7 steps for producing a play

 24 April 2013

When Troy Fairclough and his sister-in-law decided to stage a one-woman show about jazz legend Billie Holiday, there were challenges to face, along with a tight budget. He recalled the process.

Nina Kristofferson, who starred as Billie Holiday in 'I Cover The Waterfront', has since returned to the role in other productions.
Nina Kristofferson, who starred as Billie Holiday in 'I Cover The Waterfront', has since returned to the role in other productions.

"We decided to call ourselves Tramfare Productions. The T& R from Troy, and the A & M from Amanda made up 'Tram'. 'Fare' would be for our surname, Fairclough.

"Our show, I Cover The Waterfront, was based on the life story of Billie Holiday. Our intention was to create a West End-quality show, with an experienced performer, high production values, and knockout costumes."

1. Finding the right theatre

"Our first step was to find a suitable venue. After looking at options we decided on the Nottingham Arts Theatre. At the time the building was going through renovation, and it looked like a building site, complete with outside scaffolding. But it had good access, and the location was bang in the centre of town.

"In addition, it’s known as ‘the people’s theatre’ and has a reputation for supporting amateur and community productions – not that we were thinking of doing something amateur!

2. Casting the lead role

"The next step was finding an actor to play Billie Holiday. We needed someone capable of singing and acting who could carry a one-woman show. It proved quite a challenge.

"As a director, you want to see what an actor does with their body as much as possible before opening night."

"A couple of actresses were initially interested, auditioned, and then pulled out. Their reasons included timescales, money, and pressure.

"We were starting to feel the pressure ourselves as the days and weeks started to pass! 

"We originally wanted someone local, but in the end we had to cast our net wider.

"We auditioned actresses from London, and eventually we found and hired Nina Kristofferson, who brought plenty of personality to the role, and more importantly, experience.

"By now, we were getting excited as pieces of the jigsaw started to come together."

3. Finding musicians

"Next we needed to find some jazz musicians. Ideally we wanted a three-piece combo of piano, drums and bass, who knew the music of Billie Holiday.

"This search was shorter, and we quickly found Three Dimensional. At the time, they were students living and working in Birmingham.

"Birmingham isn’t that far from Nottingham, and they could travel. We booked them and added their travel costs to our budget."

4. Managing a budget

"I was London-based, so rehearsals meant me going to Nottingham and living at my parents' house for two weeks.

"Luckily, I get on well with my family – otherwise I would have had to stay at a hotel, or even crash on someone’s floor.

"With Nina and the band rehearsing away happily, I turned my attention to set, props and costumes. It so happened that the Nottingham Arts Theatre already had a lot of the props and furniture that we needed. Our set designer, Adam, worked hard to create a simple but stunning set. 

"If you ever have to hire costume, remember the dry cleaning costs, or they'll come back to bite you!"

"Perhaps surprisingly, it was the issue of dresses for Billie that proved the most difficult to work out. We'd done a lot of research into the period, so we knew the look we wanted, but we couldn’t afford the dresses, and had to hire them.

"If you ever have to hire any costume for a show you're producing, remember the dry cleaning costs at the end of it, or they'll come back to bite you.

"There were to be three dress changes for the show: a ‘knockout’ dress at the beginning, a dark, plain dress, and a white ‘angel type’ dress to signify the ‘spirit’ of Billie at the end.

"After the first show, the zip of the knockout dress broke and couldn’t be used. So we added the zip repair bill to the budget.

5. Running rehearsals

"Rehearsals were 10am-5pm every day, and as they got closer, I realised how intense it would be – just me and one actor.

"The script told the story of Billie Holiday’s life: her childhood, her rise to stardom, and her decline into alcohol and heroin abuse. It definitely wasn’t a family show. For all her genius as a singer and songwriter, Billie had the most tragic life.

"To balance all this drama, we decided that the show would feature 15 of Billie's most popular songs.

"Slowly, the show was coming together. The only problem was that Nina still wasn't 'off the book' – she hadn't learned all her lines by heart yet.

"I had every faith in her, but it was difficult watching someone act with a script in front of them. As a director, you want to see what an actor is going to do with their body as much as possible before opening night."

6. Promoting the play

"Eventually, it was time to turn my attention to ticket sales and promotions.

"We had been lucky enough get good support from local radio stations. We did live and recorded interviews for BBC Radio Nottingham, along with other local radio stations in the region.

"When the play opened, I was surprisingly calm. I knew I’d done all I could."

"However, we weren't able to get any local TV interest, or a feature in the local paper. There were further worries when some people found it difficult to book tickets through the theatre’s website due to technical problems.

"By now, we were at the point of no return. Not only was the production our first, I had written and directed it.

"That’s a great achievement until you realise that your parents, family and friends are all coming to see it – then you just want to run to the hills!

7. Watching the opening night

"But when the play opened, I was surprisingly calm. I knew I’d done all I could. Now it was over to the cast and crew to bring the vision to life.

"I’d like to say that opening night was a triumph, but it was more like a bad dress and tech rehearsal. I wanted the ground to just open up and swallow me.

"But true to the old adage, the 'bad dress rehearsal' meant a good run. The cast and crew came through, and we put on many truly moving and enjoyable nights of theatre."

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