Self-Production, Expenses Covered: Interview with Playwright Lori Marra

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Lori Marra produces at least one of her plays every year in upstate New York, covers her expenses while paying herself, actors and directors, and holds down a day job as a senior lecturer in communications at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is playwright-in-residence at MuCCC Theatre in Rochester, and her plays are produced (by others) throughout the US. To find out how she does it, the Salon’s founder, Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Lori.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): How many plays have you self-produced, and since when? Why did you first start self-production?

Lori Marra (LM): I've self-produced five full-lengths and four play readings. I started self-production because as a playwright, I really wanted to see my work, not just hear it in readings. It's tough for small theatres to take the risk of producing new works. So, they don't do it often and usually only through festivals or competitions. I didn't want to wait for all of that, so I took the plunge.

MOD: Did you learn the skills on-the-job, or have a mentor, or both?

LM: On the job. I never thought my undergraduate degree in business management would help me so much in theatre! Also, I own a Limited Liability Company for rental properties. And I spent 15 of my 30 years of my corporate life managing some pretty big departments and budgets (up to about $800,000). From my business degree, I learned how to really put together a product. I knew how to budget, how to determine break even on money, how to market, sell, finance, all of it. From my LLC, I learned about how to build and maintain something and turn it into something profitable. All of this helped me, but I still had learned a tremendous amount about producing theatre.

MOD: What do you need to self-produce? Skills, connections, passion?

LM: Oh yes! Business skills, connections, and passion. Throw in a lot of hard work and a little luck, and you've got it. The key to any successful business endeavor is to surround yourself with people who don't have the skills that you do. For instance, I needed a great stage manager but didn't know anyone. So, I asked a 25-year seasoned project manager from a major utility company to give it a try. She loves theatre and she was fantastic. She's now one of the most sought-after stage managers in our community theatre! Being a landlord also helped. I was right in there building the set. I love to swing a hammer and build/fix stuff. For one production we had a pretty complex set, and I worked with some engineering friends to figure out how to build it. What I would say is, don't think you have to BE a business or a construction expert or a marketing pro to run a produced a good show. You do have to look at it as a business though. Money and time need to flow in and out. Basically, these are the skills you need or you need on your team:

-Budgeting
-Stage Managing
-Marketing
-Social Media
-Stage and set building and design

MOD: Has lack of funds been a barrier to what you want to do?

LM: Always. I put up the up front money, then I keep a detailed spreadsheet of ALL expenses. I figure out how much money I need to break even (the point at which you have enough money to cover all of your expenses). Once I know my break even, I think about how many tickets I need to sell to get to that. Ticket sales are NEVER enough to cover all the expenses, so then I know I have to figure out other forms of income. I sell concessions and do a really high quality program in which I sell ads. I also network and find at least one major sponsor willing to fund some of it.

MOD: What are your production steps?

LM: Here’s a quick rundown:

A. Find a venue and secure it with a down payment.
B. Get a Director who you love and can work with.
C. Ensure the show is well cast and read for rehearsals (get rehearsal space)
D. Form a team of marketing, production, sets, PR, and concessions, then meet. Get everyone on the same page. Get your team cohesive.
E. Be a leader; help and enable everyone on your team.
F. Start to develop a budget.
G. Develop a detailed work schedule for the show including set building, marketing, advertising, etc. Remember to include build, strike, tech. rehearsal, and dress rehearsal.
H. Meet on a regular basis with everyone and help by doing as much work as you can. Go over the schedule. Don't overwhelm people with it, but let people know where they need to be and when to make the project a success. I usually do my own social media work. I also develop the program and get ads for it. And I get the sponsors. Yes, I also help build the sets.
I. Keep in close touch with the Director and Stage Manager. They are key and whatever they need, I help them get. Or, sometimes I have to pull them in if their budget needs are too much.
J. Work closely with your venue to figure out how the ticket sales will go.
K. As the time gets closer, get the program done. This takes more time if you sold ads.
L. Have more meetings as the date gets close to keep everyone on the same page.
M. Get ready for opening night!
N. Cast party!!!!!

MOD: How much money do you need for a production? How much comes from the box office?

LM: I usually need between $3000-$5000 to put up a good quality show. That includes funds to pay everyone including the stage manager and tech. people a modest honorarium of between $50-$300. Let me give you some specific figures for a big show I did (11 actors, director, stage manager, lighting designer, set help, costumes.) I paid actors $200 each, director and me $300, support staff between $50-100. I paid 21 people total. Our total budget was $4300. This included sets, props, costumes, food & drink for concessions, marketing, facility fees, paying people, and even a deaf interpreter for one performance. Total ticket sales were $3200 for four performances. So, I needed $1100 from other sources. I sold ads in the programs and got two major sponsor to cover those costs. We were fortunate; our social media got us a lot of buzz and our ticket sales were high. We were sold out for most performances.

MOD: Are others producing your work as well? Was self-production a stepping-stone?

LM: I was lucky. My very first play won a competition in Spokane and they did the full production. Then I won a competition at Geneva in my hometown of Rochester, NY. That was a reading but a very robust one. But as we all know, full productions can be hard to land. As time went on, I wasn't getting productions, but I wanted to see my work. So I decided to self-produce. It was more a reverse for me--not a stepping stone, rather, a way for me to keep seeing my work. I've done self-production over the last eight years, and now I'm ready to start sending my work out again.

MOD: What do you love most about self-production?

LM: I really love working with all the different people. When someone else produces for me, I really don't get to know everyone involved on the show. I've always enjoyed just letting go and seeing what someone else does with my work. Yet, when you bring together a team to develop your work, it's fun, scary, exciting, and rewarding. I also loved the feeling of accomplishment. When we opened the first show I produced, people started streaming in and we had a sell out. I was shocked and so proud and happy for the whole ensemble. Yes, it was hard work, but what a feeling of seeing your work and seeing the love of so many people to bring it together with you. I will continue to produce my own work. It keeps me connected to the energy of everyone involved.