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Topic: OT: Composing for Theatre

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  1. #1

    OT: Composing for Theatre

    I'm starting to explore possible opportunities for scoring music for local theatre productions, and I wondered if any of you who have done this kind of work could give me an idea of what budgets are typically like for this sort if thing. I sort of figure most theatre companies don't have much money for music, and while I want to make sure I don't scare anyone off with a ridiculously high number, I also don't want to give them TOO good of a deal... Thoughts?

  2. #2

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    I've been writing for theatre for years, and you're right - their budgets are usually VERY small compared to what film and video usually pays. Most companies can offer about $1000 per service, and some are significantly less. I've been able to work on a couple high-budget theater gigs recently, but in general the bread is pretty thin, particularly if you're just starting out. It's often best to ask the producer what he has budgeted for music, explain to him how much time you would be able to commit for that amount of money, and make the case that you'd be able to supply more/higher quality product for x amount increase in the budget.

    Bear in mind that full music soundtracks are a relatively new beast to live theater, particularly since the rise of the home studio over the last ten years. Music that was simply not conceivable in live theater (orchestral film-style underscoring, for example) is now becoming more and more common. However, since it is a relatively new trend, it's not one that is often considered when preliminary budgets are created. The director and/or artistic director often has to push at the very beginning of the project to allow money for music if they know they are going to want something specific for their show. So your best long-term plan of attack may not be to contact the theaters, but send demos and proposals to some of the more prominent directors in your area. That way, if they decide your skills are essential to their project, they'll push to get music included in the initial budget.

    Sorry to ramble on, but like I said I write a LOT for theater - I'm in the middle of scoring two shows right now - so it's a topic near and dear to me.

    Best of luck!
    Careful, man, there's a beverage here!
    www.stevegoers.com

  3. #3

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Or did I misunderstand you? By "scoring" did you mean creating original music for a production (if so, see my last post ) or are you talking about creating canned accompaniment for musical theater productions to replace or augment the orchestra? Because there's demand for that as well - it doesn't pay much better, and it's not nearly as much fun, but there's a market for it...
    Careful, man, there's a beverage here!
    www.stevegoers.com

  4. #4

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Thanks for the info, Steve. I'm mainly thinking about composing incidental music for plays -- music between scenes and/or acts, also during scenes if the situation calls for it. Sorry if I sound a bit green, but this area is pretty new to me. Note, I'm not terribly interested in composing songs for musicals, if that's what you're referring to. I've done a few projects where I mocked up scores for use in musical theatre productions (i.e. no budget for live players), but that's not what I'm really getting at either.

    Dig your signature, by the way. Classic flick.

  5. #5

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Quote Originally Posted by glennm01
    Thanks for the info, Steve. I'm mainly thinking about composing incidental music for plays -- music between scenes and/or acts, also during scenes if the situation calls for it. Sorry if I sound a bit green, but this area is pretty new to me. Note, I'm not terribly interested in composing songs for musicals, if that's what you're referring to. I've done a few projects where I mocked up scores for use in musical theatre productions (i.e. no budget for live players), but that's not what I'm really getting at either.
    Cool, that's what I figured when I wrote the first post, but then I thought that you might have been referring to actual musical theater. Composing original underscoring and incidental music is SO much more rewarding.

    One way you might pitch yourself to these theaters is by offering the original music pacakged with the sound design - that's what I usually do. Sound design is always built into the budget, so it's often a lot less of a hassle getting more bread if you're wearing the sound designer hat as well.


    Dig your signature, by the way. Classic flick.
    My all-time favorite You're the first to notice it!
    Careful, man, there's a beverage here!
    www.stevegoers.com

  6. #6

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    I did a theater gig once. I had to break the directors arm and beat the producer up for about $400.00. It's tough, but I tell you there's nothing like seeing actors live in a theatre respond to your music and even the music between scene changes is magical.

    If you do it. Do it for the art and love of it. I don't think there's that much money in it, but these people often end up doing films too.

    There still is something very magical about the theatre. Very human. To bad they couldn't at least afford a string quartet. It'd be cool to time music using live players that can respond to changes. Maybe shoot for that instead of the big sampled symphonic sound.

    Cheers,


    Jose

  7. #7
    Senior Member Bruce A. Richardson's Avatar
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    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Hi,

    I do quite a bit of theatre, around ten shows per season give or take.

    The budgets depend strictly on the size of the theatre. The show I'm in tech rehearsals for right now paid $3k, with about $1k budgeted for music/studio production expenses. That's an average, mid-sized regional theatre budget.

    Definitely you'll have to be a good sound designer, too, if you want to work in theatre. You need to do theatre for the love. You'd have to work yourself silly to make any money at it.

    The best paying shows are going to be big ones, which have multiple productions, tours, and some kind of back end percentage. I did a Christmas Carol six years ago, and have probably made about $50,000 on it in those six years. I get a percentage of the house, and a royalty for every market it plays in.

    Musicals, especially if they gain momentum, are decent money.

    Unless you're really familiar with the way theatre works, I would suggest getting on board with some smaller theatre companies first to hone your design skills. You have to design the playback system, the way cues are broken out, etc. It's fairly demanding work. It's also very, very different than scoring to picture, because you must design your music to be an interactively-flexible component in an overall production which will never play exactly the same way twice. Often that means breaking pieces into separate cue-able sections which have "slip" time built in the form of vamps, sustains, etc, where you can go from cue to cue with the action and get the feeling of a through composed piece of music.

  8. #8

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Quote Originally Posted by Bruce A. Richardson

    You have to design the playback system, the way cues are broken out, etc. It's fairly demanding work.
    Bruce, thanks for the info. I didn't start topic but I'm also interested in getting into theatre.

    I'm wondering if you could please explain in more detail what you mean by "design the playback system" and "the way cues are broken out". Do you need to be at all rehearsals and shows to make sure music and sfx are played back at the right time?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

    Brian

  9. #9
    Senior Member Bruce A. Richardson's Avatar
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    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Quote Originally Posted by Looper
    Bruce, thanks for the info. I didn't start topic but I'm also interested in getting into theatre.

    I'm wondering if you could please explain in more detail what you mean by "design the playback system" and "the way cues are broken out". Do you need to be at all rehearsals and shows to make sure music and sfx are played back at the right time?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

    Brian
    By design the playback system, I mean everything. In theatre, you start with an empty page. You decide what speakers go where, what amplification is needed, how the board is routed, how many channels you need, etc.

    The person you work directly with at the theatre is the Sound Supervisor. It's that person's job to make sure you provide the system plans, and to install and wring out the sound system, get all the banks delayed properly, balanced up, etc. It is important that you study both the set design and the light plot, to make sure you're not planning to hang speaker cabinets in the way. Nothing will get you on the bad side of your fellow designers quicker than screwing them over.

    As far as sound effects, you need to design which ones are "practicals," that is, things that actually make sound on the set (or appear to via closely hidden speakers), the different playback zones in the space, etc.

    The director usually works with the designers before the rehearsals even start up. That's when the big conceptual strokes are laid in, and you're given the scope of the work. There is generally some amount of research involved, especially on period pieces, but on all pieces to a degree.

    The rehearsal process is broken out into two parts. First, the actors rehearse with the director, usually not in the theater, but in a rehearsal hall. Whether you attend those rehearsals depends upon how intricately involved the sound design and music are to the production. Usually it's a good idea to at least check in. Any sound cues which are integral, usually need to be provided in rehearsal so that the actors can work with them. Obviously if anyone sings, that needs to be a priority in your production process. If it's a musical, there is generally a separate Music Director whose job it is to rehearse the singers and to be there in rehearsals to keep that end of things going.

    Tech (for technical) Rehearsals usually run about a week in advance of previews (which are also actually a part of the tech rehearsal process). Tech is all about integrating the work of the designers with the work of the actors. These are usually eight hour days (out of ten) with some ten hour days (out of twelve). You really need to be finished with your show by the time tech rehearsal starts, because the integration and rehearsal of the technical elements takes a lot of time, and there is rarely an opportunity to go back and pick up something you didn't finish before the show must go into run-throughs, dress rehearsal, and preview performances.

    You have to be there for the entirety of Tech rehearsal, so it takes some careful calendar management. Theatres only take Monday off as a rule, so you'll literally only have one day off, and mornings to get all your work done.

    Those are the basics. It's not an easy gig, by a long shot, and a lot rides on your professionalism in that situation. It is very rewarding work, though. There is nothing like being on a show that is really clicking.

    Right now, I'm in tech rehearsals for a fairly new play called The Violet Hour. I think it has only been produced in New York and Chicago so far, and that we are the third production. The cast is pretty amazing, and all the designers are very good, so I am having a lot of fun. I did some music for it (I posted a mockup of the show's theme, but have not gotten a chance to put up the final version from the recording sessions).

    In fact, I have to jump off, and try to finish up a couple of revisions before I crash. That's the only problem with tech rehearsals, is that you get in very late from the long days, and have only a few hours in the morning to work for the next day's rehearsal--so you have to be very good at managing time, and at knocking out your work quickly and accurately the first time around.

    Anyone who lives in the Dallas area should definitely come check this show out. It is at the Dallas Theater Center, opening March 1 (my stinking birthday, of all days). Excellent play, by Richard Greenberg, who is quite the well regarded playwright.

  10. #10

    Re: OT: Composing for Theatre

    Thanks again Bruce. This sounds like fascinating work for someone interested in sound design or composition. But it must be somewhat grueling to do as many shows per year as you do.

    All the best with your current production. If I lived anywhere near Dallas I'd come and check it out.

    Brian

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