So you want to put on a show? If you’ve seen part one of our guide here you will already have a venue in mind… Now it’s time to book your acts! Here’s part two of our three part series to help budding producers (there’s waay too much to put in just one feature!), so if you think you’ve got thick enough skin read on… Then hit the lights! Let’s put on a show!
Deciding on the type of show you want to run
So you’ve already got your venue so you already know what format of show (whether it’s a dinner show, theatre, cabaret or other type of show). Now you need to decide if it is a door split (sometimes referred to as profit share), if you are doing a charity show, if it’s to showcase new talent or is a show featuring a range of professional performers. All these options will affect your ticket price and the type of performer you will book. So let’s look at them in detail:
A newcomers showcase will usually feature performers who are in their first year of performing, or are making their debut. With these type of shows, performers are generally performing for free as they are learning the art of the stage and are looking for stage time. Think carefully about your bill – don’t overload it with hundreds of new performers, a good balance of 6 performers in each half keeps the show a quality show for the audience and gives the new performer a more special experience. If you are a seasoned performer yourself and putting on a newcomers showcase to introduce new talent, they will benefit more from less acts on the bill and your care and expertise backstage, chatting to them, reassuring and nurturing them and building up their introduction so they feel special stepping out on that stage, rather than a conveyor belt of 20 acts in the show and you panicking about how everyone is going to fit on the bill in the time frame. If you are producing a showcase, please think of these things; moreover if you are asking an audience to pay (and btw, you should always bill a newcomer’s show as exactly that, with lower ticket prices to reflect, and not try and hoodwink an audience into believing it is a professional show with seasoned performers to make them part with more cash) you should still aim to deliver the best quality, most entertaining show for them, even if it means that your newcomers have to ‘audition’ for limited slots. This will also ensure that the new performers are producing their best work, which is what they’ll need to do when applying and performing at other shows. Also, as an incentive, it’s a good idea to also offer the new performers copies of any photos taken or the opportunity to film their acts in front of an audience, which will help them on their way to being a professional. We usually pay a professional performer to headline these types of show as newcomers will also benefit from having the ‘expertease’ (pardon the pun!) and the headliner will enjoy sharing tips they’ve learned.
A door split or profit share show is a show is where, after venue costs have been deducted, the rest of the takings are shared equally between performers, the producer and any other show staff (stage maid/ticket seller, etc). The producer does not pay themselves first and then share out the rest! Also, the producer should work just as hard to market the show – there might not be the same scary outlays as if you’ve booked performers for a fee but you still need to push the show to guarantee a great audience and atmosphere – and you owe it to your performers to offer a decent share.
If you are putting on charity shows, there’s quite a lot you have to think of. You may need the permission of your chosen charity to put on an event in their name. You will definitely need their permission to use their logo (and some charities would rather you didn’t!) and to advertise it as a charity, you will sometimes be asked to quote the registered charity number, just so audiences, performers and theatres can be sure it is an ‘actual’ charity show. Yes, there’s a lot of ‘grey area’ as to what constitutes a charity show and you’ll be surprised at how open to abuse it is! We’ve seen shows with the “charity” label run to raise funds for “new costumes” or even “new boots” for organisations (not charity!) – so basically performers are booked, donating their time for free, to buy the organisers a new pair of boots for their team’s chosen sporting activity! In other more shady shows, it’s not clear how much of a percentage is being donated to charity. Our advise to performers when asked to perform at a charity show is that it is your call entirely, but ensure that it’s for a cause you believe in and you know that it is a bonafide charity.
If you are going to run a charity show (yes, we’re assuming you are of the wholesome and honest variety as you’re reading our blog and have taken tips from other honest producers!) be upfront with your performers from the start. Tell them which charity it is for before they are booked. Let them know what or how you plan to donate to the charity eg: you are donating ticket sales after expenses have been paid and/or funds from raffle tickets (you may find some performers might want to donate an item for the raffle!) or you are donating a set sum. Also, the performer might be donating their time to the charity, but you should be expected to pay at least expenses (and in some cases, a charity-rate fee, depending on their profile), as basically a performer should not be out of pocket – essentially that means they would be giving to perform. And on the final note of charity shows, if you are putting on a high profile charity show (a charity ball or corporate charity event), with premium priced tickets, you should pay your performers exactly the same as you would pay in a ‘normal’ show.
So you’ve decided what kind of show you are producing, now you need to set your budget. One of the biggest mistakes we see new producers make is set their budget on the show selling out… ie, 100 seats at £10 a ticket will give you £1000, say the venue costs are £300, leaving £700 to spend on performers. Please don’t fall into this trap! Marketing and promoting a show is hard, especially if it’s the first show, and ticket take-up might be slow (we always advise some kind of advance ticketing system as you can then tell how ticket sales are going, rather than leaving it all tickets on the door – basically if only 10 people turn up for the show paying on the door you are f***ed! – but more on this in the next part!) so basing all your income on the show being sold out will be suicidal not just to the show, but to your own personal finances, as you will have to pay your performers as promised even if the show doesn’t do so well. A good starting point to base your budget on is 60-70% of ticket sales. This will give you a good goal to aim for when selling tickets, and will also give you an achievable budget.
How you divide your performance budget is up to you – and we’d advise you take a peek at our fees guide here. We usually split up the budget like this:
- HEADLINER Known internationally, has a name throughout UK (Paid the most)
- SECOND BILLING known internationally, has a name throughout UK(Paid less than the headliner)
- THIRD BILLING possibly known internationally, is known throughout UK (paid less than the second billing)
- RESIDENT PERFORMER known throughout UK (in our case, Lilly Laudanum, who has a vested interest in show, she performs for free but in other cases, a resident performer is paid a set fee and agrees to be the face of the show for a set period – which may be a set three month or even a year before a new resident act comes on the bill)
- NEWCOMER SLOT (not paid slot, but for experience)
- NEWCOMER SLOT (not paid slot, but for experience)
- COMPER AND STAGE MANAGER
Set reasonable rates for each slot and stick to them. You know in your own mind that if a performer states their fee as £250 plus expenses, this is probably going to blow your budget for your show, so pencil in what is reasonable for each slot, then, depending on quoted fees and what you can afford, you can always adjust figures in the slots (ie if your headliner is cheaper than you might expect, you can add a bit more cash to your second billing budget, etc).
Fees and Expenses? Or just one total?
Again, this will depend on how you prefer to run a show, but beware! Expenses can be unpredictable! Imagine you’ve set a fee with a performer and haven’t budgeted correctly for their expenses, and they bring you a ticket receipt of over £100 – that’s £100 you didn’t expect to pay. We always include our expenses in the agreed payment to performers, that way there are no surprises and we stick to our budgets per slot on the bill. Also, if a performer is savvy, they can save money on their expenses (for example, they may have seen a train ticket is £50 so included that in their agreed fee, and actually a coach ticket might be £20!) and earn more on the night…
Some producers arrange train/coach travel for their performers – again that is entirely up to you. We prefer to let the performers book this themselves, as aside from the above (being savvy and saving on travel – a bonus for them!) it cuts out a lot of the headwork for us! We have enough to organise without booking transport!
Booking your performers – how to approach
We would advise you get your line-up sorted as soon as possible, so you have plenty of time to promote and to arrange your night. And many theatres work two seasons in advance so if you’ve booked a theatre for your show they will want to know about your December line up in June! also, bear in mind, any printed publication that you will be sending info to will be putting together their magazines two-three months ahead of the street date.
Seeing a lot of shows, we usually have a ‘wish list’ of performers we would love to book, so when it comes to casting our shows, we approach our wish list first to see if any of our ‘ideal’ performers are available. If casting this way, you will need to tell the performers as much about the show as possible – eg, where it is, what venue it’s in, proposed date(s), and if there is a theme – which you know an act they do will be perfect for! We mostly build our line-ups around a theme and a main performer. Be as professional as possible, even if you know the performer in question, as that professional email will be judged as a pre-curser to how professional your show will be! This is important! Everyone judges, even subconsciously, so if your email is written in slang with key information missing, your show might be the tightest-run, most professional show ever, but to a performer receiving an initial contact in slang, it’s not a good sign.
If none of the performers on your wish list are available, you might want to throw a casting out there to see what response you will get. This is great for attracting performers you might not have heard of yet or might simply have overlooked – and you can find some gems! There’ a few groups on facebook that are great for posting castings, and there’s also the Ministry of Burlesque website too. Make sure you word your casting correctly and we advise you state in your casting how you want potential performers to respond – ie email, as that way you’ve got all the casting responses in one place and can review them with your fellow producers. Also, there’s a few key points you must put in your casting:
- State which slot it is for – ie if you are looking for a headliner, what sort of criteria makes up your headliner – do you want them to have international experience/be a name on the scene/’x’ amount of show experience?
- State the budget including expenses (if you get emails with expected fees that exceed this budget, you know you can’t book!)
- State where the show is and the theatre it is in (performers should take this into consideration before applying!)
- State how many acts (one or two?)
- Don’t forget to include any limitations – ie, if the venue does not allow fire/liquids, or you are looking for a certain style as you have gap on your bill for a comedy performer, so you will not be looking for something more classic
- Ask them to include evidence – a CV (hints for performers on CVs are here)
- A video link of the proposed act – make sure you ask for a link, though! (common sense that your email will be blocked by any large files that need to be downloaded – and it will take you AGES to sift through!)
And when it comes to choosing the performers to fill the slots, there’s a few things to consider
- Check there’s no clash of music – ask performers to state what their tracks are so you know in advance and if performers are using the same track, one of them can do a different act.
- How they will fit into your show – you want your bill to be varied and not different shades of the same style. A varied bill ensures a quality and interesting show for the audience
- Where they fit into the bill – which goes back to the billing template above. Are they experienced and known enough on the scene to headline? Are they a new performer? Do they draw ticket sales?
Confirming and contracting
Once you’ve got all your performers pencilled in for your show, you need to confirm them. This will ensure the performer knows they are booked and will not accept work on that night as they are already working for you! An email confirmation will do. It’s a good idea at this time to ask for any promotional pictures you’ll need (hi-res for printed stuff like magazines, posters or a lo-res for web-based promotions). In your confirmation, include the date, agreed fee (including how it will be paid – cash on the night or by bacs within an agreed time after the show) and venue address. If you want, send a contract to, which states your terms (if you are doing this, you might want to get it checked over by someone legal to ensure you are being fair in your expectations and you are not overlooking anything important). Once you have done this, your booking will be set in stone – there will be no changing of the fees, etc. So ensure you have done your maths!
Paying your performers
Technically, this should be in part three – what happens at the show/after the show, but since we’re talking about performers now, we may as well talk about paying them! If you’ve agreed a set fee, YOU MUST pay it! The only exception for this is door split shows, where it is impossible to state exactly how much a performer will get paid – but you can state between how many the door will be split – and then, yes, you must split it and pay everyone included in that the same! Even if your show bombs, you must pay the performers what you promised. It is not their fault if ticket sales have been bad and you are out of pocket: they have fulfilled their part of the bargain by performing (working for you). Hopefully, your show will not bomb, as you’ve followed our advice! So, how do you pay them? If you’ve agreed to pay them cash on the night, then that is what you must do, pay at the end of the night in a quiet moment when the show is over (and before you reach for that well-earned gin!). It’s a good idea to create some kind of signed-for receipt or ask the performer to bring an invoice so you’ve got some kind of record of them receiving the money, as if you put on a show, you will need to declare it as earnings to HMRC so anything paid out will be deductible from your profit. If you are paying by bacs, ask the performer to bring a receipt with their bank details on so you know where to pay and ensure you put payment into their account before the agreed deadline. A performer should never walk away from your show without either getting paid or knowing when they will get paid. Further to that, a performer should never have to chase you for payment (don’t forget, performers meet a lot of other performers and this is the quickest way to give your show a bad reputation).