Archive for February, 2010

The Only State That Starts With “TEN”.

Friday, February 19th, 2010

(The title of this blog is a reference to something my brother said when he was about five…)

I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa until I was about seven years old, and I returned there for a brief stint in what many will laughingly refer to as my “college years”. While I was there, I did two shows with the Iowa City Community Theater, and actually rediscovered my love of acting. Apparently, every few years I have to give up acting and then, at some point, fall in to an opportunity that send me back out with headshots and 16 bars at the ready. My two shows at ICCT did just that, at exactly the right time.

Now, I have been trudging through theater blogs for the last month. I don’t really have an opinion about where public money should go, I feel like old age has robbed me of the ability to get too worked up about my government, and I’ve never felt like any organization, public or private, has done a lot to personally help me tell better stories, so I let smarter and more passionate people worry about it.

But I have been reading the blogotheatrosphere, and I’ve felt just crappy about it. I can’t really address the problems of big city vs. small city theater, I can’t really formulate a response to the problems facing actors and playwrights of different ethnicities, I’m not sure I even have a say in what women are doing in the theater. My exhaustion has the stink of self-congratulation, I know that, but instead of being inspired by the conversations around me, my blog has run aground. I’m capable of talking about theater, but I’m not capable of talking about talking about theater.

In the middle of all of this, I check out a blog on my blogroll called Iowa Theatre and read a review of Wonderful Town that makes me dizzy. And look at the sidebar, just see what is available to you if you live in Iowa City, IA. In the surrounding counties, there are about 150k people, who are within driving distance of these shows.

Queens County has a population of 2.3 million. And if you live in my county, you very often go to *neighboring* counties to see theater…

So, if we were still in Iowa City, we could go see Wonderful Town, with full orchestra and great sets and costumes, for $17. At Riverside Theater, also in Iowa City, they’re doing “End Days”. Dreamwell Theater, ALSO IN IOWA CITY, is doing Poona The Fuckdog, for twelve bucks. Also, coming up is The Producers and a Neil Simon play.

Sure, these shows are running for one or two weekends. But they’re running, right? The plays exist, the actors are there, and audience shows up. Iowa City has about 70k people at any given time, and there are theater companies doing standards, and doing outrageous shit, and they are all selling tickets. There are A BUNCH of theater companies. And I’m not even counting all the theater at the University of Iowa, or Cornell. Or Kirkwood Community College…

I don’t know… I don’t know that there’s an answer here. I have just felt like I couldn’t write anything because it seems like there aren’t any answers, that minority communities are disrespected, that that actors and playwrights are feeling like there aren’t any opportunities, like theater is, yet again, either dying or is already dead. And then there are a lot of people who… just… keep making plays, because they forgot to check in and find out that the whole system is totally screwed.

I don’t want to live in Iowa City. I mean, that’s not true, I *DO* want to live in Iowa City. But right now, my home is in New York, my family’s here, my friends, my whole life. But I want to produce theater as if I live in Iowa City. I want to tell my stories, have them run for as long as is sustainable, and then go back and find more scripts. If a lot of people are doing it in the middle of Iowa, then I’m pretty sure I can do it here.

Indy Vs. Broadway

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Dan Dinero left me a comment on my thoughts about the Gallery Players production of Caroline, or Change, (his fantastic review here) and when I get chastised on my blog, particularly about a rhapsodic and passionately positive review, I feel like I need to pay attention. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to have someone who cares deeply about the artistic value of Broadway theater take the time to comment on my blog. Our two worlds very often don’t intersect (as I explain later), and after visiting Theatre Is Easy I was really moved that he took the time, even if he was a bit aggressive and snarky. (What would the theater be without snark?!) (He also left the comment at about four in the morning, and it’s impossible to write a blog comment at that hour without being snotty…)

You write that independant (sic) theatre, unlike Broadway (which fulfills an obliquely “different role”), leaves one “transported and transformed.” Independant theatre provides “a revelation” and lets us “know that something is happening right here, in the same room, that we are both witness to and participant in.”

This is an extremely simplistic division- “independent” theatre does this (occasionally), but commerical Broadway does it as well. Both types of theatre can be as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as they can be midn-numbingly dull. But you wouldn’t know this, because you write that you rarely see Broadway theatre.

Dan is going on what I wrote and he’s absolutely right to hassle me into a clarification. My point of view about independent theater is muddy, to say the least, in comparison with Broadway theater, so, just on the off chance that anyone care what a guy like me thinks, let me be a lot clearer about this.

It’s a huge mistake, one I honestly try not to fall in to, to claim some sort of superiority of independent theater. We don’t make *better* plays or *smarter* plays at all. My feeling, when watching Caroline, Or Change, is that this material is utterly brilliant, the production was fantastic, and it was made available to me for less than $20. For me, that was only the beginning of the value of this production.

I have said that I don’t see Broadway plays very much. The extrapolation that I ought to not speak about Broadway plays until I “learn a little bit about” them first is an honest mistake. To clarify, I’m going on 23 years as a theater professional, and I have moved from being an avid member of Broadway audiences to being an avid member of independent theater audiences. I have done so because I feel the rewards more richly.

This is not because the plays are better. In this case, the actual play was identical, Caroline Or Change was actually on Broadway a few years back. But my play-going has a relatively simple bit of algebra to it. I don’t make enough money to afford the outrageous Broadway ticket prices… but that isn’t the whole reason. One can always find a half-price, or less, ticket to a Broadway show.

The truth is, I don’t feel that my investment as an audience member means anything to the Broadway community, and my time is extremely limited.

I have kids, I have several freelance jobs, I have a wife and I have a community that needs my support. My nights out are preciously rationed, like a Desert-Island chocolate bar. When I go to a show at The Brick, or at Here Arts Center, or at Manhattan Theatresource, I will have access to the producer, the playwright, the cast, the venue director, the press person… all of these people will be there, sleeves rolled up, hands dirty.

When I go to a Broadway show, the actual *production* is likely to be as good as anything I will see in the independent theater world. I am a witness to brilliant writing and brilliant acting, as well as incredible theatrical innovations and advances. There may, in fact, be a helicopter or a set three stories high. But my experience has led me to believe that when the show is over, it’s over. My investment in the production as an audience member is utterly overlooked by the producers.

When I go to an independent theater production, there will be no helicopter. But, comparing the best of one to the best of the other, there will be brilliant writing and brilliant acting, as well as incredible theatrical innovations and advances. And, in the very show we’re discussing, there was even a three story set. And I will very often get a personal email from the producers, thanking me for coming. Often the actors will write to me, the playwright too… many of my acquaintances are relationships made of purely mutual artistic respect.

I’m sure the same thing exists on Broadway, that Tony Kushner probably has Stephen Sondheim’s phone number somewhere. But, you see, I live in New York, and there are 300 shows going up at any given time here, and for 275 of them, the production deeply cares that I show up. And for the off-off, independent theater productions, the cast and crew and stage manager… even the *lighting designer* care that I show up. And they ask for $18 and two hours of my time.

So, if my new friend Dan is right, that “Both types of theatre can be as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as they can be midn-numbingly dull.”, then all things being equal, I’m going to continue to invest in the community where my investment seems to be paying off.

Where Dan and I agree is about the actual show. (As an interesting juxtaposition, I didn’t see the show on Broadway because it ran for four months the same summer I did my first Fringe Festival show. During that festival, I saw up to four shows a day, and wrote blogs about a lot of them. Most of the people I saw, some six years ago, I’m still associated with today, and my relationship with the Fringe Festival has become, as I recounted below in my last blog, one of the most important relationships I have in New York. Every show I saw in the Fringe Festival cost me $5. I would have had to exchange 15-20 shows for one ticket to the Broadway version of “Caroline, Or Change”.)

But Dan and I both love the show deeply. His review of it is far better than mine… which is probably because he actually writes reviews and I just talk a lot of shit. As much as he may be offended by what I wrote, chances are we both saw it the same night, (as I’ve actually gone twice now) and we were sitting in different sections of the theater, utterly transported. If you take nothing else from this blog, or his comments, please take this away-


Producing In The Fringe

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

We have shorthand for most things here at Gideon Productions. We have a codephrase for enthusiastic but under-educated producers, we have shorthand for just-out-of-college playwrights, we have shorthand for meta-meta-META-jokes that we ourselves barely get… but our most useful shorthand is “After You, Dear Alphonse”. This is an example of our producing style, where we find ourselves always in the position of downplaying expectations and holding doors and generally bringing our more Southern charms to the down-n-dirty indy theater scene.

Because of the way we are, it’s difficult to pretend to be experts at anything, but when it comes to the New York International Fringe Festival, we’ve done enough things wrong, and enough things right, that I feel like I can at least speak about the event with some *experience*, if not expertise. I’m writing this as a companion piece to James’ great self-producing series which, if you haven’t visited, you should.

We have been in the festival on four separate occasions, winning three major awards at three different times, and in addition to that, I’ve acted in two *other* productions in the festival, so you can at least be assured that everything I am telling you is supported by experience, and only suspect because of my somewhat limited intellect.

1) You could end up with a great space for a fraction of the money. For instance, our shows have gone up at The Lucille Lortel, The Soho Playhouse, the Bleeker St. Theater (formerly The Culture Project), and The Harry Du Jur at the Henry St. Settlement. Yes, these are all off-Broadway theaters, and our only cost was $550 to The Present Company. As a point of reference, The Soho Playhouse costs $7500 a week to rent, and we ran there for two months (including the extension)

2) Publicity is enormous, at a fraction of what it would normally cost you. Fleet Week was reviewed by the NYTimes. Hail Satan was covered by David Cote in his blog. Viral was reviewed everywhere. Again, the only up-front cost is the fee to the Present Company, although they offer bargain basement rates on extra publicity through Ron Lasko at Spin Cycle. If you decide *not* to pay Ron, he still works for you by publicizing the entire festival.

3) You are now associated with a festival that has a proven track record. Urinetown, of course, but that’s the bases-loaded home run, there are a hundred other success stories and a thousand word-of-mouth stories associated with the festival.

4) You are getting in bed with extremely decent people, and that should not be overlooked or under-appreciated. Elena Holy is as good a person as you’re gonna find, not just in the performing arts, but in any industry. There is a dignity to the festival, overall, a home-grown, artist-first approach that doesn’t exist everywhere in the city, and when you are *in* the festival, you know this. I’ve produced all of our shows, but Mac Rogers wrote them, and I know that Elena, as fond as she might be of me, has a great deal more fondness for Mac. He is the artist, I’m the administrator, and that actually makes me even more fond of *her*.

5) The community will support you during the run of your show, and if you live here in New York, it will support you long after the show has closed. Last night, at a reading hosted by KEF productions, I ran into the director of a fringe show I acted in in 2004. We gave each other a huge hug. When you work inside this festival, you are afforded the opportunity to associate with hundreds of other independent theater producers and artists from around the world, and, if you choose, those relationships will last as long as you cultivate them.

1) We’ve lost more money on these successful runs than we have producing on our own. Yes, I said you can save a lot of money, but there’s no point in saving money when you’re making theater. These have all been high-profile shows, so we have done the best we could to get a great cast and take care of them. We’ve had Tony Nominees in our shows. That means, we rehearse in midtown, at the same location the whole time, we pay everyone *more* than the Fringe asks us to. We pay for the extra marketing and publicity, we actually send out the postcards and pay for the canvassing.

Also, because the houses have all been 175-350 seats, the place feels empty if your standard 32 people show up. And when the house *feels* empty, it will give you the sense of the show not being worth seeing. It’s live theater, it isn’t a streaming video, you HAVE to get the house filled. So, if you don’t blow your wad on publicity, you’re a fool.

2) Yes, the festival has had successes, but that has led to a backlash. We were a bunch of punk indy producers when we did our obnoxious gay-rights musical, and the most common criticism was that we were “trying to be the next Urinetown”. Simply because we were part of the Fringe Festival. For the record, we were, in no uncertain terms, NOT trying to be Urinetown.

Because of some of the past over-the-top crazy shit that has gone up in the festival, it’s very difficult to make a sober production resonate. David Cote, though he very much liked our show “Hail Satan”, and even though he stated that he hadn’t seen very much in the festival, still eye-rolled and shrugged the whole thing off. Of course, as an indy producer, you will be used to the established guys rolling their eyes at your shows anyway, so this won’t be a shock.

3) The festival is NOT your show. The festival is the festival. This festival has been marching along for YEARS, producing more than 200 shows a year, utilizing the skills of thousands of people and although they love you and really do cherish the work you’re doing, but it’s a bit like the way you feel about your own mitochondria. The publicity and press arm is going to focus on making sure the festival continues to succeed, and that is what they *should* be doing. You have to fight for your own artistic voice to be heard, the festival is not going to fight for you. The more you give them, the more you will get in return, but know that the money is easier, the venues are better, but the work is actually a vast upgrade on your time and energy.

4) You get less than 2/3 of the ticket price. It’s closer to half, when you consider all the free tickets and fringe passes. So you have to sell twice as many tickets as you think you do. Everyone in the union gets in free, so don’t think you’re gonna sell out on the backs of the actors who love you. Our budget is usually around seven grand, half the ticket price is $7.50… that math is pretty easy. To break even, we’d have to have a thousand people come to the show.

5) The benefits I just mentioned are fleeting. Most people *in* the festival don’t go see other shows *in* the festival. There are too many shows, and too many of them are terrible. This is by design, and if you were to complain to the decision makers about the overwhelming impact of the festival, they would say, “tough. That’s how we like it.” If there are 200 shows, and each show has 20 people involved, that’s four thousand people. But, if 20% of them see five shows each, that’s eight hundred people seeing four hundred shows. That’s two audience members per production. And believe me, that’s a pretty good average.

The only way to get your head above water is to keep treading water and let the rest sink. This isn’t a competition, but there is simply no shortcut to “having been there a while”. You may think the money and the publicity is enough to make a difference, but it simply IS NOT.

As an example, we sold out five shows and had a sixth added at the Lortel. That means, we had about 1700 people see our show “Fleet Week”, and in the program was an ad for our next production, going up at the end of October. We messaged the same people who saw Fleet Week and did the same publicity… and we sold about 175 seats. Total.

Why? Because the audience had only seen ONE SHOW of ours. It didn’t matter. If you drive past an intersection and there’s five fast-food joints, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, a Taco Bell and a Gerald’s, what are the chances you’re gonna go to Gerald’s? My point is that one of the drawbacks is that the benefits won’t automatically translate. You can have the best show at the Fringe Festival, it’s still only ONE show. You have to develop a track record.

6) A warning – if your show sucks, it will still suck. We’ve produced four shows in the Fringe Festival, three of them won awards. No amount of festival support or our mother’s love could have done anything for the fourth. There’s no secret to this, if your show is terrible, people will know it’s terrible. A lot of people will know it.

It remains a shell-shocking experience for us. There is nothing quite like writing, producing and paying for a show that you don’t want to watch…

1. When submitting to the festival, put your artistic foot first. Lead with the show, not with the management, not with the stars attached. Let them know what the show is. When they read a fun script, they get excited, but when they call the number on the script and they get a literary agent from Abrams, the producers start feeling like you’re gonna use the festival as an out-of-town tryout, and that’s not what they want.

2. Larger houses mean larger expectations. If you’re accustomed to producing for a 55 seat house, be prepared to find 187 seats *staggering*. When “Viral” was extended, we were excited for about three minutes, and then we looked at each other and said, “we have a thousand more seats to sell, and everyone we know has already come…”

3. Get your marketing materials to them as early as possible. Whatever date you’ve set for it, get it to them a month before that. When you get your acceptance letter on May 15th, have pictures ready to go.

4. Sell out one show. Focus all your energy on selling ONE NIGHT, not the whole run. As soon as one show sells out, a giant sign goes up saying “August 17, 9 PM show, SOLD OUT” and you’ll sell even more tickets. In other words, if you can sell 130 tickets, try and get everyone focused on buying on the same night. If you’re looking at the presales, and your list looks like this “127, 8, 2, 7, 11”, then you’re doing it right.

5. Use it as an opportunity to raise the market awareness of your company. If you decide to make a company for a one-off, the Fringe Festival might not be the right place for you. It’s half the money and twice the work, and if you’ve done the work and lost the money, you should work on capitalizing later.

As a post-script, the Fringe Festival has made us. There’s no other way of looking at it, our success is in no small part because we have a symbiotic relationship with the festival, and it has worked really well for us.

Caroline or Change

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I am breaking a bit with my own self-imposed rule on this blog. I never meant for this to be a review site, I go and see plays and then come here and tell you about them. In the end, I assume that the decision about whether or not you want to go is up to you. I’ve decided that I’m going to try to do more than that today.

If you have any level of investment in New York Theater, established or independent, you need to go to the Gallery Players production of Caroline or Change. Please go, you will be glad you did, and you will kick yourself if you miss it.

Pictured (l to r): Daniel Henri Luttway and Teisha Duncan in The Gallery Players’ production of Caroline, or Change. Photo by Bella Muccari.

Broadway shows fill a need that’s different than the one independent theater serves. Our job is more like church. What we want, when we walk into a theater, is to be transported and transformed. We want a revelation, and we want to know that something is happening right here, in the same room, that we are both witness to and participant in. That is why, in the past, I’ve always been frustrated when independent theaters try to produce (or worse, re-produce) what has just been on the stage on Broadway, so I walked in to this show with a little bit of low level trepidation. What was given to me was, put simply, the very best that Broadway has to offer, married to the very best of independent theater. It was an astonishing performance, reinvigorating and inspiring, a reminder that we may all be looking for the same thing.

Because of the nature of this story, the entire production is on the shoulders of the talent on stage, so I have to start with them, rather than a discussion of the ideas in the play.

Daniel Henri Luttway plays the young boy Noah, and his awkward adolescent physicalization is married to a perfect sure-footed musicality. At first, I was nervous that the score would be too hard for such a young performer but, of course, I totally forgot once he negotiated some of the more angular and elegant vocal lines. His counter-part in the other family, Elyse McKay Taylor as Emmie, is really fantastic. It was hard for me to get a handle on exactly how young the daughter is supposed to be, the actress could easily pass for anything from 17 to 25, but her ability to handle the role erased the question. If Caroline is the soul of the play, Emmie is the heart, and in the role, Ms. Taylor is just the epitome of beauty.

Frank Viveros, who plays the dryer and bus driver (yes, he plays the dryer) is astonishing. I don’t normally try to justify my opinion with background, but my father is a symphony conductor, my mother is a composer, we grew up with Vince Guaraldi sleeping on our couch and Beverly Sills eating enchiladas in our dining room. I worked for twenty years as a music producer, I’ve recorded something in the neighborhood of a thousand different singers and, in my career as a theater producer, I’ve seen countless hundreds of productions. Mr. Viveros is among the top five voices I’ve ever been in the same room with. I can’t over-hype him enough.

Pictured (l to r): Marcie Henderon and Teisha Duncan in The Gallery Playersí production of Caroline, or Change. Photo by Bella Muccari.

The real miracle, though, is Teisha Duncan. Obviously, everything I write here is filtered through my own life experience, but at the beginning of the evening, after she started ripping through the title character, I thought, “oh no… she’s not gonna make it.” I’ve got a musical theater resume a mile long, and I know when someone is blowing their wad too early. By the time the second act began, it began to dawn on me that her talent wasn’t that of a wayward theater gypsy, that I was in the presence of something really singular. And then, she has a piece of music that leads to the end of the play, a sort of Gethsemene moment, and only minutes in to it did I realize that I was sitting there, mouth agape, hands over my eyebrows, in the presence of greatness. The explosion from the rest of the audience when her number ended was so authentic, so communal, that it reminded me what theater is meant to be.

Now, it’s not a perfect production. I felt like they did the best they could with the role of the grandfather, and the younger kids are both serviceable. With theater on this level, it’s tough to find age appropriate actors over fifty and under 20, and the fact that they did as well as they did is pretty spectacular. The pit band was also at times wonderful, but the strings, in particular, were just awful on occasion, and with music like this, sour notes on the violin could have been deadly, had they not been so well-ignored by the talented cast.

But the majority of the production is a wonder. Supported by a simple, elegant and articulate set, with a faded twenty dollar bill filling the lower playing space and three levels of homes and porches all suggested with steps and frames, the direction is phenomenal. The show spins by, for all its suggested languidity and there isn’t a wasted moment or piece of set. This is a show where the moon has a role, and sings a duet with a washing machine at the end of the second act, and the director has taken this Tom Robbins-esque absurdity and made it a David Eggers work of staggering heartbreak.

The play itself… I came home and started sending emails. Look, if you’re reading my blog, then chances are, you’re like me. You like to go see theater, but the $85-$145 tickets on Broadway are a once-every-four-years kind of thing. And even then, you’ve TKTS’ed it, or you’re standing in the back. And you don’t care, because you’d rather go see something insane at The Brick or Here Arts Center than to go see Mamma Mia or Shrek.

And so a lot of my friends have given up on the musical as an art form. What can a musical even do? This is the answer. The plot for this piece is simple. A Jewish family moves to Louisiana after the wife dies and the husband re-marries her best friend. Their son, Noah, misses his mother, hates his step-mother (despite her best intentions) and has found an unwilling soul-mate in their maid, Caroline. In an effort to teach her son to value his money, and without realizing how deeply insulting it is, the step-mother tells Caroline to keep whatever change Noah leaves in his pockets when she does the wash. Caroline has four children of her own, and the small change in this boy’s pockets can actually change her life.

That’s really it. I dare you to write a play about that and make it interesting. You can’t, because not enough happens. That is why musicals are so important. And the fact that this musical makes the argument for the entire art-form is why it’s so important, and why, no matter who you are, you should see it.

If you think that modern musicals are all sung-through Sondheim rip-offs with no tunes, come see this show. If you think musicals are all plot-then-song, plot-then-song, plot-then-song, then come see this show. If you think that there are no productions worth seeing for $18, this show will change your entire worldview. If you think there is no talent outside of Actor’s Equit
y Association, PLEASE come and see Teisha Duncan. If you think Tony Kushner needs to be done in a million dollar production to work… my God, you need to see this show. No one flies, no one delivers biblical verse, nobody even talk about Jesus… but toward the end of the show, Caroline says to Noah, “that sadness you have inside you? I have it too, and it never goes away”, and it is somehow one of the most hopeful and uplifting things that I’ve witnessed in a year of shows.

I’ve said we shouldn’t compare ourselves to Broadway. Well, maybe we should. Maybe we can do it better, for less money, and have the stories mean more. Maybe we’re better than them *at their own game*. They probably had a great string section in the Broadway production, but would that be enough to charge seven times the ticket price? I wanted to compare us to church, but maybe it isn’t necessary. Caroline, in the second act, says she needs to go to church, but then she stands in her front yard and tells us a story. Maybe we don’t need the church, what we need is the story.

I know that’s true for me, and if you’re wondering if it’s true for you, you should see this show.