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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My fourth book is out and available.

Until they figure out how to make megabytes look pretty on a shelf, books will never go out of style.  It might be cooler, cheaper and easier to read a blog on a computer, but it ain’t tangible.  And sometimes people just want to own something.

That’s why I publish The Producers Perspective in book form every year.  And shockingly enough, we’re on volume/year #4.

The book is available here, as are the other 3 volumes, in case you missed entries from years passed.  All proceeds from the book(s) go to funding our reading series, so the up-and-coming authors that we work with thank you.

Get the book here.

And get the eBook here.


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If there is such a thing as a book club . . . then why not . . .

Yep.  Finish it with me . . .

Why not a play club . . . or a musical club.  Right?

My mission as a theater professional is to amplify the conversation about the theater.  More people talking about it gets more people interested, which gets more people going, which gets more people telling their children about it . . . and repeat cycle.

Yesterday, WOMMA helped remind us that a good chunk of the precious resource known as word-of-mouth occurs offline.  So, our challenge in promoting our products/shows and the theater in general is to find ways for our customers to have these conversations.

Hence the idea of a Play Club . . . or a Musical Club.

It’s simple really.  7 easy steps.  Ready?

  1. Declare yourself the organizer.
  2. Invite friends . . .  1, 2, 10, doesn’t matter . . .  to your place to discuss a play/musical/cast recording of your choice (bonus if it is running on Broadway now)
  3. Have food, drinks . . . especially the liquor-ish kind.
  4. Discuss the play/musical/cast recording.  Read some scenes/sing some songs aloud.
  5. At end of night pick next play/musical/cast recording and set next day/time to discuss (best to make it the same time every week/month)
  6. Congratulate yourself, because you just helped create WOM.
  7. Repeat from the beginning.

Seriously, these clubs should be all over creation, especially in cities and counties that are far away from the Broadway.  This is a way for you to keep in touch with what’s going on here (and regional theaters and touring houses that are trying to teach their audiences to keep current – this is a fun, low cost way of doing just that).

So start one today.  You’ll be helping the theater tomorrow.

(Need a better guide to starting a club? Check out Oprah’s guide on how to start a book club and just replace book for play, musical, cast recording, or whatever you’d like!)


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The Producer’s Perspective Summer Reading List

Remember when you were in high school and you were forced to read Jane Eyre or Moby Dick over the summer?  Booooring.

Well, you’re not in school anymore (or most of you aren’t – I do get a few emails from theater-pros-to-be from time to time).  But just because you’re not prepping for the SATs doesn’t mean you can’t learn a few things from a summer reading list!

And that’s why we made one for you!

The cool thing about this list, is unlike the titles assigned to you by fascist English teachers that sometimes make you never want to pick up a book ever again, you know this list is going to be all about a subject you enjoy:  the theater.

Since the theme of this blog and the Godspell blog is to help all of us understand more of what it takes to get a show up on its feet, I only chose books that featured a behind-the-scenes perspective on the mounting of big shows.

Enjoy!  Book reports due in September!  (ok, not really, but how many of you got heart palpitations when I said that?)


1.  Letters from An Actor by William Redfield

William Redfield’s recollections of appearing in the 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by Sir John Gielgud.

2. Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff

“Each year, hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre, firmly convinced they’re destined to be famous Broadway stars or playwrights. One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.” -Helene Hanff

3. The Whorehouse Papers by Larry L. King

An account by a journeyman dramatist of the production–from phone call to first night–of his first play The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the attendant wranglings, clashes, and confusions.

4. The Seesaw Log by William Gibson

A day-by-day candid account of the creativity, conflict, and compromise involved in the making of a smash-hit Broadway show (Seesaw), by the playwright himself.

5. We Bombed in New London by Brian Gari

A day-by-day candid account of the creativity, conflict, and compromise involved in the making of a legendary flop Broadway show (Late Nite Comic) written by the composer-lyricist.

6. Everything Was Possible: The Birth of The Musical Follies by Ted Chapin

Ted Chapin is now Chairman of the American Theatre Wing. But when he was 22 years old, he was just a lowly Production Assistant, running around after Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Michael Bennett as they created one of the most legendary musicals of all time. This was his journal.

7. A Year With The Producers: One Actor’s Exhausting (But Worth It) Journey From Cats to Mel Brooks’ Mega-Hit by Jeffry Denman

Jeffry Denman’s journey with The Producers from audition to opening night.

8. The Show Business Nobody Knows by Earl Wilson

Earl Wilson chronicled Broadway’s Golden Age in The New York Post from 1942 to 1983. This book tells some of his sordid tales.

9. Showstopper by Abigail Pogrebin

A recent release, this mini-book is now-author Abigail Pogrebin’s story of getting cast in Merrily We Roll Along at the age of 16.

10. Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical by Barbara Isenberg

Barbara Isenberg was a fly on the wall during the out-of-town tryout and Broadway birth of the musical Big. From a review by Library Journal: “This book is not for the weak-hearted or those with illusions about Broadway as the home of art; making this musical was more like making war.”


Do you have a suggestion?  Comment below!


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