How do you get to Broadway? Practice, practice, practice. How do you become a producer? While it may not be a punch line, the answer for many people has been joining at a group called Theater Resources Unlimited.
TRU is possibly one of New York theater’s least known, most important groups as well as Broadway’s, Off Broadway’s and Off Off Broadway’s best kept secrets.
The group on April 25 at the Playroom Theatre celebrated 25 years of matchmaking between producers, playwrights and others involved in making theater.
The event, dubbed “25 Years of TRU and How It’s Made Me a Better Producer,” brought together producers, playwrights, directors and actors to talk about possibly the most overlooked aspect of the industry.
While schools teach acting, directing and writing plays along with the most technical aspects of the trade (and theater is a trade, as well as an art form and an industry), Bob Ost 25 years ago created a group where mentors and advisers helped produce, yes, producers.
Seasoned professionals and those seeking to start a career not on stage, but bringing shows to the stage, share advice, triumphs and now and then support.
“The idea was if I got producers in a room, they might find ways to help each other,” Bob Ost, co-founder and president, told the group at the anniversary. “Over the years, people formed partnerships. We do mentor, providing a nurturing environment.”
Its members have gone on to produce a wide range of hits as well as critical successes, as TRU has become a kind of invisible partner and nurturing force for people who play a crucial role in bringing work to the public.
“I got my start here,” said Van Dean, the owner of Broadway Records and a co-producer of Anastasia, Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple, Velocity of Autumn and Saint Heaven from the TRU reading series. “My first show came from a TRU reading series.”
How to succeed in producing, while trying
Patrick Blake is the founding artistic director of Rhymes Over Beats, a TRU board member and producer of The 39 Steps, Bedlam Theater’s Hamlet/St. Joan, My Life Is a Musical, The Exonerated, Play Dead and In the Continuum.
His road to theater, however, began not backstage, but in a bar, listening to his favorite bartender talk about wanting to present a play, but being unable to.
“She said, ‘Everybody tells me it costs too much,’” Blake told the group. “I said, ‘What do you have to pay actors, what do you rent a theater for?’ She didn’t know any of the answers to those questions. I said, ‘I’ll help you out.’ That is how I got sucked into theater.”
Producers need to look at plays differently, deciding who and how big the audience is and what the appropriate venue might be. A key trap in producing is not realizing a show’s strengths, core audience and proper path.
“What are the credible goals for a piece? Different pieces have different possibilities,” Ost said of key questions before producing anything. “You have to understand the audience for the piece you’re producing.”
Ost said projects can have different goals, which can lead to a different process and even different definitions of success.
“You have to understand your project, what it takes to do what you need to do, when it’s commercial, when it’s not commercial,” Ost added. “You have to understand the levels of production. When you talk to people about money, they have to know you know what you’re doing.”
Predicting and producing hits
Patricia Klausner, managing director Shotgun Productions and former program director for TRU’s producer program, produced Pippin, Stick Fly, The Trip to Bountiful and The Scottsboro Boys.
She said it’s difficult to predict a hit, particularly based on the description of a project. Hamilton is a case in point.
“If somebody came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to invest in a hip hop musical about Alexander Hamilton?’ I’d look at them like they were nuts,” Klausner said. “I think the creativity of commercial theater is very different than, perhaps, what we grew up on and our parents grew up on. The biggest problem is, I think, we tend to put blinders on.”
While some said Broadway may have become formulaic in its reliance on big names, others pointed out that big name actors have always been on the biggest stages.
Still, Klausner said, the blueprint for a big success may include a big name, although there are always exceptions.
“The ingredients one needs to have a successful run for a play may have changed,” she added. “Maybe to have a successful run of a play, you need some star power.”
Show them the money
While “Show me the money” may be a famous line from a movie, finding the money is a big part of a producer’s job. Sometimes, however, serendipity can be a producer’s best friend.
Producers talked about the importance of realizing that investors may be closer than you think, rather than simply pursuing those who already invest in shows.
“You already know the people you need to know to raise the money,” said Michael Alden, TRU board member and producer (Come from Away, Not That Jewish, Becoming Dr. Ruth. The King’s Speech on stage, Disgraced, Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel).“The mistake we make as producers is looking for the person who will invest rather than talking about your passion.”
Neal Rubinstein, another producer who has helped bring numerous works to the stage, said he sometimes found investors interested in plays in unlikely places, telling one person about a project only to find out that person told someone else who wanted to invest.
“I told a person at a party about a movie. We exchanged cards,” Rubinstein said. “He called me a week later. He’s a producer on the show. He put money into it.”
Crowd funding, bringing in small amounts from many investors, provides a new way of using the Internet to raise funds.
“I enjoy investing, if it’s something that speaks to me,” Klausner said, noting she was only able to invest in some projects, while she served as a producer of others. “Some people only produce. I enjoy doing both.”
Social media savvy
The producers said that social media can help raise awareness, but isn’t that effective in bringing in investors and selling tickets. “I think you should look at it as creating conversation,” Klausner said.
Rubinstein said that “the one good thing about social media is it’s trackable,” although it isn’t always that effective in selling tickets.
“Email blasts get more actual sales,” said Eileen Weiss, of Tweiss Productions, a graduate of TRU’s producer program and producer (Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging, Hell’s Belles, TRU Voices reading of Appendage, documentary film Same Difference).
Producers try to present work that will succeed, although success can be measured at the box office or, sometimes, by the reaction of critics and even a passionate reaction of an audience.
“We all try to predict what’s going to be a home run,” Ost said. “There are different ways of defining a home run.”
Producers need to pay attention to what’s going on around them, in and out of the theater. The trick is identifying tomorrow’s hits early.
“To be good at anything is to recognize how much you don’t know,” Klausner said. “Keep your ears open.”
As if paying tribute to the acronym of the group itself, she said one needed to be true to one’s own belief in which projects to produce.
“The most important thing you need to be a producer is passion,” Klausner said. “Without passion, find another job.”
Ost chimed in quickly, saying maybe the producer need only find another play, noting that the connection between producer and play remains among the most important relationships in theater.
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