Archive for January, 2010

Teaser Cow

Friday, January 29th, 2010

For the first time this week, my evening contained an actual performance piece that I could talk about here, instead of a reading or some other kind of not-ready-for-publication work, and it was a welcome change. Last night we saw Teaser Cow by Clay McLeod Chapman , who’s play Commencement would have been a top five pick for me last year (if I was organized enough to do such things.)

When I see two disparate pieces like this, I’m fascinated by the ways in which each succeeds compared to the other. Whatever else may or may not be in either of these scripts, there is something there that allows actors of great talent to absolutely glow. In Commencement, Hannah Cheek delivered a master class, a tour-de-force of brilliance, and last night’s show gave me a handful of similarly brilliant performances.

For context, the play is a very clever combination of the treatises inside “Fast Food Nation” with the myth of the minotaur. Greece is now a modern city packed with burger shacks, all licensed by the same family (instead of “McDonalds” they are “Minos Burger” joints) Minos is given a cow that he won’t sacrifice, so the gods infect his wife with the desire to mate with it, which creates the minotaur. Their daughter is now a disaffected youth, her boyfriend is Theseus, who’s hellbent on bringing down the Fast Food Empire. Daedalus creates the titular Teaser Cow, and then engineers cheaper beef and test-tube food, the Minotaur is used as a kind of Ronald McDonald stand in at children’s parties, and there is also a haunted midwife working behind the scenes of the family drama.

Sorry, I just hate the part where everyone discusses the plot.

Especially in a piece like this. The plot is loose, perhaps too loose for some, and there are a lot of moments that function more as theatrical ideas than they do as standard story-telling. Chapman has woven in wonderful chunks of language that constantly recall and insinuate the larger themes, little things like Ariadne saying “My dad would have my hide if he knew…” when she’s in the middle of a cow farm. Thankfully, the director, the brilliant Ianthe Demos and the actors knew not to lean on any of these lines, and even though the play is drenched with this language, Demos keeps the action moving and the world just exists *through* the words.

In the end, Fast Food Nation is almost a call to arms, and I believe that what Chapman was doing with this piece was to use the warnings of our forefathers as a tool to discuss a real problem in our current world. Religious teachings aren’t meant to be literal, despite the idiocy of many in America’s Christian Right, and the Greek Myths are meant to be parables. When we talk of Atalanta and the apples, we’re talking about rebellion and female archetypes… we’re not actually suggesting you risk your life in a foot race, armed only with apples.

The Minotaur myth has an awesome elegance to it in this context. Daedalus created a labyrinth in the original myth and, in this story, he discovers that cows can be fed corn mixed with protein from their own blood. Which will lead to Mad Cow disease, which creates… long strings of protein in the brain, a sort of labyrinth. In one really beautiful turn of phrase, Ariadne is talking to her younger brother and she reminds us that cows are essentially peaceful and vegetarian, that the minotaur didn’t have a taste for blood “until we fed it to you…”

It’s bold and it is brilliant, but for me it didn’t fully work as a piece of theater. I wanted more story, less myth, I wanted to spend all my time with the characters that this company created, and less time dealing with the ideas. It could be that I’ve already read “Fast Food Nation”, but the occasional wanderings into agitprop, while always a little thrilling, actually slowed my investment in the actual story. I see this not as a failing of the script, but rather a preference of mine. I like to be shown everything and told nothing.

But make no mistake, this is a passionately created production, from top to bottom. From the fast-food clad employee handing out menu-programs at the front door to the incredible grease-grime that covers the lower two feet of the set, this is a lovinlgly crafted work of art. Mike Riggs’ lighting design and Kay Lee’s costume design are visible and invisible, piercing and mollifying, outrageous and functional, each when they need to be. James Hunting’s set is transporting. If you think that you’re tired of seeing plays where they use two benches… just wait. At the end of the play, you’ll look back on this set and shake your head. Whole worlds are created with a few well-constructed tables and a brilliant cast.

That’s, of course, how you know you’re dealing with a fantastic director. There is a different feel to an ensemble company, and the nearest I can compare this to is Flux’s recent “Lesser Seductions of History”. There is no way to fake the intimacy and trust that an ensemble of actors can create, under the guidance of a strong leader with a great eye. I’m particularly heartened that, in both cases, the directors are women (as is the case with our company). I know that women playwrights are under-served, but if the plays are written by men, I’m glad to know that they are being created on stage by women.

The entire ensemble was really strong, but I want to mention a few actors by name. Gregory Waller, as Minos, is marvelous. He had the perfect balance of entitlement and self-loathing that comes naturally to kings. Jim Kane is credited with “The Royal ‘We'”, but he plays the kid-hating Ronald McDonald stand-in. This is a part that can be done badly in a hundred ways, and Jim plays the brilliant edge of every choice. It’s astonishing to see a character-actor in an over-the-top part play each moment so simply – he’s in a play that is drenched in hamburger, he’s wearing a cow costume and he hates kids, so how did he manage to twist my heart? It was fantastic.

Now, I’ve made it a habit of assuming that you, the reader, know that I know some of these people and that this is a blog, not a review site, and that we’re all friends and blah, blah, blah… But Sarah-Jane Casey is a person that I was good friends with, maybe ten years ago, and we’ve just sorta lost touch. We were in a class together, and I thought she was fantastic, but lives happen and we all go about our own stuff…

When I recognized her in the play last night, I was actually choked up with pride. She is just so good in this play. I was utterly transfixed by her, throughout. She is the mother of the minotaur, the queen, the matriarch, dealing with the fact that the whole world knows she screwed a bull to create a monster, and yet… it’s her baby. That monster is her child. She is erotic, throughout, and yet never trashy, she’s feminine but never weak. She is an open vessel, utterly emotionally nude. It’s a wonderful, wonderful performance.

In the final analysis, I can tell you this – I read Fast Food Nation and avoided fast food and meat… for a while. After being reminded of the book’s contents (and the meat’s contents) I’m gonna go back to avoiding it
again. Had I not read the book before, I would be inspired to read it now. In the same way that “Lesser Seductions of History” made me look at the Obama Presidency in a different way, “Teaser Cow” has reminded me to think before I eat. And if a piece of theater gets into your hindbrain, you have to consider it a huge success.

… But That Was My Choice

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I think I have added to a larger mistake that falls so naturally to me that it really needs to be pointed out by more than one source for me to even get that I did it.

I have taken great pains to pat myself on the back for my utter independence from the established institutional theater world, and I even believe myself most of the time when I think about the way we, and many of our friends, are making theater. The truth is that, in the end, it works for *me*, but it might not be working for all of us. In fact, if I’m completely honest, it might not be working for my *wife* and my *kid* (soon to be “kids”.) It may not even be working for my producing partners.

In the last post, I mocked people who are stuck in this broken system with my friend Abe’s quote “those are some classy problems to have,” without fully realizing that I was offering up some pretty classy solutions. Just make theater, divorce yourself from the possibility that it will ever make you money, find donors and an audience and work outside the system – that is a privileged man’s response to this crisis, and I should have thought more about it before writing.

A plumber’s son can be a poet, as long as his dad stays a plumber. I managed to trip into a situation where my safety net is wide and tight. I made some money when there was money in the music game, and my extended family will bail me out when things get bad. Before I had any money, I certainly wasn’t producing theater for the artistic expression, I was cutting every single corner and then *living off the profits*. The first show I produced in North Carolina, I raised about 4 grand and the show cost about $500, and I lived for a few months in New York on the money I made.

My family, despite being comparably well-known in our community, were basically scratching the basement door of middle-class, and it’s because my parents were both classical musicians. It seems on the surface that trips to Europe and tuxedo-dry cleaning bills are classy problems to have, but every trip to Europe was spent sleeping on the concertmaster’s couch, and the dry cleaner was making way more than my dad.

Also, none of us is being completely honest with the capacity to produce at our level. The truth is, you won’t find age-appropriate actors of much skill over the age of 35. You won’t get good production values. You will get terrible directors and very few technical directors or stage managers with any skill. I think you will find more good writers than you might expect, there are a lot of really good scripts, but we definitely have more than our fair share of bad writers as well.

If it takes ten million dollars to pay for a movie, bargain basement, and two hundred grand to run an institutional theater company, bargain basement, then what we’re doing is somewhere far below that, and just above playing guitar on the subway. I stand by my point – that we’re basically playing guitar on the subway because we don’t work inside even the bargain basement institutional system, but I need to be clear that I know what we are and what we aren’t.

So, I’m following up “You’re Not Talking To Me” with “… But That Was My Choice.” Yes, institutional theater is broken, and because I am, compared with a majority of Americans and almost everyone in the rest of the world, a wealth man of extended leisure, I don’t have to work inside it. Those of us who can afford to make no money will continue on making theater and hope that it pleases our audience, but I hope not to be quite so cavalier in my dismissal of the problems inherent in our theatrical institutions. I’m outside the game not because I’m tough, I’m outside the game because I don’t need the game to survive.

You’re Not Talking To Me

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Boy. The shit has really hit the fan.

See, most of you out there don’t know this, but a lot of theater professionals have just been informed that The Theater is no place to make a living. Now, I could very easily mock the crap out of this, and I will mock it *a little bit*, but before I do, I need to point out that some very, very smart people put in a shitload of work looking at our industry, and that is really cool. They could very well have looked at an industry with far more economic impact than ours, but they didn’t. They spent their time in our ghetto, and that’s really lovely.

Although, to be fair, they didn’t actually get very far into *our* ghetto. If you want to know what our place is like, one of the best places to start is James Comtois’ blog, but the book that has created all the stink doesn’t actually get even close to us.

The book is called “Outrageous Fortune”, and the view from institutional theater is very dire. A lot of playwrights don’t make any money from their plays. A lot of theaters are trying really hard to hold on to their 10 to 15 thousand person audiences, and aren’t sure how to expand them. Many companies won’t produce new plays, except many companies also won’t produce plays that aren’t world premieres…

Jimmy just wrote to me, quoting our friend Abe, who said, “It’s a classy set of problems to have.”

Oh, and, yeah, I haven’t read the book. It very well might be helpful to me, but right now I’m reading “Free Range Kids” and watching “Damages” on my little TV, and so I don’t think I’m getting to “Outrageous Fortune” any time soon.

Now, I’ll be honest, I feel that too many people disrespect the arts too much, and I think that is largely because of how we treat ourselves and what we expect. My friends laughed when I went off on a rant about buskers on the subway, but I’m genuinely annoyed that someone can figure out Brown Eyed Girl, play it for free and beg for change – it sorta makes Van Morrison out to be a fool if he claims people shouldn’t be stealing MP3s of his music.

But, on the other hand, on our level of theater, the highest cost we have is space. So, in a way, aren’t I doing the same thing? I mean, right now, I have to pay three grand a week for a performance space, and I charge $18 a ticket… what if I used a park and passed around a hat? Since the cost-to-return ratio is better in the second model, doesn’t that actually make sense?

Big theaters can’t do this because they have designers and playwrites and actors and administrative assistants who won’t do all of this for free. But on our level, the only thing preventing giant profits is the price of real estate. If I got free rehearsal space and free performance space… shit, the only real concern of mine is if I have enough *time* to do everything I want to do. Our level of self-respect is so low, none of us expect to make more than a couple hundred dollars for several months of work.

But it is a thrill for me to be able to do this, because we have always judged our success entirely on whether or not we’ve told the story we wanted to tell. Some shows I feel good about, some I don’t, and very little of that has anything to do with money. Reviews, blog-reactions, audience reactions, ticket holders (which is different than ticket buyers, I promise you), these are all important to me.

But James has a piece of advice on his blog that we all adhere to, although probably none of us has passed this around. “Only put into a show what you are comfortable never getting back”. If the larger artistic institutions saw ticket revenue as “found money”, I wonder how that mindset would change their structure?

We have had some wonderful successes in our past. The two shows that lost the most money? “Fleet Week” and “Viral”. Also “Dirty Juanita”, but I’m not counting that one because that was our first show and we were idiots. But, a lot of people think we’re very, very successful, and the truth is, all we’re successful at, right now, is telling stories that we like telling.

Everyone who’s talking about the economic downside of theater, they aren’t talking to me, and they aren’t really talking to anyone who’s producing alongside me. And yet, we’re all, actually, pretty happy. And none of us is broke.

I don’t want to do theater in the park. But I do want to just say, just so there’s one voice out here, “we’re still doing it. It can be done.”

First, Do No Harm

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

I just googled myself. My name is Sean Williams, it’s just a totally stupid thing for me to do.

This isn’t true with a lot of people, though. Some have names that jump right out. Some of my closest friends have the kinds of names, particularly surnames, that if you google them, you get either *them* or a first cousin. That’s it.

I’ve been beating the same dead horse for a while now, which is that your online presence is basically useless without some kind of real world presence, and that too many of us put too much stock in how we’re controlling the message in the magical world and not enough time making sure that the real world avatars we’re dragging around, namely OURSELVES, are functioning as we’d hoped.

Now, I’ve been flogging this because there are certain aspects of human culture that simply can’t be replaced by the virtual world, and theater is one of them, but this morning I woke up to a completely different sense of responsibility.

I worked with a fantastic, breath-taking actress (that I will call simply “Megan”) several years ago. She went to Carolina, and, as such, became instantly part of the family. We excuse Tar Heels from higher scrutiny, simply because once you’ve spent a summer in Chapel Hill, watching the wallpaper glue let go of the wall, watching books swell with humidity until they open on their own, you feel like you have a shared experience that brings you together *outside* of your artistic accomplishment.

I say this because Megan and I were part of a theatrical experiment in the 2004 Fringe Festival together, and as the rehearsals continued, I realized I was in the presence of a really rare talent. I played her father and, despite the incredible casting mistake (I’m about twelve years older than her), I found myself genuinely moved by her portrayal, throughout rehearsal and throughout the performance. I call it an experiment because we rehearsed with a lot of game play and silliness, to the point where we had found a very consistent emotional life for all the characters, but several of us were foggy on plot points even after we’d opened… but all in all, it was more than worth it to get to work with a brilliant young director, a scary-good young playwright and this brilliant young actress.

In a blog that I wrote around this time, I poked fun at my sister’s rather straight-laced demeanor by explaining that when Megan met Michelle, she kissed her and touched her pants while complimenting them. Megan was a really open and affectionate person, and there wasn’t a single person I ever met who was put off by this, she was widely celebrated as a woman who made herself emotionally available, and I felt like this was one of her greatest assets. The point of that passage of the blog was to tease my sister for being a little uptight. My sister, in all honesty, was utterly charmed by Megan.

She is now graduating from her post-grad program as an actress and she asked me (deeply apologetically) if I could remove the blog that referenced her, now almost six years ago. If you don’t know that I’m teasing my sister, it makes her seem physically aggressive. When you google her… my blog is the *second* thing that comes up.

Of course I removed it, Good lord, and I was deeply embarrassed that what I wrote had become something difficult for someone that I have such fondness for. I’m so glad that she *knows* me, and can feel close enough to write and ask that I keep my sense of humor from creating a public perception of her that might make people less willing to work with her.

Some things I feel I need to say, beyond my own humiliation that I may have hurt someone inadvertently. First of all, and most importantly, I desperately hope that we don’t read criticism of ourselves in reviews and blogs and then try to change our fundamental nature because of them. Particularly since this new form is basically the wild west, where people are shooting guns in the air as they scream yahoo… the bullets are only now starting to drift down to earth and it would be a shame if we decide that those bullets are worth dodging.

I know the criticisms of my character all too well, and when I act as a response to those critiques, I lose my voice. As I’ve aged, some of the criticisms have fallen away (especially those that deal with being a young man) but I have been teased about my enthusiasms in the past and… Man, if I decide that I need to modify my enthusiasm in order to steer clear of criticism, I’m gonna end up with nothing.

Secondly, I think we need to have faith, particularly as actors, that what we say and do in the real world will ultimately trump anything that is said about us online. If I had thought that my friend Megan was a bad actor, and I said so, and she asked me to remove it because it was hurting her career, I would. Absolutely. This is a blog, it’s not a paper of record, and although it is my right to express my opinion, I feel a responsibility to my community, a sort of hippocratic oath to do no harm.

I edited the earlier blog because I would never do anything that hurt a friend or a work associate, unless a conversation about their actual art ended up being hurtful. But… I have faith in Megan. She is actually an actor of singular talent. I knew her long before she had completed her training, and if she has held on to her voice and her talent, she will be better than fine. I hope we all can hold on to the faith that, regardless of what is said about us online, we will rise above it. Particularly in the theater, where what we do *in the room* is more important than what is said about us, especially online.

Not only is Megan an extraordinary actor, but her performance, now six years old, is still talked about whenever we look back at that year. She will take the world by storm, I’m sure of it, and if I can be a part of that, I certainly will.

And, as a final thought, I sincerely hope that my friends, as they get older, never lose their emotional openness. I’ve found that I’ve become, if anything, MORE open, more affectionate, more willing to hug the people that I love. If someone described me as “grabby”, I’d probably die a thousand deaths inside, but I hope that I would rally and still hug my friends when I see them. I know, next time I see Megan, I will.

Devoted and Disgruntled

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

This will be very short, because I want to record the basic flavor and design of this event while it’s still fresh in my mind, but we do have one more day of it, and I don’t want to try to digest it entirely without having experienced the entire thing.

About two hundred of us met in a giant circle and, after some introductions, we were offered the chance to host a discussion group on any topic we want. It really is that simple, the thing is completely user-controlled and utterly up to the theater artists who’ve gathered to decide what is important to them. One by one, people started trickling to the center of the circle and then announced their topics.

Of course, many things were like, “Finding a permanent home for our theater in New York” and “How do MFAs get out of debt” and “Social Media, Does Twitter Do Anything?”… but there were some very cool and weird small side discussions. One guy wrote “Why didn’t anyone in this room come to my last show, and how can I change that?” and a good friend of mine was prescient enough to host “How can we continue D&D; in NYC in the future?”, before we had even decided if we liked it or not.

I began the day with my eyes stuck in a permanent roll. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about what the problems are with the independent and commercial theater scenes in New York, and I feel like I already know what the answers are. Basically, two things –

1) Support an individual artist’s voice and vision, whether it be a solo performer, a director or a playwright. Basically, give an evening over to either one voice, or, at maximum, two voices (since every play or performer needs direction) and let that story speak for itself.

2) Go see shows. Even if you think they’ll be bad. Especially if you think they’ll be bad. Try to figure out what you like about them, not what you hate about them.

If we had these two tenets as the focus of the independent theater scene, we’d be fine.

But what is blowing my mind about the Devoted and Disgruntled symposia is that so many of us have so many of the same problems. The larger theaters are struggling with the exact same thing that the smaller theaters are struggling with, but on a far bigger scale. The people who run institutions are in a far worse place than we are as independent theater producers.

Yes, they have more money, but they also have more people who want it, and the people who are already getting it are terrified of losing it, and they want more of it. In other words, to quote the old saying, they simply have more problems.

I talked and talked and talked. I listened to a hundred different people, I ran from group to group. And always in the back of my head was Nosedive and Flux and Gideon. I can’t tell you how many times I mentioned the Vampire Cowboys. I have been saying for years that there’s nothing wrong with the independent theater community that can’t be fixed with what is right, but this meeting is convincing me that we’re actually on our way. To say it was inspiring is an understatement, we simply need to continue to put one foot in front of the other, modify our expectations, understand what “success” is and be patient.

At the end of the day, we gathered back in a circle and the mic was left for anyone to say anything they like. These situations, particularly in a group of artists, are built to make you cringe, but one of the first things that anyone said was , “I just want to thank everyone for the gentleness of the day. I’m reminded that my theater life, in rehearsals and in meetings, can actually be this gentle and respectful”. That was my experience exactly.

Ragtime, Finian’s Rainbow, Demolition Man and Last Action Hero

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

There’s a lot of head scratching going on, and a sure sign of stupidity is when everyone else is confused and you think there’s an easy answer. I’m pretty obviously, then, a little stupid, because it seems pretty clear to me.

Broadway has had a series of really well reviewed shows close before they could see any return on their investment, and a Neil Simon play *never even made it* because the *other* Neil Simon play was hemorrhaging money.

Man, I should just memorize how to spell hemorrhage. I really like using it and I’m tired of looking it up.

There are a lot of people coming up with a lot of ideas about *why* these plays just aren’t bringing in audiences. I would like to tell you why *I* think it is, and I’m gonna say all of this without providing a single bit of supporting evidence. This is all conjecture, and based exclusively on my perspective, which is ridiculously skewed.

In the 70s, people made really awesome movies. Or so the story goes. Then Jaws and Star Wars killed the whole thing because people wanted to make blockbusters. This is a ridiculously simple way of looking at it, but there definitely was a shift away from a single artist’s vision (the director) to a system where each element of a film was given equal responsibility to provide a return on an investment.

Score? Regardless of the movie’s style, get John Williams. Actors? Regardless of the roles, get Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Script? Get the guy that wrote the thing that just made money, whatever idea he’s got, it’s probably great! Direction? Just… get someone who can take notes from the producers.

Fast forward a decade or so, to 1993. Last Action Hero comes out. Remember, at this point, it was in vogue to cast European legitimate actors as bad guys, thanks to Die Hard, so we had Schwarzenegger as the hero, F. Murray Abraham as the bad guy and… Jesus, every actor you can name was in this movie. And every one of them showed up on set with, at minimum, their agent, manager and make-up artist, but very probably with their own script doctors.

What opened against it? Demolition Man which had Nigel Hawthorne as its propped up English actor cred, and Sylvester Stallone in the lead. Wesley Snipes also ate through about a hundred cameras as the “charming bad guy”. In “Last Action Hero”, the alternate reality has Sylvester Stallone appearing in all of Schwarzenegger’s movies, in “Demolition Man” they have (in a weird bit of prescience) Schwarzenegger as the President of the U.S.

These movies are remembered for their suckiness, but the truth is, they were exactly as good as the crap that went before them. In fact, they have a fair bit of charm when compared to “Cliffhanger” and “The Pelican Brief”, which were also released that year. But a little movie called “True Romance” snuck in there as well, and everyone suddenly got very excited about what movies might turn in to…

1994? We had Pulp Fiction, The Professional, The Shawshank Redemption, Natural Born Killers, Ed Wood, Clerks, Heavenly Creatures, Shallow Grave, Once Were Warriors…

I can’t believe I lived through 1994 and didn’t simply eat popcorn and sleep on the floor of a movie theater. The movies that weren’t even watershed films were certainly pop culture touchstones, like Ace Ventura, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Reality Bites, Four Weddings and a Funeral…

My point for all of this is this – In Acting Skool, they teach “Don’t play ‘Drunk’, play the circumstances of the scene, and play ‘trying not to be drunk'”. In “Art”, you can’t *try* to make money. You have to try to make art, and that art will then either make money or not. But as consumers of art, we can tell when you’re switching the price tags on the old meat in the cooler. The minute you think you’ve got a system for popularity, you’re actually taking a step closer to failing.

So, why did these shows close on Broadway? My feeling is that it’s because Broadway has become too Broadway, the meat’s been in the cooler for too long. Broadway producers who are interested in making money need to be willing to *lose* money on an auteur, on a singular artistic voice that might be a touchstone for a generation. Neil Simon and established musical re-treads don’t speak to the audience specifically because they seem to be engineered to entice the audience.

We want that from fast food, but we don’t want it from our art. Some of the avant guarde is off-putting and, like all art, a lot of it feels insignificant and confused. I refuse to call it bad, but sure, that stuff won’t translate. However, MOST of the avant guarde stuff is really very fun, totally digestible and could make a producer somewhere a fortune.

The guy who didn’t buy The Blue Man group when he saw them on the street is probably the same guy who’s losing millions of dollars trying to turn Spider Man into a musical. To that guy, I’d say, “the lessons are there, they aren’t even from that long ago, and if you really love theater, you’d know what to do.”

Come find the individual voices. Don’t look at the MFA programs, come an see what the punks are doing. There are men and women in the off-off world who are SWINGING FOR THE FENCES. And we can do it because if we lose four grand, WE’VE ONLY LOST FOUR GRAND. Most of the people who are writing and being incredibly brave because… because when nobody’s looking, bravery is *easy*. EVERYONE sings in the *shower*, and that’s what we’re doing at our 53 seat houses.

When Tracey Letts wrote Superior Donuts, he had no intention of it going up at a Broadway house. Which was probably a little bit naive on his part, he’d had a successful play on Broadway which means EVERY THING HE WRITES will go up on Broadway from now on. Until he flops. And then NOTHING HE WRITES will go up on Broadway. Until he succeeds again. And then EVERYTHING HE WRITES… This is how it works.

The voices of a new generation are currently bellowing at the windmills. If someone wants to take the money they’ve got, and print ten times the amount, they should dig in their backyards, because I know, for a fact, the backyards are full of diamonds.

More Marketing Thoughts

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Two companies come to mind. Domino’s and Tostitos.

Those of you who know me on Facebook know that Jordana and I just had a great Domino’s experiment. Now, I live in New York City, and although it could be argued that somewhere else has better pizza (I’m looking at you, Pequod’s in Chicago…) the truth is that New York is the *beginning* of the argument for great pizza. It’s the Meryl Streep of Pizza. You can say it isn’t the best in the world, but that’s a good place to start when trying to decide.

So why did we order Domino’s?

That’s why.

They told us a story, a really perfect story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

In the beginning, they were a store that delivered pizza in an awesome little car and the three dots on the domino were for their three stores, and they blew up and everyone thought they were awesome, and they started trying to make everyone happy and… I’m not sure. There’s a family, with a volkswagon, and a love of food.

The middle of the story is that everyone hates their pizza. And it makes them very, very sad.

The end of the story is that they re-made the whole process. It’s a brand new pizza, from the ground up. If we can just give them another shot, they’ll make us a better pizza. Because they love it, and they’re still driving that awesome little car.

Now, what’s the real story? I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. I mean – story inside this story is that they never really knew what they wanted to do, they spent a long time focused on the bottom line and selling their brand and in our culture now that’s biting them in the ass, so they hired a bunch of focus groups in order to find out how better to adjust their bottom line, and those people basically said, “convince me that you care about pizza…” but that’s not the story they told. They told the story of reinventing themselves and my wife BOUGHT IT.

We ordered the pizza. It was terrible. But, again, that doesn’t matter with what I’m thinking about.

The other is Tostitos. It is said that in New York, you have your deli and your Chinese place, and if you move six blocks, those might change. My local deli happens to be all organic, where you can get Pita Chips and frozen Edamame, but they don’t carry Doritos. Fine with me, I never buy that stuff anyway.

Except, the other day, I bought Tostitos at the grocery store. Why?

That’s why.

This is what we’re missing.

In the off-off Broadway world, we’re walking around saying “Broadway is culturally bankrupt (unless you want to hire me…)” and “We’re making *art*, and those guys are just making *crap*” and “Sure, you have to go out of your way, maybe you’ve never been there, maybe the seats aren’t comfortable, but it’s GOOD FOR YOU!”

Meanwhile, these giant multi-nationals are walking around *pretending they’re us*!!! Suddenly, friggin’ DOMINO’S is making pizza because they LOVE FOOD? Domino’s is responding to our individual cultural needs? They’re making their chefs and C.E.O.s available online to talk to about pizza, they’re reading comment cards and changing what they make in order to respond better to their market?

Yet, off-off Broadway continues to claim an artistic superiority over entertainment sources that cost 8 times to attend. Like we have no interest in finding out *why* someone would rather spend 120 dollars to see Shrek, how they manage to sucker 600 or 700 people a night, and we might sell 500 seats in a month. Believe me, it isn’t the comfortable seats.

Tostitos… you know they’re owned by Frito-lay, who is, in turn, owned by Pepsi-Co, right? And when you’re in the store, that brown paper bag of organic corn chips is bullshit compared with the simple goodness of… Tostitos?

Yet, we’re failing to *feature* the fact that our companies are just a handful of people. In our world, we’ve got a playwright and a director who are making the play. I mean, if you’ve got enough producers that one of them is giving notes and sitting in rehearsal, then you’ve probably got too many people…

I don’t know, I don’t have any answers, but I don’t think we’re terribly attractive when we tout our artistic aspirations and successes as some kind of marketing tool. Let other people talk about our integrity and singularity of vision – if indeed we do have it. Our job should be to distill the greatness of our little corner of the world, and let people know about it.

The big guys are pulling an “Aw Shucks” on us, and we’re still putting on berets and staring down our noses at success. We probably ought to change that.

On Production

Monday, January 11th, 2010

The cast of Lucretia Jones, bringing the message to the people… of a local bar in Astoria

When I was a kid, and my dad was the conductor of the Cedar Rapids Symphony, (No, I’m not kidding) (YES, they had a symphony!), he would do a free performance in the park every year under a tent. I remember, as a kid, going door to door all over the city, leaving fliers. I got five or six of my friends together, and my mom gave us all gift certificates to the local ice cream store for passing them all out.

So often, when we talk about trying to produce theater, and particularly marketing theater, our ideas are limited to the things we can do while we’re talking to our friends or sitting in front of a computer.

1) Postcard design – We have made amazing postcards. So have you. Where did they go? Who ended up holding one? How many stacks did you leave in places… where there were *other stacks*?

2) Websites – You can spend a lot of time and a lot of money making a great website. Or you can spend none and your website won’t look as good. Or something. How many times did you pull up your website *on someone else’s computer or phone*? Like, when you saw the site, was it you and the designers and your production team? Were you ever not in your house?

3) Facebook. Twitter. All of your friends and followers, when is the last time you were talking to them in person. Each one of them. How many of your followers aren’t in your town? How many facebook invitations do *you* ignore?

4) Email blasts – How many of these do you read, smile and trash? How many do you trash unread?

5) How many hours did you work on reading scripts, crafting pitches, creating themes for seasons, crating advertising ideas around those themes. How many hours did you spend in rehearsal with your cast and crew and production team. How many hours were you in pre-production meetings? – NOW, how many hours did you spend at *other people’s shows*?

We all talk about producing shows, but we spend an awful lot of time talking to other producers, and writing blogs and tweeting and FBing and emailing and everything. If the act of theater, right now, means taking what is written and making it live, in person, five feet in front of our audience, it’s interesting that so much of what we do to produce theater is to take that experience and translate it back to the written word and distance ourselves from people when we’re selling it.

I remember in college asking the cast why they weren’t doing more to get the student body out to a show I was directing. I said, “I don’t see the posters anywhere!” and one of the cast members said, “What are you talking about? There’s at least ten of those posters in my dorm room alone!”

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not accusing anyone of stuff that I’m not mostly accusing myself of. But what if we switched the paradigm a little bit. What if we couldn’t call ourselves producers unless 50% of what we do is out of “the office”. In order to be an off-off producer, we *have* to go to other people’s shows, we *have* to go to other people’s fundraisers… and we have to *invent* reasons to bring people together to better market the entire community.

It’s interesting because we have a standing excuse. “We all have day jobs, and we’re all producing shows, so we don’t have the money and we don’t have the time…” I’m saying, if you don’t have the money and you don’t have the time to support the culture that you want to be a part of, then you aren’t *really* producing.

We should be saying to ourselves, “Once a week, and $20 a week, I have to invest in the off-off community. I have to find that time and that money, the same way I find the time and the money to create my own shows.”

I don’t know if I could do it either. But I do believe it’s what we should be striving for.


Friday, January 8th, 2010

It’s really interesting to look back on the people we knew when we were kids, and what we’ve all done since. Jordana was friends with Rachel Axler back in the day (whatever that means) and so we’ve been maybe more invested in her career than we would be in someone who’s work we admire, but whom we’ve never met.

It’s interesting to me, writing for different media. The people who like my blog seem to like it because I don’t seem to know how to write a “blog”, this thing mostly reads like you’re at my house, it’s two in the morning, we’ve been drinking, and you can’t get a word in edgewise. Which is pretty much what my life was like.


But I don’t really know how to switch hats for stuff. God help me, my business correspondence reads exactly the same as this blog. Which might explain my long and sordid history of being fired by people who like me…

Anyway, Rachel Axler wrote for The Daily Show for a number of years, and is now writing on what I feel pretty safe in describing as my favorite new TV show, “Parks and Recreation”. So, when we went to see her play last night, I figured it would probably be pretty funny, and probably have a lot of comedy arising from “situations”, if you will.

The truth is, she’s a playwright, with an MFA and everything, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got a seering and wrenching off-Broadway comedy last night. In Smudge we’re first introduced to a couple looking at an ultrasound. They can’t determine if the thing they’re looking at is a boy or a girl because there’s something wrong with the picture. It is smudged, apparently.

Then, the baby is born, and there was nothing wrong with the picture, there’s something desperately wrong with the baby. Soon, we’re moving back and forth between the office where the father, Nicholas (played really well by Greg Keller, doing a great Bill Pullman-esque study in controlled discomfort) works as a census taker, and the home.

The home is dominated by a large old-school pram, hooked up to tubes and wires and monitors, constantly beeping and bubbling. Trapped in the house is the child’s mother, Colby, played brilliantly by Cassie Beck. And this relationship here is where I felt the show moved from smart and fun to something really brilliant. I asked Jordana afterwards if Rachel had kids, and she said no… yet she perfectly captured the sheer horror of what it is to be trapped in a house with a newborn.

At different points in the show, each parent is standing over the pram, trying to get a reaction, trying to raise this child, to literally *RAISE* it, and it so perfectly encapsulates what so many of our generation are doing *right now*. I read somewhere that, for most of the 18th and 19th Century, in France, 90% of women gave their children to wet nurses until the kids were two or so, and, as cruel as it sounds, those parents had to have been more sane than those of us who stood over the crib screaming, “GROW! GROW! RESPOND TO ME!” It was chilling.

It was disappointing to see an off-Broadway show with basically no set at all. I totally get it, and they certainly got an awesome effect with the supernatural old-timey parambulator, but the “set” was simply boxes. My problem is… the father’s job as a census taker, and the references to “two point five kids” (when the child they have is missing limbs and obviously deformed) maybe wouldn’t have been a little too spot-on if they hadn’t had the set decorated with boxes covered in ones and zeros. There was no weight to the room, it looked as if the whole thing could just blow away, and it lent an air of a staged reading to the production.

There is a perfect marriage in this play of writing and actor with the third character in the piece, the uncle to the baby, Pete. Brian Scgambati plays this role perfectly. We can’t look at this couple and their child without looking at the rest of the world, and this obnoxious lout, himself a father of three, is the perfect foil. Not over-written, and not over-played, he could easily drift into some kind of caricature, but Scgambati has so much affection for the guy that his moments of human-ness and weakness are throat-catchingly lovely.

After the play, I thought about how hard it must have been for the writer to switch back from television to theater, but then I realized how stupid that is. The difference between the brilliant writing on The Daily Show and the brilliant writing on Parks and Recreation… She’s just fantastic, but she also *serves* what she’s writing for. There is such a fine line, you have to indulge your talent or you don’t have a point of view, but you also have to keep your audience in mind. Rachel is an old friend of my best friend, but I don’t believe we’ve ever even met, so I don’t think I’m clouded by personal fondness (as I so often am on this blog). I think she’s genuinely brilliant, and I’m so excited to get to be in the audience, whatever she’s doing.