There are theatrical festivals in NYC pretty much year round, but, recently January has popped up as the new popular festival month. This month, the city is now home to not one performing arts festival (APAP, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters holds their annual global performing arts conference here), but rather 6+. Artists, managers, agents, producers, curators, spend these weeks roaming the city going to the theatre, arts centers, warehouses, dance studios, museums, and more. This new influx of festivals is great as the post holiday season is often much quieter than other parts of the year.  The increase in festivals has brought work to the slow season!
Festivals are generally setup differently than traditional shows, which brings about some interesting challenges.  More often than not, a core group of festival staff (managers, technicians, house staff, etc) work in a single location with lots of shows rotating through.  Each show is important, but the integrity of the festival as a whole is also just as important.  
We asked some of our production managers who are out there working on festivals to share some of their experiences with us. As we enter Week 2 of many of these festivals, we have a couple gems of wisdom…

  1. Determine your client – As festival production staff, there are many people who may be your “client” at any given moment.  Think about who your work is really for; The festival itself, each individual show, the audience? It can be challenging to determine, because the answer is generally “all of the above.” So while your job may be to program the board, call the show, or run the changeover, it is also your responsibility to understand that at the end of the day you must represent the Festival first. The priorities of the Producer or Production Manager are just as important as the priorities of venue team or a show’s manager, but decisions have to be made to benefit the whole.  There just isn’t time, or often money to make huge exceptions for a single show.
  2. Ask questions – It can be challenging being a newcomer to a festival production team. There are people who return year after year, and there are managers who have been working on the plans for months already. Yet you’re just here for the couple weeks of the festival, and it feels like you’re expected to jump in and know how it all works. Once the festival starts, the venue staff are typically the main point of interaction with the shows and audience.  Decisions have to be made quickly. Trust your instincts and your decision-making skills, but ask questions.  Others may have institutional knowledge that is relevant to a situation that arises in your venue.  Take advantage of the knowledge around you.  Festivals are a major team sport.
  3. Respect the artist – With the long, physically demanding days that venue staff put in throughout the festival, we can sometimes forget that the artist has been working on this piece for months or often years. This is their moment to have their piece realized and introduced to the world. Critics, potential investors, friends and family all may be coming. We often meet the artists at their most vulnerable moment, when years of work is coming to its crux. We are the voice of reason, the technically minded people who can guide each artist on what is feasible in the festival context and on what is not. We are there to support them and create a safe production environment. Each piece deserves careful attention, respect and especially patience.
  4. Safety Safety Safety – With the flurry of activity, it can be difficult to remember that safety is the number one priority.  At the end of the day, the real goal is to make it through every day without any injuries.  Ensure that safety plans are constantly being revisited, especially since so many different teams of people will be coming and going.  Every show should know exactly will happen if there is an emergency.  Be cautious of cutting corners.  Because a show only has one performance doesn’t mean you should just cross your fingers and hope for the best.  Build it right, run it correctly, rig it safely, keep fire doors clear and keep to code.  Even when it’s only for a few hours.  Safety is everything.
  5. Take care of yourself – Typically we tech a show, open a show, and then things ease up and we get a good night’s sleep (after a killer party). In the Festival setting however, we tech a couple shows, open them, run them, and then tech some more. It’s an ongoing cycle that rarely eases up until the entire festival closes. Every day the team needs to be ready to handle anything that comes up, interact with many different clients, and be aware of any safety concerns in the venue. So, in anticipation of the marathon, do some personal prep.  Do a good grocery shopping run before the festival starts. Prep meals and freeze them; whatever it takes to maintain a consistent healthy diet. In festival settings it can be great when people drop off boxes of cookies and donuts, but these goodies don’t do us much good in terms of maintaining our energy throughout the day. Eat well, drink water, and get a good night’s sleep when you can.
  6. Most of all, have fun! Festivals are special. For these couple weeks in these venues, hundreds of artists and production teams and producers and critics all congregate to create and to see theatre. At the end of a 4 show day with 3 changeovers, you’ll be totally wiped out and realize you have to do it again the next day. But the fact that we can do this– that someone can come down to the theatre for a weekend and see upwards of 10 different shows all in the same building– is pretty awesome.

Festival Production Managers, did we miss anything? Tweet at us @tincprod and tell us what other tips and tricks you have for surviving large-scale performance festivals.