Putting on a real show: 10 tips for the independent theatre producer

Tip #1: Be sure you have permission

If there is an existing script you may need to get permission. This should be done by contract which specifies whether the writer will be paid a fee and a royalty (especially if a new work is commissioned) or just a royalty. If the play is already in the public domain – that is, no longer protected by copyright – then you don't need permission.

If it will be a group-devised or non-text-based performance, you should clarify this process. Will it be based on an artwork, music or characters that you will need permission to use? Who will 'own' the copyright in the final product?

There may be other issues you need to consider, such as whether you need a prop gun? Check out how to get a permit. Do you want to use a piece of music? Find out if you need permission.

Tip #2: Build a team

You will also need to enter into contracts with all the team members and consider whether they are employees with certain entitlements, or independent contractors. And will they be paid an on-going wage, an up front fee, or a share of the profits? For further information on award wages contact the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA). Many independent theatre productions also go ahead as co-operatives on a profit share arrangement.  If you decide to use this structure contact Arts Law for legal advice.

Tip #3: Know your budget inside and out

In independent theatre, there's generally little or no money, but it's still the producer's job to take charge of the financials. Finding the money for the show can be the producer's hardest job. Government assistance can be sought through the Australia Council, State Government arts funding bodies or local councils. There may also be theatre-friendly trusts and foundations. Other alternative sources of income could be fundraising; corporate sponsorship, private donations; or "in-kind" support.

You also need to consider how much will the show cost? Start estimating the budget and put everything on the list: Consider much will the show make and your break even point? From the early planning days keep updating the budget and replacing guesstimates with the actual costs.

Tip #4: Keep clear records of ALL money going in and out

The producer should be aware of all money coming in and all money being spent and keep ALL receipts.

Tip #5: Make friends with the venue, you're in it together

Choosing the venue is important and should be finalised early. You may need to hire an existing theatre or your show may be site-specific, so you'll need permission from property owners or a permit from the local council. A hirer's fee may need to be paid for use of the venue, or you may negotiate a percentage of box office takings. This should be agreed in a Venue Hire Agreement.

Tip #6: Get Insurance

You also need to find out what your insurance obligations are. The venue may require you to insure your production. You may also need to organise volunteers insurance and Public Liability Insurance. For information on insurance and contact details for arts friendly insurance ring Arts Law or consult the Arts Law Insurance Handbook.

Tip #8: Be creative but targeted with marketing

Ensuring an audience for performances is also the producer's responsibility, so marketing and publicity must be a high priority.

Tip #9: Fail to plan and you plan to fail

From day one of the production there will be dramas, crises, highs, lows, tears, laughter. The best tools of the independent theatre producer are lists, deadlines, time-frames, action plans, projections, spreadsheets and contracts.

Tip #10: Know the show

There are going to be a whole range of legal issues and crises waiting to happen that are entirely specific to the production, the people working on it, or the venue, so pay attention to its uniqueness.

Amanda Macri has worked at the Australia Council Theatre Board and occasionally moonlights as an independent theatre producer. She produced the co-op Sydney production of Stephen Sewell's political thriller "Myth Propaganda & Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America" with Tangent Productions at the Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, in January 2005. It made a profit.

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