How to Start an Underground Theatre Project

For the most part, those ideas never move past the concept stage because there usually is not a vehicle through which the idea becomes a reality. One of the biggest obstacles is organizing the parties involved and finding a venue. Having successfully started and/or been a part of a few “underground” movements, I have some ideas and guidelines on how to get from the concept stage to production.

The first step is coming up with the idea. Above all else, the idea needs to be simple in terms of the concept and easy and repeatable in terms of execution.

If your concept is so dense and multi-faceted that you cannot explain it to someone in less than a minute, it’s too complicated. The concept needs to be something familiar -- but new -- and it needs to be something that most people outside of theater will be able to understand and get excited about. When I was pitching the Pittsburgh Monologue Project locally, it was easy to explain the concept to everyone from comedy club managers to bar owners and, since it was a local project about local subjects, it was something that was familiar and interesting to them.

For anything that’s going to be performed in a number of different venues in front of a number of different types of audiences, the execution and staging of the project needs to be as stripped down as possible. You may be in the corner of a bar, you may be on an open stage in a coffee shop, or you may be in an actual theater, so the less extensive and complicated your set-up is, the better. Some facilities may not have sound equipment. Some may not have the space or capacity to deal with set pieces, props, or multimedia equipment. Plus, if you strip away all the externalities of a theater production, you can focus on the performance, which is what people that are going to attend a local show at a smaller venue will be focused on as well.

At the outset, it’s also best to stick with a core group of performers. You will have a difficult time getting started and will have no room for stragglers. The people involved must be committed to the project, committed to the mission, and committed to their craft. In my experience, the more people you get involved in a project at the outset, the more cooks in the kitchen and, ultimately, the less reliable the parts become in relation to the whole, which in turn degrades the reliability and stability of the project in its entirety.

So, you have a show that is pitchable, reproducible, and simple enough to be digested and appreciated by different audiences. You have a few staunch, committed members that are passionate about the project and want to see it succeed. You have all the pieces in place to start trying to bring your project to audiences.

At all stages in the project, it is best to properly manage expectations. While it is the ultimate goal of anyone involved in theater to play to a packed house on Broadway, you will in all likelihood never get past your local area and may only be known to a small subset of the population of that area. With that in mind, you’re ready to start pitching the idea.

Chances are that someone involved in the project either works somewhere that has a suitable performance space or knows someone that does. Start there. Having spent a good portion of my career in sales – I don’t use the Monologue Project to pay the bills, which is another part of managing expectations – I am a huge proponent of the saying, “Don’t say ‘no’ for them.” If you walk into a pitch situation thinking that someone will say no, they will. If your passion and enthusiasm comes across to them as you are pitching the idea, they are more likely to say yes. So, don’t assume that your friend Carrie that works at the café down the street wouldn’t be interested in having you talk to her boss about having a performance there. Let Carrie’s boss say no.

The Monologue Project started in coffee shops and bars. I happen to go to a lot of bars and so did Robert Isenberg, who founded the Project. We simply talked to the owner of the bar about what we had to offer and asked whether or not they’d be interested in hosting a performance. For the most part, bar owners want to get people in the door Monday through Wednesday, since Thursday through Sunday is usually busy for them anyway. If they know that you’ll be able to get people in the door, they’ll be more than willing to serve as the venue. Bear in mind that most bars don’t have a stage or a designated performance area, but all bars can clear an area for performance. That will be an important selling point when you are pitching the idea: Since you have a simple, stripped down performance, you don’t have any special requirements for them. They just need to hang up a poster and serve drinks when the performance happens.

Coffee shops are generally unilaterally busy, but they experience a bit of a downturn at night. That’s why many shops have a performance space and have an open mic night one or two nights a week. They want people to come in, they want people to invite their friends. If you are able to sub in your show for an open mic night or bring in 30-40 people on a Tuesday, they will be willing to open their doors for you. I speak from experience when I say this. This works. Don’t say “no” for them, because they’re getting just as much out of the performance as you are, if not more.

We always had the arrangement that we’d get whatever money we charged at the door – usually three to five dollars per person – and the establishment would get whatever money came in the till. That’s the best arrangement, though you may get managers that want the show to be free for the customers that come in, but they’ll pay you for the performance. For that eventuality, have a price in mind ahead of time so that the negotiation will go smoothly. If the manager balks at the price, have a price floor in mind, meaning the lowest amount you’d accept for the performance.

It’s actually possible to stagger shows across a few different venues such that you have at least two performances a week. The people that you invite and the people that were in the venue but didn’t know about the show in advance will tell others about the show and awareness of it will continue to grow. Again, this is not something that will make you world famous, but it will get some money in your pocket, some local fame, and raise awareness of your project. I often run into people in Pittsburgh that have seen a Pittsburgh Monologue Project show or have at least heard of it, but I’m also not running from paparazzi and signing autographs on the street.

All of this is not to say that your project cannot continue to expand beyond the original scope. Once you’ve played a few venues and have created some buzz around your project, your odds of booking an actual theater venue improve dramatically. If you have a built-in fan base and can guarantee a certain level of attendance for a show, theater companies will listen to you, especially companies that are not as well-established and need as many butts in seats as they can get.

Back in the day, we needed to put up posters and call and e-mail our friends to let them know about upcoming shows. Those are still good things to do, but social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have made it considerably easier to spread the word about your project and get people interested in attending performances. Use those outlets as much as possible. If someone thinks that you are tweeting or Facebooking them incessantly, they will hide your posts or unsubscribe.

Local theater companies could lead to produced DVDs or some kind of state-level or national-level recognition, but it is always important to manage expectations, stick to the spirit and mission of the project, and never lose sight of the ultimate goal. You’re interested in getting your idea out there and affecting the lives of your audience members through your performances. You may get famous, you may not, but never forget that one great show can change the world.

Brad Keller

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