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How to plan a theatre production

Six questions to ask and why the answers are critical to planning a successful production

Introduction

The 5Ws (or 5Ws+1H) set of questions are used to help understand a scenario.

Many actors, directors and playwrights will know them from character and script analysis.

They comprise a core part of any investigative approach.

An arrow -  setting the direction of your theatre production

In this article, we are going to look at how to apply this approach when you plan a theatre production.

The process involves asking 5 (or 6) questions to better understand the problem. The 5Ws + 1H are as follows:

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why
  6. How

Depending on the application, they are best addressed in different orders.

Why are you producing a show?

It can be easy to jump to what, but every plan should start with why? No matter what you think you want to produce, you need to know why you are undertaking a project in the first place.

Your employer may have assigned you the project, or you may have a dream that drives you to take it on. You still need to know why. Why produce at all, and why this show in particular?

Why sets the goals. You will stage a different show if your goal is to break new artistic ground than if you want to make money. If you don’t know why then you don’t know where you are going.

Making theatre is hard. You will ask yourself, why am I doing this? If you don’t have an answer, it will be much harder to see the project through.

When you plan a theatre production, start by working out what your desired outcomes are and why you want them. Then, set clear goals for your production and keep them in mind as you undertake the project.

If you already know what you want to produce, I still recommend you still dig into the why. This can help you be sure that what you wish to make will serve the purpose you need. If you discover it doesn’t, then you can change your plans.

Why?

Imagine you are a musical theatre actor. Why are you choosing to produce your own show?

  • Your goals are;
    • create an opportunity to show your dramatic singing
    • to impress a Broadway casting director
    • to be cast in a principal role.

What show achieves these goals?

Armed with the why you can now ask what. You may have an idea of what you want to produce, but you need to measure the goals set by the why.

There is a joke that says if you want to earn an Oscar, play a serial killer. Put another way, different types of productions highlight different sides of the same actor. The same applies to all elements of production.

What is the artistic vision? What is the journey of the script? What type of creative process leads to the product? What is the style of the piece? Why do these support the goals already set?

Knowing what the production will be is essential to answering the following questions.

What?

Returning to our musical theatre example; What show achieves these goals?

  • You choose a solo cabaret show inspired by thirties Berlin (forgive the cliché).
    • This puts your dramatic singing at the forefront.
    • You demonstrate your acting too.
    • The style strips back other elements placing the focus on you.

Who do you need to make the show a success?

Once you’ve established what sort of show you are making, you can move on to who. Figure out the roles you need based on what you are doing and why. Worry about the people to fill them later.

Each different production will need a different team. You’ll need to look at what the show is to work out your casting needs. The same script may have varying casting requirements depending on the goal. You can cast most Shakespeare using around a dozen actors by having them play multiple roles. Yet a director of Henry V might decide to cast every part with a different actor if their goal is to maximise the people on stage for the battle scenes.

You’ll need a creative team who can make sure you achieve your goals. You’ll need different designers and technicians for a spectacular than a black box production.

How do you choose which person is best? Look at the goals you set. Then look at what you need to do to achieve those goals. Then look at people who have already shown they can deliver those outcomes. The ones who have the most significant impact on achieving the goals are the most important to find.

You may also wish to think about who you’ll need support from. Figure out your wider stakeholders. Then extend this question to your audience. Who is this show for? Who will it appeal to? You should be able to develop this idea based on your why and what.

Who?

Who do we need to make the cabaret a success?

  • Staying true to the aesthetic you choose an accompanist (over pre-recorded music)
  • To ensure your performance is of high quality, you need a director.
  • Given the simple staging, you decide you only need one technician.
  • You aim your show at experienced theatre-goers looking for substance.

When do you want the show to open?

Moving on to when there are a lot of different ways to phrase the question. I’ve used the one above because this is a planning process. You should still be looking at ideal scenarios.

As you move through the process, the questions take on a more practical quality. You could have chosen to ask, when can you bring all these elements together? When are the people I want available? These are legitimate questions, that’s too much practicality at this stage.

The answer to these questions won’t be a single date either. As a producer, you’ll need to look at what best supports the production. You could ask, when do I schedule critical milestones? This angle focusses on having enough time to make a quality product. You are thinking about what happens when.

When?

When do we open our cabaret? And when do we schedule the key milestones?

  • Ideally, as soon as possible.
    • Until you show your skills, your employment prospects don’t change.
    • You’re excited to start.
  • But you want to create and rehearse a show of the right quality.
    • Writing / assembling the show will take 3 weeks, full-time.
    • Rehearsal will take at least 2 weeks, full-time.
    • You can only afford to work on it half-time.
    • The opening must be at least 10 weeks away.

Where do I want to perform the work?

Its super simple to look at this question and start making a list of theatrical venues you think would work. However, this question also asks in a more abstract sense. For example, do you want to use a traditional performing space?

The physical context in which you stage a show has a considerable effect on how the work is received. Performing outside in a garden is very different from using a black box theatre. If you plan a theatre production of The Importance of Being Earnest, the garden may be a better choice.

At this stage, you need to go back to the goals you set and ask if the venue supports them? You need to think about the different implications of your potential locations. Make sure you consider the following:

  • Artistic contributions
  • Technical capabilities or challenges
  • Audience practicalities
  • How it reflects on your professionalism
  • Who attends that venue already?

Remember that you are still planning at a high level. You may only be discussing a type of venue instead of an actual place.


Where?

Where do we want to perform our cabaret?

  • Professionalism is vital, so an established venue is preferred.
  • You choose an existing theatre bar (after the main-stage show)
    • Simple venue to place the focus on the performer
    • Cafe style seating and house equipment available
    • You can serve drinks and food could be served.

How do we make the show a success?

I’ve spent the bulk of this article holding you back from getting too practical. Now its time to fling the door wide open and ask, how?

At some point, any project has to move from your head into reality. Your first pass involves a couple of key planning documents: the budget and the schedule.

Using these, you’ll start to sketch out the project. You’ll no doubt discover that your grand idea has at least something that isn’t possible. If you can’t afford to have a designer, you’ll need to find another solution. If you can’t get the venue at the time you wanted, you will need to rebuild your schedule.

Every time you ask how you are bringing your vision into the real world. As you discover things that you can’t do, you need to go back to the 5Ws and ask them again. Then take your new answers and adjust your budget and schedule. And so on.

Conclusion

Using the 5ws+1H approach to planning is pretty simple. You just need to take the time to ask yourself 6 questions about your production.

Why? What? Who? When? Where? & How?

The reason they work so well is their simplicity. You don’t need to be a highly trained project manager to follow this approach. Anyone with time and dedication can use this to plan a theatre production.

Once you get to the question of how you make it happen, things become more challenging. At this stage, it helps to know a bit about producing—things like making a reasonable budget and finding funding. There are many resources to help with this.

One final tip. Don’t accept your first answers. Go back and ask the question again and again. This way, you build real detail in your answers, and good plans are all made in the details.