Editor’s Note: Rik Deskin’s interview was posted here http://schn00dles.wordpress.com/category/seattle-celebrity-news/page/4/ about a year and a half ago. Since then, Rik has followed through on his urge to promote comedy through his Odd Duck venue. But the economics of the theater are quite bleak. Producing live theater is for the faithful. And when some artists involved behave like rabble, it can seem even bleaker. Nevertheless, a person who ‘does’ something for what they believe in, that’s a little more than themselves, can always hold their head up. Here’s a follow-up:
A Behind-the-Scenes Look into the Economy of Live Theater
“A note about Odd Duck Studio to Comedians, Actors, Performers and Producers
Some of you know this. Some of you may be oblivious. I write this after spending several long hours in the Emergency Room with my 17-year old (for a possible concussion) and only a few hours of sleep. Don’t worry, he’s okay, but I’m now down $150 for the co-pay.
I am not independently wealthy. I am an unemployed actor. With a wife and four kids. Occasionally I do book acting work. Sometimes I work as a stagehand. Sometimes as a temp.
I started Eclectic Theater Company as a non-profit organization, hopeful that eventually, this company would provide me some income as the Producing Artistic Director. (I’m still working on that income part)
In 2006, my company, still all volunteer, took over management of the Odd Duck Studio. Primarily to have a venue where ETC could produce plays regularly and have a home, as well as be able to rent out the space to itinerant theater companies and co-produce Improv, Sketch and Stand-Up Comedy.
It’s been an uphill battle just to keep the doors open since the economy tanked in 2008. Since the beginning of the company, I have always given half of what was made at the box office or in donations to the performers and artists that work at my theater on anything I produced or co-produced. Sometimes sacrificing paying the rent on time (I do have to pay monthly rent for Odd Duck Studio: I’m not the owner), sometimes borrowing from my own family’s meager income to keep it afloat.
Which is why in May, I instituted a new policy on all productions and co-productions that were dependent on a box office split. The first $125 in the door paid the rent for the night. The second $125 would go to the performers. After that it would be a 50/50 split. But before anything was distributed, we would have to take 5% out of the overall gross for the Admissions Tax that must be paid to the City of Seattle.
These kinds of shows are risky to me. Sometimes they can sell-out, enabling everyone to walk away happy. Sometimes they barely meet the rent threshold. And I staff it with volunteers and spend volunteer time to market and try to sell tickets. It’s great for the other co-producer. All they have to do is promote the show and show up to perform. Which is far easier and less risky for them than renting the space at a flat rate and selling tickets and providing their own crew to run the box office, lights and sound.
Last year, a producer booked a large rental use of the Odd Duck Studio that would have covered our basic costs (rent and electricity) from May-July. They cancelled in May, leaving me scrambling to fill the dates with something that could possibly generate revenue. Right now we are two months behind in the rent.
I posted in all the Facebook groups that I’m in, that cover theatre, film, improv and stand-up to see if anyone wanted to rent space, produce or co-produce shows. Nothing. Only the sound of crickets. So I put together the Brown Bag Comedy Primetime Specials. I thought I was pretty clear in my original posting that this endeavor was solely dependent on box office revenue And that I would need the help of the Comics booked to promote their shows so that we can sell tickets so that I can pay the Comics. So far only two shows have made the rent and given something back to the Comics. I would much rather pay $74 to a headliner (I know that’s below Comedy Club rates) than $1.35. But that can only happen when tickets are sold and they don’t do that by themselves.
This brings up another point. Odd Duck Studio is not a Comedy Club. It is a theater run by Eclectic Theater Company, a non-profit organization. We don’t have a kitchen, restaurant or full bar to cover our costs like other venues. Our partial bar/concessions basically pays for itself most nights. The person behind the concessions counter only makes tips. Last night I made $4 between two shows. I think the most I’ve made is $35 in one night.
Here is my original post from May 22, 2012:
“Eclectic Theater Company at Odd Duck Studio is looking for Comedians for a series of Brown Bag Comedy Primetime Friday night specials throughout the summer. Two formats: Hour long special with two 15 minute Opener slots (one is the Host) and a 30 minute Feature. Ticket is $10. 50% of the box office (after 5% admissions tax) goes to the Comedians after rent threshold has been met ($125). That means when the show sells out (49 seats), 3 Comedians would be splitting up to $232.75.
90 minute special would be a traditional format with a MC/Opener (15 minutes), Feature (30 minutes) and Headliner (45 minutes). $15 Ticket with 3 Comedians splitting up to $349.12. Same applies with rent, etc above.
The splits would be proportional to performance time lengths.
Keep in mind that I’m a volunteer running a non-profit theater venue, so 50% is the maximum I can split on these shows in order to keep the doors open and I would need the help of the Comedians booked to actually promote and sell their shows. I know the door split is less than some Comedy Clubs, but that’s all I can offer for now.
I know it’s possible to do as demonstrated by Hari Kondabolu and Katie Morgan over the last two years.
With this all in mind I’m looking for serious Comedians willing to invest their time and effort to being on the rosters of these shows and making a little extra pocket change. As soon as the rosters are full for each show, I can begin listing them on Brown Paper Tickets and marketing. And if any savvy graphic creators want to design an image for a show or all the shows, a percentage can go to compensating that as well.
Show dates will be:
June 1, 8:30-9:30pm
June 15, 8-9:30pm
June 22, 8:30-9:30pm
June 29, 8-9:30pm
July 6, 8:30-9:30pm
July 13, 8-9:30pm
July 27, 8:30-9:30pm”
Why tell you this? Because I love Stand-Up Comedy as much as I love Theatre, Improv, Sketch Comedy and Film. Stand-Up has been a component of Eclectic Theater Company’s programming as early as 2007 when Blood Squad would bring in Comics from PROK to open the shows. It’s been a part of my life since I trained in Improv and Sketch, and observed Comics working at The Comedy Workshop in Houston back in 1988-1989. In December, 2010, there was a vacuum left by Giggles turning its back on Comedians. I wanted to help by offering a weekly open mic to help Comedians work their craft and give Comedians an easy venue to work with and sell-out (like Hari Kondabolu, Katie Morgan, Blood Squad and Yogi Paliwal) and help me keep the venue open as a place for all of us to work.
I want you to understand the economics. The business of the art. On nights like last night where the bulk of the tickets are sold through Brown Paper Tickets instead of over the phone or in person, I don’t see that money until the following weekend. On the evenings where we do sell enough so that I can give back to the performers, that money usually comes out of any cash sales that happen because I want to send Comics home with something.
Every once in a great while, I encounter an actor or a burlesque artist or a comedian that does not understand why I can’t pay them the rates they are accustomed to and that I wish I could pay them and they somehow think I’ve lied to them and am living it big off a show that sells less than half the 49 seat capacity. Ladies and Gentlemen, here is the truth. I do not make a penny (beyond potential tips) until we pass the $250 mark at the box office on any given night. And if rent needs to be paid, electricity, insurance, then I waive any possible pay for my time in order to keep the theater open and available.
So those open mic nights where no one buys a ticket and no one buys a beverage or snack? I eat that time and expense bussing or driving to and fro and the time to facilitate other performers cultivating their craft.
From this point on, you cannot say that I never explained it to you. This is my contract with all of you that choose to perform at my theater. I encourage anyone out there that thinks they can do it better than me and keep this venue open, then by all means the gauntlet is thrown. I’d love to have your help. If you are going to take a hit financially by coming to perform in a show that has no guarantee that it will sell, then don’t do it. I’m not the Mafia. I’m not going to twist your arm. I’m trying to build something long-term here that I am hopeful will eventually always pay everyone that works with my company.
Photos by Carl Nelson