J Lindsay Brown Dance

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Including Guest Choreographers: Best and Worst Practices

Thoughts on Dance Organizing Etiquette

(So, this is right ballsy to post this just as I’m about to invite guest choreographers into my newest show, and it’s a lengthy post. Also this is one of my first posts–so keep that in mind as you find a million typos). Oh, and a note about terms: some folks use “guest artist” to indicate a performer who isn’t a company member. In this instance, I’m using it to indicate someone who is showing a dance work (or other performance) in your showcase.

I love to invite other artists to choreograph and participate in my concerts—it helps sell tickets, but also gives people a chance to get their choreographic ball rolling. I will never forget the first showcases that accepted my work—they took a chance on me, and it really made all the difference! I love enabling others to get their foot in the dance world door. I’ve been producing since 2013, and with another show around the corner (March 1-2, 2019, https://aliveandwell.bpt.me) I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good producer, and what my experiences as a guest artist have been.

My first professional show was a bit of a mess- there were few deadlines and no contracts, and I didn’t understand what to expect or how to outline expectations (I also moved to Chicago and produced my show in the same week—but that’s another post). It went fine, but they were definitely hiccups and stresses that could have been avoided had I known better. It would have prevented some tense conversations later on, and prevented me from looking (in all likelihood) completely ignorant (which, well, I was).

I’ve witnessed good and bad habits in dance concert organizers. I’m not perfect, that’s for sure. However, I’ve tried hard to avoid certain practices that were absolutely maddening to me as a guest choreographer. Here are some things that a thoughtful organizer (from the guest artist/guest choreographer perspective) should consider. There are always exceptions, and logistical specifics, and the fact that people enjoy working in different ways (aka don’t freak out if something doesn’t apply to you). There are, of course, things a guest choreographer can do to avoid being a pain in the bum (maybe that’s another future post). However, at the end of the day, it’s the producer that holds most of the cards, and frankly, can get away with being a complete prig.

So, at the risk of holding myself to difficult standards as I slip into my own production season, here are some things to consider next time you produce a show and include other people’s dances:

Communication and deadlines.
Yes, I know you, the producer, are super busy but a good organizer responds promptly to those they INVITED into to the project. Other artists are just as busy, and they are reciprocating a favor in participating. You already have all the information, but the others don’t…because it’s not their concert.

So, reply to questions! If it means you get ten minutes less sleep, or you reply to emails from the toilet (I know- gross, please wipe off your phone and hands), tough! You need to reply promptly to questions. Maybe you reply just enough to say “I’ll let you know by Friday–shoot me another email if you don’t hear back”

Otherwise, you risk a big miscommunication, not to mention frustration. Yes, the guest artists should be responsive to you, but if you demand quick replies and then never get back to your guests, you are rude. Of course, we all drop the ball sometimes, or the internet eats an email, or whatever—but there’s too many times when choreographers have no idea when tech is going to be for a show that’s 3 weeks out, or they don’t know how to actually get tickets (yikes).

Information and deadlines.
I’m guilty…I’ve sent out too many emails, confusing emails, forgotten to send emails…but I’m working to improve that!

If you give out the important details early, and update as needed, then you will have fewer questions to answer. If you let folks know that you won’t have information until a certain time, then you have prevented more questions.

Write emails with different subject titles (that make sense, not just “schedule” but try “Schedule for tech week 12/5-12/9”) so folks can find that attachment or schedule easily…hunting through a thread or for a poorly labeled email is the pits.

Give a deadline for almost everything–getting in bios, music submissions, etc. bold or underline it. I didn’t realize how important this was until I found out that guest artists had no idea when I really needed materials back from them—I had just asked for the materials without any sense of timeline. Also, it was hard to find the deadlines amid all the other information. People are busy and sometimes need to skim—make it easy! Also make sure your deadlines have some buffer, so there’s not PANIC ZOMG if someone gets behind.

Pay them (in some capacity).
If you are getting paid butts in seats from their participation, then they deserve a cut, or at least a stipend. END OF STORY. If you dislike it when people ask you to work for free, then stop asking for other people’s choreography and dancers’ time for free. PAY PEOPLE FOR THEIR WORK. PAY. THEM.

Yes, I’ve presented many works for free or at a loss to my personal bank account—I did what I needed to do, but it was sucky and I don’t want to perpetuate that. Pay them something! It doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot, but if you making any money, you should be offering some money to them, or at least the option of making it.

A small stipend is better than nothing. If you are doing this, be upfront during the application process. Please don’t ask for large group works, accept it, then suddenly mention you are only paying $60. This means a choreographer (who I expect is attempting, or should be attempting, to pay their cast) will lose money to participate in your show. There are people who will still show their work for a low stipend, but don’t blindside them.

Personally, I give guest artists cut of any ticket sales (this concert, it’s 40 percent of online ticket sales). This helps everyone feel engaged in the promotion process and rewards those who bust their butts to spread the word. This way, more people will sell more tickets and not resent me. Win win!

If you aren’t paying guest artists at all, then it’s unlikely they will do more than share a Facebook post about the event. They have jobs and other opportunities that take time and energy—and they can’t afford to prioritize your freebie concert, and it’s not reasonable to expect anything else.

For free events, consider sharing donations. In my experience, people were so surprised I offered them a portion of donations (in this case I made very little, and could only offer them a laughably small amount) that they all told me to keep it. But, to me, it was just following through with an agreement.

Let me be clear—there are some lovely showcases that don’t pay me in money, but they are organized, low commitment, and enjoyable. The organizers are polite and treat the guest artists really well. By offering comp tickets (we don’t lose money inviting our parent or SO), having a wine reception afterwards, giving us photos and video of our work (at no expense to us), they are finding ways to compensate us without actual funding.

If you can’t find a way to compensate, do other things! Order some cheap pizza or coffeefor everyone at tech—show that you appreciate them and respect them. Or, maybe you run a “candy for the cast” at concessions, where audience members can buy small candies and leave encouraging notes for different companies, and you let guest artists keep the proceeds. If you have more ideas about paying people when you are broke, let me know!

Don’t charge a guest artist to see their own work.
I can’t believe I have to write this, but I know I have to write this…NEVER ask a guest choreographer to pay to see the show (you know, the one with their dance in it). And give them a seat! Don’t make them stand in the back or sit on the floor (maybe this has totally happened more than once…hmm).

Application fee. Tech fee. Penalty fees for not bringing in a certain amount of tickets (even though you receive no pay for participating —yes, this happens). Just stop.

I’m not saying all fees are bad (but the penalty for not selling tickets is truly ridiculous and needs to stop everywhere) but use the golden rule when you decide what fees you are charging. Consider not charging multiple fees—if you charge people to apply to your show (especially if it’s expensive to apply) then don’t stick a substantial tech fee on top of that. I know it’s expensive to produce a show, but do you really need to use your fellow artists as a money grab? And I know I sounds like a broken record, but if you are asking guest artists to pay to be in a show, please, please give them a chance to make some money back.

Have a contract.

Have a contract/letter of agreement that is fair to both sides and makes sense. To have no formal agreement is, frankly, degrading and a bad practice. It’s unprofessional and unwise. Bad contracts are often not just bad, they can be useless or insulting. Know what your contract is actually saying. If you need help with this or would like a template, let me know and I will help you (dead serious).

Be considerate of their time.
Of course there is the obvious: stay on time in tech. Try to arrange tech so that people do not have to sit around (if they have two dances, tech them back to back). But also limit their in-person appearances outside of the show–you can have a phone conversation to check in.

Additionally, be flexible with their schedule. Not everyone can afford to take a day off of teaching for a five minute piece in a festival. If you are producing the work, you are already there the whole time, and it’s likely your cast will be there frequently. So give the guest artist the tech slot they need, or help them work out a suitable alternative (before dress rehearsal, for example).

If you didn’t say anything about tech times when you accept an application that says “you must tech this day”, then you need to actively help them tech their work in a way that works for them. They are a guest in your production house.

Try to keep things on schedule! How? Oh, I got you on this.

  1. Tell everyone ahead of time how much time they have for tech, and make sure your designer knows this (no really, people have failed to do this). Make sure guest choreographers know how many cues they can expect to have, so they can come in with ideas.
  2. Introduce the designer and the guest artist in a way that gets the ball rolling. For example “Hello Sally, this is Jane, our designer. Would you like to run the work quickly, or do you have some key cues you want to go over first?”
  3. Let people know when their time is half way done.
  4. If you haven’t run the work and you are running short on time, tell them “Hey, we should push through and run this, so we don’t get behind. If we need to fix something we can do it before the dress rehearsal (PS give some buffer time before dress rehearsal).

Now this doesn’t always work, but do your best. I once had a tech disaster (curse you, curtain rings) and everything was pushed back by a significant amount (I was horrified). I pushed my own solo off to tech right before the show to give more time to everyone else, tried to expedite my own tech time to make sure the guests got their full time, and was grateful that I created a buffer (ALWAYS HAVE A BUFFER). We clawed our way slowly to be back on track throughout the night (we all felt like superheroes).

Be accurate.
It’s amazing how many times my company name gets misprinted in a program or poster. Yes, I know, it happens…and I’ve messed up program info for others. If you mess something up like this, apologize and fix it ASAP (don’t try to find a way to absolve yourself of the mistake…I remember doing this once in my younger years and I’m still embarrassed about it. I should have just apologized sincerely and fixed it). If you mess it up on social media, edit the post! If a photographer isn’t getting credited and complains, FIX IT!

Ask each choreographer to review and proof their own info for the program or poster. This can be done online, or you can have it available at tech/dress rehearsal. Give them a deadline for edits (if they don’t reply and you make a mistake…well that’s not your problem). Sometimes casts change or a title changes, or music changes, sometimes at the last minute right before tech rehearsal. If it’s wrong in the actual program and you cannot reprint, make an announcement to the audience with the correct information.

If you have a photographer and a videographer for your own work, then record and document their work as well. If you are not documenting it, then you need to tell them so that they can do it themselves. You should also give them a chance to record or have a photographer for their own work. Definitely don’t bring in a photographer for your works only. That’s tacky.

And if you aren’t going to record, TELL THE GUEST ARTIST YOU WON’T BE RECORDING. I have lost out of getting recordings of my work because no one told me they weren’t going to record everyone’s work. Furthermore, if you aren’t having it filmed, make sure the choreographer can set up their own recording equipment.

Let people know when you will have their materials available and stick to what you say. If they need a photo or a clip quickly to apply for something else, try to facilitate that. Tell people how long a link will be available for download, or at least give them heads up if you are deleting it (I’ve messed this up before…sigh, the ignorance of youth).

Promotional Materials.
If you want someone to do free promotion for you, then you need to make sure to give them the materials, do not expect them to come to you. Make it easy…drop off stuff in a location they frequent, send them something they can print on their own, etc.

Adopt their dance.
Stick around during all of tech as much as you can. If there is a problem for any guest choreographer, it’s now your problem too. Don’t use it as a time to joke around loudly in the corner with your cast while they try to tech their work (based on a real event? maybe…yes). When folks arrive, take a moment to introduce yourself (too many tech processes have a “guess who the director is” game built in) and make sure folks know where to find you if you are stepping out.

Remember, guest choreographers have also put time, sweat, and tears into their art. Don’t treat them like an accessory to your works. They are a part of the whole show, and important to your overall production. If something is a problem then do your BEST to fix it (as you would for your own dance). Do not be complacent. Their work in your show reflects on you, so you need to treat the work as though it were your own.

Be grateful.
Thank everybody often and with gusto (digitally and in person). Get them excited about the concert. Treat them like your colleagues (because they are).

It’s a two way street.
They are bringing their work, and presumably their audience. What are you really offering in return? Just a chance to get on stage isn’t that great–it’s not hard to do that. You need more.

What kind of experience are you giving your guests? Are you making it clear that you care about their work and that they feel successful? Or are you freaking out about your own issues with the production and brushing them off? Are you timely with your correspondence or are you letting that slip by? Would you want to work with yourself?

If you just don’t have time to think about this, then perhaps you should stick to a solo bill, and wait until later show to involve others. And that’s okay! But doing this well is a gift to your show, and doing this poorly can ultimately hurt your professional reputation.

In conclusion, I adore having guest choreographers in my shows. They have brought in a lot of people (and revenue) and helped with all sorts of tasks that weren’t their job. They have been patient when things go awry, in part because I try really hard to make their experience positive. I’m sure there are some folks who enjoyed working with me, and some who didn’t (that’s life) but in general, I’ve had positive interactions and results from working with guest choreographers. Every concert is a temporary, but caring community, working and striving behind the scenes to produce something fantastic. By being kind, considerate, and organized, you will have a far more enjoyable show experience.

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J. Lindsay Brown

Full of tricks and tips gained from a decade of teaching, choreographing, and producing in every setting imaginable!