Archive for June, 2009

Infectious Opportunity

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

We had a very successful play a few years ago called “Fleet Week, The Musical”. I’m gonna stand by that sentence, though almost every word can be questioned. But by our standard, a show that extends, a show that sells 1500 tickets, a show that is designed to elicit a response, and that response indeed happens, has to be called “very successful”.

So, how did it start? We’d been making a bunch of plays, plays we really loved. We had a show we thought would be perfect for the Fringe. We applied in 2004, and while we were on the road with a show, we learned that we’d been turned down. Our first response was “what the hell do they want? A big gay musical?” That turned into a shit-talking session, during which Mac was, unbeknownst to me, taking notes in the back of the van and, when Bush was re-elected that November, the play just came flying out of us.

When it closed, we had an incredible play, one of the best we thought we would ever do, to follow it. “Fleet Week” closed the beginning of September, our next show opened the third week in October and… nobody came.

“What the hell do they want”, I found myself saying. Followed closely by, “I won’t ever know. I just… I just won’t EVER know.”

I’ve touched on this before in talking about the brilliant “Glee Club”, but these ideas come to an amazing logical conclusion in James Comtois’ fantastic “Infectious Opportunity”. In the play, a young writer seems to have made a life for himself, despite living with AIDS, a story that would seem to have, at its center, a hero who can work outside the bounds of worrying about what the hell they might want. But, as we learn very early in the play, he’s a liar.

It isn’t that he’s lying about having AIDS. He *is* lying about that, sure, but that’s not nearly as interesting a thing to explore as what the rest of the play uncovers. For me, personally, we presented ourselves to the New York community as a company who wants to create big entertainment, large musicals for the older community to enjoy. The difference between us and the anti-hero of this play is that we had one moment of what I will generously call “misdirection”, and then we couldn’t keep it up. We went right back to producing strange, painful, funny and awkward straight plays.

The initial lie isn’t the most powerful moment in the play, most people going in know from the tagline that he’s lied about AIDS. What is breath-sucking is the small lies, the leverage that this guy has now that he’s invented this life for himself. This is a brilliant fable, this is an O. Henry story, but without a punchline, unless there’s a version that means “punched in the stomach.”

Let me say a few things about the actual production before I get too ahead of myself with the larger ideas. I know many of the actors from their work, and a couple of them I know as friends, so full caveats in effect… although I may stop writing that as it begins to be meaningless the longer we’re all in New York.

David Ian Lee gives simply the best, most measured and specific performance I’ve seen in his wonderful New York career. There is something, it seems, about this character that marries with David perfectly. He never knows himself, he inhabits every single moment without a bit of knowledge or a wink or an apology. He’s always a chainsaw of an actor, and at times his verisimilitude has given me a bit of vertigo, (in “Sleeper”, he had a scene where he was gagging and choking, and I damn near got out of my seat to heimlich him…) but here, it’s as if the chainsaw blade has been replaced with a diamond edge scalpel.

I have a tendency to disregard the scene-chewing roles (which this is not, by the way) because the more a playwright gives you to eat, the bigger bites you can take, and all of us love that. If David was playing a gun-wielding psycho, I’d figure he could really enjoy every second of it, but in this play, he has to commit to something so much worse. As an actor, each of us has to use whatever side of us is most attractive or most compelling in every situation, sometimes to a fault… and David is no exception, but this leads you to the gut-dropping realization that he’s playing a version of himself. This character is simply everything we’ve all done, but *one click worse*, and David creates him by making those terrible things one click *smaller*. It’s an astonishing performance, a revelation of his full talent.

Matthew Trumbull and Becky Comtois are both fantastic, and I simply can’t say anything more than that because they are both in our next play. It sucks. I want to tell you that I wanted to grab them both and gush afterwards, but it’s too self-serving. Maybe I’ll revisit their performances in September – or maybe when they remount, the same actors will be there, and I’ll get to slobber all over them.

The entire cast is great, but I thought Ronica Reddick, in a series of smaller parts, was also fantastic. If the scene chewers go home full every night, it’s the supporting players who go home finding nourishment in the little that they got to eat, and I was really captivated by Ronica every time she was on stage. I can’t wait to see her in a larger role.

I’ve been a fan of James’ writing for years now, and I thought that he had really reached a milestone with “The Adventures of Nervous Boy.” He creates an effect, regardless of the production, where you feel drenched in the world he’s giving you. I’ve said of my friend Mac that he doesn’t call you an asshole, he makes you realize you are an asshole, and James does the same thing with his plays. In “Nervous Boy”, he didn’t paint a portrait of disaffection, he painted a portrait of *us*, and we saw our own disaffected lives in it.

In “Infectious Opportunity”… I mean, I’ve seldom seen a play that felt so directly accusatory, and yet so directly forgiving of my life. When you watch the play, you *know* this guy, you recognize him from the moments in your own life. We do it all the time, your facebook update is designed to elicit a response, and very often it’s designed to excuse you from your responsibilities. Whether we’re being self-depricating, or bragging about our work ethic, or advertising our sleep schedules, we’re managing expectations.

So, why should we be shocked that a man tries to use his illness to negotiate a better salary. Or time-off. Why does it hit us as far more evil than a plot device like taking over the Nakatomi Building for a simple heist? It’s because James has drenched us with his play, so that we don’t have to be told we’re wet, we can feel the water. When we’re asked for change on the street, we shake our heads “Sorry, I don’t have any money”, and the guy next to you says, “oh, did you lose your job”… What if you said yes…

It’s the first lie, no matter how big, that creates the atmosphere. One you enter the world where the truth can be negotiated, once your life, and the people who expect you to do things with your life, can be managed, how much advantage would you take? And, really, what’s the difference between taking a small advantage, and making your entire existence a complete lie? It is a harrowing question.

I’m spending much of my days now working on marketing our upcoming show in the Fringe, and I find that if I simply say the first marketing thing that comes to mind, I will make myself sick. Our show talks some about viral videos of death, and I shudder when I think of recent events and possible tie-ins that floated into my mind and were then thrown out. Desperation, particularly when we aren’t totally convinced we live in a meritocracy, can bring out the very worst in us. But, as this play points out, horrible behavior, what some might describe as evil behavior, is only a shade or two darker than our own behavior. One small mistake, not made right, can turn a person into their worst self, and that, to me, is scarier than any horror movie.

On Casting

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

I was sitting there thinking, “that might be, in twenty five years of making plays, the best actor I’ve ever worked with and the last performance I saw him in may have been one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on stage. Also, I know him – I know he’s an incredibly hard-working guy and an absolute joy to be around both inside and outside rehearsal.” And then I thought to myself, “but he doesn’t really seem right for this play…”

How does that happen?

I spent twenty years or so doubling up as an actor while I was writing music and producing, and the audition process, for me, is too complicated a monster to fully explain. My problems with authority, combined with my hostility at being spot-adjudicated, certainly added to the confusion, but I walked in to most auditions feeling like I was everyone’s second choice.

Fortunately, what this meant is that I got cast all the time. Very often there are five or six people making the decision, and I was always the guy they could all live with. I might have been on the top of the list for the music director (and that was probably because I could sight-read and she wouldn’t have to teach me any music) but the rest of those in charge would have me a solid two, right behind the guy they were in love with. But everyone was in love with someone else.

Oh, I hated it. Very often, when someone was doing a good “auditioning” job, I would just do my best to disappear, watching that person Make Choices and Project Empathy or whatever. For me, I always loved rehearsals, I loved the complicated backstories and the actual work of building a relationship with the other people in the cast. And I always thought that I was either clearly way better than everyone else auditioning… or I was completely out-classed. I can tell you, I’m really, really glad I didn’t have to audition this past week for our show.

This round of auditions was humbling. And I’m talking about US, a group of people who had always arrogantly assumed that we would get to this point one day. But to be here now was actually breath-taking. We all kinda looked at each other every once in a while, with that look on our face of “*ALL* of these people want to do *OUR* play? THAT IS TOO AWESOME!!!!”

Fortunately, we had an anchor. Rebecca Comtois, for whom the part in the play was intended, is an actor of enormous subtlety and pathos, who can tear the heart right out of a scene. My next blog will be all about “Infectious Opportunity”, a masterwork by James Comtois going up at the Brick, and his sister gives a searing self-unaware performance as a young girl in love with her teacher. She is the lynch-pin in “Viral”, so fortunately we had her at callbacks to see how people bounced off of her.

Ten years ago, when we started producing, we had a cattle call for one role. We got hundreds and hundreds of headshots from Backstage and Dramalogue (or whatever it was) and we rented a space and did monologue auditions. We narrowed it down to a large handful of women, and then we were left with three. To be honest, we ended up with the only three actors, out of hundreds and hundreds, who were capable enough actors to handle the material. We had to decide between the only three women who were good enough to be acting in an off-off Broadway show.

Fast forward ten years, and we sent out emails to our very favorite actors, and then emails to five or six of our very favorite artistic directors, asking them to send us their favorite actors. For me, it was a thrill, because I didn’t sit in on the initial auditions, I got to sit outside with the actors…

One by one, they came in, and my eyes lit up. Every single person who came in, I had either just seen them in something fantastic, or I had just seen them in TWO things that were fantastic. Matthew Trumbull was sitting across from me for ten minutes before I realized that, not only was he in the afore-mentioned “Infectious Opportunity”, but he was also in Glee Club which I just wrote about. Tarrantino Smith had just *killed* me in both Universal Robots *and* in After Darwin…

It was a thrill for me, and I couldn’t quite figure out why the rest of the team had a mixed look in their eyes – a look of exhilaration combined with a kind of shell-shocked fear. And that’s when it occurred to me – We can’t use all these people. There’s only one show, right now, we’re not building a Rep Company or anything. We’re not doing Quilters, we’ve only got ONE WOMAN’S PART TO CAST.

So, now I wish I could go back to Sean At Twenty Five, and explain to him that the people you’re auditioning for aren’t there to judge you. They are desperate to celebrate you. They want you to kill them with how good you are, they are stretching their minds to include you in the play from the minute you walk in to the room.

And, once you get to the point of callbacks, they’re just looking at chemistry and combinations. If Jack and Jill both fall down the hill, then aren’t they probably the same height? It’s questions like that. Does that guy look like that other guy’s brother? Do they both look like they’re thirty instead of forty five? If this guy walks in and takes over the stage, is that good or is it bad?

There aren’t any right answers, and nobody ever agrees. In our company, we promise to leave decisions in the hands of those who’ve been hired to make those decisions… and then we totally do passive aggressive hassling. It’s so funny, we have very, very firm lines, like the script is Mac’s and we don’t mess with it, the rehearsal space is Jordana’s and nobody screws with that… but where the production lines are fuzzy, we squirm and twist and prod and guilt-trip like a 50 year old sewing group angling for the best rocking chair and more lemonade.

This is the first time we’ve ever been in this position, where no decision was a wrong one. Once it boiled down to making offers, we knew that this group was perfect *together*, but that the talent level of the people outside the group was as astonishing. As much as you might think you deserve to be in a position like this, it’s really humbling when it happens, and you just feel dizzyingly lucky.

Glee Club

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Dr. Paula Boire was her name, and if I’m completely honest with myself, I loved every minute of it. I told myself, time and again, that she saw a kernel of good in my singing ability, that she wanted more from me, which is why she was so unspeakably cruel. She knew I had greatness, just waiting to come out, but the only way to get to that greatness was to tell me I was utterly talentless. That’s what I told myself.

Oh, there were plenty of others. Mike Skidgel, who, at the end of one particularly beautiful solo I did in rehearsal, responded with a moment of silence and then, simply, “I’m sorry, were you JOKING?”. John Vaughn, who, when I told him I was too heavy to do coffee grinders on the floor, said, with complete honesty, “well, who’s fault is that? MINE?”

God, I love it. It is maybe the funniest part of my ridiculous life, looking back on these guys. And nobody has really captured it the way I remember it, until now.

Glee Club by Matthew Freeman is transportingly delightful, and absolute joy for someone like me. Now, it seems that nearly everyone who saw it before I did thought the same thing, and this show could not have been hyped to me more. Basically, close friends watched it and probably enjoyed it one degree more because they had me in their heads laughing my ass off.

If you strip back the actual premise, it’s an incredibly dark show about the problems of priorities and instant gratification. Many of us are going through the exact same thing in the off-off world, it seems like so many of our plays have, as a plot element, the idea that if we can just do *this one thing*, then everything will pay off, and I think I know why. It might be that we’re starting to doubt. We always thought that hard work, a little luck and maybe a little bit of devil-dealing, and we’d have the success we desired, but I think we’re starting to wonder if maybe that isn’t true.

In Vampire Cowboys’ Soul Samurai, we follow a desperate path to redemption, only to discover that when we get there, everything is turned on its head. In Nosedive Productions Infectious Opportunity it seems as if there is one biographical invention that will change the landscape of a young artist’s life, but the change turns him into a horror. In our own Mac Rogers play Viral the characters believe that one well-made video can change their lives forever. Again, in Glee Club, there is one show, with one well-funded donor in the audience, that promises to change their lives, leading them to make destructive and inhuman decisions for very little gain.

Why does this theme seem to pop up again and again? It just so happens that these companies and these writers are all in very similar places, knowing that they have achieved a certain level of success, but they also see the distance from where they are now from where their dreams had been, and it is beginning to dawn on them that the sacrifices they make have to be limited to things within their moral framework, because the return is not gonna be worth ruining your life for.

Glee Club is the best example of this. The best singer in the club has ruined his life with drink, has lost his family and his job, has hit rock bottom, and has, in the last two weeks, joined AA. The problem, of course, is that he can no longer sing. And he’s the soloist. Before you can even say, “How do you solve this problem”, before you can even think it, the desperate, disgusting men on stage have already realized that they need to get this guy drunk, so he can do his solo and save the Glee Club.

That is exactly where so many of us are right now. If I hire a publicist and hassle all of my friends, and get every single ticket sold, and then, on the other side, I try to get as much stuff for free as I can and rehearse in the back of my car or in a park, and guilt trip the actors to work for sandwiches… THEN – when all of this master plan comes together – THEN… I will have broken even. Or maybe made two hundred dollars.

Or, not even thinking about money, if we make a play and every blogger shows up, and all the online reviews are great, and the actual print media comes, and the New York Times says it’s great… then, what? It’s a little easier to put on the next show? You can walk in to an agent’s office with some hot papers, they sign you and then… what? You’re writing a spec script for Grey’s Anatomy, a show you’ve never even seen, in a medium you care nothing about, where there’s a lot of money but where you do nothing but pine for the days you were writing off-off shows and cast your friends?

I mentioned in a blog post recently that our community is freaking me out with how good everyone’s work is, but it wasn’t until I saw the play yesterday that I kinda understood why. Glee Club sold out the performance I was at, and if there’s any justice in the world the next show will sell out too, and then the run will end. And then what? It’s a terrifying question, and it’s one that every one of us asks ourselves three or four times a year. Of *course* that’s what we’re all writing about. The incredible horror of the fruition of our work.

As for this specific show, there is *no way* it could have lived up to expectations. It was basically sold to me as the ultimate Sean Williams show, so I have to admit, I was disappointed in one or two ways. First of all, while it’s important to leave your audience wanting more, I wanted A LOT more. I want this to be a two act play, and I want the characters to be developed a little more patiently. I laughed solidly for 50 minutes, and I walked away with days worth of stuff to think about, but I think there’s a lot here to be mined, and I sincerely hope they expand this thing to two acts.

It’s kinda hilarious to complain about a play being too short. How often does that happen?

The only other disappointment was in the staging, but a lot of that was because of the limitations of the space. There was a lot of stuff going on, and I missed too much of it without being able to see the actor’s faces. I chalk this up *entirely* to the severe depth and very little breadth of the Brick. Although, I gotta say, at this point the Brick has engendered so much good will, I fell like a dick for complaining about it.

The characters were pitch perfect, and the cast was spot on. If the play were twice as long, then we could have gotten to know everyone with a little more patience, but I just loved seeing all of these people *I know* on stage, all of the characters who find themselves drawn to small, non-professional, performing groups. It’s terrifying.

In particular, Stephen Speights, who also wrote the insanely fantastic song that they’re rehearsing, is transporting. I wonder if he’s been through what I went through in my twenties, because he couldn’t be more honest in his portrayal. This character could really suck, but Speights fights for him every step of the way, and even lines like, “You call us your friends, which I find surprising because I don’t think of you as my friends” and even, “I hate you with such a white hot passion”… theses are delivered as if to think otherwise is just naive. I loved this performance so much, the bits of comedy were simply *one tiny notch* larger than the moments of tragedy, and both played pitch perfectly. I wanted to watch a two hour show about this character.

And then Matthew Trumbull, who’s tiny staggers and halting brain blasts have become a staple of incredibly comic perfection all over the place… he was just fantastic. How do you deliver a line like, “I can’t even watch a DVD without gin”, and make it both small and punched. He’s really a force, in a thousand small neurotic gestures, he’s just brilliant.
This isnt’ to take anything away from the other actors, I just can’t slob all over everyone all day. This group of actors was, to a man, fantastic. And the direction was wonderful. Was it a broad comedy? You might think so when you see one member who is obviously a psychopath (played brilliantly by Gary Shrader), but then you see that it really isn’t when another member struggles with the dissolution of his marriage and his heart-aching longing to see his kids. A guy with cancer? Maybe we’re in a tear-jerker… the rest of the glee club mocking the guy with cancer because IT’S BEEN IN REMISSION FOR FIFTEEN YEARS…?

YES. When my only real complaint is that I wanted the whole thing to be an hour and a half longer, you know, this is my kind of fucked-up play.

So Far

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I’m gonna do my best to start throwing up some shorter blogs on the production experience. We are now at June 18th, and we’re very close to being on schedule and on budget. We’ve had to make some tough decisions, but all of the really hard decisions lay ahead of us. Let me just do a rough timeline.

February – Mac, who wrote the play, finished up his script for “VIRAL” and gave it to me and Jordana to read. I read it very, very fast, got really excited, got freaked out, got even more excited and then started thinking about some of the production problems. Jordana read it slowly three times, digested it, and immediately started envisioning its existence on stage.

That has worked out pretty well for us, when we really have specific jobs. There are times when I desperately want to play a role in Mac’s play, but when there’s no role for me, it’s really liberating. I love, LOVE, to think about how best to make the story work and then let the story happen with Mac and Jordana. That means, I read the script and my heart cracked and the sky opened… and then I started thinking “does she have to cook *eggs*? How many pieces of furniture actually *have* to be on stage? Do we need a sound designer, will we need a scrim?…”

We applied for the Fringe, and then Jordana and Mac went into re-writes and, of course, we started thinking about casting. For this show, the exciting thing is that we just didn’t have any idea who would be playing all the roles. For a lot of our smaller projects, we like to write *to* a group of actors. We’ve even, on occasion, listed the actors instead of the character names. This is only when we’re writing together for a a festival or something, when Mac writes on his own, he’s really crafting the show to fit in his own twisted mind. I’m sure he thinks about actors sometimes, but mostly he’s just making a warped world that matches the crazy voices in his head…

May – Once we found out we were accepted into the festival, we really started flying. In the past, we’ve spent a lot of time on conversations about the actual art of the play, but over the last ten years we’ve learned – those conversations happen and those questions are answered in rehearsal. Now, the minute we’re sure a production is happening, we go directly into meetings about financing and marketing. How much money do we have, and how are we gonna let people know about the show.

At this point, we’re all done being tricky. For Fleet Week, we had condoms with our logo at every bar downtown. For Air Guitar, we tried to tie in to the movie that was opening in the summer film festival. For Hail Satan, we talked to other religious groups, even getting damn near sued by the Church of Satan.

Now? Our marketing campaign is entirely about just letting people know we’re doing a play, that it’s written by this awesome crazy dude, and that we’re more than just producers, we’re fans of theater. This is part of a body of work, written by Mac and produced by us, that is gonna be fun to be a part of.

Then we had a couple of meetings about financing, and those meetings… suck. But again, after ten years, we’ve got a pretty good idea about how we’re doing this stuff. We do have a brand new idea this year, to hold a sort of fundraiser. It’s interesting, we go out with our theater friends and get drinks, or have dinner parties, and we all blow money while we sit around and talk about how hard it is to raise money for theater. It took Sandy, our newest production team member, to point out that we’re all going out on Saturday anyway, we’re all spending twenty bucks on drinks and food, we may as well host the thing and help pay for the show.

June – This month has been about assembling the team, and that includes casting. Our entire financial theory is basically this – we’re gonna lose money on the show, we all know that, so let’s try to pay *people* rather than junk. In other words, if we hire a lighting designer who’s really creative, we don’t have to rent expensive lights. If we hold rehearsals in free space, we can pay the cast a little better.

So, choosing the team is really one of the funnest parts of producing. It’s not so much trying to find a group of people who get what we’re doing, I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel or anything, but it’s really awesome sitting down with someone who looks at the work as *fun*, like they’re excited about getting to make this particular play. Even with the darkest, strangest plays we’ve produced, it’s always fun when you get to the hard part and you hear the costume designer giggle. It’s not that people like making plays where bad things happen or where people get hurt, but the laughter is just nervous excitement.

I’m gonna write a whole post on casting tomorrow. We’ve got callbacks tonight, and we’re over the moon about the people coming in. We’ve *never* been in this position before, where we aren’t choosing the best actor, we’re choosing between a bunch of actors, all of whom are different shades of perfect, and we just have to see who works best with whom.

So that’s where we are today. Still assembling the team, and implementing the marketing plan. I’ll keep updating as we go. These posts are a little inorganic, but I wanted to get everything down and published. We just keep making plays, and I don’t know that we really have a system set down, so it’s interesting to me to look back on what we’re doing as we do it.