Balancing Peanuts on a budget

Brittany Allan tackles her first time as a producer, trying to balance money with a creative a show worthy of the iconic Charlie Brown series

Brittany Allan has dealt with last-minute issues including substituting a piano with a painted picnic bench.
Brittany Allan has dealt with last-minute issues including substituting a piano with a painted picnic bench.
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The cast of Charlie Brown may be rug-rats, but for the production team it isn’t all Peanuts and play.

“On the artistic side you get to play,” Brittany Allan, producer of Blue Canoe’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, said. “But what I’m sure a few people don’t know is that theatre is a business. And that’s my job, to run it as a business.”

Allan, ArtSci ’13, held an apprenticeship with Kingston’s Dalliance Theatre Company in the fall, where she gained experience shadowing another producer. The third-year drama student said she left Dalliance with an “I can do this” attitude and was given an opportunity by Blue Canoe’s artistic director Michael Sheppard.

“Heavy responsibility on my part because you’re playing with a lot of money,” Allan said. “And it’s not play money, it’s real money that I’m working with.”

Typically, a producer’s job is to make sure the show is financially successful — projecting ticket sales and tracking expenses. Out in the “real world,” independent production is a risky business, and it’s no different with student theatre.

“It’s a balancing act between the money and wanting a good show,” she said. “That’s where [director Alysha Bernstein] and I do work pretty closely together. She wants the best show she can have creatively and I want the same, but for a reasonable price.”

One of Allan’s first tasks was sitting down with different members of the production team to determine who needed what.

Despite her extensive planning, several last-minute expenses have come up with only days left before the show — a painted picnic bench will take the place of the real piano they were expecting to use.

“The job is a lot about being, I wouldn’t say firm but, standing your ground,” she said. “It’s constantly … plugging in those numbers and being willing for them to change every other day.”

For Allan, it’s a lot more than just crunching numbers. She said she had personal relationships with several of the actors they cast and that those connections are all part of the process.

“That’s kind of more so my job too,” she said, “the personal relationships with people, whether you establish them on campus and in the community.”

The same kinds of collaborations happen in Hollywood — think the Coen brothers and George Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading). And don’t forget, it’s often the producer who accepts the Oscar for Best Picture, or in this case the Tony.

The budget for Charlie Brown is just around $5,000, which, according to Allan, is on the lower end for a production of its size.

“When you are producer and you’re working with someone else’s money, from my point of view, you’re trying to keep [the expenses] as low as possible so that more money can go into the next show or you know, you’re breaking even at some point,” Allan said. “Theatre is a very expensive thing to put on and it wasn’t something I really realized until I got these numbers.”

This may be especially true for Blue Canoe, since the organization has taken on a not-for-profit status over the last six months, Allan explained. Blue Canoe is a community-based theatre company aiming to provide opportunities to young actors. Any profits from the upcoming show will be funnelled into the next production.

“You never actually turn a real profit,” Allan said. “Like, Blue Canoe just had a really successful run with Cabaret, the money made off that paid off the rights and all of the stuff they had to pay for it and anything left went into Charlie Brown.”

Considering that 80 per cent of the budget went into getting the rights and renting a space, that doesn’t leave Charlie Brown’s creative team with a lot to work with — the remaining 20 per cent has to cover everything from costumes to set design.

“The biggest challenge in this show for me was the set,” Allan said. “There were many things that [Bernstein] really wanted — and as a theatre lover … I really wanted them for her — but, realistically, there was no way that we were going to fit all of it into the space that we have and there was no way that we were going to be able to afford it at that point.”

From there, it was local sponsorship to the rescue. In the end, Lowes provided all the wood for Bernstein’s “extravagant” set for free. Spin Dessert, Terra Foods and Tommy’s are also among the production’s investors.

“As a producer, you are the realist of the group,” Allan said.

She embodies the realist role, projecting a minimum of a 40-person audience at each show — half the capacity of the 80-seat Baby Grand Theatre, where Charlie Brown is set to run.

“That’s not to say that I’m not hoping for the stars and a sold-out show every night … I mean, it’s always been my goal that we come out of the show breaking even, but even better would be to know that you’re helping the next show or know that you’ve made somewhat of a profit,” she said. “To have a successful show that people are reacting positively to is a huge weight off your shoulders because you’re very much the whole time worrying about ‘Is this going to work? Are we going to sell tickets? Are people going to come? Are they going to like it?’”

From tracking numbers to making tough choices, no doubt the wisdom Allan’s gained will outweigh any measure of success. The young producer said she wouldn’t call it a test run, but Charlie Brown was definitely a learning experience.

“Time wise, execution wise, I would go do something, but I would go about it in probably the worst way possible,” she said. “If you haven’t done anything more than five times, everything is a learning experience, so this one especially was for me.”

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