The Producer and the Art of School Musicals

One of the first questions I’m always asked is “what does the producer do?” Well, in a word, everything. I was the stage manager, coordinator, volunteer manager, and student supervisor, all while also serving as the Marketing Director for the school(and musical). I managed and worked with over 40 parent volunteers who made and organized the costumes, built the set, made dinners, sold tickets, and made the show a reality. I also managed the externally hired director and choreographer, I hired and oversaw the external lights and sound installation, and maintained the budget for the entire musical. It was a challenging role, but one I found myself excelling in and enjoying. When I was given charge of the biggest student event of the year, we had come out in the red for the past several years. I quickly realized the producing process needed a makeover and managed to not only break even, but make a profit.

The 2016 Cast

Bringing Us Out of the Red

My approach to the event process for something that had historically been a budget strain, and now a pointed red line in the budget was to be a new producer with a new process. I had to motivate my team, the kids, and the parents to not only boost involvement, but boost ticket sales. I had to build excitement for the event to boost ticket sales. I had to find big ticket items in the budget and cut them back while making the show bigger and better. Most of all, I had to have confidence in myself and my ability to pull of those tasks.

Partnering with Parents

The kids out on the show, but the parents built it. Parent Committees excited for costumes, props, sets, tickets, costume organization, striking the set, and feeding the cast on late night rehearsals. My theater elves were volunteers who were working (non-theater related) full-time jobs, older than me, and indirectly supplying my paycheck. I was intimidated at first and concerned I wouldn’t be taken seriously. So I started with what I know works; I built a relationship of respect with the parents by respecting their time and knowledge while showing them my goal was to provide a theater experience their children would love. I had to establish myself as a reliable team member, not just a lady with a clipboard. I wanted parents to approach me for reimbursement approval, as well as someone to listen to their ideas and lend a hand. I kept an open door policy and was always ready to hear suggestions (and sometimes complaints) with an open mind. I learned to bridge the gap between the parents and production staff by being actively involved in the process and showing my genuine interest in helping everyone.

Musical Marketing Strategies

Being the producer of the musical as well as the school’s marketing director allowed me a unique view into building excitement for the event. I knew the show inside and out, I could highlight the best costumes and songs, and I really knew the cast and was excited to use them to highlight their own skills. Since I really believe excitement is contagious, I wanted to get the kids PUMPED UP. You know what that means! CONFETTI! I built excitement on social media and in school by doing a “3,2,1” countdown and showing slideshows from musicals 3 years, 2 years, and 1 year prior. I wanted to say, “remember how great these shows were? Aren’t you excited for this one?” The hashtag #WhatsThePlay was spreading through the school like wildfire. In fact, you can hear the students chanting it in the announcement video. The day we were going to announce the show, I posted a video as I knew students were heading into school with faculty and staff saying “the show is…..” and each time the video would cut off or glitch. The kids came in school so excited to hear the announcement, that even I could hardly wait until the end of the day! When 3 o’clock rolled around, students were packed up, and the confetti wands were ready for action, we made and filmed the announcement. My mother saw the video and said, “they were so excited I had tears in my eyes!”

Once the show was underway I wanted to keep up the marketing efforts, but with no costumes or performances ready, I had to get creative. During lunch hours and down time in rehearsals, I had some of the students prepare a cover of one of the show’s popular romantic songs to hold a “dedicate a song” Facebook contest. For each person you dedicated the song to by tagging them, you were entered for front row tickets. It was the biggest response the school’s Facebook page had ever had with over 50 entries.

In addition to social media marketing, I wanted to focus on getting some really great shots for more traditional marketing flyers and press releases. I asked the costume committee to have the bare bones of the main characters costumes ready and had a little photo shoot after rehearsals. The photos came out beautifully and really set the tone for a fantastic show.

Involving the Community

As I mentioned in another post, all events are really admissions events. The school musical is no exception. The Admissions Director sent complimentary tickets to all of the families who had toured the school to showcase the artistic and musical talent of the school. We hosted a character meet and greet after the Saturday matinee and sent emails to our summer campers and Montessori parents. I also invited local daycares to attend the school performance without charge, as well as extending the invitation to local senior and nursing homes. We hosted an alumni night on opening and sent emails to our alums with discounted tickets and encouraged our faculty and staff to attend the opening to see their previous students. I even assembled a team to deliver flyers to homes surrounding the school with invitations to see the show on us as a thank you for their patience with parking.

Incorporating Technology

Every school makes such an effort incorporating technology into classrooms, I wanted to give parents a taste of that in how we run our events as well. Incorporating the web made it a lot easier to share information with parents and they responded by being more involved than ever. I presented the “new look” to parents by creating an information video instead of bringing them in for an early meeting. Historically, the attendance was low at the show information session and we were concerned parents weren’t really getting all of the information they needed. The response? Over 150 views compared to the group of 40 odd parents that showed up. Parents were excited and appreciative of the time saving video, and I noticed fewer questions about registration, auditions, and rehearsals.

I created a web page with an easy URL in the Parent Portal, which I linked to in the video. Instead of sending students home with sheets of paper, I uploaded PDFs of the handbook, additional materials, and created an online registration form. Previously to get the audition materials, parents had to come the the information session to pick up the handbook, registration, and audition materials. We found it was enticing parents to come the meeting and so they wouldn’t register on time and students didn’t have the audition materials. For the first year ever, I made the registration and online form and pushed out scanned PDFs of the audition material after parents registered. By the time auditions rolled around, all students were registered on time and had their audition materials. It was a complete 180° from our previous experiences. I maintained the webpage and updated it regularly with information updates, reminders, photos, and videos. I also kept rehearsal tracks online so students had access to the music at home.

In addition to the web page, I used a texting service called Remind to send weather updates, callback postings, ticket reminders, and other important news. Parents loved being in the loop, and came to expect important updates, which freed me from multitudes of questions being asked in advance.

As the show approached, I sold tickets online and ordered a Square Reader for the school so we could accept credit cards at the ticket table. I also balanced this new technology by bringing back some things we tried to be more tech savvy that didn’t work. For example, we used the lobby LCD screens to sell show ads, but over the past 2 years, ad sales dropped because parents wanted to be able to take the playbook home. I ran the option to have just LCD ads for less money, the regular priced option of using the ad book, and for a few extra dollars the ad book and the screens. Parents were thrilled and ad sales soared. We even saved money by printing in house and only printing the cover page in color.

The Magic of Organizing

If you’ve ever seen me with a piece of paper, you know I’m organized. I like to color code, sort, and clip my notes. I even love to mix technology in with my organizational habits. Google docs is one of my favorite online tools. I love keeping everything in one central location that can be accessed from all of my devices. So in times of stress, I always turn to my organizational systems. Let me tell you, it saves me so much time and gives me a lot of piece of mind.

If it’s my first time managing an event, I try my best to make a good “organizational plan” with the facts I have. I make a general contact list that I share with anyone who might need it. I can duplicate and share it for checklists, sign-ins, and even making labels. I create folders in my documents and start a binder with the same sections and keep it updated. I love a good binder for quick reference for myself and as a guidebook for someone to take over my post. I keep extra copies of papers, notes, and contact information. At the end of every day, I spend a few minutes(and the more you do it, the quicker it goes!) making sure my notes are in order, updated on paper and online, and sent to the correct people. The next time you plan the event or a similar event, your previous folders, notes, and binders will allow you to be more organized and effective with your work, as well as provide a great event guideline.

Creating New Traditions

Searching for another way to involve more of our school community, boost ticket sales, and add to the sound of the show, I proposed we create a “children’s chorus” comprised of the 1st through 3rd grade. The show had always been the “Middle School production” and there was a lot of hesitation to add our younger students. There was concerned that the Middle School students would feel like it was less special to join the show once they reached 4th grade. I decided the best way to go around this was to explain to the Middle School students there was a BIG difference. The Children’s Chorus (CC) would sit on the side of the auditorium and sing from their seats. They had different colored t-shirts they didn’t have the cast signatures printed on the back. They would only sing in 2 songs, and had no special props or costumes. Then I explained that this would really help our show from sound to tickets. In the end, it did just that and the cast understood the benefits of the CC and were happy the show was the best it could be.

DIY Until Your Glue Gun Runs Out

My husband working on the set.

When faced with a tight budget for any event, I know I’m going to be borrowing and DIYing to save money. Not only does it save you money, but you feel a different sense of pride in the final product. Printing color and perforated tickets would cost a pretty penny, but I didn’t want to use the same generic ticket for each night of the show. So I designed and printed all of the tickets and sat at rehearsals and cut and perforated over 500 tickets. Believe it or not, people were impressed by the tickets and I felt it was worth doing in my spare time. Since I was always excited to be working on projects for the show, even my husband took notice. As I mentioned, I really believe excitement is contagious. The next thing I knew it, my husband was designing the sets and my whole family was involved in painting the sets. I had included my own parents in the parent committees! I really believe my own dedication to the show made it a fun environment to work on and other parents(my own included) wanted to be involved.

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