EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER seen the 1939 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, you’ve probably heard its most famous line, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show,” exclaimed by a young Mickey Rooney — which is eagerly countered by Judy Garland’s “We can use my dad’s barn.” However, the notion of producing a musical is not just a Hollywood dream of dogged determination and spunk. With resourcefulness, strategic thinking, and proper planning, you too can produce a low-cost, high-quality musical from scratch — with or without a barn.

Whether you’re thinking about a fringe festival production or a personal summer project, there are many things to consider when putting on a show: venue, sets, costumes, and of course, money. Producing a musical is a monumental task, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. With good planning, this guide, and a little help from your friends, you can produce a musical on a shoestring budget.

The big questions

There are two main questions you should ask yourself before getting started. First, where are you putting on the show? Second, who is the show for?

These might not sound like critical points, but until you know these two answers, you don’t know what you’re doing. Are you performing at your high school theatre? Are you using an alternative space like a church reception hall, the multipurpose room at the community center, or your backyard? Knowing your performance space will help you to make all the other decisions down the road.

The second question is a bit trickier. Ask yourself, who will be in this show? Who will come to see this show? Try to choose a venue or performance location that works for those groups of people. If your primary pool of actors and audience members are from your high school, try to perform at the high school. If your audience is your immediate neighborhood, then choose a backyard or community church that’s an easy gathering spot. If you’re in a fringe festival, you’ve probably been assigned a storefront or black box performance space. No matter where it is, knowing the parameters of your space and the audience associated with that space should be guiding principles throughout the production process.

THE BUDGET AND CHOOSING THE SHOW

Which comes first, the show title or the budget? Turns out, it’s both at the same time. You won’t know how much money you’ll need for costumes until you choose a show, but you can’t choose a show with expensive costume needs until you know how much money you can spend on those costumes. It’s a conundrum.

Start by laying out how much money you think you can spend on the show. It’s okay if the answer is nothing, but if you plan to put on a big summer musical, you will need some cash to make it happen. Consider businesses, school clubs, or charities in the area that might be willing to make a donation. Don’t forget that donations of goods and services can be helpful, too. Perhaps a patron or sponsor who loves the theatre would be interested in supporting you. And don’t forget crowdfunding websites as a potential money-raiser. Even if you don’t have much money to spend on the show, you can still put on a performance, you’ll just have to put in more elbow grease.

If you want to choose a popular show, you’ll need to pay for it. Well-known titles like ShrekHigh School Musical, or Legally Blonde are big-ticket items. These usually cost around $1,000 per performance for the rights, and you’ll need to pay up to $800 for renting the scripts and music books. If you have your heart set on a big title, you’ll need to start fundraising early.

Consider focusing on one blowout performance, instead of multiple performances. The more performances you do of an expensive title, the more money you will owe. If you can get a performance space with a lot of seats, one show is all you need. Sell out that one night and revel in your giant crowd.

You also might want to see if the company that licenses the rights has a shorter “junior” or “high school” edition of your big-name show, which often include a kit with a director’s guide, accompaniment tracks, and a choreographic DVD for under $600.

If you’re starting with no money and want to skip the fundraising efforts, you’ll need to take a different approach to choosing a show. Norb Wessels, a law student and self-professed acting addict, has a lot of experience putting on shows for no money, having been on the board of three student-run theatre organizations between his undergraduate and graduate school careers.

He describes his many bouts with licensing shows this way: “The hardest part is getting rights to shows. It’s something that no one explains, but it’s essential to the process. Self-written or non-copyrighted works like Shakespeare are the barest bones you can get when putting on a show.”

So, write from your life, write from imagination, or find some source material in the public domain that you can adapt. Most fairytales and legends are in the public domain and may be freely adapted into new scripts and stories for the stage.

But how do you write the music? If you are a budding musical theatre student, you may already have the skills to write songs. If you don’t, try reaching out to your friends and family, your school music program, your church choir, your piano teacher, or even your favorite local band for help. Write an entire musical for the ukulele or lay down a base beat in GarageBand and write a rap musical — it worked for Hamilton. Writing a musical will take more time and creative thinking than buying the rights to an existing show, but it will be a lot cheaper and a lot more rewarding, too.

Shrek bank

PRODUCTION PROCESS

Theatre superheroes, assemble. If you’re going to pull off a low-cost, high-quality musical, you’ll need your friends. This is the most important task of any producer. Your show is only as good as the team you have. Find your best go-getters. You want people who can work independently but also know how to collaborate on a collective vision. Don’t hoard all the responsibility or micro-manage. Find people you trust to do their jobs and let them do it.

Here are the basic roles you need to fill: director, choreographer, music director, costumer, props master, stage manager, set designer, and technical director. If you’re performing in a traditional theatre space, you may also need lighting and sound designers. Of course, certain people may wear multiple hats, but make sure you have enough support to see you through this complex process.

Once you assemble your team, set a production calendar. This will include not only obvious things like dates for auditions and rehearsals but also for costume fittings, building sets, taking cast photos, loading into the venue (if you’re rehearsing offsite), hanging and focusing lights, and even when set and costume designs are due to the director.

The production calendar allows you to see the entire process of putting together the show in a comprehensive timeline. The more organized you are, the better the process will run, and the better the process runs, the less money you need to spend fixing mistakes or getting out of jams caused by oversight or running out of time. There are costly production calendar and project management software programs out there, but a simple shared Google calendar and some Excel spreadsheets can do the trick.

SETS, PROPS, AND COSTUMES

“Ask everyone for help. Ask people you expect to say no. Get everyone involved. Lots of people have things laying around or connections to other people who do, and they’ll probably be happy to give you that thing they’ve been meaning to get rid of. Ask, ask, ask! The worst thing that could happen is being told no.” This bit of insight from fringe festival participant and playwright Hannah Regan is right on the money.

You can spend almost nothing on sets, props, and costumes — if you ask the right people for help. So scour basements, hit your great aunt’s closet, check out dumpsters at local theatres, and start thinking outside the box. Theatre educator and actor Jodie Meyn suggests, “Become a bit of a hoarder. Start to see set pieces in everything and catalog where you’ve seen them, so you know who to ask later.” The humble swimming pool noodle can be used to make anything from a sword to an alien headdress. Working on a more traditional show? Cut the noodle in half and glue it to a standard flat as a baseboard or crown molding.

Old carpeting can also be a money-saver. Most people have large lengths of it in their basements. Use the underside as a sturdy canvas to paint a backdrop. You can also simply tape the carpet remnant to the floor and set off a playing space. Put chairs around the carpet for theatre-in-the-round.

Occasionally, you may need to visit a store or business for a prop or scenic piece. That doesn’t mean you have to pay for it. Stage manager Mackenzie Boyd suggests, “Lots of repair sites have stuff so broken they can’t repair it. I got a car seat and a saxophone from a junkyard and a music repair shop. Both were completely free.” In addition to repair shops and junkyards, look for construction overstock shops and thrift stores. Don’t forget about Craigslist. Many people post items they are willing to part with for free if you just pick them up.

A good costume tip is to work from “picture pages” you create for your cast. Find images of people wearing the kind of clothes, makeup, and hairstyles you want to see in the show. Ask the cast to pull together their own costumes to fit those images. Hold a costume parade during one rehearsal for everyone to show their costumes to the production staff, and then bring together different family groups, choruses, or love interests to see how the costumes work next to each other. Even if you need to change things, you’ll have a great foundation from which to work.

If you want to get more specific with the costumes and sew a few things yourself, there are also great resources you can use. YouTube has so many sewing tutorials that even a newbie can make a circle skirt or a collar with a few minutes of viewing. No sewing machine? No problem. Chicago-based costume designer Cheyenne Hamberg points out that “libraries are stepping up their game lately and have sewing machines to rent in ‘maker spaces.’ You can either bring your materials or buy from them. Just check their websites.”

TECHNICAL ELEMENTS

In a traditional theatre, you’ll have all the bells and whistles for lighting and sound. It’s just a matter of making sure you have people who know how to run the boards, prepare the microphones, and hang and focus the lights. In a less traditional space, you have to find a way to work around the technical limitations. If you aren’t performing in a theatre, don’t worry about amplification. Shakespeare didn’t depend on microphones, and you shouldn’t either. Work with your actors on vocal projection. Unless you’re playing a giant arena, you should be just fine.

Lighting is a bit trickier. Theatrical lighting instruments can be hard to come by and have a lot of electrical needs. But have no fear, DIY options are here. “Clip lights, clip lights, clip lights,” suggests Cincinnati-based actor and regular fringe participant Rory Sheridan. Clip lights are those inexpensive, aluminum hooded lights you see on construction sites and in the aisles at Home Depot. You probably also have a few backstage at your school or local theatre as safety lights. While these are their more popular uses, clip lights can also be used for onstage lighting. Simply clip the light onto anything and position it where the light needs to hit the actors — or hold one like a spotlight to follow the actors throughout a scene.

You can tape gel over clip lights to make different colors and provide a wide beam of light to spray onto the playing space. Buy different wattages to get brighter or softer light for your show. And don’t be afraid to branch out. Look for any bright portable lights, like camping lanterns and floodlights, to brighten the space. You can even add floor or desk lamps to the set and simply have the actors turn them on as part of the scene work. Voila, light!

But what to do if you have a bunch of clip lights and portable lights but no lighting board? You can’t run around turning lights on and off throughout the show. Not to worry. There’s a fix for that, too. “Power strips can be used as a light board in an intimate enough space,” says technical director Bleu Pellman. Start by lining up three or four power strips around the space. Use each one for a different lighting look, and plug all the lights for that one look into the same strip. You can move from look to look by just turning off one strip and turning on another. It will limit how many looks you can create, but it’ll be enough to light your show, stick to your budget, and probably impress the heck out of people with your ingenuity.

Shrek bank

MARKETING AND TICKET SALES

Theatre isn’t theatre until there is an audience, so start thinking early about your strategy to get people in the seats — or on the lawn or in the pews. Posters and flyers are a go-to, but printing can be expensive. Consider getting your friends and cast together to draw handmade signs and flyers. However, social media is the cheapest and most effective way to get the word out to a large audience.

Start by creating a Facebook event and get everyone in the cast to share it with their friend lists. If you create a business page for your theatre company, you can purchase targeted ads for as little as $5. That’s a great price for a platform with that reach.

Then expand into Instagram, showing pictures of the rehearsal process. Tweet quotes from the show, with links to ticket information. Make short rehearsal or cast interview videos on your cellphone and push them across all platforms, to give people a taste of what your show will be like — but don’t forget to include dates and a link for how people can purchase tickets when they are thinking about it.

Speaking of tickets, how do you plan to sell yours? Most ticket buyers want the option to purchase online. It’s easy, it’s fast, and a confirmation email helps buyers keep track of their tickets. Ticket-selling programs can be pricey, but there are options that will take a percent of your total sales as a commission fee. Eventbrite and Brown Paper Tickets are two low-cost options. These sites are also great for organizing, as you can usually download a spreadsheet with names and ticket orders.

You could choose to buy stock or customized roll tickets or make tickets to hand out at the box office, or you could have patrons bring a printed confirmation as their ticket. I’ve seen a few groups check people in on the spreadsheet they downloaded from the ticketing program and then give patrons a handstamp instead of a ticket.

If you want to sell tickets in person and leave the internet out of it, you’ll need to open the box office early enough to accommodate everyone buying tickets at the show. Consider creating a free email account like mysummershow@gmail.com where people can email orders ahead of time and pay when they arrive. That at least allows for advanced reservations and will keep the line moving at the box office. If you don’t need to recoup expenses or pay for a venue, just give the tickets away for free. It’s a nice gesture to the community,
and it takes a lot of work off your plate. No matter how you offer tickets, I highly suggest general admission seating as opposed to reserved seating, which will streamline the process and negate any double-seating headaches.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’ve made it through all the hurdles of getting a musical on its feet, you may think your work is done. It’s not. Every great producer knows that every closing comes with a host of other tasks. Make sure that load out and the return of rented items is done in a timely manner. Fix any pieces you broke before taking them back to their owners.

Make sure all the scripts and music books are erased and shipped back if you do a licensed show. The licensing company will deduct money from your security deposit if you don’t return all the books. Also leave every space you used to practice or perform nicer than you found it so you’ll be welcomed back next year.

And speaking of next year, be sure to get photos to use for next year’s show promotion. A high-resolution photograph from this year’s show will go far when you start pushing auditions, donations, and tickets for next year’s show. If you charged money for tickets, you might be thinking, “What do I do with the proceeds?” Talk to your theatre club or school boosters to see if they can hold that money for your next show. Work with a local nonprofit to become a financial agent for your group. Often they can keep your money and then disperse it to you when the time is right. Finally, you could open a bank account for your group and manage it independently. That is the hardest route, because unless you are already a business entity, you can’t have money under your theatre group’s name in the bank. Be sure whoever keeps the account is trustworthy. If you get serious with your independent theatre group, you should think about becoming an LLC and eventually a nonprofit, but that’s a conversation for another article.

Break legs, young producers. Happy theatre-making!

This story appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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