Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Building Better Producers

Posted in Uncategorized by Rick Culbertson on March 8, 2010

There are many reasons why we need a producer’s organization.  They range from collective bargaining, a trade organization, someone to brand us, management of a better business bureau of theater, etc.  But there’s another important need here: the need for us to take care of our new producers.  Especially the producers who don’t really even want to be producers.

In Los Angeles it’s very common to find a person producing a show because he or she wrote, starred in, or directed it.  A few weeks ago I received a phone call from one such “producer by default” who was in the middle of an 8-performance run of a show that he wrote.  He called me looking for advice on how to fill his theater with paying patrons and get the word out about his play.  Unfortunately for him, he had spent little to nothing on marketing and PR.  Given his limited budget and where he was in the run, there wasn’t much I could tell him.  With so little time left, even if he managed to somehow come up with 10-20K for a marketing campaign, there would have been no way to make it back even if he sold out his remaining 4 performances.  I told him that all he could really do at this point would be to offer “pay-what-you-can” and discounted  tickets through facebook and similar channels. Maybe he could try buying one e-mail blast from a marketing agency.

Of course, if this producer had called me before he started his run my advice would have been very different.  I would have told him to budget for and hire a top quality PR company and to put aside money for a marketing campaign.  We could have talked about goals and the results he wanted to see come out of his production.  We could have tailored his budget and spending in order to achieve those goals, or change the goals to fit the parameters of what he could afford.

This story is so common in LA.  So many writers/actors/directors produce their own work simply so that they can work as a writer/actor/director.  But so often they don’t know how to produce. Worse yet, they don’t end up producing at all, but rather, begrudgingly managing the production. Producing is not easy, and neither is directing, acting, or writing.  And when you do two (or more!) at the same time it’s even harder.  Especially when you really only want to be directing, acting, writing– not producing.

One of the underlying problems this creates is that many shows, often referred to as showcases, are produced in the same theaters as bigger shows that are not showcases. When these showcases are produced poorly or mismanaged, they tend to reflect poorly on the quality of that particular rental theater (not to mention reflecting poorly LA theater as a whole). Unknowing patrons do not distinguish between a showcase and higher quality productions.  Because of this, for those of us who are not producing showcases, it is in our best interest to mentor, support and work with people who are producing showcases.  We need to help them produce smartly, efficiently, and realistically.  Because at the end of the day, their product reflects on our product.

A producer’s organization could help foster and nourish these types of relationships between producers. New producers could join the organization and gain access to resources, support and advice.  We could create databases, helpful guidebooks and producing templates.  We could explain the way budgets work, not to mention de-mystify ROI’s and recoupment schedules.  We could teach best practices for marketing and PR, and we could help new producers identify when they need a lawyer, accountant, and bookkeeper and when they don’t.  This collective knowledge base would be more than just a phone book of designers and rental theaters.  It would be a network of real people with real experiences who can really help.  And if a new producer needs further help, we could provide a list of producers for hire (or general manage).

It’s silly for every new producer in town to have to reinvent the wheel.  And its damaging to all of us. Why not help each other along the way and in so doing, raise the bar on theatre in Los Angeles as a whole?


3 Responses

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  1. Michael Seel said, on March 8, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Another thoughtful and relevant post, Rick. I’m enjoying them all.

    And I whole-heartedly agree that “showcase” productions that are poorly produced reflect negatively on the overall theatre scene. But “producing” also means selecting material WORTHY of production. When a writer, actor or director decides to produce their own work, it’s usually because a veteran producer or producing company doesn’t see the value in the project. Yes, all art is subjective and sometimes you just have to push your own work through the system to get yourself produced. Lord knows that in my early days, I produced some showcase material that will never be listed on my resume but that I needed to do to make ends meet. But quantity of shows in L.A. doesn’t necessarily mean quality.

    A producer’s organization is definitely needed in Los Angeles. Guidance, knowledge and camaraderie would be an asset to all levels of producers here in our City of Angels.

    • Rick Culbertson said, on March 8, 2010 at 2:06 pm


      I absolutely agree with you on every point.


  2. WAReilly said, on March 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Nice…but producers are your basic entrepeneureal loners…a tough group to define and pull together. And in the case of a theatre like ours…(the on going producers) our needs are very different than the production by production producer. We have a theatre to promote as well as individual productions…

    As for as showcases and vanity productions…they are not actually shows. They are commercials and they are cluttering up the theatrical scene with noise and distractions that in the long run keep theatre in this town a confusing mess for the audience base. That being the basis of the 99 seat agreement it has allowed a vast theatre ghetto to exsist that really serves no one.

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