How are plays produced?

April 21st, 2016 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

For quite a few years now I’ve been fortunate enough to get review tickets to many plays 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 plays.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Kings of the Gym

January 20th, 2013 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Kings of the Gym had its premiere at Circa last night. It was fabulous fun, with some stand out acting.

The play is set at decile 2 Hautapu High School, and pokes lots of fun at education bureaucracy, political correctness, Destiny Church and even Novopay gets the odd mention! The set was very authentic, with even the fluorescent tube lights in the office reminding you of your own school days.

Ginette McDonald plays Viv Cleaver, the school principal. The principal, referred to as Cleavage by the PE HOD Laurie, is a politically correct bureaucrat who is obsessed with improving the NCEA grades and making sure her friends in the education bureaucracy think highly of her. It is a tribute to McDonald’s skills that she doesn’t just make Cleaver a caricature – but actually turns a pretty unsympathetic character sympathetic.

McDonald has some comic gold lines, and is just superb.


Paul McLaughlin portrays his character perfectly.  Laurie drives Cleaver mad. He mocks the curriculum and files it in the bin. He states how the PE curriculum mentions well-being 73 times, and winning just once – to stress it is not important. His idea of a class is to play soccer. He’ll often delegate the ref to someone else so he can watch TV and bet on the TAB.

But Laurie is a likeable rogue, and his kids all love him. In fact one of them has become the 2nd teacher in the department, and has seemingly thrown away any ambition and his degree, to be a mini-Laurie. That is Pat, played by Richard Dey. The chemistry between Dey and McLaughlin helps make the play so excellent. The looks they give each other, the hassling, and especially Laurie’s expression when he finds out the girl Pat likes is already engaged. Many comic moments.

You never see the kids on the stage, but they are used to humanise the characters. Cleaver and Annie are horrified that the Vietnamese student is called “Chopsticks” by Laurie, despite he fact that is the name he prefers. He is so good at soccer he is told he must play left footed. Laurie also tells the kids they must have at least three girls on each team, otherwise the boys will win. Hilarious, harsh judgement calls.

But Dougal is the student you hear most about. If he scores a goal, it is worth five points as Dougal has Downs. At first you think such statements are so insensitive, but you later hear how he helps Laurie after school stack up the gym equipment (even though Laurie can do it quicker by himself) and realise behind the gruff, Laurie is hugely protective of Dougal.

Acushla-Tara Sutton plays Annie, the student teacher. At first she is just an over eager high achiever who insists on goals for every class. She is also a top sportswoman, and on the verge of making the Silver Ferns. But the real tensions comes when it emerges she is a born again Christian, and a member of Destiny Church (they don’t call it Destiny in the play – but it obviously is). The real tensions come when in biology class she refers to there being two schools of thought on where humans came from. She also sets up a church youth group, and has some of the students make purity pledges.

The play isn’t mocking of Christians, or the church. In fact she plays tribute to how they helped her, and the real message of the play is about tolerance.

There are some great one liners such as how pregnancy and STDs are the only two areas where the school over-achieves, and a line by the principal about how if one particular female student abstains for even a week, that will reduce the chlamydia rate. Many laughs through the whole play. The first half was a bit more tense at times, while the second half which had the big plot twist and the eventual happy ending had more of those laugh out loud moments – not the dignified giggles – but the forced laughter as it was so hilarious.

Kings of the Gym was a terrifically funny play which made for a great night’s entertainment. Dave Armstrong has produced a very New Zealand comedy that has near universal appeal.

On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover

September 15th, 2008 at 8:58 am by David Farrar

The play “On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover” has returned to Downstage, as people may see from the advertisement on the right.

When I first heard about this play, I thought I would rather play lawn bowls than go see it. But then just as the season in Wellington was ending, I started to hear good things about it. Then I read Che Tibby’s review and rang up to try and get tickets on the final night. They were all sold out. Che said:

The play is extremely well-written, extremely well-acted, and contains more gems, illuminations, satire and outright slap-your-knees-you’re-laughing-so-hard moments that you’ll feel rewarded just for turning up. Unless you work in Parliament, in which case you’ll want to perhaps wear a disguise, so as not to be seen laughing at what is a very heavy satire of the Labour Party and incumbent government.

The political jokes run thick and fast in this lecture, along with a number of outright lewd references to many people who are not Helen Clark (they don’t actually cross that line). There are even some fantastically arcane political science jokes in there, which only me and the two people sitting next to me (whom I did not know!) got.

So, there’s something in there for everyone. It’s extremely not-PC, it’s fast moving, and it’s actually funny.

I was pissed off I missed seeing it. But then it opened in Auckland. So I extended one of my trips to Auckland to stay on for it. And it was fucking hilarious. Don’t be mistaken by the title into thinking you will not enjoy this is you are right of centre. There were National MPs in the audience laughing as hard as anyone.

The star is commanding as he takes the audience through his powerpoint presentation on why Helen Clark should take him as her young lover. He comes across as so earnest and sincere (the scary thing is he may be just that) about the proposition that it is just hilarious. I liked the play so much I got a copy of the book and got him to autograph it.

Downstage have asked me to include this letter from Richard Meros below, which I’m delighted to do so. If I have the time I’m going to go again, and I really do recommend it to anyone who has a robust sense of humour. You will not stop laughing. Remember it is on this week only until 20 Septmber 2008.

Kia Ora Tatou, I’m Richard Meros and I have a Dream.

Our proud nation has laboured too long under a barely discernible pendulum wobble from Labour to National, National to Labour, so on ad nauseum. Yet we yearn for, and deserve, something greater. Through meticulous research I have drawn an inescapable conclusion: that only my personal engagement with the electoral process – and with our noble Prime Minister – can herald the glorious future of our South Pacific Utopia.

My acclaimed pamphlet of romantic political philosophy, On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover, provoked howls of acclaim when published in 2007, and I have committed to share the “powerpoint” version of my book the length and breadth of New Zealand before Election Night 2008. Why? Because I care.

This life-changing lecture has toured across Aotearoa; enlightenment comes now to Wellington.

I encourage you, your friends, hapu, colleagues, book-groups, iwi and families to attend my presentation at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre (from 12-20 September) where my vision for a New New Zealand under a New Helen Clark, Warrior Princess, will be presented using the latest exciting digital communication technologies.

The engagement is strictly limited to 10 lectures only, and to encourage your passionate participation in the democratic process I am offering a complimentary bottle of Montana Brut Cuvée, (whimsically liberated from a recent National Party Conference) to every party of six or more who books.

Every vote counts.

Richard Meros

As an added bonus, I will be launching my newest book, “Beggars and Choosers: The Complete Written Correspondence Between Richard Meros and Creative New Zealand Volume One” after the first lecture on Friday night.

Book online now at (or telephone 801 6946). Our operators are standing by.