Running a festival is a balancing act; press, venue booking, promotions, communicating with traveling troupes, hotels, airlines, social media, printing programs. I have have the highest regard for anyone who takes on this challenge. There’s a lot going on and a lot of people you see every week with different needs. With all of this going on, especially if you haven’t been doing it for years, it’s very easy to forget that there are people you don’t see every week who are part of making your festival happen too; the people from around the country and sometimes from around the world who have submitted to perform and are willing to travel to your city, usually on their own dime to help you make a great festival. They’re excited about your festival and often willing to make some big sacrifices to come perform in your space.
It’s important as the festival planning process goes on to remember those people and keep their needs in mind when making decisions. Showing respect to them during the process will not only make this year’s festival better, but next year’s as well. Many of these performers travel to many places throughout the year and can be ambassadors of your festival if they had a good time and felt respected.
So if you’re planning a festival, especially if you’ve never been in the shoes of a traveling performer, here are a few things that can make the process a lot easier for them and will lead to more and more great submissions coming year after year.
Before submissions open
I promise you that many performers would love to travel every weekend, but realistically that’s not always possible. A trip for them can take a lot of planning, so you’ll want to start the process of giving them as much information as early as possible. Start with your festival date and work backwards. If a troupe is going to fly to see you, they’ll want to have their airline tickets at least six weeks before their flight. Any later than that and their prices will start climbing quickly. That six weeks is also enough time to let them plan accordingly by getting time off of work, not scheduling other shows at their own theatre that weekend. So you’ll want to confirm your troupes at least six weeks prior to festival – and keep in mind that’s a minimum.
Keep in mind there’s a difference between confirming your schedule and contacting the troupes. Even though many troupes submitted with the best intentions, there are occasions when they have to decline an invite. You’ll want to give them at least a few days after you invite them to confirm so you can announce your schedule. Let’s keep working backwards. Reviewing submissions can be a very time consuming processes. The time spent deciding who will come can only happen after you’ve reviewed all the submissions. If you have 50 submissions at 25 minutes each… that time gets used up fast. So give your self at least two weeks to review submissions (and I’m being very conservative here. More time is better). Sure you can start viewing submissions before they close, but you will always get a flood of last minute submissions.
You’ll want a decent submission window for troupes to decide whether to submit to your festival. Keeping submissions open for less than a month is going to really limit your submissions.
Adding all of these up, if you want to give troupes the best chance of performing at your festival, you’re going to want to open submissions at least three and a half months prior to your festival and close no later than two and a half months prior to festival if you want out of state performers to be involved.
Now that you have those dates, you can start promoting your submissions to the world through social media and other means so that they have suitable head’s up to start thinking about a trip to your festival.
When your submissions are open, groups will likely have many questions about your festival. Be sure to make yourself available for questions. If you have a board of directors with different responsibilities, you can make their contact info available too.
Fun Fact: You can add any member of Improv Network to your festival listings as a contact person. You can even give them a special title. Just click Add/Remove Organizers from the event listing.
Making yourself available is great, but there are a few things that almost everyone will want to know and it’s a good idea to make this information available right up front.
- How many shows will they be performing
- Is there anything else that the festival will be providing for them (a t-shirt? a hotel room? three beers?)
- What other non-show events will be at the festival (workshops? parties? conferences? special trips?)
- What nights will out of town troupes be expected to perform? (Most people can get a Friday or Saturday off, but not a Wednesday)
- Any other expenses that might be involved for them
Those bits of information are pretty straightforward and factual, but there are more esoteric pieces of info that would be helpful to provide. Courting troupes to want to come to your festival is kind of like filling out an online dating profile. You won’t get many responses if your profile says “I’m a dude. Date me.” Let them know who you are. What is the improv like in your city? What is your city like? Why are you doing a festival? What drives your passion for the art? What kind of audiences do you have? Where can they get breakfast? And also, What kind of show are you looking for? Improvaganza from Honolulu is great at this every year. This year they are specifically looking for shows with large ensembles to focus on that kind of group work. Your needs may be less specific, but you’ve got a good idea of the kind of show you’re looking for. Write about it. It will help troupes know if this is the right festival for them. The second is simply Who are you?. You’re going to get a lot more interest if people know more about your festival than just a name. Now is also the time to let people know about those timelines you set for yourself. Let people know when they can expect to hear if they’re in or not.
They’ll be sending info to you as well in the form of their submission. Don’t wait until submissions are closed before taking a quick look. Sometimes they’ll forget an important piece of information. If you reach out to them, they can usually get it to you before submissions close and you can give them a fair review.
And finally, acknowledge them. They took the first step. They worked hard on a submission packet and they sent it in for review. They even paid a little money. Be sure to acknowledge that. Thank them for their submission and open the lines of dialog.
When Submissions Close
The first thing to do when submissions close, and one of the most overlooked things is to actually remove the submission link from your webpage. If your event is in the Festival listings on the page here, they’ll automatically drop off, but any other place you have submission info, you’ll want to take down or replace with a “Thank you. Submissions are now closed” page.
Once that’s taken care of, start or continue reviewing them right away. The methods of reviewing submissions is a whole blog post unto itself, but just make sure that you actually watch all the submissions. It sounds obvious. But there are cases of festivals only watching a handful of submissions and ignoring the rest. Those festivals did not survive well. Give every troupe your attention and take as many notes as you can.
Letting People Know
Take the time to write back
When you’re ready to reach out to troupes. You’ll of course want to let them know. Please don’t forget to let the people you couldn’t invite know as well. It can be very frustrating for a troupe to be wondering if they’re going to a festival and then have to hear second-hand that the festival line-up has been announced and they’re not on it. Reach out and thank them again for their submission even if you can’t invite them. If at all possible, don’t send a form letter. You have a lot to do, and emailing each group individually can take over an hour, but it is a huge act of good faith in return for the good faith they’ve placed in you.
With both your acceptance and rejection letters, be sincere and honest. “There were so many great submissions this year, it was almost impossible to judge them all.” is probably a sentence they’ve seen before. Only say something like that if it’s really true. Because otherwise it comes off as a blow-off and no one likes to feel blown off.
Be open to responses. Many groups that don’t make it will write back to say “Thanks for letting us know. Good luck with the festival.” They understand that you made the best decision for your festival, but sometimes a younger troupe may ask for advice on their submissions. Write back. Be honest (not mean) about their submissions. Offer advice on what might be a stronger choice for them and it may help them get into other festivals and grow as performers. You have a lot more experience with them and you have the opportunity to share some of that experience with them.
And of course, all of this applies for the groups you will be inviting.
Getting Ready for Festival
It’s several weeks or month until festival. You’ve booked the groups. Your attention turns back to things in your own city. But don’t forget about those people. Keep them in the loop with new information. At this point, it’s fine to send out blasts without personally writing everyone. You’re just sending them basic info about workshop registration opening, a special new event, etc. You don’t want to deluge them with emails, but one update every week or two helps them feel comfortable that you’re keeping them involved. Try to keep messages from the festival coming from as few sources as possible. If you are the contact person for info. They will know your name. They don’t necessarily know everyone on your board. The big exception to this is that sometimes your tech person will have to check in with individual troupes on tech needs. That’s cool. If your tech person needs to check in, that’s not information overload.
Now it’s time to get prepared to take care of them. Find out who is coming. Find out when their flights are coming in. If you have the volunteer staff capable of handling it, pick them up at the airport. Don’t make them take a cab 25 miles. Find out if they have any other special needs when they get into town.
Performers are the heart of your festival
Have a packet ready for them when they arrive. Many festivals have a swag bag filled with snacks and a plethora of trinkets from their sponsors. (The single best piece of swag I ever received was a DVD copy of “The Long Kiss Goodnight” with Geena Davis). These are cool and fun. But not a requirement. Don’t stress if you can’t have these, but at least have a packet for troupes with pages for contact info, schedules, a program, any other details on events and lanyards or IDs. People are just adjusting to a new place. It’s nice to have a set of info ready for them.
Different cities have different names for these, but the important thing is having them. These troupes are your guests. They don’t know your city. They don’t know your venue. They likely don’t have a car. Before they step foot in your city find a liaison for them while they’re in town. You’ll have student, performers and fans in your community who are champing to help out. Give them a troupe to take care of during their visit. Make sure that this person is reliable and truly available for the whole weekend. It’s their job to be the first person to call when the visitors have questions. A den mother should be around to pick them up at the hotel. Tell them where to get breakfast. Take them to see that one thing in your city that all the tourists want to see, show them the place behind your venue that’s good for warm-ups. Just making them feel like rock stars.
Because they are. These people visiting you? They are rock stars. Never forget that. They’re making your festival amazing. And they’re doing it usually only because they love doing it for you. Never forget that. They are rock stars. Not just your headliner. Everyone.
Currently Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America.