My journey creating and producing puppetry... trials, tribulations, inspiration and contemplation.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Minding Your Puppet Business

This post is for those of us who are running a puppet business where the main focus is performing shows. If this is a future goal, this post is especially for you.

I have a friend who has been in show business for many many years. When imparting her wisdom on young performers, she is quick to point out “it is called ‘show business’ for a reason … it’s not ‘show rainbows and unicorns’, it’s not ‘show friendship’ … it’s a business” and one should be determined to learn this as quickly as possible.

Mind your budgets. I was never so proud when I was awarded my first arts grant. It was for a sizable sum and I had to budget exactly how my money was to be spent as I produced our last show, “Monster Intelligence”. It was great to have conceived exactly where every dollar should be spent and only adjusting those funds when I knew I could alter other items in the budget. If I knew I had to over-spend on one item, I had to cut back on expenses for another item. The same care needs to go into every booking and every occasion to travel with my puppet company as well. I’m very lucky to travel pretty simply with our shows. I pay for one other puppeteer and I pay a percentage royalty to my writer. When I had a recent travel engagement come through my booking agent, we worked up a budget that we could be happy with and that the client could finance. I incurred some shipping charges that I didn’t expect on merchandise I sent out ahead of time. Then, I really overspent, deciding that we would take in a show (at my expense) and, something I swear I will no longer do, I mindlessly paid for all meals for myself as well as my fellow puppeteer. I’m a nice guy, I like picking up tabs, to the detriment of my wallet. A while back, another career puppeteer told me NOT to pay for food on trips. "Everyone has food as an expense" he said, whether they're at home or on the road, this is to be expected. What he suggested was, when he wants to eat at a fancy restaurant or anything out of the ordinary, then he would treat. This money is your company’s money, not a frivolous amount of money you have for a spending spree. When I bemoaned my mismanagement of funds to my writer, he graciously said I could deduct the food costs from my billable expenses before I paid him. He was going to allow me to deduct our food expense from the amount that I base his percentage on. I wouldn’t do it. Like I mentioned before, everyone has to buy food and he should not be penalized for my overspending. Always work with integrity. Integrity is my mantra. Treat travel budgets very carefully and don’t treat business travel like a vacation unless you have vacation funds saved up to take with you. When traveling, if you can stay cheaper in an Airbnb that has a kitchen, shop frugally at the local grocery store and (note to self) stop treating yourself like you eat at better places while away from home. 

Mind your contracts. It’s nice to work with a booking agent who fends for a proper contract rate and makes sure that your comfort needs are met in most situations. Still, this is not always the case and I have a good relationship with my agent where I can solicit some contracts that don’t overstep their relationships they have with their own clients. While I would prefer my agent take care of all contracts, sometimes there are situations that call for personal treatment that only I can give. When writing contracts, be sure to always spell out specifically who is responsible for what. If you are just starting out and you have a situation where a venue wants to do a door split of the ticket cost, are you splitting the GROSS ticket sales? Are they deducting any advertising or other expenditures on your potential profit? We all have costs associated with performing and producing shows. It’s easy to make verbal contracts with friends but, be a smart business person and write EVERY expectation and have a written contract with every venue, including friends. You are running a business. Protect your potential income by having a well-worded contract so there is no guess work as to what, how and when you will be paid. Through some of our school assembly contracts, payment will sometimes come via a separate arts in education fund that can take up to 30 days to process. I simply let the client know that if payment isn't received in 30 days, I have the right to contact them to request a simple follow up. Sometimes paperwork will get lost on someone’s desk and not submitted but, it has always worked out, thankfully. Always handle situations with a friendly, business-minded attitude. Most people are just concerned that everything is taken care of correctly and honestly. Still, you must advocate for what's fair. Just because you might love what you do as an entertainer, doesn’t mean you can survive on less. Bills still need to be paid and bodies need to be fed.

One of the things that I also value from my dealings with my agent is the technical rider. It outlines all expectations for the venue such as access to clean drinking water, access to restrooms and, a swept playing area. Have you ever mistakenly dragged a backdrop or one of your stage curtains on a dirty playing area and decorated your clean curtain/ backdrop with dirt? It’s not fun. You quickly learn the meaning behind all those small rider details. Is your stage apt to collapse in a strong wind? It might be a good idea to specify that you only play indoor venues. This is something you can ask up front. Have you ever played in a freezing-cold or sweating-hot venue and wished you had specified a climate controlled venue? These are some of the things we may take for granted and just forget to ask. Depending on the type of performing you do, maybe you don’t mind but, for rigorous performances, it can be an issue. One of the basic needs for us that some clients aren't use to is the amount of time we take into consideration for load-in and set-up. If they’re not a theatre, this might be new to them. If you have a particularly early show, be sure someone will be at the venue to let you in when you arrive. I always call a day or two prior to a show to confirm all arrival details. Check their address for your GPS, confirm your check-in and load-in location and, if it’s going to be a walk from your performance space, ask if they may have a flat-bed cart that can aid in a speedy load-in. Incidental considerations like access to a 3-pronged electrical outlet and a 6-foot table for back stage properties are all things that should be written out and confirmed. Payment due the day of the performance? Put that in the contract as well.

Mind yourself - mind your sanity. Above all, these things and more are ways to ensure that you're taking care of you. Along with proper hydration and not sweating the small stuff, these are ways to guarantee your mental well-being. I’ve had venues confirm our arrival time only to find our space was not ready when we arrived. Kids were playing and we had to wait 15 minutes before they were dismissed, an actual morning yoga class was happening on our play area and they had no idea we were coming. During these times, I relax. We do what we can and if we’re not ready (which is rare) I can gently remind the venue that their mix-up caused the delay. Most venues will graciously ask if and when you’re ready anyway. 

Lastly, be mindful of your personal needs. Access to drinking water doesn’t mean venues have to have bottled water or even a water fountain right by the stage so, my water bottle is always with me. Bringing along some fruit and a nutrition bar always gets me through shows calmly as well. Be gracious, be happy. I know from experience, there’s nothing worse than working with an unhappy performer. You’re a puppeteer… a performer! Your job is to make people happy and what could be better than that? Now, be smart and mind the business of your business!