Producing for Stage or Screen

From Words to Images, A Miracle Every Time

heathers the musicalIt’s been exciting to produce two plays this year. IT’S JUST SEX is now in its fifth month Off Broadway, and HEATHERS THE MUSICAL, which I’ve been working on for quite a while, just premiered in a workshop here in Los Angeles. Watching HEATHERS go from auditions to opening night in six weeks is a whirlwind phenomenon. Of course, there were five years leading up to that. But it does bring me back to my first love theatre, a love that was born in prep school at Allen-Stevenson (doing Gilbert & Sullivan) and then high school plays (acting in The Grass Harp), community theatre (acting in Enter Laughing), college (producing Hair, directing Jesus Christ Superstar, producing Equus, and acting in Westside Story and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and then finally running a repertory theatre company called TheatreWorks for three years doing eight shows a year, including classics and new works.

While the ultimate goals of film and theatre aren’t terribly different – both strive to conjure, transport, and move audiences – the processes are quite distinct. The paramount aspect to appreciate in theatre is that while the director is critical, the written word (or song) is king. Truly, change a preposition at your peril, because in theatre, especially with new works, playwrights are welcome and expected during the rehearsal process, which is one of discovery. Screenwriters, by and large, get short shrift in the movie business and are often treated as dispensable, and sometimes replaced – an unthinkable situation for a play or musical. With Heathers The Musical, creators Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe were given (justifiably so) great latitude in generating and revising the script and replacing songs, even when the producers (and director) were perfectly happy with songs we had. Our thoughts were respected, but their decisions – by and large – were final. And though our talented director Andy Fickman was our animating spirit in our readings, it wasn’t until auditions and rehearsing (in an incredibly short three weeks) that his brilliance was completely evident. After years of toiling over every word and note, the final visual version is generated in a matter of weeks with substantial input from the Murphy and O’Keefe.

producers and director Andy Fickman of Heathers

Book and Lyrics writer Kevin Murphy confers with producers Andy Cohen and J. Todd Harris and director Andy Fickman.

In feature films (not TV where writers rule) director is generally king. It’s accepted that directors will futz with a script, either on their own or overseeing the original or a new writer. The word is not sacred for the most part. Film actors often change lines to suit their acting needs; it must be head-spinning to be an actor who shuttles between disciplines. And there is virtually no rehearsal for movies, so discovery takes place on set. Truly, most creative teams are lucky to have a few days rehearsal before the start of a movie, often because some of the actors aren’t there yet if they’re not working the first few days or weeks of a production. Often rehearsals consist of one run-through (mostly for blocking and camera positions) and then – roll camera. Granted, multiple takes generally ensue, giving everyone time to adjust. But Clint Eastwood is known for just doing a couple of takes and moving on, while David Fincher is renowned for doing dozens of takes. And, of course, filmmakers have the advantage of cutting performances just so, making the coverage (for editing choices) so important.

heathers the musical

a “Heather” played by Sarah Halford

One element that both films and theatre have in common is the usually long process from inspiration to opening night – often many years. Ironically, as I have witnessed in developing, packaging and financing dozens of projects over years, when the elements all come together (money, casting, design), the actual creative process blows by amazingly quickly with 3-6 weeks of rehearsal for plays and prep for movies, then 4-8 weeks of production. And in the case of a play, the director’s work is mostly over; the production is enjoyed by hundreds or thousands and then it’s gone (unless it’s on Broadway or a touring success). With movies, the initial group is also small (a lonely writer and a modest group – including a producer and director who take responsibility for getting it going) and then it balloons up to hundreds for a month or two and then shrinks down to a handful during post before enlisting an army to get the film released. The director’s work can be a solid year plus prepping, shooting, and posting.

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Veronica (Barret Wilbur Weed) and JD (Ryan McCartan) look on as Zach Ford and Rex Smith prove they love their dead gay sons.

But at the end of the day, the producing activities with plays and movies aren’t terribly different. In both cases, you have to choose material wisely, get rights, rally creative teams, participate in development, raise funds and guide a group of diverse and often mercurial artists and investors on a journey that can last years. And beyond organizational, psychiatric and entrepreneurial fundraising skills, it doesn’t hurt to have a strong sense of marketing and healthy respect for distribution (in movies) and theatre operations and touring (in theatre). Great convincing skills and an ability to take the long view are critical in both arenas. And they both feel like miracles when they work out. That you were able to guide 100+ pages of written word from the page to stage or screen, through the dozens or hundreds of people, who by necessity must make some mark on them, is nothing short of miraculous. And then if enough people are actually convinced to pay to see your work, it’s a double rainbow.