How To Stage a Play: with PLAY

Following on from our excellent contributions from The High Low and Mostly Lit on How To Host A Podcast, we're moving on to a new theme: How To Stage A Play! There are so many of us who hanker to put on our own work, but who struggle to know where to start with it all. Here to help is Rebecca Durbin, founder and Artistic Director of one of our favourite theatre companies, PLAY. The company has a unique way of working - instead of sticking to the standard actor + script formula, they bring together emerging actors, writers and directors who devise new pieces of work collaboratively. Brace yourself for some real words of wisdom....

Hi Rebecca! What was the first play you ever produced, and how did it go? 

The first play I ever produced was basically an exercise in charming (wheedling) favours out of very kind friends. Our first PLAY production was in an old community hall in Camberwell. I stumbled across Longfield Hall by chance and was offered the space for peanuts. The hall wasn’t used as a ‘professional’ theatre venue so it was very rough and ready and involved a lot of improvising on our part. I was working at the Arcola Theatre at the time and somehow managed to convince their Tech Manager to lend me some lights, some rig and a sound desk. I roped in some friends to run the bar and another friend, who was a Graphic Designer, to do all of our posters, flyers and programmes for mates’ rates. The show was a real success, the shows went down a treat and we got a brilliant response from our audience. The lesson – have nice, talented friends. (But remember you can’t rely on favours every time, or they won’t be your friends anymore.)

What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? 

A production schedule is everything. With time and careful planning, producing a show really does not need to be stressful. In a dreamy world you’d start planning 6 months in advance, laying out the various deadlines for funding applications, marketing, casting etc. Once everything is down in one well-organised document, it all seems more manageable and you can break down tasks week by week. It’s a good way to make sure you’re on track. 

How might a small theatre company go about funding their first play? 

There’s no ‘right way’ to do this and it kind of depends on the scale of your project. The ideal would probably be a friendly little mixture of the following…

- Money raised by you or your theatre company through a fundraising event (be imaginative) or an online campaign like KickStarter or IndieGoGo.

- Grants/Bursaries from Trusts and Foundations. This requires some research as a lot of Trusts only give to registered charities. It helps to think about the subject your show is exploring or the type of audience you’re trying to reach to narrow down the search. Your local library will have records of Trusts & Foundations and who they give to. 

- Private money. This is when lateral thinking really comes into play. It’s not necessarily about knowing rich people. Sometimes it’s one step further removed and you might know someone who knows someone who is wealthy and has an interest in the arts. It’s useful again to try and be specific, think about where you’re from, where you may have studied etc – try and find a link that might make someone more inclined to support your work. 

- Sponsorship. If you can get together some nice looking information about your show, it might be worth targeting businesses to offer advertisement or promotion. 

- Grant for the Arts, Arts Council England. Fiercely competitive but a good way to match the money you’ve hopefully managed to raise by the means above. There’s loads of advice on the ACE website but it’s worth seeking advice from someone who’s successfully applied before. 

How can you gauge how much money you’ll need? What do you need to take into account?

Do a comprehensive budget. Think of every single cost that might have to be covered – from the big stuff like venue, creatives and marketing costs, to printing scripts and biscuits for rehearsals. It’s important to be realistic and not do guestimates. You can find guides to equity rates of pay on the ITC website. 

You want to start by working out the capacity of your venue and how many tickets you can realistically sell per night. Again, be realistic, you probably want to be budgeting about 50% to make sure you’re edging on the side of caution. Then if you sell at 70% it’s a nice added bonus. 

When marketing on a shoestring, what are the priorities? 

Make it look fabulous. We secured shows at the Old Red Lion and VAULT Festival because of our branding and poster images. Make it memorable and eye-catching, I personally think it’s worth spending a bit of money on a good image. 

So far, we’ve never paid for PR for a show and we’ve planned and implemented all of the marketing campaigns ourselves. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are your friends. Hootsuite is a bit of a blessing and allows you not to be stuck to your phone 24/7. From personal experience, a couple of well-timed Facebook Ads are a cheap and effective way of spreading the word. 

Having said that going back to basics works well to. The New Diorama do old fashioned dropping flyers through post boxes – could be a good way to attract a local audience. 

Do…

Embrace the fact that Excel will become a big part of your life. It’s honestly worth sitting down for an afternoon and brushing up on your GCSE I.T skills. Oh and learn some handy shortcuts, they will leave you with more time to do the fun creative bits. 

Don’t…

Put on a show in the summer months. I mean not a hard and fast rule because we’ve done some cracking shows in June, July and August. BUT British weather is, of course, unpredictable and there’s a chance that your show could fall on the hottest week of the year. It’s really quite difficult to lure people into a dark theatre when they want to be in the park eating kettle chips.  

Find out more about PLAY here
Follow PLAY on Twitter @PLAYtheatreco
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @RDurbin16