Happy Hour on the Fringe: Liz Zimmerman, Project Management for Producers
In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Marketing Manager Raina Searles speaks with Liz Zimmerman, a local Philadelphia theater and event producer, a performer, and a certified project management professional. Liz will be presenting, Project Management for Producers as part of the 2020 Fringe Festival. Listen to Raina and Liz discuss theater production and what that work entails, how shared knowledge can supplement the areas where arts education is lacking, Liz’s workshop video, bellydancing, and much more! You can find out more about Liz, and view Project Management for Producers by visiting the event page: https://fringearts.com/event/project-management-for-producers/
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager here, and today we invite you to pour one up and listen to our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Today, I am joined by Liz Zimmerman, a local Philadelphia theater and event producer, a performer and a certified project management professional. Liz is presenting Project Management for Producers as part of the 2020 Fringe Festival, presented for free via Vimeo. This workshop’s goal is to pull project management out of the corporate context, demystify and make it accessible by translating the key concepts that are most useful for theater and performance event producers. Welcome, Liz.
Liz Zimmerman: Hi Raina.
Raina: How are you doing today?
Liz: I am doing very well. I have had a lovely day of… well, I did some dancing today and got some stuff out of the mail. I’m not working right now, so it’s just lovely to be in the slow pace.
Raina: OK, yes, I imagine that. it’s nice to embrace the calm while you can, especially before diving back into job applications and what not, which I know can always be a chore.
Liz: Yeah. I’m finding the right thing.
Raina: Yeah, it definitely can be hard. Well, so, I mean, with that in mind, you know, you can start happy hour at any time as well if you’re not working. So since this is Happy Hour on the Fringe, are you having anything to drink today?
Liz: I usually don’t start happy hour until happy hour. I’m proud of myself. I think that is evidence that I am not an alcoholic. It’s not necessarily sealing the deal. But I am a Stateside vodka girl. I love our Philly liquor scene. And my favorite vodka in the world is Stateside. And my second favorite is Philly Distilling Company’s Penn 1681.
Raina: Oh, very nice. I am having a smoothie right now which Is non alcoholic, though I technically have a bottle of vodka that I could mix in here if I really wanted to. I really like spritzers lately, which is really just what I call like adding Sprite to fruit juice. And I was contemplating if I should do that in a smoothie, but someone was like I don’t know if you put, like, Sprite in a blender. I don’t know what that reaction is. So, I haven’t tried it yet as like a spritzer smoothie. But that might be on the horizon, we’ll see.
Liz: I feel like the bubbles would be weird with the thickness, but maybe it would be like a little pop rocks kind of smoothie.
Raina: Yeah, I think that’s what I’m imagining in my head, is that it has that, like, kick to it. But, you know, I don’t want to also ruin my new blender so… So Liz, for our listeners, could we just start off by having you give a general overview of what your job when you work as a producer entails? I know that you go into this a lot in your work, which is walking through what a producer is. So, yeah. Can you just talk a little bit about how you typically like to work behind the scenes when putting a show together?
Liz: Sure. I am generally very independent in that I will get like a passion or a feeling about a project and I’m like, that needs to happen. And so I generally do… and I’m… so I generally do everything from marketing it to casting it. I decide what it’s going to be. I do sometimes work with other people like I’ve worked with Eris Temple Art Space a lot. They were an institution in West Philly for a long time. And so there would be more collaborators there. But I feel like it’s my job to be the point person and to make sure that all of the moving parts are going at the pace that they should be going and with the resources that they need to make sure that we are staying on schedule and on budget.
Raina: Yeah, I’m curious because… so, you know, your piece is really something that I think is so helpful as part of the Fringe Festival, but really also leading up to the Fringe Festival, because so many people are doing what we call self producing, which means that they are taking their work from start to finish and… you know, Fringe Arts’ role is to help out with the marketing and to help out with selling tickets and box office and all of that. But so much of the legwork is being done by artists and oftentimes they’re working very individually. So they might be responsible as you said like for the marketing, for, you know, all the different aspects that go into the production themselves, like in one role. So I don’t know, like when you are thinking about balancing all of those roles together, how do you stay organized between like, this is my producer hat, this is my marketing hat, you know, sometimes this is my production hat. How do you keep that balanced?
Liz: So to me, they’re kind of all the same thing. It is all one project and I am just doing various kinds of work. So when I… in my presentation and in project management, one of the key documents or key ways of thinking about a project is the work breakdown structure. And so you do have… you do take into account all of the different components that go into a project and then you map out what tasks need to happen. So I have self produced a lot I even self produced to show that I wrote and performed myself. It was a Fringe show. It was in 2009. So I literally did pretty much everything. And I just I don’t even think of them as separate hats. I think I am just doing this task now. I am doing this task now. And it all drives the project forward.
Raina: So in terms of your offering for this year with this more workshop style, what inspired you to go with the more informative video? And what are you hoping that viewers will take away from it?
Liz: So I feel like this is working knowledge. And originally I was planning to do this at an actual venue and I was going to do it on the last day of the festival. It’s funny that you mentioned that this is valuable for the beginning of festivals, and it is. But I was going to have people at the end of the festival come to my workshop with all of the issues that they had had during this Fringe Festival. And so we could do a lessons learned together. And I felt like there was going to be value and shared knowledge from what other people had seen. So I was really hoping to get more of a group and knowledge sharing thing. You know, Covid happened and that became not feasible. This is… I mean, by the time I got to doing this, it felt like a grad school project. But I still… I feel that this is really important. I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of other people out there in the world who have put it together that project management makes you a better producer and really speaks to making theater and live performance. So I feel a burden to take my knowledge and share it with everybody in the community. It is free. I want to… I want everybody to be able to reduce stress because it’s painful when you get to the end of your production and you’re like, oh my God, I forgot programs and I forgot to budget for programs, or… that may or may not have come from personal experience. And if you… and if you’re looking ahead enough, you can really maximize and leverage getting ways to get butts in seats. I talk in there about… a little bit about making sure that you recognize who your community is and your stakeholders is what we call it in project management and doing the work of going out and connecting with those people. Even other shows who you may… you may think of other shows as your competition, but in fact, they are your sisters and they can help you during Philly… am I way off topic? I feel like I’m just like…
Raina: No I think that’s so relevant because like, you know, April our amazing Fringe Festival coordinator is always working on is like, you know, helping artists find collaboration with other artists. And whether that’s like we’re both in the same venue so let’s get a rotation and like get our marketing coordinated. Or, you know, we’re all… I think, like it was last year, I believe there was an immersive headquarters. So they were like, three different shows that we’re like all immersive in some way that were happening at the Kismet coworking space. And so there’s like these ideas that, yeah, you want to think about who your stakeholders are and then build those partnerships because, you know, especially if you’re all looking for like the same audience, that audience is downstairs an hour before your show starts. So, you know, how can you make sure that they then come to your show next? And as someone who loves going to a bunch of Fringe shows, you know, in a normal year where I’m like figuring out what I’m going to go see, I am doing that little calculus of like, OK, how close is this to this other venue? And if this ends at one time when does the next one start? And this year, you know, all of that’s kind of disappeared. I’m like, how do I get from YouTube to Zoom. But I think it remains the same of like, you know, how can you coordinate your efforts not just with other shows, but yeah, with all the people who have a stake in your work in some way and who can build a partnership with you?
Liz: Yeah so that’s part of it. I want to make sure that everybody out there has the opportunity to have a happy production. I mentioned how painful it can be to run into these issues at the end. And when you plan appropriately and you can really mitigate the pain of it and make room for the joy of why we’re doing this in the first place.
Raina: Do you feel like in your future you might still try to put together this report back experience of, you know, even maybe, you know, whether it’s based around the Fringe Festival or more broadly, you know, putting together some sort of like over Zoom or, you know, something where people get to come and talk about their experiences and really just like go through those resources together, as you had originally imagined?
Liz: Until you just said it, no, until you just said it, no. But there is probably some value in that. And I can certainly look into it through various things. I have not hosted my own sort of platform, but I have some friends who may be able to help me. So…
Raina: Yeah I mean, I think, you know really what comes to mind is just I think there’s been so many, like theater leader conversations in Philadelphia and so many like arts organizations coming together to figure out, you know, what’s the best way to present work in this new model and knowing that, you know, even if there’s a vaccine people aren’t necessarily comfortable coming to shows for like another year or more. So a little bit of like this new reality conversation. And so maybe it’s just more geared about like project management in a pandemic or how to navigate this current time. But for artists specifically, because I think that a lot of like individual artists and producers might be left out of those larger, like, organizational level conversations.
Liz: Yeah. That’s interesting. What I offer, I think, is hard skills more than that… I think you’re talking about defining values and actually doing the work of considering stakeholders. I mentioned somewhere in there that I have as far as a future with these things. I may have mentioned that I have only touched on just like the bare bones of what project management is. I would really like to do other seminar-type things that are scheduling for your production and taking some of the actual tools that they give you. Earned value, how to know where you… so you’ve got all this data. How do you know whether you’re doing well or not? All right, cool. So we’re rehearsing, how do I know if I’m where I need to be? So there’s a lot more. I’ve always been a hard skilled person, and that’s just where I’m coming from. But I am very interested in getting those things out there. Again, like it’s not the kind of thing that tells people how to think. Well, it gives you a skeleton on how to think about your productions but it’s not really organizational. It’s not defining the values, which is an interesting conversation out there and I’ll be very interested to see how the landscape changes based on those conversations. I’ve noticed recently that there are some organizations seeking to expand and diversify their boards, for example. I think it was seen Scenic Works Philly, sent something out and Theater Philadelphia sent something out. So we’ll see where the.. who the leaders become, what skills they bring and what directions, what kind of creativity happens and what directions these people go in.
Raina: Yeah. One thing that I would love to kind of pick your brain a little bit more on, because we did have the chance to go over your background a little bit and saw that you went to Philadelphia’s Creative and Performing Arts High School. You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from NYU. You know, you studied theater performance at Trinity College in Dublin. And so one of the things that comes to my mind when thinking about arts education vs. the project management certificate that you then pursued is how much did some of your earlier artistic education… like how much did you actually learn about self producing and about creating work, but not just like the artistic side of creative work, like the logistical side of creating work?
Liz: Zero. Absolutely zero about how to do it. I think NYU offered some kind of producing class, but I did not take it. So I was writing major at CAPA, a creative writing major. And I do still have friends from that time to this day, it’s wonderful. We’re a special bunch. And then at NYU, it was all dramatic writing. It was script writing. So it was theater writing. So I learned about how productions happened and what different roles were in creating theater, but not about funding or how to fund or how to… so there wasn’t a whole lot of that. Then Trinity was all academic. It was… I thought that I had my academic stuff together because I went to NYU. What they tell you about the British education system being more difficult is true. It was way harder. I was thrown into some really dense, like post colonialism theory and gender theory and stuff that I had never encountered before. And so it was… that program was nothing about making theater, but all about seeing it and reading it and then applying theory to it. So it was training you to be an academic or be a theater writer or something, a critic, maybe. I remember I had an adviser there and I told him that I did not want to be an academic, I wanted to go and produce. I want to go do something. He looks at me, he goes, I have no doubt that you will. So that… I just… cause when I was reading stuff, I was like, I don’t want to sit here and think about it. I want to do it. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to do it. So that was what I learned that academics were really not for me, that I wanted to go out and be active. It did certainly give me the knowledge and ability to structure myself. And so, you know, self-discipline and how to analyze things. So how to take a production, analyze it, be like I can do that. I need to rent a place. I need to put money into this or that. I need to make a budget. So the basic analytical skills and logic that it gave me were very valuable. I did. I do have a professional certificate from U. Penn Fels Institute of Government in nonprofit administration. That helped me a lot with producing on the marketing and fundraising side. That taught me a lot about how the world of non-profits operates and just what marketing is about and good practices and stuff like that. So I would say that my nonprofit Admin did more for me in terms of training me to be a producer than my academic stuff. But those… the background was valuable in other ways.
Raina: Got it. So when you then, like, first started producing your own work, what was it like just starting out how to navigate I guess the Philly arts landscape and like the producing landscape more broadly?
Liz: Scary. It’s so scary. It’s always scary. Like you always think that no one’s gonna come. You always think that no one’s gonna show up and it’s gonna be dumb and no one will pay attention to you. But. So, I mean, ultimately, that’s it. But it is always an act of faith. Like any live performance event that you put out there like you, you’re doing it… It’s a nothing and then it becomes a something and then it goes away again. So you… It has to be an act of passion and it has to be an act of faith. And so even though I am not the person necessarily all the time on the stage doing the entertaining every all the work that I do, I have to believe that anybody’s going to want to be in the show, believe that anybody is going to want to participate in any kind of way. So I think that it’s scary, but it’s always an act of faith in itself. It’s gratifying when it all comes together. It’s a real joyful experience. I wouldn’t do it again and again and again if it didn’t, if it didn’t feel good.
Raina: Yeah, yeah. No, I think that’s totally fair and it sounds like you’ve definitely kind of found your calling and made sure that that’s what you were always pursuing throughout your education and your work. So I’m curious, how are you wrapping your head around this current moment around, you know, what the future of performance looks like or even just like for yourself, like what you think the future for works that you’ll produce look like, you know, in this current moment?
Liz: I feel sad. I really love live performance. I love showing up. I love feeling the human’s voice and seeing their bodies do stuff like that’s just… I chose theater writing instead of film writing or TV writing because it just makes sense to me and it moves me. So I’m sad and I feel a little bleak about it. And I don’t have any positive things at this point. I don’t have any shows that I particularly want to do. I really wanted to perform actually with my band in this year’s Philly Fringe. I miss my band. I miss singing. I miss… I miss doing song. And so I, I don’t feel good about it. And I don’t know if I’m coping particularly well, but what I can do is sort of turn to this and say, here’s what I can offer and I can support other people. I think that I’ll continue to just lend a hand on other people’s projects for a little while. I hope that maybe by next summer there will be… maybe by next year we’ll be able to gather in person again or something. But I don’t know. Right now I just can’t plan.
Raina: Yeah, and honestly, I think that’s totally fair, like so often, you know, we we ask that question. We expect people to have this, like, positive, you know, oh, I’m transitioning to digital. I’m going to make it this and I’m going to do that. And, you know, it is like a very, like, optimistic outlook. And that’s great. But sometimes the reality is like it’s just not what you wanted and not what you signed on for. And yeah, I think the point about theater versus film writing, like if you had wanted to be creating things that lived on a screen, then maybe you would have gone in a different direction on purpose
Liz: Yeah, yeah. The other part about quarantine and the way the world is and my choice of format for this year, I did a PowerPoint, A because it was you know, it was like sort of the right way to get the information across. But also, I was thinking about doing a video, but I have bad hair now, like I have bad Covid hair. I don’t want people to… like I’m just not really ready to do film makeup at home and try all that. I just needed to not show my face. But I did narrate because I’ve got the voice.
Raina: But so I do want to also just highlight some of the other things that you have mentioned and that we know you’re involved with. So you mentioned your band and I believe it’s A Piano and a Cocktail Murdress.
Liz: Yes. That is after in line in an Elvis Costello song. We do lots of… we do all covers, but lots of covers. There are literally five-ish binders that are full of songs, it’s sheet music that’s alphabetized. It’s… I am the vocalist and my piano player is one of the founding members of Radio Eris. Last year in Fringe they composed and performed a rock opera based on the Eurydice myth. So… and they’ve been around Philly for a long time. So he’s a really good piano player. He can do Jerry Lee Lewis stuff. And so we do. We love curating. And so we do really eclectic, curated sets. We became Bob and Barbara’s regulars on like the happy hour, the weirdo happy hour, Saturday night set for like… five to eight. It was great, but we would do like lonely hearts set kind of thing and do all sad, sick love songs. And so we did an entire set in there that was all Elvis songs, these are Elvis Costello or Elvis Presley. So we’re really into curating songs. And we both we just we have the joy of… we love the songs and we want to do them like he writes songs with this other band. But that’s not what this project is about. I have a lot of fun incorporating my belly dance training into it because it’s just him… yeah, it’s just… so I’m a Habiba student. Habiba is like the Queen of Belly Dance in Philadelphia and have been for several years. I miss that to pieces too. I miss belly dance class, but I do it at home now. But I get… I have to show rhythm and I have to express percussion because my piano player gets really excited when he gets stuff right and starts speeding up and I’m like, no, stay with me. So I know things about live performance and its difficulties, but I miss… I miss doing that so much. So we were going to this year celebrate 10 years of playing together by playing different venues across the city and doing over 100 different songs. And we were gonna curate our sets and we had great ideas, but we’ll just have to shelve that for another era.
Raina: I feel like, you know, there there might be reason to do a belated 10 year anniversary celebration when things open up or let’s just make the 11th anniversary a real blow out.
Liz: I like it that sounds good.
Raina: And so just thinking more broadly about your work. One of our staple questions towards the end of our episodes is always, you know, what are some of your high brow and low brow inspirations? For any work that you’re creating and you can kind of think about what highbrow and lowbrow means to you personally.
Liz: So I’m going to just play word association with this. So my high brow inspiration is probably Beckett. And then my low brow is going to be John Waters.
Raina: Oh, very nice.
Liz: I also do love Giallo and Italian horror so that that works its way in too. That kind of spans both high brow and low brow.
Raina: Yeah, you know, I think we find that a lot of things can be both sides of the same coin just depending on how… what part of it you’re focusing on and, you know, like sometimes we talk about how Shakespeare can be high brow, but is also kind of the epitome of low brow in like a lot of his comedies, especially.
Liz: He’s bawdy, he is bawdy. But you’re entertaining people, right? So if you’re just stuffy all the time, you never make them laugh.
Raina: Very true, very true. So, Liz, how can our listeners support you, support your work during this time?
Liz: Oh, I just I’m financially perfectly OK right now. And so I just want people to take the lessons and use them, and good feedback is always nice to hear. But I want people to just just do good work with the knowledge that I have to offer.
Raina: Amazing. Well, thank you, Liz, so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.
Liz: Thank you, Raina.
Raina: You can follow Fringe Arts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and download the Fringe Arts app. And to hear more about Project Management for Producers, you can visit fringearts.com And make sure you check out the Fringe Festival events. So thank you again for joining us, Liz. And to all of our listeners. Keep enjoying your 2020 Fringe Festival.