Insider Tips: Theatre on a Budget

by Matt Levy

08/15/12 09:34

Art ain’t cheap, and theatre is no exception to this.  Audiences can consider themselves lucky these days to live in a world in which attending mega-blockbusters like Chicago, A Tale of Two Cities, The Wiz, The Rocky Horror Show, and perennial favorite Peter Pan is the norm, both on Broadway and on national tour.  But how do theatre companies who must work with tighter budgets still manage to put on great theatre?  Without the benefit of nearly unlimited funds, how can the great stories of stage still be presented with their authors’ creative visions intact?

 

Many titles within the Samuel French catalogue have been through this artistic predicament.  Chicago famously opened on Broadway as a fully staged production in 1975 to dismal reviews and early closure, despite its classic Kander and Ebb score and Bob Fosse direction.   It came back from obscurity when it was revived for a short run in May 1996 for City Center Encores!, a yearly celebration of forgotten musicals of the past.  Now in a scaled-down form with no set, save a giant bandstand onstage, and hardly anything grand in the costumes, this version of Chicago was lauded for its sleekness and sense of style (not to mention Ann Reinking’s superb recreation of Fosse’s unique choreography), and this budget concert version is what transferred to Broadway six months later, and still plays today on 49th Street in Manhattan … as the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history.  It has since spawned replica productions which have criss-crossed the US, Great Britain, South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, all fashioned in the same scaled-down vision which allowed clarity for the show’s dark message and let Reinking’s unforgettable jazz choreography shine.

 

But not every show can be presented in a bare-bones form.  Some plays and musicals rely on iconic sets and costumes, and luckily in the theatre world, infrastructure exists that can support buying, selling, and trading production elements between theatre companies.  Lighting equipment, microphones, speakers, props, scenery, shoes, make-up, wigs, and especially costumes can drive a show’s production budget into the thousands, if not even higher, so it becomes imperative that a cheaper solution can be found.  And if that solution comes in the way of buying previously used sets or renting costumes from another company, well, as they say, one theatre company’s scrap is another theatre company’s treasure.

 

Theatre Cambrian of Sudbury, Ontario is one such company which has put on a great show and now has a surplus of material.  From their production of Grease in 2008, they still have a full-sized shell of the famed car Greased Lightning.  “We would like to be able to sell these items to other theatre companies,” Theatre Cambrian Executive Director Mark Mennisto says.  “It seems such a waste that many theatre companies spend time, effort, and money for their productions and then at the end of the day have no storage space for them and inevitably [send them] into the trash.”

 

Some companies attempt to solve this dilemma by specializing in renting out costumes, props, scenic elements, lighting, and other miscellaneous items needed for theatres to put on a show.  The website “Theater Services Guide” provides listings suppliers, rental companies, and shops for many different production element categories, including costumes, equipment, lighting, make-up, props, scenery, sound, and specialty products such as pyrotechnics or flying effects.  Listings within each category are provided for as many states as possible, ensuring a maximum reduction of costs to theatres as possible and helping to boost local or regional interactions.  A theatre company in Fort Wayne, Indiana looking to rent lighting equipment can find a local service near downtown rather than attempt to find solutions for its specific needs from across the country in New Mexico or California.

 

A great national resource for theatre makers to check out is New York’s Theatre Development Fund, or TDF.  Known for its public face of TKTS, whose modern red and white booths serve as anchors in New York City’s Times Square and South Street Seaport, TDF is a non-profit organization which provides support to theatrical groups with its Costume Collection, which consists of more than 75,000 costumes and accessories which have appeared on professional stages across New York and on tour.  Intended for not-for-profit theatre organizations such as schools, colleges, community theatres, and performing arts organizations, TDF’s costume rentals are affordable and will doubtlessly help any amateur theatre production achieve a more professional look.  The collection is housed at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, but a Pulling Service is available for those who are not in the area and cannot make it in.  With this service, TDF’s design experts will pull costumes for you based on your production’s particular needs for an additional fee.  For more information about TDF’s Costume Collection, be sure to check out its website.

 

While some services specialize in connecting people to theatres or theatres to people, Samuel French has plans to link theatres to theatres.  Phase One of Samuel French’s website overhaul was recently completed with the launch of the brand NEW Samuel French website, but don’t think the fun ends there; plenty of exciting new features for the website are still in the works.  Chief among these will be the new community forum element.

 

When launched, the community forum element will offer an unprecedented way for theatre-makers to interact and discover what companies have done which shows and how they did them. Theatres can also use the forum to learn how they can acquire design elements such as props, sets, and costumes or to pass that information along to another company.  This flexibility will allow theatre groups to stay thrifty and keep competitive.  Individual theatres will be able to create a post explaining what show they want to put on, as well as any further details they wish to provide about themselves such as their budget and location, and with luck, another theatre who has experience with that show and perhaps still some props, costumes or equipment leftover will see the post and be able to establish a direct line of communication.  Sharing production elements is a great way to keep production costs down, so opening the discussion up and allowing theatres to see exactly what other theatres have and/or want to do is how Samuel French wants to help theatre companies keep within their budgets.  Every penny helps, and the innovative community forum will doubtlessly cut costs on a substantial scale once it is launched.

 

Other exciting aspects of the community element to look forward to will be a forum in which users can ask and find advice about logistics - the nitty-gritty how-should-we-do-this questions which invariably come up every time a group wants to put on a show. This will compliment open discussion about not only where and how companies can acquire design elements, but also help answer how to most effectively use them.  Also in the pipeline will be a play readers section for those of us who simply can’t get enough to read and want to ever expand our theatre knowledge.

 

What this all leads to is savings.  At Samuel French, we want to help you Make Theatre Happen, and we are in a unique position to understand the financial strain that comes with putting on live entertainment.  Performing arts and support agencies are under pressure from all sides in this economic climate to scrimp and save wherever possible, and it is those companies who can accomplish the most with the resources they have which thrive.  There are many things those of us in the performing arts industry cannot control, but what we can all do is spread the resources we manage out as far as we can.  When we cut down waste and lower individual costs, the whole community rises.  A stronger community means more variety, more theatrical diversity.  What better way to make theatre happen?

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