to get press along to a small run but maybe consider doing one or two preview days in a very central venue to attract press? Or performing in the afternoons to attract press who might be busy in the evening?
Places like the Camden Fringe or the Vaults Festival in Waterloo, London, UK, are great chances to showcase new work for a short run. The Tristan Bates theatre regularly showcases new work for short runs. General considerations are that, while city centre theatres are more expensive, they may also be easier to get an audience to. Find a space which suits your play and try to see some other work in the venue before you commit. If the venue are good at marketing other shows they host then this will make it easier for you to sell your show.
Make sure to market
Even for a short run, but especially on a longer run, you need to be sending out press releases at least 8 weeks before your show opens. Make sure to emphasise why this show deserves an audience, why the content is relevant and any personal interest elements about the production (all female cast etc).
Sites like remotegoat are very helpful for circulating information widely but these days journalists are so inundated that the best thing to do is to contact them personally. Do your research. Find out which journalists you would want to review your work. The big guys, of course, Lyn Gardner, Mark Shenton, but the theatre bloggers as well, read their work and reference it when you invite them.
Find your audience
Finally, you’ve made the work, now you need an audience. This is a major part of any production. If it's your show, it’s up to you to promote the pants off of it. Write emails and messages to your friends, family and contacts. Phone them up and invite them. Tell them why you think they might like it.
Don’t just do a couple of public Facebook posts and assume that’s enough. You will get a much better response from being personal. Especially for your first night or two, you need people in and if they like it they will tell other people. Don’t be afraid to ask people to tweet or to post about your show if they liked it. Endorsement and genuine responses from audience members can be one of the most powerful ways of promoting a show.Tags: