Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear Speaks: An Interview with a Playwright, a Director, and a Producer -- Part 2

Here's the second part of my interview with Jesse Edward Rosbrow of Theatre of the Expendable, Michael Roderick of Small Pond Entertainment, and Duncan Pflaster of Cross-Eyed Bear Productions. These gentlemen have banded together to share production costs, performance space, design teams, and resources to present Mare Cognitum by David McGee, Squiggy and the Goldfish by Lenny Schwartz, and Ore, or Or by Duncan Pflaster.

Me: Each of you wears many hats. Can you talk a bit about the different roles you play and how you balance the many activities against each other and also with the other things you have to do in your daily lives? Which artistic role is your preference?

MICHAEL: I am primarily a producer. I direct only when I am really passionate about something and feel I absolutely have to. I have wanted to direct Squiggy since I saw it five years ago in Rhode Island, so I jumped at the chance. My main expertise lies in producing and I have been very involved in the producing of all three shows, from how we present it, to watching ticket sales and collecting data, to campaigns to raise funds, to managing space and negotiating agreements, etc. I am currently an associate producer on a commercial venture, so I have been pretty deep in the producing world lately. It was rather tricking raising money for a commercial production while laying the groundwork for this production, but Jesse, Duncan, and our associates have really helped me to balance things. I am a high school English teacher so my days are pretty packed, but I feel we have a great team that knows how to delegate and that's helped with the balancing act.

JESSE: Primarily I'm a director. It's what I love the most, and it's what I get the most out of doing.

I also enjoy artistic directing and producing – which are, honestly, pretty much the same exact thing. They're both about figuring out which shows are going to happen – including how they would fit into a season or a repertory merger, how different artists would be able to grow through their work on certain projects, how to get audiences engaged in the work, et cetera – and then doing all of the necessary work to make this happen. There are a lot of theatre pieces out there that I would want to produce or, as artistic director, chose for my company to produce that I wouldn't want to direct – plays that I feel audiences will want or need to see and interact with, art that I would feel proud of having been involved with, but that I don't want to spend all of my waking hours inhabiting, like I would if I were directing it.

Sometimes I've just directed plays, sometimes I've just produced them, and sometimes I manage, somehow, to do both.

On this project, I've been directing one of the three plays, Mare Cognitum – which, as a revival, with the same three actors, isn't taking up as much of my time as it would if I were directing a play I'd never directed before or with different actors, but is still a lot of work – as well as being sort of the head coordinator of the producing team. I have some other specific producing tasks, as well, but the role I've ended up fitting into best is being the point person who knows what work everybody else is doing and is checking in on their progress and offering suggestions and, when someone has a question about what's going on, I either know the answer or know how to get the answer quickly from someone else. It's been an interesting and organic process figuring out which of us producers is doing what, based on what our specialties and experiences already are as well as how much time we have to devote to the producing of this project, and we've slowly shifted some of our roles around over the last few months.

These past couple of months, I haven't been doing much else with my life. If I were, I wouldn't have been able to sign on to do as much for this project as I've been doing, I think.

DUNCAN: My main vocation is as a playwright, but here I'm also producing, and doing graphic design. I was unfortunately let go from my money-job in December, so I've been on unemployment for several months, which certainly gives me more time to work on things, so that's a mixed blessing.

Me: Finally, what have you learned from this experience working together as co-producers? Do you recommend this model to other indie theater producers? What advice can you offer to producers based on what you’ve learned/accomplished so far in Get S.O.M.?

DUNCAN: For me personally, this is my first time producing outside a festival setting. It's been really exciting for me to see all the other stuff that goes on. I would certainly recommend this model to other producers, but you have to like and trust each other, both as friends and colleagues, for it to really work, I'd think.

JESSE: I have three main pieces of advice:

1) Make sure you're in it for the same, or complimentary, reasons. In this process we're working with maybe six sets of goals – the mission statements for the three companies, as well as the personal missions for this project of myself, Duncan, and Mike. Before we agreed to do this, we talked about what we'd like and what we'd need to get out of this, not just monetarily but also artistically and ethically, and, wonderfully, we realized that it looked like we could meet all of our goals with this one project.

2) Agree to your terms ahead of time. There aren't necessarily many of these, but the important things – who's going to pay for what, who's going to get what back, what can each of these companies and people provide, what our ideals for a budget look like – are very important things to decide upon at the beginning. Building some wiggle room in can't hurt – we have – but we've also built what would happen if certain things get wiggled around a bit. Since we've agreed to what our terms are, we won't get sideswiped with broken unspoken expectations later, and we can keep focused on the work of actually producing these shows.

3) Whenever possible, keep the lines of communication open, and avoid making executive decisions on behalf of everybody. In fact, budget extra time for this. We've been having regular producing meetings, and in between these we've been writing extended and detailed conversations via email on tons of subjects daily, in addition to myriad phone calls and text messages. We've used a lot of time coming to slow consensus on a lot of topics, but because we have we're all happy about how nearly everything is going and are getting everything done.

MICHAEL: I have learned that this process takes a lot of time and a lot of planning. We have made it a point to always make decisions once everyone has had their say and that can lead to very long email chains, but it's ultimately for the best. I have learned that good business partners are strongest where you're weak. I can't put together a graphic image but Duncan can make beautiful postcards. I can analyze wrap reports and construct pretty solid ticket selling strategies, but the little things sometimes fall to the way side and Jesse is amazing when it comes to catching those things that fall through the cracks. We're all artists, but we have VERY different ways of working and that makes for a much more enjoyable process because we pick up where the others leave off. It's good knowing there's always someone there if you don't have time to send out that last email or deliver that last form.

I do [recommend this model to other indie theater producers]. This is the time to look at what you bring to the table and what other people need. You may have a great relationship with the press, but no show worth talking about, and another company may have an amazing playwright, but no real street cred. If you join forces, you'll cut your costs and you'll both get something great out of the collaboration. You never know what you can do with another company until you try.

Start early. Even now, I feel like I wish I had started this even earlier than I did, We've been working on this since January and May came faster than I can imagine.

Know what you want to get out of it and be clear about expectations. Everybody is going to want different things, decide if you can get what you want together before you start the process. It's not a good situation if there's no structure to your agreement. We have contracts for that purpose.

Be willing to compromise. Nothing will get done if you say no to everything and odds are no one will want to work with you. There will always be some decisions you don't agree with, but if you shoot every idea somebody else has down, you'll never get anywhere. That's what I like about this collaboration. There's plenty of give and take.
Lastly, Indie Theatre is TOO BIG to compete. There are way too many of us, so why wouldn't you want to increase your audience base and introduce another company's fans to your work? We're in this together. I'm willing to help any Indie Theatre member out regardless of how my sales are because we're all drinking from the same fountain and we need to work together to keep that water pumping.

The plays comprising GET S.O.M.! are: Mare Cognitum, Squiggy and the Goldfish, and Ore, or Or. Thanks to Emily Owens for coordinating this cyberinterview, and to Jesse, Michael, and Duncan for sharing their insights.

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