Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Process Part 2- Budget

I once had a discussion with a friend about tech theatre and art. She told me a story about a student that was assigned a five minute long light cuing project. When it came time to present to the class, the first three minutes of this student's project were the best in the class, but then the cues stopped. The student had spent so much time and energy making the first three minutes perfect he hadn't had time to finish a full five minutes. The student failed the assignment. Her logic as a teacher was that anyone, if given unlimited time, could put together an amazing piece of art, but in theatre we never have unlimited time. As she put it, "theatre design is art with a deadline and a budget. In the end, no matter how beautiful it is, if it wasn't on time and within budget, you failed."

It is important when working on a project to always keep the calendar and the budget at the front of your mind. When I am working on a show, after I have a full props list, have spoken to the director to make sure I know what is needed, and have checked stock to see what I already have, I start making a rough budget. This document is a simple excel spread sheet with the props list and a list of estimated prices. The first time through the list I go item by item and write down what I would like to be able to spend. Sometimes that number is based on my prior knowledge (lumber, fabric and craft supplies I purchase regularly), but often it requires some basic research to get an idea what I should expect to spend. For example, on a recent show I needed a silver punch bowl and nine matching cups; a quick google search revealed that I should expect to pay about $120.

After creating the first list I add up my estimates to see if I am within budget. Usually I'm not and I have to start looking at places to save money. Sometimes I need to research renting instead of buying, sometimes I need to call in favors, sometimes I look for a couple items I could reasonably post on freecycle or the craigslist wanted section. Often I find that I have to make something or alter something in stock as opposed to buying or finding exactly what I wanted. I have also found that often a director will be willing to change things (I could probably get a glass punch bowl for $75 less than a silver one).

If you are lucky enough to have a budget big enough to do what you want, there are decisions to be made there too. You should always keep a fraction of your budget reserved for late additions and tech week notes. If you have more money beyond that, you have options. You could just leave it and come in signficantly under budget, but many theatre technicians would advise against that. Especially in not-for-profit theatre, if you don't use it, you loose it. If you come in significantly under budget enough times, the powers that be may assume that you don't need as much money and you will likely find yourself in trouble when the next big show comes through. Most often I will go back through the list and pick out a few items where spending more money would make the most difference, whether in the look of one piece (ex: I was just going to build a bench out of scrap 2x4, but for a little bit more money I could build it out of new cedar), or the improvement of your stock for the future (ex: I was going to rent those end tables from theatre X, but now I can afford to buy similar ones for our theatre, and then we would have them next time they are needed.)

After the budget is completed, it is important to communicate your estimates with the production manager, scene designer and director. It will be helpful as you go through the process for these people to be aware of how much flexibility there is in the budget and what your big purchases are going to be. Much better to tell people early on "we are going to be very tight on money for this show, but I'm going to do my best," then to have a director frustrated and confused when she tries to add things later in the process and you have to tell her no. You will also find that things that looked set in stone earlier have a little bit more flexibility, and you may also learn that a prop you thought was important is only really going to be onstage for 45 seconds.

Once I start spending money I record every purchase on a separate spreadsheet (columns are- date, vendor, item purchased, price and money remaining), but every couple of days I go back to my estimates sheet and update it. If I spent more than I planned on something then I have to find out where I am going to make up the difference. If  I saved money somewhere or found a really good deal I can look again and see if I need the money somewhere else (ex: now I can afford the kitchen table I really wanted for scene 2).

As you move through the process, just like with everything else, communication is key. Send your budget out regularly to the people who need to see it (different people at different theatres). It is much better to have people deleating emails from you that it turns out they don't need, then for someone to feel out of the loop.

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