The first thing you should do once you’ve agreed to produce a show, (or, if you’ve initiated the project then found a director) is discuss the show with the director and agree what your overall vision for the show is, and what you therefore need to have.
Some questions you might use as a starting point for discussion are:
What are your intentions for the production? What do you want the audience to leave thinking/feeling? To that end – What will the stage look like? Will it be empty or will there be different sets for every scene? What about costume? Will the actors basically be in their own clothes or do you need period costumes sourcing? How will the action be lit? Would you prefer natural lighting or non-naturalistic/thematic lighting? How many props will you need, and how difficult will these be to acquire? How will you make sure that everything is safe to use? Does the show require expensive rights? What might go wrong, and therefore how much contingency money should you have? How are you going to manage publicity, in order to maximise sales? Discuss these until both you and the director are happy that you both understand and agree what your anticipated ideal end-point is. Then comes the fun – convert that into numbers!
If you’re lucky, when the theatre agreed to put on your show, they also agreed to fund you. If not, you also need to find a separate student funding body. In Cambridge there are several, although I don’t know how this works elsewhere. If you’re a student producer at a different university with a different system, I’d love to hear how this works elsewhere in the comments! Whoever is funding you, you need to be able to tell them where money is going to be going, why you need as much as your asking for…
What Budget Should You Ask For?
A good place to start is to find out what the total budget was for similar scale shows, possibly also at similar points in the academic year, in order to get an idea of what you can reasonably expect to ask for. If you have a small, late-night, short run during the weeks when all students have exams, you will have a smaller budget than some of the largest scale productions of the year, which are expected to sell out. (In Cambridge, these are the Footlights Pantomime, running for two weeks in December, and the Lent Term Musical, running for two weeks in March.) Do some playing with numbers – how many tickets would you need to sell to reach x budget? What about y? How realistic is it that you’ll sell that many?
Once you know what sort of total budget you could expect, estimate at the biggest end, and divide up the money into sub-budgets, with an idea of what each would be spent on, and why it would require that money. Then head to your budget meeting with the funding society armed with those numbers and what they will be spent on (and why that will make this show amazing).
Be prepared to negotiate a little – that’s why you started as high as you felt was reasonable! Remember what you and the director felt were priorities and try to negotiate more on the things you were more willing to let slide a little. And remember: You’ve done the maths – you expect to sell at least x number of tickets, because you’re going to have a great publicity campaign (a post on how to do one of these is planned for in a few weeks – stay tuned!) and therefore you will make them a profit margin of y! If you’re reasonable and realistic this should be a relatively straightforward process. And once you’ve agreed with the funding society – you’re all set to start the project!
What This Resembles in Practice
I produced Othello at the ADC Theatre in May 2015. (This is now old enough that this information is not confidential, which is why I am taking an older example.)
We wanted the production to feel set in 2015, and the stage to give the impression of a contemporary army barracks. We wanted corrugated iron (we actually used painted plastic) and scaffolding, a large table and a bed we could wheel on and off, so an expensive set. We wanted costumes resembling army uniforms (we ended up not renting these, but merely dressing the cast in khaki shirts and black trousers), so relatively expensive costumes. In terms of props, we wanted to rent blank firing guns, which is expensive (as well as requiring local council licensing in the UK), and we needed a strawberry spotted handkerchief, as well as fake blood and a few bottles and cans for “alcohol”.
We knew that Shakespeare, especially innovative Shakespeare (e.g. exploring the effect of intersectional discrimination against a female Othello) usually sells well, and that previous shows had been granted relatively large budgets (by student production standards) in accordance with that. However, we were scheduled for Week 4 in Easter term, and student exams in Cambridge take place between Week 5 and Week 7 in Easter term, so this is a difficult week to persuade students to come to the theatre.
We settled on a budget similar to that of previous productions of Shakespeare at the ADC, agreeing to have a big publicity campaign, to compensate for the not-ideal time. The split was as follows: Contingency: 18%, Set: 25%, Costume: 22.5%, Props: 15%, Publicity: 12.5%, Sundries: 3%, Skip Charge: 2.5%, Makeup: 1.5%.
When planning your income, to show that you need to sell x tickets to break even, remember that the theatre (and the licenser, if you needed rights) will take a cut!
Throughout the run up to the production you need to monitor expenses really closely, to make sure everyone is staying within budget, and to make sure that people get reimbursed if they purchase things personally (which is usually what happens in student theatre).
Lastly, you might be astonished by the innumeracy of some people you work with on productions, but don’t let this show: everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses (I know I do!) and as a student producer you’re responsible for the maths!
Feel free to like the post if you enjoyed it and/or follow the blog if you want more! Also, please let me know what you thought of this post in the comments – do you feel clearer about how to make a student production budget? And is there anything you’d like to see more or less of in my advice blogs?
See you on Friday for an update on how my last play went!
P.S. If this is the first post you’ve read here – welcome!