My tenth birthday was one of my most memorable. My mom took me to a neighborhood playhouse called Black Spectrum Theatre to see Loraine Hansberry’s seminal work A Raisin in the Sun. I was so moved by the characters and dialogue that I stayed behind to meet members of the cast.
Exposure to theatre not only made me a theatre aficionado early on, but also inspired me to write my own plays. I even wanted to take my creativity to the next level and stage my own production, but never did because I thought I couldn’t afford to.
A recent interview with Natasha Cobb, an emerging playwright based in New York City and author of the forthcoming Project Chic to Paulie showed me that it is possible to pursue a dream of this magnitude without tons of capital.
Centsai: Tell us about your play It’s Not Stamped on Your Forehead. Was this your first play? Are you a full-time playwright?
Natasha Cobb: It’s Not Stamped on Your Forehead is about a young African-American woman who is recently diagnosed with Type I Bipolar Disorder. It is her first therapy appointment after being released from a mental hospital. It’s about coming to terms with the diagnosis and figuring out what life will be like while living with the illness.
This is the first play I have written that was accepted into a theatre festival. I’ve written two other plays but made unsuccessful attempts to produce them. I pursued my passion with full-time 9-5 in the telecommunications industry.
Centsai: What inspired you to decide to stage a play?
NC: I’ve loved theatre from a very early age and I directed plays in high school. I produced my first show as a producer for the Harvard Summer Theatre during college in addition to working various roles behind the scenes on other projects. Working with little or no budget in high school and college helped me see what you could create art with few resources. What I learned came in handy when my play was accepted into the Midtown International Theatre Festival (MITF).
Centsai: How long did it take to write?
In total, it took less than two months to get to the final draft: It only took me about two weeks to write. I spent the next month editing. My play is considered “short subject”, meaning it would run for 60 minutes or less. Once I submitted the play to MITF, it only took 24 hours before It’s Not Stamped on Your Head was accepted. I was thrilled.
KS: How much did it cost to stage the play?
It’s Not Stamped on Your Head ran me $1,250 to bring to like. Here’s a breakdown of everything by category.
Acceptance into the MITF. $350. I had to invest $350 to be a part of MITF. Investing $350 ensured that I would receive 25% of the play’s profits.
Tech support. $150. MITF assigned a technology person to set up lighting boards and schedule lighting for $75 for the initial hour of support. I also had to pay $25 for tech to be present for each 30-minute show. Since I staged three 30-minute shows, I had to pay another $75.
Space rental. $300. Through MITF, the cost to rent a jewel box theatre which seats around 45 people was covered for short subjects. When it came to rehearsal space, I conducted four in-person run-throughs. In addition, since I was the only other cast member, we were able to practice over the phone a few times to keep costs low.
Marketing. $220. I promoted my play over social media. I invested $75 for Facebook Ads. I also paid $75 to design flyers and $70 to make them. I distributed 100 flyers for family members, community centers, and organizations with which I’m affiliated. I also emailed my network to promote the play.
Casting. $0. Being linked to MITF meant that I could attend open calls for free. MITF used an agency called TruAuditions which allowed me to see over 150 actors over a Saturday and a Sunday.
Centsai. Were you able to make a profit from your first production?
- Actually, I broke even more or less. I priced tickets at $20 each and sold 60. The production pulled in $1,200, but I received $300 based on the 25% profit-sharing structure.
Centsai: Now that you have your first production under your belt, what might you do differently next time?
NC: From a financial perspective, if I had done more marketing (i.e. double the audience) and possibly used the application fee for the MITF to rent a theatre on my own, I’m certain that I would have made more profit. In many cases, you can go to a theatre manager for a one-night show and they can give you a flat rate. Theatre managers don’t like when the theatre is dark. When it’s dark, it’s an off night and is not making the owners any money.
Also, If I were to work with MITF again, I would invest more of my own money to receive a higher percentage of the profit.
And most importantly, I’m thinking bigger now. I want to stage a larger production of this play. It will be called Not Stamped and be a 90-minute production. In addition to preparing my budget for a 2019 staging, I plan to reach out sponsors to offset costs.
Natasha Cobb’s commitment to pursuing ambitious dreams is inspiring. Her story shows that money doesn’t necessarily have to get in the way of pursuing your biggest goals, especially when you plan with purpose, start small, and partner strategically.