Thoughts from a Los Angeles Theater Producer

Building Legitimacy

Posted in Uncategorized by Rick Culbertson on May 18, 2012

Since my last blog two weeks ago things seem to be moving on the right track regarding the formation of a Los Angeles Producers League.  At each meeting it seemed that the general consensus was that a league should be formed to represent the interests of producers. However, there is still a lot of work to be done: namely, actually forming the group in a legitimate fashion.  My personal hope is that this process can proceed slowly enough to allow for the maximum amount of transparency and accountability. Since there has not yet been a public agenda for the upcoming meeting on the 20th, I thought I might outline a few of my thoughts on how to proceed.

The formation of a Producers League is paramount to fostering the growth of LA Theater in a responsible way.  We all know that it is important to solve the gap that currently exists between the current 99-seat plan and the HAT contract. But other problems persist in our community, making it imperative that we work together to share information, market the concept of live theater, brand our work, solve the goldstar problem, and tackle the many other issues we face every day as producers.  Solving these problems will not be easy, and it will take time.  But if we don’t work together, if there isn’t a critical mass buy-in for the Producers League, then solving these problems will be impossible.  Now is not the time to focus on our differences.  Now is the time to work together to get this league off the ground.

But how do we form the league in a responsible manner that allows for everyone to feel included?  How do we allow for all opinions to be heard without drowning in endless meetings?  How do we make sure that this process is open, transparent, inclusive and unifying?

I believe that we can accomplish this in the following way:

1)    We must allow for all producers to be a part of the league.  Over time, the group may find that it needs to set levels of membership, or restrictions on what constitutes the role of a producer.  But now is not the time to set these parameters. If we start excluding people now, we risk alienating other producers who are important members of our community. For better or worse, the only option for legitimacy is for us to foster an environment of true participation, allowing for everyone’s voice to be heard.

2)    We must act democratically.  This means that ALL decisions, especially those made in the beginning, must be voted on by the group, with notice of the vote and any supporting material on the vote being shared with the entire group.

3)    We must set up a mechanism for information to freely flow between all members.  Perhaps there is a way to create a news group similar the Big Cheap where we can become members.

4)    We need to elect a transitional committee whose sole function is to certify the voting in the early period of the League, before we set up a structure and elected a leadership. Perhaps a group of 7-13 people would be sufficient.  This group must understand that its purpose is not to become the leadership. Their role is merely to count the votes (because someone has to).

5)    We need to agree on some type of process that gives shape to how we will determine the structure and the leadership.

  1. I recommend that we start the process of voting for a League to form at the meeting on the 20th.  First we need to agree to abide by the majority vote of all votes taken by the group.  Then we need to first elect the 7-11 members to the transitional committee. Beginning on the 20th, and continuing for a period of 6 weeks, the transitional committee should collect votes in favor of and against the forming the league (thus acquiring members).  At the end of six weeks the transitional committee should email all those who have voted to create the league a list of all those that have voted yes.  These are the original members of the League.
  2. At this point we should allow another 6 weeks for the members to share their ideas as to how to structure the group.  Anyone and everyone should be allowed to submit a proposal to the group (using our message board yahoo group).  After 6 weeks of discussion, we should request that all members who want to submit a final proposal to the group for a vote to do so.  The proposals should include a structure, and leadership positions and the process to elect our leaders.
  3. I recommend that we use a Caucus format for voting on the proposals.  At a meeting to vote on the proposals the authors should be allowed 5 minutes to address the members to discuss their proposal.  After all proposals have been heard from we vote.  The proposal that has the lowest votes is removed, at which point we vote again.  We continue this process until we have two proposals left and the one with the majority vote becomes the structure.
  4. At this point the winning proposal will guide us as to next steps.

I recognize that this is but one way to launch our Producer’s League. There are, no doubt, many other ways as well.  Some might be better, some might be worse.  But so far, we have not had a process that has allowed for full proposals of this kind to be shared. Before we vote on any proposal, we deserve to know who wrote it.  We need to be able to challenge it.  And we need to make sure that it does not set out to exclude producers, but rather, follow the following equation:

Transparency + Accountability + Inclusiveness = Legitimacy.

Time for a Producers Organization

Posted in Uncategorized by Rick Culbertson on May 4, 2012

WE NEED A PRODUCERS ORGANIZATION

I have had many conversations with LA producers in the last three years since I first started my blog arguing for the creation of a producers organization.  Often, these conversations come from discussing the wider ills of LA theater, (half price tickets, marketing, rental contracts, etc).  We all know this is the case, and we have been talking about it for years. In every single one of those conversations it was agreed that we need a producers organization to address the problems and find the solutions.

But the question always comes around to how, and who, and at what cost?  And so the proverbial ball is dropped.

The LA Stage Alliance has finally picked up the ball in the last month. They have organized 4 meetings for the producers to discuss the formation of a producers organization.

So here we are–at probably the most significant crossroads LA Theater has seen in the past 20 years.  There was a lot of discussion at the first two meetings, much of it heated, some of it confusing, and little of it with a clear purpose.  In fact, as far as I can tell, we, the producers, were invited into this process in the middle.  Its like we are building a house, but the floor plan has already been chosen, the foundation already laid, and the walls already built.  We have been given the chance to give feedback  on the roof style, but the ultimate decision on the roof still does not belong to us.  So I think it is time for us to take a step back, look at the big picture and ask ourselves, shouldn’t we be involved in what we want our foundation to look like?  Shouldn’t we get the chance to vote for our leaders?  Shouldn’t we have the ability to hold our leaders accountable?  Shouldn’t our leaders reflect the greater producing community?  And shouldn’t they speak for us not because no one else will, but because we elected them to do so?

Moments like this come along once in a generation.  If we miss this opportunity because we don’t have the energy, time or money to ask the critical questions, then we are going to pay for it for the next 20 years. None of us can afford this.

SO, WHAT EXACTLY DO WE NEED ANYWAY?

There are two underlying points that will set the foundation for solving all of our other needs:

  1. Our organization must be independent and created by the producers, with membership, leaders and funding by only producers.
  2. We must all abide by any official majority vote of the producers organization.

These two points are critical.  As so often happens in a democracy, the people with money wield the most control.  But we, as producers, cannot afford to give control of our organization to anyone who is not a producer, no matter how tempting the potential funding.  If actors were to create Equity today, they would not allow it to be funded and administered by a third party– they would insist it be an organization of the people, run by the people.  As producers, we must do the same. It is imperative that our organization be an independent group run and funded by us.

And, in the interest of solidarity, we must always debate, reason, study, and articulate all issues and solutions put forth by the leadership/committees of the producers organization.  Once we do so and hold an official vote, we must all live with the majority decision.

Anything less will harm the collective, and doom it to failure.

OK, BUT WHAT WILL THIS INDEPENDENT PRODUCERS GROUP DO?

This group will form the collective to allow for the process of collective bargaining.  In addition, this group (which could look like this) can also help solve our larger problems.  For example: solving the 1/2 price ticket issue, getting better rental contracts, getting better ticketing companies, create a shared list of companies that are providing good services and a list of companies providing bad services to producers, training new producers, rebranding and marketing (here and here and here), creating a 20 year plan, study the terrible economics of LA theater, and so many other things that will benefit the producer community. This group, in short, will do what is needed to solve the problems that are crippling LA Theater.

HOW DO WE GET THERE?

STEP (1)  We must vote, as a group, to form an independent Producer’s Organization.  This group must be created by the producers, with membership of only producers and funded by producers. General managers may also be included.

STEP (2)  The members of the newly formed group must agree that we will all abide by the group’s decisions so long as an official majority vote is conducted.

STEP (3) We must build a structure.  Every member of the group should be allowed to submit a proposal as to how we should form our group, should they feel the need to do so.  Perhaps there are additional options such as contacting the Leagues in New York and/or Chicago and looking at their structures.

Proposals should include the general make-up of the electable staff (i.e., President, Vice President, Treasurer, etc) and general rules of order (i.e. Roberts Rules of Order).

STEP (4) We will come together as a group and discuss the proposals and vote.

STEP (5) Members of the group will nominate themselves to leadership positions.  Each nominee will submit a statement clarifying their positions.

STEP (6) We will vote for our leaders.

STEP (7) The leadership will need to determine the initial cost and how dues should be assigned and collected. The group should vote to accept or reject the leadership’s proposal.

STEP (8) We will start the process of forming interest committees.  These committees should be created by the membership, not an outside party, and should reflect the way the membership views itself.  All committees should be open to all members of the whole group and leadership of each committee should be voted on by the committee  (unless another process is decided upon by the larger group).

GREAT! WE HAVE A GROUP, LEADERS AND SUBCOMMITTEES. NOW WHAT?

Now we really get to work!

At this point we need to ask Equity, SDC, and USA to give us some time to research and form our collective opinions.

As I stated above, there are a lot of issues that LA theater producers have to deal with that are not related to unions.  We need to begin to develop solutions to those problems before we can move forward with collective bargaining.  After all, how can we explain why the top ticket price needs to be raised if we have not collected enough data on the problems inherent in ticketing price structure? How can we explain what we need to extend our hit shows if we have not done the research to back it up?   We need to ask some tough questions and study some outside-the-box solutions.  The entire group needs to participate in decision making.  Once we have a plan, a real plan with actionable items that hold us all accountable, only then can we start to collectively bargain.  If we have the data to back us up, and solutions in place, the unions will become our allies in creating an environment where we can all truly succeed.

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?

Organizing the Bloggers

Posted in Producer Tools, Producer's League, Uncategorized by Rick Culbertson on February 8, 2010

(This is part 3 of a 3 part blog. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2

It used to be that you knew you could trust an arts journalist/critic because he or she worked for an accredited newspaper.  It was safe to assume that a newspaper would hire a competent, educated, knowledgeable writer to write theater reviews.  But in the new world, as newspapers fight for their lives, theater critics are being let go left and right.  Most of them are turning up on blogs or on theater websites.  Some disappear forever.  Meanwhile, while we lament the death of the newspaper and arts journalism, a completely new crop of internet bloggers is popping up online.  If we stop and take stock, we will see that there are now more people writing about theater than ever before. 

While it’s great that we have so many people writing about theater, what we end up hearing is a smorgasbord of different voices and no clear way to tell them apart.  On one hand, we are still blessed with the educated opinions of reviewers who used to work for reputable newspapers. On the other hand, we have become bombarded by a group of bloggers– for the most part ordinary people who see at lot of theater and have their own web presence. There is certainly nothing wrong with citizen journalism. In fact, it’s an exciting new trend that is opening many doors for great writers.  The problem is that bloggers are just another form of word of mouth– a kind of public platform for targeted gossip. 

I want to be clear that we absolutely must support these bloggers. Their passion and desire to write publicly about shows they like is one of the main forces keeping theater in Los Angeles alive.  We should engage with them, nourish them, and support them.  After all, good word of mouth is what we all strive for with our shows.   

What we should not do, however, is call bloggers critics.  Our audiences deserve to know the difference between a blogger who is spreading word of mouth and a professionally trained theater critic. 

In the current state of LA Theater the LA Stage Alliance is the defacto leader of the theater community. In light of this, I propose that the LA Stage Alliance form a committee, voted on by its members, whose task would be to evaluate arts journalists who review theater in LA.  

Here’s how it would work:  Any writer who wants to be designated as an official Los Angeles Arts Journalist/Critic would submit a selection of their work for review.  The committee would then evaluate and score their work.  Writers who receive a high score, would receive accreditation from the LA Stage Alliance and be designated as a LA Stage Alliance approved Arts Journalist/Critic. They could publicize their accreditation, and put an official logo on their website/blog.  Basically, this approval process should be similar to the process of being hired at a newspaper. 

Meanwhile, the LA Stage Alliance would need to work with the theater community to promote and market its Arts Journalist designation and to make sure that the public knows the difference between a designated Arts Journalist/Critic and a word-of-mouth blogger. Once the general patrons know the difference they will have a better understanding of how to evaluate online content.  The LA Stage Alliance will also help the accredited journalist by promoting all websites by categorizing them as official Critics or blogger.  

In addition, the LA Stage Alliance can put together journalistic seminars to help bloggers wishing to become accredited Arts Journalists receive the designation. We could implement partnerships with USC’s Annenberg School of Communication program, facilitating ways for journalism professors to run such seminars.  Bloggers could attend and submit their work to the committee to be reviewed.  With the help of these seminars, casual bloggers could soon become credible arts journalist. 

It will also be necessary for theater companies and producers to use press quotes from designated journalists only. When a producer uses a quote from a random blogger on their press materials, it reflects poorly on both the show and the blogger. Additionally, it delegitimizes the entire theater community.  By only using designated journalists we will help to promote them, thereby increasing the importance of the designation. 

Let me be clear: the purpose of implementing this type of structure is not meant to create an elite group of writers.  We should continue to encourage bloggers to get out there and make their voices heard and spread word of mouth.  After all, the more publicity they help generate for our shows, the better! We have to have ways, however, of distinguishing between the many voices we hear.  Treating a blogger as being the same as a professionally trained critic will only delegitimize our professional critics.   

If indeed newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur, and will soon no longer be around to vet arts journalists, then its time for us to do it ourselves.