Blind and Sided

I have a lot of friends in New York who write and produce plays. By which I mean, of course, tangential friends, guys and gals who are about three steps removed from me, but who I still consider to be within my framework of friends. I can’t call Joe Brooks from “In My Life”, but I could call up the artistic director of UCB and, if I made that call, we’d get drunk together. Except I don’t, and he doesn’t, because neither of us has the time.

Before people started producing stuff, people did a lot of talking. I’ve gotten back in touch with an old friend from my first college (of four) and the one thing I remember most clearly about him was his willingness to call us on our shit-talking. “I could fuckin’ play that role ten times better than he could,” someone would say, and Carlos would say, “then go audition and get it away from him. You sit here talking, that guy is practicing his audition pieces…”

It’s a definite leap from small town politics (which essentially College is) to big time New York Loser Off Off, but there’s still a fair amount of talking. We all like to talk about our plays, we like to talk about one another’s plays, mostly we like to talk about how much we hate certain plays and how much we like others. It’s a big shit-talking circle, where we sorta jerk off on the work of our dear friends and we crap on the work of people who have earned what we feel is undeserved praise.

But, since all of this is happening at $5,000 shots and people aren’t, y’know, starving to death or killing their careers, we can afford to be obnoxious. And it’s fun, I wish there was a lot more of it. I wish I could see more shows and then hang out with the people who made them and talk shit. I wish I saw more plays I hated with more people so we could rag on them afterwards. Fifteen bucks and a coupla hours is reasonable for a vitriol filled diatribe on my blog.

The problem is, every once in a while, someone tries for more. And suddenly, the schadenfreude becomes no fun.

In the city, there is Off Off Broadway, and there are some legal reasons for that title, it isn’t just a jokey-joke thing, What it means is that the house has less than 100 seats, you spend less than 15 grand, you usually work either outside the union or just on the periphery of the union, the runs are short, the houses are small, the ideas and artistry are usually wildly eratic, with crappy costumes and sets but great scripts and acting (or sometimes vice versa) and a handful of reviews if you are really lucky.

Then, there is Off-Broadway, and this is what most of the theater in New York is. There are only a handful of Broadway houses, and most of the Off-Off houses are converted store fronts or office buildings. The Off-Broadway houses are the 300 seat houses, the Lucille Lortel, the Roundabout theater company, the theaters downtown where you would have seen the original Rent or the latest Caryl Churchill.

These shows are a quarter million-half million, sometimes a million dollar shows. These are the shows with majestic incredible sets, perfect period costumes, and actors that you know you’ve seen before and who you never knew were this good. Henry Czerny and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Altar Boyz and The Blue Man Group, these are all Off-Broadway. These are famous people and famous shows.

Broadway, The Great White Way, isn’t something we can even deal with anymore. It’s Clear Channel and Viacom and Disney, multinational corporations that have billions and billions of dollars that make as much money keeping their branding alive and selling coffee cups as they do ticket sales, which are usually more than a hundred dollars each.

So, Off-Broadway is the real brass ring for New York theaters. And the great leap between off-off and OFF is a leap almost too large to imagine. If I raise 50 thousand dollars and I am really careful, I can produce plays off-off Broadway for the next ten years. I would eventually run out of money, but I could do three plays a year for ten years, small cast, small house, and lose a little bit of money every time.

If I had 50 thousand dollars, it would be seed money to raise five times that amount for an Off-Broadway run. Of one show. And the money will be lost unless it makes enough noise and critical praise to move or tour.

So, essentially, the off-off route is a machine gun. Just keep producing, keep your finger on the trigger, if the show you’re doing now is good, then learn what you can, the next one will be better, but just keep firing into the city and see if, by some miracle, you slay the dragon. The OFF-Broadway route is the sniper, get all the money you will ever hope to raise through the history of your entire life, pick a script, aim between the eyes and shoot.

When you have a failure at the off-off level, we can all laugh. What a terrible play! Six months ago, you guys did that great thing, but MAN I hated this! When you fail at the Off-Broadway level, that kind of devestation is impossible to imagine.

But you get props in my book for trying, for committing to a thing that you truly thought would work. I’ve never had that much nerve, I’m always assuming that this little thing I’m working on here is the thing that will make the next thing easier, for you to believe that there is one script that will set the world on fire… that’s a real inspiration. That takes a dedication and the intestinal fortitude… I mean it takes balls, and, as of yet, I don’t have balls that big.

There is no joy in someone you know shooting the moon and missing. It’s just awful. Yes, a rising tide raises all ships, so having a friend with an Off-Broadway hit would be great, but it isn’t just that. We’re telling smaller, weirder stories in the off-off world, we’re giving the world a twitchy quirky view. And then, when we get the chance, when we know the world is actually listening, sometimes we blanche, sometimes we’re bold, but always we feel relegated. We feel like there is an us and a them, and as soon as one of us is heard, them are gonna stop us from getting anywhere.

In the last 12 months, two shows that I know people in (in a producerial capacity) have made their bold move to Off-Broadway, and both have been savaged by the critics. In both cases, I feel nothing but sorrow for them. When my friends put on the most boring version of 12th Night ever seen, then I can rant and laugh about it, but when people lose a half million dollars trying to tell a story, it’s nothing but awful.