So you want to produce a play? Alan Knoll has some practical advice: Start early. (And however early you think that should be, it's not soon enough.) For the past decade, Knoll has dreamed of staging his own production of Anne Nelson's two-character drama The Guys, about an editor who helps a New York fire captain prepare eulogies for the firefighters who died under his command at the World Trade Center. The impending tenth anniversary of 9/11 seemed to be an ideal time for Knoll and his wife, actress Laurie McConnell, to make that dream a reality. The experience has been, shall we say, educational.
Never having produced a play before, Knoll and McConnell had much to learn. Like, for instance, about financing. "We decided in earnest to do the play a little more than a year ago," McConnell says. "But by the time we started going online looking at grants, we were already too late. We learned that you have to apply in January 2010 if you want to be considered for 2011 or 2012. But we pushed ahead anyway and decided to reach out to local corporations."
That's when the waiting game began. "Waiting can be exhausting and even infuriating," McConnell admits. "You want to say to people, 'Just give me an answer. Yes or no, I don't care. But tell me, so I don't waste my time waiting.'" McConnell and Knoll wrote to ten local corporations, heard back from three and received funding from one, Anheuser-Busch. That $1,000 donation, McConnell says, "was very generous but not enough to sponsor the production."
"Time was running out," Knoll says. "Because we had to acquire the rights to the play by a certain date or lose them. I was talking to a friend about how we couldn't get any traction raising money, and she put us in touch with [Pasta House Co. co-founder] Kim Tucci. I went to his office, and he tried to give me a tutelage on fundraising. Golf tournaments, and how these things snowball. And I said, 'This would be great, but we are running out of time.' In the mix of the conversation, he said, 'And somewhere along the line, I'll throw you a party.' And I said, 'We need the party now. If we're going to get the rights to the play, we have to do it next week.' And to our everlasting debt, Kim got on the phone, and this beautiful party happened nine days later at the Pasta House on Delmar."
"Part of the reason we wanted to throw the party," McConnell continues, "was to invite these corporations who hadn't responded. None of them attended. But our friends came, and they wrote ten-dollar checks, twenty-dollar checks. They gave us five-dollar bills. And we raised over $2,000 that one night."
As soon as The Guys was a go, unhappy surprises sprang up like brushfires. "You learn to expect the unexpected," McConnell says. "We got a really great deal on a playing space at Crestwood Court, but then we found out that we needed insurance for this space. The rights to the play turned out to be substantially higher than we ever imagined. Then we had to pay another $75 for the rights to the 79 seconds of tango music, which Anne Nelson wrote. You have to use her music. Which is fine, but $75 is three $25 donations gone."
The expenses continued to climb. "Last January Alan and I sat down with Tom Martin, who loved the play as much as we did and agreed to direct," McConnell recalls. "The three of us prepared a budget, which came in at under $5,000. Then two weeks later we revised that budget, because we were learning new things. The revisions kept getting larger and larger. Our current budget is close to $11,000. And people tell us they can't believe we're so low, which is only due to the support of our friends."
People like St. Louis Fire Department Battalion Chief Gerald Jorden, with whom Knoll went to high school. When Jordan learned it would cost Knoll more to rent a fire captain's uniform than to secure the entire rights to the play, he lent Knoll his own uniform.
"We are so beholden to so many people," McConnell says, as Knoll nods in agreement. "We've made our share of mistakes, mostly from innocence. But we've always believed that in the end, when The Guys is seen and shared, the experience will have been worthwhile. But already something very important has come out of this experience. Alan and I have developed a newfound awe for the people who run small theaters in St. Louis. We always knew it was hard, but we had no idea how hard. We never thought about the hundreds of details that these theaters must confront every day for every show, season in, season out. It is so hard to produce a play! And yet these dedicated people persevere. We've grown to love them all."