Making a Big Production: Communication

In my last post I talked about producing my very first actual play series, and drawing on my experience as Dorklord_Canada_Logo_Wht_BG_Lo-Res.jpg-01a professional stage manager to explore where those skills might overlap. Let’s continue exploring that as I talk about communication and transparency.

As a stage manager, easily half my job was around communications. During the rehearsal period especially the stage manager is the information hub, connecting the director to the cast and the production team, serving as a conduit to the various departments (props, costumes, carpentry, etc), and generally keeping everyone informed. When I was learning my trade I was taught it is better to tell everyone too much than risk someone not knowing a thing they needed to know. Luckily, I also learned methods that wouldn’t overwhelm folks with information overload.

Having read Twitter threads from folks in the TTRPG space, as well as watching several panels on AP production, communication is a huge part of successful APs as well. The key to successful communication, I’ve found, is not only making sure everyone has access to the same information, but ensuring they have the space to ask questions and feel supported in doing so. I feel like that’s where communication can break down the most often, when folks feel they’re going to encounter anger or defensiveness when they ask questions, whether that’s true or not.

That brings me to our second Theatre Tip, which I teased in the last post:

Theatre Tip #2There is no such thing as overcommunication. Everyone should be able to know everything they want about the production at any time.

Pretty straightforward, right? So does this mean I’m constantly sending emails and Twitter DMs for every little update or change? No, of course not. That’s part of avoiding the information overload I talked about previously. Constant messaging might fly for about a day; by day two the rest of the production would want to strangle me. So how do I keep everyone on the same page? Remember the production document I talked about in my first post? Everyone we’ve invited to the cast has a link to that Google Doc, and knows they can go there for information about the production, as well as any updates. And so they are reminded of that, anytime I do send everyone a message regarding a major development, I also remind them to check that doc for more details.

Remember, the tip reads, “Everyone should be able to know…” not that I have to ensure they know, every second of every day. If I make the information available, some of the responsibility for staying informed has to lie with the other folks on the production. In short, I’ll never hide anything but they still have to get up and go look at it.

And good communication has to start with your first contact with a prospective cast member. So let’s look at a redacted draft of my email out to folks we wanted to invite onto this production. I have redacted any specific details because we aren’t ready to reveal that yet (yes, I know, redacting things in a post about communications, I feel the irony as well). But I’ll show you the letter, then we can break it down by the numbers.

***

Hello! My name is Brent Jans (@DorklordCanada) and I am contacting you to ask if you might be interested in playing in a recorded actual play of the [TTRPG].(1)

Our plan is to record two, three hour sessions of the game, as an introduction for new players.(2) Recordings are currently set for Tuesday, October 18 and Tuesday, October 25, starting at 5pm EST.(3) I will act as the Facilitator (GM) and there will be five players.(4) Currently [Player One] and [Player Two] are confirmed to play. Besides yourself we are also asking [Player Three] and [Player Four] if they are available and interested in coming to play.(5)

The recordings will be edited and then aired on the [Channel Name] Twitch channel, then live on the [Channel Name] YouTube channel.(6) We will use safety tools as part of play, primarily Lines & Veils, X-card, and Open Table.(7) If you do not currently own a copy of the [TTRPG], please let me know and a PDF will be provided.(8)

The project has one sponsor currently, [Sponsor Name], which will pay an honorarium of [Amount] to each player per recording session.(9) This a non-profit I helped create; part of its mandate is to further the playing of TTRPGs through education and demonstration.

In addition, I will look for other sponsors with the purpose of covering production costs and providing more money to you, the players. As well, any money raised from the airing of the two recordings (in the form of tips, subs, or Ko-fi donations) goes only to the players and will be split equally.(10)

This project is meant as a starting point. This is a new game for most of us, this is the first actual play project I have ever produced, and it will air on a relatively new channel. We’re trying something out to see if we can make it work. If it does, there are plans to record more two to three episode blocks of [TTRPG], covering all of the in-game Seasons. If we go ahead with those you will have first refusal on being a cast member.(11)

But first, we need to know if you would like to join us for these two sessions.(12) Please let me know by Wednesday, August 10 if you are available and interested.(13) If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me, by reply here or by DM on Twitter.(14)

Thanks for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.

***

Okay, let’s break it down.

  1. Even if you are contacting someone you know, start with a proper introduction. This is me and this is why I’m contacting you. Keep it just that simple, don’t bury the lead.
  2. Pretty straightforward, this gives them an idea of the time commitment involved. In this case, I’m asking for 6-8 hours of their time. For most folks in AP, their time is in short supply, they need to know this so they can decide if they want to spend it on my production or not.
  3. I’ve given them a time commitment, now here’s the specifics. These dates and times worked for the two cast members already on board, so we chose to cast for availability. Even without those two cast members, however, I likely would have set at least some approximate dates and times. It can be tempting to leave this open ended so hopefully you can make a schedule work for everyone. But again, these folks are often busy and need to know what your time frame looks like up front. Better to have someone say no thank you at the start, than having to bid goodbye to someone after casting because you couldn’t make the scheduling work. So set your dates. If they can’t, they can’t, move on.
  4. It’s good to let them know how many folks are involved. Not only does this provide scope for the game, but if you are doing any sort of donation/sub/tip split, it gives them an idea up front what that might look like, at least in broad terms.
  5. This one is so important, I’m shocked when I get messaging from an AP that doesn’t include it. No way around it, there are problem people in the TTRPG space and by virtue of most communication happening through Twitter, you can’t know who all of them are at any given moment. So when you approach a new cast member, tell them who else is involved. Let them decide if they want to work with the folks you already have on board. And let them know who you’re thinking of approaching. It didn’t happen with my casting for this, thankfully. But doing this let’s a prospective cast mate warn you if you might have employed or are thinking of employing someone harmful. As well, and this did happen, one of the folks I approached who sadly couldn’t make the scheduling work, offered to give me names of other folks I could approach in their stead. So now I have a resource for future casting I didn’t have before. In short, there is no downside to doing this, as long as you are open to being corrected and keeping your collaborators safe.
  6. Again, pretty straightforward. This is where we’re going air and this is where the recordings will end up afterwards. Of course I’m going to provide everyone with the links to all of this later, but if for some reason they lose those, they can still track down their work.
  7. I use safety tools at any table I run and it is especially important for actual plays. Streaming or recording, your players need to feel safe enough to fully engage with play. Frankly, if you don’t want to use safety tools for your APs, you aren’t ready to produce APs. I hear macramé is nice.
  8. Like a theatre production provides the scripts, an AP should provide the game. This could be something you work out with the publisher as part of your sponsorship. In our case I hadn’t reached out to the publisher yet, so I provided the game to the players who needed it out of pocket. This is important, because not every player you reach out to has read, or even has the means to read, every game. It’s only right you provide the tools they need to work on your AP.
  9. Here we come to the money part, a subject which I know give plenty of folks Rapid Onset Sphincter Clench. Again, transparency is your friend. If you don’t have any money, say that. If you have a little money (as we did), say that. If you have enough to pay your cast appropriately, please give me the name of your genie (kidding, but maybe…?). Avoid any phrases which sound apologetic or passive aggressive, like, “I know it isn’t much, but…” or “You probably wouldn’t want to work for so little…” No one appreciates those and they lay the groundwork for both poor future communication and hard feelings down the road. Be clear, upfront, and honest about what you can do to compensate the cast member for their time, then let them decide. You’re an adult, they’re an adult. So be adults.
  10. If you have little or no money up front, also be clear about any plans to get more compensation for the cast. Don’t promise the moon and avoid specific numbers unless you are rock solid you can deliver. Saying something like, “I promise everyone will get at least $100 in tips from Twitch!” may sound good. But now your production needs to raise $100 x cast members + whatever Twitch’s cut is, in order to deliver on that promise. And as a producer (or stage manager, for that matter), you are your reputation. Keep your promises? You’re golden. Fail on your promises? You’re dross. The lesson: make less promises and bust your ass to keep both the promises you make out loud and the ones you don’t .
  11. This section isn’t necessary for every project, but we do have tentative plans for a longer series of recording if this project works out (what does “working out” look like? Excellent question, sounds like a future blog post!) and I wanted to let prospective cast mates there could be future work if they wanted it. First refusal gives them an out in case they didn’t enjoy the game or the experience in general, or if their schedule suddenly gets busy.
  12. Just bringing the focus back to this project, which needs to happen to make any of the other stuff possible. I made this a point to demonstrate that it’s okay to dream a bit and invite your prospective cast members to dream with you. But always keep most of your focus on the work at hand, not what dreams may come.
  13. Cast member invites should not be open ended. You want to give them time to look at their schedule, talk to other groups they might be involved with, and look into the folks involved. In this case I gave them three days, which, on the advice of one of my collaborators should have been more like five, given how far off the working dates are. So go with five unless you’re in a hurry. But then, why are you in a hurry?
  14. I’m pretty confident I covered everything, but I could be wrong. So always open the door for questions and let them know where those doors are located.

So, pretty good, right? Sure, but I missed some things. No pronouns for one thing, I should have included everyone’s next to their name. So that’s pretty big. And as mentioned, I should have given them five days or even a week to respond, given we wouldn’t even be recording for another two plus months. In theatre I am used to much tighter timelines, so my instinct is to grant as short a time as possible for responses, so I can move on swiftly if there is no response or if the answer is no.

And I am sure as I post this, veteran AP producers may have other notes for me. I welcome them! Please drop them in the comments below or comment when this pops up on Twitter, I’m excited to hear your thoughts.

As for next time…I’m not sure. But I’ll try to come up with a clever Theatre Tip to go along with it. Until then, adieu!

Making a Big Production

Dorklord_Canada_Logo_Wht_BG_Lo-Res.jpg-01I’ve made no secret of my love for TTRPG actual plays. Recorded or live, video or audio, they are my new favourite media to consume. I love watching and listening to them and I am thrilled at the rare moments I get to play and GM for them. For years, though, I’ve had the thought in the back of my head: what if I produced an actual play? Could I do that? Do I have anything unique to bring to the table, pun definitely intended? While the third is a larger question requiring more time to ponder, I think I have a handle on the first two.

What if, indeed. And yes.

I’ve mentioned before, here and on Twitter, that I worked for close to twenty years as a freelance stage and production manager. Both jobs related to the organizing of a theatre production, and so I have almost two decades of practical experience in organization and communications around production work. But could those skills port over to actual play production? My gut says yes, and every panel or workshop I’ve taken on AP production over the last few years seems to confirm that. Despite the fact that actual plays are consumed as video media and so are superficially like television, I’ve always thought of them as more in line with theatre anyway (that’s a post for another time).

A conversation with a few friends online led to us wanting to play and record a show together. This collaboration seemed like the ideal time for me to take a leap and see if if my skills would serve me. And I thought it might be helpful, to anyone else thinking of producing their own AP show, for me to talk about what I’m doing and the steps I’m taking. After all, when do you get a chance to watch somebody try things, screw up, learn, try new things, and hopefully get better? Hopefully my posts will help take some of the anxiety out of starting your own production.

Let’s call these…Theatre Tips! Sure that sound corny, but it will grow on you. So…

Theatre Tip #1: Collaborate. Don’t try to do it alone. Even one-person stage shows need someone running lights and sound.

For my first shot at producing I definitely was not going to solo. The idea came about from a conversation with two friends, as I said, and thankfully those friends wanted to work with me (I promise, as soon as we make details of the show public I will stop with the “my friends” and name names, give credit where it’s due. For now, be patient.). And based on what we decided to do we knew we needed at least three more folks on board, which meant convincing three people who weren’t in the initial conversation that we had a good idea they should consider joining.

First thing I did? Thankfully this initial conversation was via Twitter DMs, so compiling notes was easy. I copy/pasted the entire conversation into a Google Doc. Then I removed everything that wasn’t a detail related to the project. Then I made five main categories, which you may be most familiar with in relation to journalism and news writing: Who, What, Where, When, and Why? These questions are just as important when planning a production; I would suggest that how well you can answer them will determine how successfully you can produce your show. I could have created a category titled “How?” but decided to be specific, entitling it “Sponsorships and Support”. I also put a “To Do” list in the document, to keep track of tasks at the start. Later on this list will become a checklist in Google Sheets, but for now a simple list works fine.

Why do all this? Now I have a document containing all the details of our proposed production. I don’t have to hunt through a Twitter DM thread to find important information, I go to the Doc instead. Later, when I want to create a media release, or put together an ad, or even just answer someone’s questions about the production, I have a source from which to pull that information. And most importantly, because it’s a Google Doc I can share it with the other folks on the production so they also have this information at their disposal. As well, they can leave comments and questions in the Doc itself for me or anyone else to discuss.

Which leads me into the topic for our next post:

Theatre Tip #2: There is no such thing as overcommunication. Everyone should be able to know everything they want about the production at any time.

And we’re going to use the somewhat redacted text of the cast invite letter I sent out recently to illustrate this point. But that’s going to be Thursday’s post, so I hope you’ll come back.

If you have any questions about today’s post, or about AP production in general, send them my way. I’ll answer questions about the post right away; I’ll save my answers to other questions until we hit that point in the production. Again, I’m not an expert and I don’t pretend to be one. I have some skills I think will help so I am diving into my first AP as a producer. Hopefully watching me work through it can help other folks do the same. I guess time will tell!