Could someone commission a Producer?

I was pleased to see that Andrew Lippa, the composer of Addams Family, Wild Party, and a closet favorite of mine, John and Jen, was awarded a commission by Texas State University, as a result of a gift to the University’s musical theater program from Patti Strickel Harrison.

Andrew is a fantastic talent and deserves the kudos and the cash to create new work (when I was at NYU, and when Andrew was doing the cabaret circuit, I sang an early tune of his called, “Make It Fly”, and I still remember the music and the message).

And a special thanks to Ms. Harrison for creating such a commission.

It did make me wonder . . .

Why doesn’t anyone commission Producers?

There is no better education than doing. I worked in the Broadway arena for 10 years before I produced my first Off-Broadway show, and still, I never learned more than when I actually had my hands in the mud and was doing it on my own.

And since I believe the future of the theater is dependent on both the people that build the ship (writers) as well as those who sail the ship (producers), wouldn’t we all be served if we were able to get up-and-coming Producers’ hands dirty?

So commission the writers, because they are the future.

But there have got to be some institutions and some individuals (including some of my peers that have hit it huge with a show . . . you know who you are) that could afford to commission a young Producer or two.

If we don’t support these sailors, we could end up with a lot of boats that sink before they even leave the harbor.

– – – –

Oh . . . Andrew’s bridge went something like this . . .

Make it fly
Make it so that you can touch the sky.
Show the world that you can make the most of what you have.
If you take the ride . . .

It was a good message.

– – – –

CORRECTION:  The lyrics to “Make It Fly” were written by current Broadway Copy Guru and Spotco Exec. Tom Greenwald (who also co-wrote John & Jen).

Give yourself a preview-prepping workshop.

Previews can be one of the most stressful periods of a writer’s life. Regardless of whether or not you think critical response is important to your show, the countdown to Opening life can feel like a ticking time bomb.

All the elements of the show you’ve worked on for years are finally realized for the first time.  Sets, costumes, lights, special effects, actors, etc.  It has all come together.

Except for that scene and song in the second act.

Writers are constantly called on to rewrite lines, scenes, songs, etc. during previews.  I’ve seen entire musicals restructured, endings changed, intermissions excised, a song cut, the same song added back, and so on.

Stressful, right?

Unless you’ve practiced.

There are lots of writing workshops and classes out there, and if you’re a writer I recommend taking one that forces you to present material every 1-2 weeks in order to keep yourself on a schedule.

But does that prepare you for previews?

Nope.

In addition to the above, I strongly recommend writers give themselves (or each other, if you can find some goal-oriented friends out there) a Preview Preparation Speed Writing Workshop.

Here’s how it works:

Imagine you’re in previews of a new musical playing The Palace.  The love song between your hero and heroine isn’t working and Hal Prince, who you’ve luckily snagged to direct, isn’t happy.  He marches up the aisle and says, “That scene and song has to go.  And I need something new by dinner.”

Dinner is four hours away.

Go.

Shows can take years to actually get to the first preview.  And all that time can be for nothing if you can’t write during previews.

Learn now.

I found a great writer. Now what do I do?

Yesterday we talked about where you can go to find writers who will put your idea for a Broadway or Off-Broadway (or Off-Off Broadway) show on paper.

But once you find that writer (or writers), then what do you do?  Here are four tips on what to do with that writer once you find him or her.

1.  Think twice.

The first thing you should do before jumping into bed with a writer is to give it a second thought and get a third opinion.  You’re marrying this writer.  Sure, you can always get divorced (see below), but that’s just going to make things more difficult later on (and more expensive), and more importantly, it’ll slow down the development of the piece.  You want to make sure that this writer is exactly what you are looking for. Don’t compromise, especially if the idea for the show came from your head.  It’ll drive you crazy to sign somebody up only to find out that he/she is not as passionate about the idea as you, or if they want to take it in a different direction than you do.

2.  What’s the deal?

Are you commissioning the writer?  In other words, are you paying him or her a fee to write your idea?  Upfront commission fees can range from a few hundred bucks to several thousand, depending on the reputation of your writer, and how badly they want to work on your project.  Commissions are especially common in the non-profit world, but creative commercial producers can and should use this tool as well.

When you do commission a writer, make sure you protect your creative contributions as well.  Most playwrights are going to ask that they own the final product (unless you can pay a significant upfront fee), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a piece of future income due to the writer(s) (and perhaps a credit as well) for being the creative impetus for the project.

Maybe you don’t want to commission, but instead you want to collaborate, which will put you more into the creative mix.

(Red Flag Alert:  When negotiating, be wary of writers who are only after high up-front advances or fees.  Sometimes this is a sign that they are not as interested in the project, and that they don’t believe that they will see a lot of long-term royalties (which is why they want guaranteed income up front)).

There are a thousand different ways to get a writer on board, and I strongly recommend you speak to a lawyer or someone who has hired writers before to get an idea of what will work best for your unique situation.  At  the end of the day, you want a deal that works well for both parties.

And don’t just try and get the writer to sign on board for nothing.  Giving people a little money makes them feel better about working on a project, and also makes them more beholden to their boss (that’s you!).

3.  Set deadlines.

Establish clear deadlines from day one for the development of the piece.  When is the first scene due?  When is the first Act due?  Completed script?  First reading?  Map out a developmental course, have the writer agree to it, and then make ’em stick to it.  Sure, you may have to adjust deadlines along the way, but having a mutually agreed upon plan will guarantee that more work gets done, and faster.

4.  If it’s not working out, make a change.

If the script isn’t coming together the way that you had envisioned it in that theater in your mind, then fire the writer, and move on.  Yes, it may cost you some bucks . . . but how much will it cost you in the long run if the idea that gets on stage isn’t the one you wanted written?  Now add in the mental anguish and more you’ll experience by working with someone for years when you don’t see eye to eye.  Now that’s expensive!  This is where theater producers need to be more like movie producers.  If the writer isn’t working, then find another one.  Period.  You owe it to your idea.  If you don’t make that change, you’ll always wonder what if . . .

Finding and hiring a writer is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things that a creative producer will ever have to do.  But it should be.  Because it’s the most important thing a creative producer will ever have to do.

It’s like building your dream house.

You can find the lot, and you can list all the features that you want . . . a big porch, a 3 car garage, a jacuzzi tub.  But it’s up to someone else to build that house, make sure it’s aesthetically pleasing, and make sure it doesn’t fall down after a few months.

Can it be festival time already? It is!

I hate winter.

I keep saying that every year I’m going to circulate a petition to try and get Broadway to move to the West Coast or West Figi or someplace like that.  I want to sing, “It’s Too Darn Hot!” all year long and mean it.

To make me feel better, all winter long I look for signs of the upcoming Spring and Summer . . . anything that helps me through a winter in the city (and I’m from Massachusetts – you’d think I could deal with this).

For example, as soon as we hit the winter solstice on 12/21 or 22, which traditionally marks the first day of winter, I usually spin it to say, “The days start getting longer tomorrow . . . spring is right around the corner!”

Ok, sorry to sidetrack you with my psyche . . . but the point is that one of these “Summer Signs” is the announcement that the spring/summer/fall festivals are now accepting submissions.

And guess what?

Applications are currently being accepted for the following NY Festivals:

If you’re a writer/producer/etc, now is the time to get your materials in order.  The deadlines are always sooner than you think.

Don’t have a show?  Find one.  Write one.  Make one up.  That’s what these guys did, and it worked out for them.  The Broadway show didn’t work.

But last I heard they were writing a sitcom.

So get a show submitted and get something up. You never know what’ll happen as a result.

On the other hand, I can guarantee you what will happen if you do nothing.

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