Tony Asaro vents about networking, dishes on NYMF, and offers thorough advice for the first-time self-producer.
By Tony Asaro
I show up to the New York Musical Theatre Festival’s opening night gala in my cowboy hat and boots. I’m wearing a light fabric Hugo Boss shirt, white with a garish orange floral print, figuring that it was about as gay country western as I get. (Why I own that shirt to begin with, is the subject of another blog post…) Anyway, I’m armed with postcards and ready—sort of—to mingle. Events like this are really not my scene.
“I am not young enough.
I am not stylish enough.
I am not successful enough.
I am not charismatic enough.
I am not tall enough…”
I finally get into the main event and survey the scene. The room is filled with young, stylish, successful, charismatic, tall people. All with full heads of hair. This does nothing to quell my anxiety.
“I am not liked enough.
I am not interesting enough…”
“I am not drunk enough."
I go straight to the bar for a glass of complimentary Malbec. (Last year, they had vodka. I’m just sayin’…)
With the first sip of wine, I remind myself that I’m there to promote my show, Our Country, a NYMF special event concert. I wrote the music and lyrics and the show is based on my own original concept. My bookwriter, Dan Collins, is even less “at home” at these events, so he stayed “at home”; I’m flying solo.
But, my performance dates are still two weeks away, and a little shameless plugging with the festival folks couldn’t hurt. At the very least, I wanted people to say, “Who was that short guy with the cowboy hat? I wonder which show he’s part of.”
Now, I am no introvert. I’m very social in fact, but I long for a day when I can just be a writer, not a networker, and certainly not a self-producer.
Producer is a role I’ve never wanted, and yet, for Our County, it’s a role I’ve been playing for three years. I seem to always be in panic mode. Lack of money, botched Equity paperwork, changing rehearsal schedules, failed attempts at fundraising: all of the things that make putting on a show a logistical hell fall under my job description. Why? Because there is no job description!
And yet, standing alone with my complimentary glass of Malbec that I wish was a Belvedere and tonic, anxious, insecure, and dressed like Johnny Weir skating to Carrie Underwood, I still think self-producing is the way to go.
After a really successful run in its world premiere in the Planet Connections festival last summer, Our Country had some serious momentum. The small production sold out its run, got incredible reviews and swept the Planet Connections awards show. Immediately afterward, we got an offer to have Our Country published in an anthology of new plays. It was incredible.
But despite all these doors opening, the door which held a producer behind it had not yet been opened... and so here I am, producing the show myself. Things I’ve learned self-producing in festivals:
1) SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GOOD PEOPLE
From your stage manager to your house manager, find responsible, hard working, friendly people for your team. Here’s the catch: YOU have to be “good people” as well in order to get them on board. So, assuming that you’ve been kind and easy to work with in the past, you can probably find a great team to help. (And if you can, find someone for your team that has an office job where they can do your printing and photocopying.)
2) EVERYTHING YOU KNOW AND CAN DO IS FAIR GAME
I worked at a publishing company from 1998-2002 where I learned the rudiments of graphic design, layout, and photoshop. So, I became my show’s graphic designer. I work at a bar, so I have held fundraisers there. Draw on your cumulative knowledge and experience. Producing takes every skill and resource you’ve got.
3) EVERYTHING YOU DON’T KNOW AND CAN’T DO IS ALSO FAIR GAME
When I started self-producing Our Country, I’d never made a budget for a show before. I’d never written a press release. I’d never sent out letters asking for money from family members. When stuff needs to get done, find a way to do it. Having people to advise you is key. Anyone who’s ever self-produced is going to be happy to share the tools of the trade. I got a sample budget from Crazytownblog editor Ryan Scott Oliver that helped me a lot. I had friends proof my fundraising letter. Rely on people who have experience, and don’t be afraid to ask the festival people for answers.
4) MAKE TO DO LISTS
Really, the most important skill for a self-producer is project management. At the festival level, you’re wearing so many different hats that it can seem overwhelming. Stop trying to wear all the hats at once. Base your To Do list order on deadlines and due dates.
5) GET EQUITY STUFF OUT OF THE WAY EARLY
Actor's Equity Association can be a real pain in the butt, it’s true. However, if I’m really honest with myself, I am forced to admit that they wouldn’t have been pains in the butt if I’d just done what they ask when they asked for it.
6) MAKE YOUR PRODUCTION PRODUCEABLE
By this, I mean have a realistic idea of what your show can and should look like with a small budget and festival constraints. Don’t produce your show’s full production. Instead, produce your show’s full potential. Keep your production values small; have as little set, costumes, tech as you need to tell the story. It’s the story and the score that will sell the show, not moving set pieces, or a fancy lighting design. You’ll never get those in a festival production anyway.
7) KNOW WHEN TO BE A WRITER
While you’re wearing the many hats that a producer wears, remember always to put the writer hat back on. First and foremost, take care of your story. In rehearsals, be a producer only when absolutely necessary. There’s a tendency to get out your laptop and start drafting that email to whomever while the cast is discovering your show. The email can wait. You should be discovering your show with the cast.
8) TAKE SOME TIME OFF WHEN YOU CAN AFFORD IT
While self-producing, you’ll have to neglect the rest of your life a little, it’s true, but try to minimize that. Make sure to see your boyfriend/girlfriend. Make sure to sleep in every once in a while. Go to that concert, and attend that friend’s birthday party, and EAT. Time away will translate into mental sanity, and salvaged personal relationships. Also, don’t forget about your other writing projects on the back burners.
9) YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY ARE MORE LIKELY TO DONATE THAN YOU THINK
Here’s the interesting part—they’re more likely to invest in you than they are in your show. That’s how to spin it. To your friends and family back home, you’re the maverick free spirit they wish they could be; you’re living your dream! Your 36-year-old cousin, working in marketing for some software company looks at your life and thinks, “That is incredible!” They are moved by your sacrifice and your tenacity. A part of them wishes they were you. Your job is to convince them that by opening their wallet, they kinda get to be. Do you think my old aunties really want to support my gay country western show? No. They want to support Valerie’s son who’s making his deceased mother so proud by being a successful artist in New York City! (Unless your family is from the surrounding area, saying “New York City” is like saying “The Emerald City.” They see it as a magic and/or impossible place, and are so impressed that you’re making it here.)
10) BELIEVE IN YOUR SHOW
I think this is the key reason to self-produce. At the festival stage, no one is going to believe in your show the way you do. The reason you do these small festival productions is to generate interest. So champion your work the way only you can. If you believe in it, you’ll spend the money, you’ll stay up those late hours, you’ll leave your comfort zone, and hopefully, others will start to see what you see. I once heard Sondheim say, “Write something. Put it up. Write something. Put it up.” At the time I thought, “Yeah, buddy. It’s not that easy.” But actually, maybe it is. You just can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
• • •
(Justin Utley stars in Our Country.)
So as I sip my third glass of not-vodka, (now Merlot—they ran out of Malbec), and I’ve given the obligatory hugs, and repeatedly danced the “Didn’t I see you in...?” two-step, I decided it’s finally time to go home. Kelli O’Hara’s cowboy hat has legitimized my own, and somehow that has translated into a victory for me and for my show. I’ve gotten to the point where “I am successful enough. I am charismatic enough. I am certainly drunk enough.” So enough producing for one night.
(I have to go home and make revisions in the score.)
Oh, and come see the show!
Music and Lyrics by Tony Asaro, Book by Dan Collins
Directed by Diana Basmajian
Music Direction by Eric Day
Starring Justin Utley and Jeremy Pasha
October 11th, 12th, and 13th
All performances at 8:00
The Hudson Guild Theatre on West 26th St
(btw. 9th and 19th aves)
To purchase tickets, or to make a donation, visit http://www.ourcountrytoo.com.
You can purchase the anthology Plays and Playwrights 2010, containing Our Country here.
And listen to a track from Our Country here:05. Our Country