How are plays produced?

For quite a few years now I’ve been fortunate enough to get review tickets to many in Wellington. So once or twice a month I get to go to the theatre and (generally) enjoy a play. They range from local productions of international classics to unique productions and premieres of local .

One of the things which I’ve got interested in, is how do these productions occur. Who decides what gets made? Who decides who takes part? What are the economics of the productions? What sort of work does it involve for playwrights, directors and actors? I enjoy seeing the final product, but what is involved in getting a play to the stage.

So over a few months I’ve interviewed various people such as author Dave Armstrong, actor Gavin Rutherford, and the Circa Council co-ordinator to increase my understanding of how it all works. I thought I’d do a blog post on it, as some readers may find it interesting also.

The playwright

I used to think that the playwright was the central figure in that they would decide to write a play, get funding for it, and then get a theatre to show it. But actually is the the director who is the central figure. They tend to be the ones who pick a script, decide they want to direct it, and then make a proposal to a theatre. Playwrights can submit directly, but more often it is a director who does the pitch.

So when a playwright writes a play, they may not have any guarantee it will be picked up. Sometimes a playwright and a director will form a bit of a partnership, where they work together from the concept stage.

The standard royalty on a play is 10% of sales.

So if you have a play run for four weeks and it gets 150 per night average at say $35, then you may get just under $15,000 for the play. If it is a big hit and goes to other theatres then you can multiply that. But also many scripts never get picked up. You may write six plays, and five never get picked up.

Also 150 a night average is something you may get in Circa One as it can seat 228. But Circa 2 has a maximum 98. And smaller theatres like Bats are even less.

The bottom line is you need to write quite a few plays a year to get a decent income, or have one become a nationwide tour.

The director

The director is the one who generally makes the pitch to a theatre. Often it may be in combination with a playwright. In fact author/director pairings are quite common.

The director decides the makeup of the company that produces a play. The theatre does have a veto, but in practice this has never been used. They may have some people in mind for particular roles, or do open auditions.

While the director is sort of the CEO for the production, they may not get paid more than any of the other principals. At Circa the company tends to split profits equally amongst all the principals (lesser roles may be paid a half share or be on a flat rate) such as the actors.

The theatre

At Circa the theatre takes 20% of the proceeds to cover the operating costs of the theatre. Hence when deciding what plays to put on, popular appeal is an important factor.

However it is not the only one. With two theatres, the larger Circa One can do the more populist shows, and more niche shows in Circa Two. Sometimes they may say yes to a show because they want to nurture the career of someone they see promising. As a non-profit trust they need to earn enough to cover costs, but beyond that it is not solely about maximum sales. Of course the more tickets sold the more they can do, and the better for the artists.

Other theatres may have different models. Some will assume most or all of the risk and pay artists a fixed rate, and have lots of permanent staff including a chief executive. Circa however has no CEO, but a Council of 12 volunteers who are active members. Some will be artists and some may be lawyers or business people. Their common calling is a love of theatre.

The Council decides who to hear pitches from, and consider submissions from directors and playwrights.

The major plays are a nine week effort. They have four weeks of rehearsals, one week of production and four weeks of performances. So the revenue from the performances has to cover the full costs of the whole nine weeks.

The theatre also acts as a sort of bank for each production. They will advance the money up front (along with TACT) to cover the costs, and get reimbursed once sales have begun.

There are also private sponsors who will sponsor a show. This money generally goes only to the company members, and not to the theatre.

Actors

The principal actors in a show are on a profit share. So the more actors in a show, the less money per actor. Lesser roles may get a half share only but generally all the actors tend to be an equal share.

The income from a nine week show generally ranges from $3,000 to $9,000. At the lower end, that would come to just $18,000 a year (and if constantly in a show).

Almost no stage actors in New Zealand can survive just on the theatre. They either have “day jobs” or they supplement their income from related activities such as voice talent for radio commercials etc. They do it because they enjoy it.

TACT

This is the Theatre Artists Charitable Trust. They play a key role by giving a grant for each production – around $3,000 per production member. This effectively gives them an income during the rehearsals and pre-production phase.

It was set up in 1987 and has gifted $5 million since then. Donors include Chapman Tripp, Deloitte and Vodafone.

Non actor production members

Generally each actor and the director gets a full share of  the co-op proceeds (after costs). The stage manager tends to get a full share also.

Other production members such as publicists, designers, operators, technical support will either get a half share or may be paid directly as an expense. In the end the decisions are made by the co-op as a whole as to what split is fair to everyone.

Summary

This won’t be of interest to many, but as someone who has seen scores of shows and enjoyed most of them, I have always been curious about how the shows actually come together, and what the economics of them are. There’s a lot of work and sweat to get a show to production.

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