Ask established actors when they got their first break, and many may say it came when they were children. They devised a skit and performed in the living room for their family, anxious for the applause. It was a show they wanted to put on. In short, they created their own break.
Many producers may relate. Lisa Valerie Morgan, for example, wanted to be Annie when she was eight. “I had all the costumes and the wig and I got a few kids together and put together this little skit for our talent show which was completely dreadful, but I would say that was my producing debut.”
She kept at it, producing a few small shows while still in school. “And then I produced a short film called The Food Chain: A Hollywood Scarytale (starring James Black and Lisa Robin Kelly), and my mentor on the project told me to get a DBA and open a business account. Thus began Hollywood Food Chain Productions about six years ago.”
She also recently acted in and produced The Violet Hour. “That did take an emotional toll. I would not put myself in a situation again where I was both acting and producing without at least a co-producer and an assistant and a few interns, because there is just too much to do. There is a line in the play where John Pace Seavering says ‘but my intentions were so good…’ and that was going through my mind a lot.”
We were curious what led some of LA’s producers into the risky world of presenting live theater. It is a vocation (and, in most cases, an avocation) fraught with uncertainty and supported by tall bottles of aspirin. While we could not reach out to every local producer, LA Stage Times caught up with a few.
Steve Cisneros produces for Phantom Projects, which currently is running The Bluest Eye at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica, directed by Janet Miller.
Cisneros recalls directing a play in high school, with little financial or logistical support. Making friends with the campus security guard, he and his pals erected sets in the middle of the night in his senior year, leaving students the next morning to wonder what phantom possibly could have done the work.
“The name stuck,” he says, “and I opened Phantom Projects when I graduated.” He was 17. “I had a lot of legitimate theater experience myself, but I looked younger than I was, so I never got hired. I decided to start producing shows out of my own pocket just to keep working.”
That was 15 years ago. Cisneros remembers funding his own projects with what little money he earned from jobs. After five or six years, however, he formed an alliance with La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. With over 1,250 seats, Cisneros had an enviable alliance that provides some funding.
“Still, it isn’t enough to cover all of our expenses. I haven’t taken a paycheck in a long time. We were fortunate a year ago to inherit a costume inventory worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which we rent out across the country. Our costume department funds most of the business and it allows us to charge lower rentals to schools and nonprofits.”
It also kept Phantom Projects afloat last year when The Importance of Being Earnest fell short of sales expectations. “Without the rental business, we would’ve taken a huge hit, but because of it, we didn’t have to cut costs.”
Yet in February 2010 Phantom Projects mounted The Bluest Eye at La Mirada. And Cisneros, who serves as producing artistic director, says it got so much love that Phantom opened it again this month for Los Angeles-area audiences. “Producing is very risky. My job is to balance the artistic vision with the reality of our finances. I often wish I didn’t know what our bank balance was, so I could let my artistic side rule. Of course, I can’t do that.”
Echo Theater Company’s Chris Fields believes being a producing artistic director is no different from planning a wedding. “It’s fantastic and awful at the same time. People come up and ask [ridiculous questions], but all you can do is smile and calmly say yes.”
Producing has changed over the years, he believes. “The producer whose only job is to raise money is the old model. I tell people, if you want to produce a show, then damn it, get the rights to a play and make theater!”
The producer, Fields finds, is “insanely important” and cites his cohort at Echo, producing director Lauren Bass, as an example. “I’ve recommended Lauren to others because she has a wonderfully deep Rolodex and real expertise in 99-seat theater. [Among her credits, Bass produced last year’s All Hail the Queen! with Lesli Margherita, which is set to tour later this year.] Trouble is, people come out of places like CalArts with maybe a five-year work lifespan in LA before they’re hired in New York or go to work for Disney or get a tenure-track university job.”
Fields also sees a shift in the landscape from the days when Echo was founded in 1996. “There are so many more nonprofit theater companies,” he says, “so the giving pool is diluted.”
Then again, many of David Elzer’s recent productions in small theaters have operated on a for-profit basis. Elzer says he combines a successful public relations company (DEMAND PR) with producing activities. After reading Bryan Fogel’s Jewtopia a few years ago (the story of a gentile who wants to marry a Jewish girl so he’ll never have to make another decision) and recognizing it likely would do well — and it did, running two years in Los Angeles before moving off-Broadway — Elzer realized it was time to step up. “If my instincts are so good, then I should produce a show myself and move to life beyond LA.”
That’s when he met with Roger Bean, who initially created The Marvelous Wonderettes for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. “I told Roger I’d be interested in producing the show. The question was, if I produce it here in LA, then what’s next?”
Elzer enjoyed a mentor relationship and then a co-producing partnership with Tony-winning producer Peter Schneider (The Lion King, Aida and Sister Act: The Musical). They went on to produce Marvelous Wonderettes which won the 2007 Ovation Award and, with Winter Wonderettes, ran 19 months at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
“I put my own money into shows when I fall in love with something,” Elzer says. “It has to be a meeting of art and commerce. When those stars align, I put my money where my mouth is. I make opportunities to launch, create and own a piece on the back end. I don’t always recoup my money in LA but, later on, if the piece has legs and can move out of town, my chances are better. Marvelous Wonderettes and [another Elzer production] Having It All will be a part of theater for years to come.”
How does Elzer recognize an artistically viable show? First, he has a stack of scripts on his nightstand. Second, he prefers musicals. “I love them and they sell more than straight plays. Long runs in LA are usually musicals with the exception of a show like Jewtopia, but it had a very targeted audience: Jews. Shows that target audiences — Jews and gays, for example — tend to sell well. I had an idea of a sexed-up Dracula. It was a co-production with the NoHo Arts Center and ran for five or six months. I put money into it and got my investment back. I’m proud of that.”
Elzer also co-produced The Laramie Project at the Laguna Playhouse plus Catalpa and Shyness is Nice at the Alliance Theatre. He is now developing an original gay-themed musical, Justin Love.
Matthew McCray is a LA-hyphenate cum laude — actor-director-playwright-producer and founding artistic director of Son of Semele. Unlike David Elzer, McCray did not benefit from a Schneider-like mentor. “I didn’t know anything when I started. I just wanted to try something new,” he says. “I learned the do’s and don’t’s by trial and error. Our first shows were very small compared to what we do today, but I’ve learned along the way.”
A major lesson learned, McCray maintains, is letting go of handshake agreements. “We are growing from something social to something legal by putting major agreements in writing,” a sentiment shared by many with whom we spoke. “It’s all part of the learning curve. We recognize we have something of value and want to make sure we give our work the value it deserves.”
That learning curve began with about $1,200 out of McCray’s pocket. “I started the company with that money in 2000 and over the first year, got a hundred dollars from my 11 classmates who started the company with me to recoup my investment. Our actors paid dues — $50 a month in the beginning, then $40 and now, nothing.”
McCray is baffled by theater companies that break even. “I don’t understand how it’s possible, I really don’t. We survive through a dedicated and invested board of directors, a very grass-roots fund-raising plan that casts a wide net for small and medium-sized donations.”
That said, Son of Semele (SOS) pays its actors. “We pay a little above Equity minimum for everyone, Equity or not, plus a stipend for our stage manager. Our big challenge now is how to maintain the SOS brand as the company takes on new members. We recently went from 22 to 28, adding five or six this past year. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is when you try to maintain a certain aesthetic.”
McCray offers SOSEhost, letting in other theater companies that have works that reflect Son of Semele’s artistic vision, on a box-split basis. “It’s low risk for everyone. For example, we put up a needtheater one-man show. We’ve done about 10 over the past two years.”
Isabel Storey began producing in 2004 after writing and producing television, although as the oldest of five, she too put on plays and circus performances in her backyard as a pre-teen. She began with The Shore at Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles, managing the work when then-artistic director Laura Salvato took the leading role. Storey says she shepherded the play, overseeing marketing, publicity and staffing. But she put no money into the production. “I’ve never put money in a show,” she says. “I don’t believe in it.”
Storey hires herself out as an independent producer, helping theaters, directors, writers and actors raise money for a project. These are mostly one-off world premieres; only once has she formed a Limited Liability Corporation with hopes of making money down the road.
“Some people look for commercial material, what’s going to be the next big hit. I don’t think that way. I look for what has artistic value that I want to put into society. I’m looking for artistic success: good reviews, awards, happy audiences.”
After producing six world premieres over the past three years (most recently in 2009 at [Inside] the Ford with Julie Hebert’s Tree, which opened April 1 at Chicago’s Victory Gardens), Storey is taking time off to think. “I was stressed out. So I’m taking time off now to think about what I want to do. That may be to combine theater somehow with new media. Maybe an iPhone app or a web series.” Storey wonders how a play that runs six to eight weeks in LA can continue without actually going on the road. “Maybe there’s a subscription model down the road for the entire creative team,” she muses.
Richard Martin Hirsch is a playwright who often produces his own work. “Producing is very demanding, especially in concert with my playwriting responsibilities. I could not do it without the support of an assistant producer and others. Being involved as a producer allows me to create and demonstrate my art, and have a feeling of accomplishment.”
This allows him to avoid creating in a vacuum. “It also helps me learn about the process and provides me insight that can be very useful in my playwriting. Hopefully, theater companies will choose my work to produce, so I won’t have to. My current push is to get productions for three new plays of mine: Apogee/Perigee, The Restoration of Sight and Beach in Winter.”
After producing the American premiere of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle in 2006, Lisa Valerie Morgan enjoyed six Ovation Award nominations. “Then I just went about acting and doing some volunteer fund-raising and event planning work and throwing parties and dinners, which are really using the same skill set as producing a play. And every play I was in, I thought, well if I could only fix xyz….”
And that’s how it often starts: people who see theater a little differently than the rest of us and believe they have the artistic vision, the managerial chops or the financial acumen to improve what goes up on stage. It doesn’t always work but when it does, we can give an appreciative nod to producers.