Creative Accounting: Commissioned Play

Christopher Benz
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The budget below shows the cost of developing a new play, from scratch, right up to its premiere at a regional theater. This particular play is by the Civilians, a New York–based theater company that specializes in investigative theater. The budget represents the cost of their unique brand of research, as well as the cost any theater company would incur commissioning and workshopping a script. In other words, this is the expense of producing enough of a play to attract funders.

The play, Brooklyn at Eye Level, is about the massive new Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn. A team of actors gathered over 250 hours of interviews with Brooklyn residents, developers, politicians, and other stakeholders, taping their voices and noting their facial and physical idiosyncrasies. They performed the material to test it out, then they handed it over to a playwright, who created a script from the material.

This budget is divided into three parts: Investigation, Theater, and Development. Investigation is the cost of interviews and research. Theater is the cost of two weeks of writing and producing a sample play at a Lyceum theater. Development is the cost of commissioning and supporting the playwright.

This is an installment of Creative Accounting, an ongoing series that will show where the money goes for all of the major creative industries. Future issues will cover book publishing, television, fine art, and public sculpture. Eventually the series will be collected into a single, indispensable volume, published by Believer Books.

—Christopher Benz


The Civilians had one month to collect information and begin rehearsing a play. They collected and transcribed over 250 hours of interviews, worked with local children, conducted research, and consulted experts. The figures below are four weeks of their weekly salaries.

Artistic staff $7,081

Artistic Director $1,500

Literary Associate $2,000

The Literary Associate collected research, identified key people to interview, and organized the interview process. Lit associates are “half stage manager, half dramaturg,” said Civilians Managing Director Marion Friedman.

Literary Assistant $81

Project Coordinator $2,700

Taxes $800

Artist Fees $23,711

Actors $13,000

Six actors recorded interviews.

Composer $1,600

The composer, Michael Friedman, wrote five songs using direct quotes from the interviews. This figure represents the first month of his $2,500 fee.

Lab Dramaturg $3,072

The dramaturg is almost a co-writer. He helped organize the 250 hours of interviews and vast amounts of other information into one eighty-minute play. This dramaturg was particularly talented, so the Civilians flew him from Ireland, the only real travel expense they paid. Pay below is the first month of his $2,500 fee.

pay $1,600

Air travel $617

Ground travel $55

lodging $800

Photographer $2,000

Urban Studies Student $1,200

This student helped put the interviews in the context of larger patterns, larger scales of influence, and the history of Brooklyn. Like almost every employee, she also gathered interviews.     

Acting Interns $162

These three interns received metrocards. 

Transcribing $2,677

Transcribers were paid hourly to transcribe tapes. Interviewers were responsible for transcribing parts of their interviews as well.

Occupancy $3,943

Office, Phone, Copying $1,650

Because of an agreement with funders, the Civilians can direct some project-specific funds toward their huge fixed costs. This money pays for part of the main office.

Rental Spaces $2,293

The Civilians rented a rehearsal space five days a week. They met three days a week to present excerpts from their interviews. The other two days, it was available for interviews or relaxation.

Technical $1,500

Web/Media Tech $1,500

Marketing $293

Postage $100

Letters, fliers and posters all travelled USPS.

Mailhouse $193

The mailhouse provided a bulk rate for postcards.

THEATER $71,154

After the investigation, the Civilians spent two weeks building a play with the best of the material. Extended question-and-answer sessions with community members followed each performance. The playwright incorporated this feedback into later versions of the play.

Artistic Staff $7,770

Artistic Director $1,950

Literary Associate $1,500

Project Coordinator $3,120

Evaluation Consultant $1,200

An outside consultant helped determine what parts of the performance worked and what needed adjustment.

Artist Fees $28,682

Director $2,560

Pay $2,000

Benefits $560

Assistant Director $600

Choreographers/Dancers $4,500

Brooklyn-based Urban Bushwomen dance company collaborated on this play. The Civilians paid the choreographer, who divided it up between her dancers.

Community Lab $2,750

Some performers taught a weekly workshop for children at a housing project, which was just a block away from the Atlantic Yards development. The children wrote songs, plays, poems, and stories. Two of the students performed their work in the Lyceum production.

Lab artist 1 $2,000

lab artist 2 $750

Composer $900

Lab Dramaturg $900

Actors $7,312

Musicians $1,750

Specifically, Michael Hill’s New York City Blues Mob

Set Designer $800

Sound Designer $800

Costume Designer $800

Lighting Designer $800

Photographer $750

Photographs of the production found their way to the website and helped archive the show for future directors.

Graphic Designer $900

Designed ads for the production.

Technical $7,583

Stage Management $1,200

Assistant Stage Management $825

Web/Media Tech $500

Production Manager $1,500

Technical Director $500

Electricians $1,548

Operators $1,510

Production $8,681

Sets and Props $1,192

Costume Purchase $1,069

Lighting Materials $330

Lighting Rental $700

Sound Material $300

Sound Rental $1,000

Research Materials $84

Running Expenses $253

Transportation $735

A truck hauled the rented technical equipment.

Storage $544

This is one play’s share of the company storage unit.

Hospitality $193

Production Expense $2,280

Occupancy $8,650

Office, Phone, Copying $1,650

Rental Spaces $7,000

This is the cost of renting the Lyceum Theater.

Marketing $9,788

Video $4,000

Postage $400

Printing $1,471

Advertising $917

Press Relations $3,000

This is one project’s share of a recurring monthly contract with a PR firm.


Follow-up interviews $11,847

After the Lyceum production, the Civilians do follow-up interviews and continue their research.

Artistic Staff $7,022

These staffers determine what additional information the writer will require, and direct its collection.

Artistic Director $2,950

Literary Associate $937

Project Coordinator $3,135

Research and Transcription $2970

Actors $720

Actors, who have established contacts with sources, are paid hourly for follow-up interviews. 

Photographer $1,250

Photographs will be important for later set-design, as well as to keep a record of the characters and area. 

Transcribing $500

Web/Media Tech $500

Materials $1,855

Hospitality $50

Office, Phone, copying $1,160

Video editing $400

Postage $255

Disseminating a report on the project to funders.

Commission $10,000

Had the Civilians purchased a play instead of commissioning it, they would have had to pay royalties and paid for rights. From this point on, this budget reflects the costs that any commissioned play might incur. 

Workshop One $12,500

After the playwright has written the script, she tests the play in workshops, until she is confident that her script will work on stage. Workshops are generally two weeks long.

Director $1,800

Pay $1,500

Benefits $300   

Music Director $1000

Stage Manager $1000

Actors $6,000

Actors may read multiple parts in this workshop stage. Most of the first workshop involves reading from scripts to an industry audience.  The playwright makes many changes during this process.

Dramaturg $500

Space Rental $2,000

Hospitality $200

Snacks, paper copying, misc.

Workshop Two $28,000

The second workshop may include production elements, such as lights, to show potential producers a more finished version.

Director $2,500

Pay $2,000

Benefits $500 

Actors $7,500

This workshop has a more realistic number of actors. 

Musicians $2,000

Dramaturg $1,000 

Designers $2,500

Music Director $2,000

Stage Manager $1,500

Space Rental $3,000

Scenic Elements $5,500

Hospitality $500

Investigation $36,528

Lyceum $71,154

Development $62,347

Grand Total $170,029

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