Friday, February 26, 2010

Invisible Emergency

There is an invisible "emergency" at Manhattan Theatre Source?

How is it invisible?
It's "invisible" because it's the inverse of the kind of thing which periodically happens to Theatresource which looks like an emergency but isn't.

OK. So what's the deal?
Normally we have decent cash flow and not much cash in the bank. Lots of money comes in but it's immediately spent on important things like rent. Right now we actually have some money in the bank, but our cash flow is lousy.

What's all this I keep hearing about "cash flow"?
Right now the projectable cash flow for Theatresource is the lowest it has been in 10 years.

But somehow this isn't an emergency?
Oh it is. But it's being kept much quieter than all the other times the bell gets clanged and a call to arms is made.

So all those times were fake, but this one is real?
It could be. Or we could have bookings only a few weeks ahead and live a long time -- as long as those bookings never actually dry up.

So why isn't the typical Theatresource panic going on?
No -- not like all the other times the theater was going to "close the doors!"

Because our new Executive Director discovered about $10,000 in tax overpayments. (This is a goode thinge, and much thanks to Jennifer Thatcher.)

And that's a problem?
No, it means that the problem is hidden. We're "cash rich" right now. The important words there are "right now". Remember that our rent, utilities, and insurance cost more than $10,000 a month.
Cash rich is an unusual position for us to be in. And luckily we aren't dramatically overspending.

Oh, I get it. So there's "how much cash you have in the bank" versus "how much cash you expect to bring in"?
Exactly. The problem is that our cash flow projections are, right now, the absolute worst they've ever been in the entire 10-year history of Theatresource. That's not hyperbole. That's simply factual.*
Even 10 years ago, by this time (late February) we had bookings through the beginning of Summer. And we've never had less than that since then.
That is, until now.

I have a feeling you're going to suggest there's some kind of ideological imperative is going on.
Well, it's not precisely a cover-up. But it's a bit embarrassing to those who enacted the coup last year and got rid of the general manager and the artistic director.

So what is the new management doing now?
Theatresource is attempting to revitalize the Writers Forum but without installing an Artistic Director. Instead all the artistic decisions (which plays to produce, etc.) are being left to committee. It looks to me that the Writers Forum Production Committee is brought into existence primarily to "prove" we don't need an AD. But that's just a bit of Drew snarkiness and can be ignored.

I can ignore that bit of snarkiness?
To which I say "meh."

You've been saying that a lot lately. So we get the Writer's Forum back up and running, and we become a producing organization. Again. Uh. How long is that going to take though, if our wheels have been spinning for nigh on a year?
The real problem is that unless you have a muse locked up under the stairs, it's going to be virtually impossible to produce 4 good plays by July.

Uh oh.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, as you puff on your big cigar, surrounded by 20-year-old Estonian underwear models, "Why do I care if da plays is any good? I just needs to sell me some tickets."

Well, yeah. We just need to sell tickets. That's how we make enough money to pay rent and insurance and stuff. So who cares how good the shows are? Excuse me, one of underwear models turns out to be Latvian and I must have her replaced...
And to you, my good man, I have this response:

What is The Secret to Our Success?
Theater, the way we make it, works like this:
  • The people who buy tickets for shows are the friends and family of the actors. Sometimes their friends and family of the director or the writer.
  • Sure, every once in a while you can get a review from the New York Times or from OffOffOnline and regular theater-going people will come see your show. But that doesn't work for a week-long running show. Even if the reviewer comes on Wednesday, they ain't getting the review out 'till Saturday. Maybe if you do two evening performances on Saturday you'll see a bump for the second of those two shows. But let's face it, the review will come out on the Tuesday after you've closed. I'm not kidding.
  • Handing out postcards does nothing as far as getting tickets sold and "butts in seats". It makes you feel that you're doing "press" for the play. The only reason for the postcard is so that actors can send them to friends with their own name underlined so that their friends who have always wanted to date them will think they have a better chance if they come to the show.
  • The way to sell lots of tickets is to have your cast excited about your show early in your rehearsal process so that they'll get their friends and such to come see the show in its first week.
Are you saying this won't work without an Artistic Director?
No. It's going to be difficult to get enough plays produced no matter what. Yes, it's possible to have a committee be the gatekeeper of what works Theatresource produces (and certainly that would be a better, and clearer, system than what we've had in the past or -- dear Lord -- the way the most recent InGenius was produced).

But there's also merit in having one person whom a consensus or majority has agreed upon endowed with the power to add to the theater's season: in other words a person who can say "We're doing this play and this one and this one. The other play we're doing needs this help before it's ready." But I see merit in hierarchical systems as well as consensus-based ones.

I think that de facto what's going to happen is that whoever is in charge of that committee will dictate which plays are produced.

I'm sorry, I must have dozed off while you were reliving your radical youth. You want some Bakunin theory to go with that anarchism? What I mean is: what do you think will happen?
The short answer here is: boy, it's going to be very difficult to get even one good full-length play developed in that amount of time (July). Unless you can find writers with great plays in their back pockets already, we're going to have trouble no matter what. Artistic Director or no, the Board will end up deep-pockets-ing the theater for a while to keep it upright.

So you think they're going to sink money into the Theatre to keep it alive.
They'll try to sink as little as possible, but yeah, that's my guess.

OK, so what should we do? Should we have a Benefit?
Whenever we have a "crisis" the first response is "we'll hold a benefit!" I suspect you'll find over the years we've just about broken even on our benefits. Benefits are primarily beneficial to the wineries involved. The person in charge of the benefit will play up how much money they made without admitting to the incredible expenses involved.

Thanks for telling me how you feel about that.
What do we make money with? Rentals and producing new works. Heck, even producing old works will cover us, provided we sell enough tickets (although for the love of all that's holy let's never do another Chekhov again.)

Then what should I be doing?
If you've been dying to produce a play, come on down and produce it at Theatresource. There's plenty of dates open!
If you want to SEE a play, come SEE some theater. There's plenty of tickets available!
Whatever the solution is, it doesn't involve having a party.

So me just buying a ticket helps?
Yup. Same as uptown. You should produce though, too.

So I should write a play and then rent the theater?
Yes. Do it now.

OK, I'm working on a script. But, uh, why don't we have any bookings at the theater? I mean, there's a whole lot of producers in NYC and we're certainly one of the least - expensive and well - equipped 50-seat houses in Manhattan.
Well, we'd have to look at what we do now that's different from the way our last two general managers did to made sure the theater was booked.

So you're not telling me.
That's right.

But you know, right?
How would I know? It's not like I sat next to the GM for the last 8 years.

But you did. I saw you. And you're still there.
OK, I did. But I'm not telling. Or at least I'm not telling in this blog post.

There's an elephant in the room, isn't there? Oh crap. There's an elephant. I can't see it, but I can smell it. What is the deal?
The deal is -- why am I the one telling you this? Shouldn't the Board of Directors be sending out explanatory missives about our existence and future? Why is this job left to our last "Founding Member" who's actually at the Source everyday?

That's you, right?
I'm the last one. Technically I am, after all, just a tenant of Theatresource.

C'mon, why isn't anyone communicating? Isn't "Share Your Information" one of the core principles of the Source?
I suspect the real reason is because of an internecine low-intensity battle of wills that's going on right now and won't be resolved 'till the next changing of the guard in the Board of Directors. 'Till then ain't nobody saying nothing because there can't be agreement on what to do. That is when they're not ticked off at one another for misrepresenting things.

Would that explain why all the volunteers are gone?

So really? We're just waiting for management to switch over?
Well, I don't know any other reason nobody's there. C'mon back. It's lonely without you. I'd say maybe it's me but I don't have that much contact with volunteers.

Because there aren't any?
Right. There's that.

I think it's because we're not allowed to have liquor anymore.
Oh please. Nobody used to drink before 4pm anyway. I mean, not much at least. Besides, if you bring the whiskey, you can have a shot in our studio because that's not a place of public accommodation.

Are your partners OK with that?
Maduka doesn't drink, which means more for Blair and me.

You're right!

*Actually, they were worse last week. We do have a booking of the theater throughout March now. So I guess it is hyperbole after all!


Joshua James said...

I have more than four great plays in my back pocket ...

Andrew Bellware said...

You should produce the Josh James Festival!

Joshua James said...

I've done that many times already, and at the source, as you know. And sold out many times.

what I've not understood is why I should pay to produce my work with a theatre ... it seems as tho they want to share the success without sharing the risk ...

If a theatre comes to me and says, we want to do your work ... well, we'd like YOU to do your work, and pay us rent while you produce it, in case it's not successful, that sounds like a far better deal for them than me ...

you don't get anywhere without truly taking some creative risks, not just on material but on people, too.

Just my opinion.

Andrew Bellware said...

There are two ways of dealing with the risk. If you're the producer, you have all the risk (but you have a theoretical up side). If Theatresource is the producer, they take the risk and the upside.

If the theater costs about $2500 a week to rent, and we're looking at 5 shows a week, then the breakeven per show is $500 (if you don't count the cost of rehearsals and rentals and press). So the upside for the producer is (calculating an $18 ticket times 50 seats = $900/night) a theoretical $400 (which is a completely full house at $18/ticket minus the $500/night rental).

For a week-long production, that leaves about $2000 out of which you have to deal with PR, rehearsals, what-have-you.

If you do multiple weeks -- and can actually sell them out -- you might make a few thousand bucks when you walk away from the whole thing.


For MTS to produce, the economics are almost identical. The theater doesn't even break even on the rental -- our nut is too high even if the theater were rented 50 weeks out of the year. So the "profit" is whatever money a show can bring in above and beyond the "nut" (being about $2500/week).*

So out of that, if the theater is selling out every night of a show that it produces itself, how much money should be kicked back to the writer(s), the producer(s), the director(s), and (dear Lord), the actor(s)?

I don't know. It's not like the extra revenue is going into a slush fund -- it's going to pay maintenance and taxes and to repair the damage from the last flood.


In any case, I'm ideologically in favor of one producing one's own work. In fact, that's what I do. And I'm in favor of producers producing other people's work, I do that too.

The question for a volunteer-run organization like MTS is: how will it produce other people's work, and not just be a rental house?

Maybe I didn't understand the question.

*BTW, the rental prices are more than that nowadays. I forget what they are exactly. I remember when they were $1700 for the week so my wee brain gets confused.

Joshua James said...

They could also share the risk ... split it with whomever they're investing in ... that's what I'd always been hoping for but it never happened.

Andrew Bellware said...

From a financial standpoint though that wouldn't be "shared risk" -- the producer takes the risk. Unless you mean the theater and the writer/producer entity each put up half the money for the budget.

Joshua James said...

the artist takes a risk, too, by letting a producer have a property ... they could well and fully fuck it up and ruin its prospects ... that happens, it has happened.

Andrew Bellware said...

I don't really see how the prospects of the play would be ruined by a bad production. Not at this level anyway.

If Lincoln Center produced the play and it bombed then yeah, it might lose a potential audience for its next run. But some off-off Broadway theater does the play and nobody likes it? Heck, no other producers will even know it was produced unless you tell them.

Even a lousy version of the play will look to a future producer like "this play was produced" which to them will be a positive thing (because the good Lord knows, they won't have seen it anyway. ;-)

Joshua James said...

even at that level, yes, it could hurt ... some companies won't touch it, it has happened, I know from experience.

And there's the added aspect that a bad show hurts the artist just by being bad.

Andrew Bellware said...

All those are great reasons for you to produce yourself. You get ALL the financial upside and you get to protect your work!

Joshua James said...

except that's not what I do ...

You could also distribute your films yourself (I'm assuming you don't) ... you'd get all teh financial upside and get to protect your work.

But you don't.

I guess I could, if I wanted, pull my own tooth ... it'd save me money and I'd be in charge of my mouth ... but it's not what I do ... I write for money, people pay me for it because I'm good at it.

I pay for other services, and I get paid for mine.

People go to plays and pay the ticket price because (they hope) the play is worth it.

Andrew Bellware said...

If we weren't getting distribution on every picture we made, we sure would be distributing them ourselves. ;-)