My friends Brenda Machabach and David Mauk, writers of The Time Machine the Musical, were participants in the 2017 New York Musical Festival. Although NYMF has recently closed, there are many other musical theatre festivals to consider. I asked Brenda and David to weigh in on their experience in the festival scene.
How did participation in a musical theatre festival benefit you as a writer?
As first time theater writers, the biggest lesson we learned is this: You can only get so far writing and rewriting a musical. There is a point where you must see it on a stage to see what works and fix what doesn’t. Musicals (and plays) aren’t written and rewritten so much as they are developed for an audience, so you must see it in front of an audience before you can take it to a professional level. You just never know how an audience will react to something you’ve written. You also don’t know if the crowd is going to understand what you are trying to say. In our case, we discovered we had to come up with a new narrative framing device moving forward, because our realistic approach didn’t work for many unforeseen reasons.
We also discovered mistakes in our story structure and story argument. There’s no better teacher than watching your show learn to walk in front of gawking onlookers. And critics. Yes, critics will be there. And the critics won’t take into consideration the meager four weeks to assemble the production, or the fact that everything on the stage, including set pieces and costumes, has to fit in a 4 x 4 x 8 box at the end of each performance. But, reviews can be illuminating and helpful, if taken in the proper context.
Getting back to the idea of development, we noticed that the shows that performed better at NYMF and won the NYMF awards were all shows that had seen earlier development, either in the Next Link program, or at local and regional theaters. NYMF also understands what development offers and so they primarily pick only from shows that have seen prior development. (Our show had several table readings and a staged reading at a local UNLV theater festival).
How did being in a Musical Theatre Festival move your show forward?
Being in the festival made it possible to find our talented NYC director, Justin Baldridge (A Dog’s Life). Justin researched and studied our script and asked the important and sometimes painful questions that needed to be answered about our adaptation. We met and worked with Justin far more than everyone else in the production, so make sure you find a director you like on a personal level.
Another big benefit of doing a production is that you work with actors. Actors need to know why they are doing the things they are told to do, and if they don’t understand, they will tell you and you have to fix it. So some of your treasured dialogue or lyrics are ripped apart, or songs are cut or rewritten, and the script evolves, stronger and more polished.
It was also of great benefit to work with the different directors, especially our excellent musical director Kristen Rosenfeld. Musical directors can help you put together the music part of your musical, from working with the chorus, to composing curtain call music, to fixing the mistakes in the score, or even helping with some of the arrangements. Be prepared for lots of changes as the rehearsal process unfolds and be ready to pass off some of the work to the music director as it becomes overwhelming for the composer to handle all the updates. At the end of the run, you have a script that has been taken to the next stage in your show’s journey, which is most likely Rewritesville. That pesky audience; it’s true, they are always right.
A word of caution; a musical theatre festival is not really the place to get discovered, but more a place to develop a product and gain exposure and experience. A festival production will open other doors for you if you follow up on it. Also, be sure to gather as much marketing material as possible from the festival (photos, video, reviews, etc…) to interest potential investors and producers.
What was difficult about being in a festival?
Brenda: The festival parameters were quite challenging. Load in and load out had to happen in an hour. Everything from the show such as props, costumes and set pieces had to fit in a 4 x 4 x 8 box. Our crew worked very hard. Our show was large and it gave our director a quite a puzzle to complete.
David: Obviously, the logistics. In addition to raising money for the production and hiring management and production teams, we had to go live in NYC for five weeks. Four weeks are spent on mounting the production, and one week is spent on performances. Since we were an “invited” production, we also had to visit NYC earlier in the year for NYMF orientation. If we had been in the Next Link Project, we would had been required to be there longer in the spring. Obviously, it helps if you already live in New York City. But you can’t let that stop you. (Hint; unless you already have a director and a team, seek out a good and hungry New York director to work with. They can assemble a NY team while you scramble to get to the city, and sometimes can provide additional resources and connections. Look and see who has directed previous NYMF productions or get involved in real or virtual groups frequented by musical director types.)
Did you make any important connections by doing the festival?
Our most important connection was with our director, Justin. He has continued on with the project, and when we recently found our Broadway producer, Justin was there in NYC to meet with him and begin working on a development plan. Of course, we made some friends and have some great forever memories as a result of the festival. Incidentally, our producer didn’t find us at the festival, but when he discovered our YouTube video, he followed up by contacting NYMF, who in turn contacted us to set up a meeting. I’m sure NYMF also added a measure of credibility to our project. A side note; we did meet a few producers in passing, who told us, good job, keep working on it. There was also a buzz picked up at the show from our actors on the different opinions of the producing types they knew. If you hire NYC people, most likely they have a few connections, too.
Did you have to raise money for the production?
Our money came from a former colleague who had a few resources from which to pull. He’s quite familiar with the fundraising process. He had a few investor friends that he called and was able to raise the money, even though this was a long shot angel investment. This is something that most people don’t have access to, but angel investors do exist. So it was easy for us, but there are other ways to raise money. If you have a cheaper production with less production values, which I highly recommend, you don’t have to raise as much money. There are all kinds of ways to cut costs. I know a team from this year that has been developing their piece at a college and has held fundraisers and raised money as a team. Unlike us, they are taking most of their team of volunteering actors and directors from their home town to NYC with them, so they might not necessarily have to pay them a salary.
What would you differently if you had to do it again?
Brenda: I think marketing was a place where we failed. We should have hired a team much sooner. There were so many shows and we needed a bigger presence to pull big crowds. The second mistake was not firing people when they didn’t perform their job. If you see a problem, better to nip it in the bud. A bad attitude is infectious. AND bring food and treats to rehearsal!!! I know it seems silly but it goes a long way. No one gets paid very much so gestures like that are appreciated.
David: Personally, I would not take it so seriously, and focus on the experience and the fun. I took it as a chance for our show to find a big break and be discovered, but that’s not the way it really happens. Producers might show an interest and you might find some great advice, but most likely, no one is going to whip out a contract and say “sign here.” I would have been better served to look at the festival as a workshop. Developing a musical is a process, and there are no shortcuts. And since we didn’t have many other development options, NYMF was the perfect next step for us to take. My mistake was to think this was the final destination, when it was instead a necessary step on the path. I could have saved myself a lot of stress.
Do you have any tips for submitting to a musical theatre festival?
Establish a web presence and make a website for your show. Do as much development on your show as possible with your local resources (actors, directors, etc.). If you aren’t active in your theater community, bite the bullet and make it a goal to become involved and meet your local actors and directors. Enter local festivals, do a small production, hold a staged reading, etc. Get footage and photos and reviews from everything, and do some youtube videos. NYMF wanted to see development, and the more developed you are, the better your chances are to be chosen and perform well.
Any tips for after a show is accepted into a festival?
Be ready to work almost non-stop for five solid weeks in a very humid NYC in summer. (There’s a reason New Yorkers leave town in the summer! Humidity!). Be prepared as much as possible before you get there. Time will slip through your fingers the entire festival, so have your website up and current, your promotional oversized laminated cards and your handbills printed up, your promotional materials gathered, your YouTube videos, and anything else you can think of to promote your show ahead of time. Obviously, the more people you get into the theater, the better, and it won’t sell out on its own. Some even go as far as to pass out handbills and drum up interest in Times Square. Network and meet as many people as you can, including any Festival staff you run into. Everybody will have an opinion, and you can learn from everybody. You will hear the trends in the different opinions, and those are the things to consider moving forward. Don’t change something because people said to, but get to know what your audience is seeing in and getting from your show, so you can make informed changes. Sometimes the audience misunderstands your plot or message and you need to know that. Promote as much as you can through youtube videos or targeted Facebook ads. And finally, don’t miss the Opening Night party. It’s a blast and it’s fun being a Broadway VIP until you can be one for real.
Thanks so much to Brenda Machabach and David Mauk for sharing their experience with us! For more about their musical, visit The Time Machine the Musical.
Need help with promotional materials or website? I can help! Email [email protected] and let’s chat.
Featured image copyright The Time Machine the Musical.