10 Negotiating Tips for Theater Professionals: Part I

Ahhh, negotiating.  It’s an essential part of business and an essential part of life.  Whether we know it or not (or want to or not), we negotiate all day long . . . with agents, with employees . . . with spouses.  Because the bottom line is, if you want something . . . anything . . . you gotta negotiate.

A lot of folks I tell me that they are “bad” negotiators, especially theater peeps, since most of them didn’t get in the biz thinking that’s what they were going to have to do.  The good news is that while it’s true that some people are born blessed with a natural negotiating ability, just like some folks are blessed with a beautiful singing voice or a great golf swing . . . negotiating is a skill that can be learned . . . just like singing . . . and just like swinging a nine iron.

Negotiating in the theater is a little different than other industries, because of our small structure, unique deals and unique personalities. So, I put together this list of 10 Negotiating Tips for Theater Pros that you can use to help you get what you want.

Here are the first five:

1.  What you want is what they want.

Speaking of “what you want,” remember first and foremost that the best negotiation results in both sides feeling not only satisfied that their needs have been met, but both sides should also be excited about the endeavor they are about to embark on.  Negotiating is not a guilty/not guilty trial.  And you’re not a prosecutor or a defense attorney.  I’ve talked to so many people who have come away from a negotiation saying, “I got that guy for a song,” or “I beat them up and saved a ton,” and I can guarantee you that whatever they saved, they lost in morale from the other side of the negotiation feeling “beat up.”  Saving money is important, and often essential to a project’s life.  Just remember, that the only winner at the end of a negotiation should be the project, not a person.

2.  Go easy on the emotion.

This is one of the hardest tips to remember for us in the arts.  We’re emotional people, so we get emotionally involved.  When someone wants more money, or doesn’t want to do a project on your timeline, it can get under your skin, especially since you’re most likely producing it or writing it because you LOVE it.  And their semi-rejection may make you feel like they don’t love it.  And unrequited love is a bitch.  Remember that this is a business and try to check your emotions at the door.  Look at practical ways to solve the problems that have been brought up.  A big heart got you into this business.  Let your head lead you through it.

3.  Who you negotiate with today, you will probably negotiate with tomorrow.

Boy did I learn this the hard way.  I literally went off on someone very early in my career and then had to call them the next day and try and negotiate another deal for another project.  It didn’t go well.  The theater industry is a small one.  A very, very small one.  And the people you are on the phone with about a show today are most likely going to be involved with other shows throughout your career.  So, blowing up at someone and screaming at them in a negotiation may not only cost you that negotiation, but it might sour your relationship so much, that it’ll cost you many more down the road.   Luckily, in my case, the other guy had done the same thing when he was starting out.

4.  Earn a Boy Scout Negotiating Badge and be prepared.  

Let’s face it, when we decide we want to do a project, we want it open like yesterday, so we’ll rush to try and get the right people involved.  First, re-read Tip #2, take a breath, and then, before negotiating with anyone, prepare for that negotiation like you’re studying for a final.  Who will you be negotiating with?  Do you know enough about the person you want to hire?  Try to find out what is important to them.  What other projects have they worked on?  What did they want/get on those projects?  The more you can learn in advance, the more time you’ll save on the actual negotiation, which will help get your curtain up that much faster.  And never, ever, rush your negotiation.  Rushing will always force you to give up more than you can.  If you’ve got a fast approaching deadline, and the other side doesn’t, then you’re dead.

5.  Keep notes like you’re a stenographer.

A lot of negotiating these days takes place over email, which I’m not actually a fan of (you can’t hear tone, emails can be forwarded and BCCed without knowing, etc.) so I advocate to my consulting clients that they always negotiate over the phone.  But if you’re talking and not typing your negotiating, then you’ve got to keep notes.  I keep a whole separate negotiating book, and I write down details as we discuss . . . what I say, what they say, and what the next steps are.  Not only does this help me remember what has transpired and help resolve any future issues, it also helps my next set of negotiations with the same negotiator.


Part II of this post with the next five tips will be up tomorrow.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more about negotiating, I strongly suggest you start with this book.  It improved my skills ten fold in about ten days.


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  • mark says:

    excellent. especially – “negotiating for the project.” and “take the emotion out of it.”
    two huge traps to avoid. buried many a band and company.

    great stuff as usual.

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