Sunday, January 31, 2010
A presentation of the findings of the OOB demographics study along with a question and answer session is scheduled for:
January 31st at 6:30pm
The Players Theater Loft (115 MacDougal Street)
and live-streamed at www.nyitawards.com/live
Join in the discussion about the study results, how they reflect you and your company, the practical uses for these statistics and participate in the question and answer session.
Please join us in person and through the live blog and twitter.
Plus Shay will be bringing homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Thanks so much to Zachary Mannheimer for his inspiring and thought provoking blogs last week.
Next weeks guest blogger is Heather Cunningham.
Heather Cunningham is the producing artistic director of Retro Productions, a 6 time IT Award nominated Off-Off-Broadway company. Although an actress first, Heather’s “survival jobs” have included administrative positions such as project manager (United Stages), box office treasurer, and development associate. While a resident company member at the historic Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, her many non-acting assignments included box office assistant, costume shop and stock manager, costume designer, master painter (scenery), administrative assistant, literary manager, and coordinator for a festival of short plays. Heather has performed in New York City for Retro Productions and River Heights Productions (which she co-founded), Threads New Work Series, Kef Productions, New York Theatre Workshop, Confluence Theatre Company, The Vital Theatre, and New York Play Development, among others, as well as cabaret rooms around the city. Of her performance as Cheryl in Emily Mann's Still Life Marc Miller named hers a "Performance to Remember, 2007" and said she "burst with working-class outrage and resentment yet made you care for this lost soul without begging for sympathy. And in an evening of three monologues, she played off the other two actors, never showily but always eloquently." Heather was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Jack, has been a director and set designer and her mother, Rebecca, recently retired as professor of costume design and construction at Brooklyn College. Rebecca is also the author of the costume texts The Magic Garment, Principles of Costume Design and Basic Sewing for Costume Construction. Heather is fiercely proud of her parents, themselves a IT Award nominated set design team.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Zachary Mannheimer.
You heard it here first.
Answering the New York Times article, In Europe, the Arts Ask for Alms 1/20/2010
Text Message: OMG! We’re going to lose all of our state aid! What are we going to do!!!???
There really is no way around it. With state and g'ment budgets being slashed left and right (10% across the board here in Iowa, I believe it's worse in NYC) and basic services like police and fire and education being cut, why should we artists believe that our funding won't be cut as well? The President said tonight (which is why this is a day late) that in 2011 all g’ment spending would freeze.
There are many different schools of thought on this, though. One can look to Minnesota who has recently surpassed Hawaii as the top state funder of the arts ($5.67 per Minnesotan goes to the arts). When compared with other states, this is dramatic - my state ranks 36th and gives 42cents per Iowan - California is dead last at 3cents per Californian and budgets are being slashed left and right - Pennsylvania and Florida both planned on eliminating arts funding entirely for fiscal year 2010 but were saved by rallies from artists - though both states suffered still almost a 50% cut in funding.
Not only does a cut in funding impact the state budget, federal dollars are tied to the amount the state has allocated. So if the state funding is cut, so is the amount the federal government gives to the state, so it's basically a double whammy for arts organizations.
This is not going to change any time soon. Even if the economy rebounds, it's not going to be dramatic enough to re-instate arts funding on a mass level - indeed most states operate at a deficit anyway, so they will most likely up what politicians deem "essential services" and the arts is not one of them. Plus, it's hard to justify not funding a school and instead funding a theatre company or museum, and these are the kinds of decisions state legislators are going to have to make. You think they will be voted back in if they help the arts over a police officer?
Therefore, we as arts institutions need to change as well. All over the country (and the world, clearly) the buzzword for 2010 is going to be "Sustainable". Businesses, non and for-profit alike are pushing towards sustainability. For a for-profit business this is easier to define - Sustainable meaning you are bringing in enough revenue to cover your bottom line. For non-profits (or social-profits, which is a much better term for us) this definition is more difficult. As 501c3 organizations, we are limited to 1/3 of our annual budget being represented by dollars that do not deal directly with our mission. That means, for theatre companies, only ticket sales and some merchandise can account for earned income with no limitation. If you are selling beverages or food, for instance, in your lobby - the gross-profit you make from this cannot exceed 1/3 of your annual budget as it does not serve the mission of your organization.
So what do we do? One idea is to lobby congress to change the laws surrounding 501c3's to stop that limitation. I would argue that a deal can be made where, since for years opponents of charities have wanted us to pay taxes like any other business, that we should pay taxes. Not at the same level as for-profit entities, but something. 1% even. If they remove this 1/3 limitation. We can still accept donations and grants and offer a tax-deduction to our funders, but we should pay 1% or more for this.
We artists have been saying for years: “You have to fund us and we also will not pay taxes.” And we wonder why those on the right side of the aisle find us elitist, or ignore us altogether. We are what they think we are – a bunch of begging bums.
Obviously this is a long battle to change these laws, and we need answers now as all over the nation arts organizations are either shutting their doors or slashing programming.
So we have to change. Now. No more whining about how we need more grants. We need to run our art like any other company – we need to be conscious of our bottom line, and find ways to meet it. The idea that we will grow up to be another Public Theatre or St. Ann’s Warehouse is not going to happen without a millionaire board member, and those are hard to find these days. The only reason why those companies exist is because they either have this millionaire(s) or they have built up a loyal endowment over the last 20 odd years. These companies are eating up all the grant money anyway. The rate of non-profit arts groups being founded versus the rate of new funding sources is not even in the same hemisphere. We have to find our budget somewhere else. I would like to offer my organization as an example.
The Des Moines Social Club is an experiment. So far it’s working. Our funding model is based on the premise that we have had to have at least 2 full-time jobs to make theater (1 that pays us and the other, theatre, that does not). So why not combine them? My job was in restaurants – which I’ve been doing for over 17 years now. If we have a for-profit entity (restaurant/bar) whose sole purpose is to fund the non-profit and serve as a meeting ground for artists and audiences, we might survive.
All of us have “marketable skills” that pay our bills when theatre does not. How can we combine these two worlds into one, cut down on the amount of hours and commuting we work, and put it under 1 roof. Originally I wanted the bar (it will be a restaurant next year – grease traps are fucking expensive) to be part of the non-profit, but the IRS did not care for that idea, so we separated the companies. The bar pays 1/3 of the gross profits of the bar to the non-profit as rent as the non-profit owns the lease on the building. The bar is a completely separate company, an LLC. I am one of the owners of the bar. I have never seen any income from the bar and doubt I will – that’s not the point. The point is that the monies from the bar go to the non-profit. It’s like having a fundraiser everyday. The bar is open every night as any other bar (and our specialty cocktails and wine list are killer, btw).
This is one approach to paying our own way. As we grow we will be adding more for-profits to the building, all with a similar agreement the bar has. Our predictions show that we will hit 70% sustainability in 5 years at the rate we are moving now. That’s without the restaurant, catering company, wine store, etc. I predict we will be sustainable in 5 years.
And this lets us pay our artists. I’ve made more money as a director in DSM in 1 year than I did in 8 in NYC put together.
The fact is that we can no longer rely on grants and rich folk to always fund us. We need to take some initiative. We love to plead poverty, but really it’s just laziness. We won’t make it on ticket sales and grants, so what will we do? DMSC is one model, there are many others. A big one depends on where you are doing your theatre. That is the discussion for the next blog.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Zachary Mannheimer.
I’ve been out of the OOB for a little over 2 years now. I moved to NYC from London where I worked for the Royal Court and Samuel French in 2000. I founded The Subjective Theatre Company in 2001 and The Community Dish and its list serve in 2002. I was extremely active in the OOB community, and remember quite vividly when Shay and others were founding the IT Awards.
I left NYC in the summer of 2007 as I felt my contributions to the theatre world of NYC were not vital. I did, and still do, theatre with a political bent, and the bend typically leans left. As I looked around the country after the 2004 and 2006 elections, I saw, as everyone else did, a great deal of division. I’m one of those people who think art can help bridge divides, and I saw that in most of the “red” areas of the country, not a great amount of “left” theatre was taking place. This was my original impetus for leaving. I have since found that my notion of no “left” theatre was incorrect, but what I have found instead are areas where artistic expression is stifled, therefore not allowing for much debate and discourse.
I started my journey in the summer of 2007. After careful demographical research, I drove to 22 cities all around the country each with the average population of about 500,000 people. I spent 3-5 days in each city. I spoke to many theatre people amongst my interviews. All of this is documented at www.zacksblog.subjectivetheatre.org if you are interested. I chose Des Moines for many reasons, the largest being its ability to try anything once and its desire for progress in order to retain and recruit its young people; Iowa is one of the top states to attract college students, and one of the worst in keeping them.
I moved here in Oct 2007 not knowing a single person in the state of Iowa. Since then I have formed the 501c3 Des Moines Social Club – a 30,000 square foot old warehouse in the center of downtown Des Moines housing an Art Gallery (www.instinctgallery.com), 5000 square foot black box theatre (which houses 4 Resident Theatre Companies included The Subjective Theatre Company of DSM), Education Department offering over 15 arts based classes weekly, and a for-profit full bar The Sideshow Lounge – all of this can be seen at www.DesMoinesSocialClub.org. We have raised over $500,000, have 5 employees and 9 in the bar, and a unique funding model where 1/3 of all gross profits from the bar are paid as rent to the non-profit with a $50,000 cap.
I would like to use this opportunity to discuss two subjects over the course of this week: The Differences between theatre OOB and everywhere else, and how this theatre is paid for.
Tomorrow please look for a response to this recent article in the NY Times:
Wed: Reasons why my philosophy has done a 180 concerning corporate donations, and commercialism
Thurs: Differences between OOB and Des Moines (and no, not the obvious ones)
Weekend: Summary of any questions/comments
Thank you for the opportunity OOB – I miss OOB everyday – this is a wonderful way to reconnect. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Big thanks to Paul Bargetto for guest blogging for us last week. His post were thought provoking and inspired.
Next weeks blogger is Zachary Mannheimer. Find out what Zach has been up to since leaving the city.
Zachary Mannheimer founded The Subjective Theatre Company on OOB in 2001 and The Community Dish in 2002. After 8 years on OOB he toured the country for a new city to open an interactive arts club. He choose Des Moines, Iowa and in 2009 he opened The Des Moines Social Club, a non-profit Art Gallery, Black Box Theater and Education Center funded by a for-profit Bar and Lounge where he serves as the Executive Director.
Zachary's written work has been published in American Theatre, The New York Theatre Review and The Brooklyn Rail and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine and NPR.
Friday, January 22, 2010
This demonstration was in response to a challenge that President Stringer made in February of 2009 at a joint public forum on the state of small to mid-sized theatres in NYC that was hosted by Community Boards 1 – 5. “Hold us [elected officials] to a higher standard” he said, “give us a roadmap to the products you expect.” The Community Boards took this challenge to heart.
Committees were mobilized in an effort to find “innovative solutions to remedy the current fiscal and real estate crises that are endangering… theatres and other performing arts organizations throughout New York City.” Over the last year hundreds of emails have been sent and dozens of roundtables and meetings were held to gather information and prioritize the needs of the independent theatre community. At the top of the list was affordable rehearsal and performance space...READ THE FULL STORY
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Paul Bargetto.
One of the major pillars of the crisis that faces Independent/Off-Off theater is the misdirection of funding dollars. This problem is universal and includes the City, State, grant makers, and private individuals. Throughout the city, it is presenters, and primarily their buildings and administrations that are consuming the lions share of available funding. A quick glance around town and one can see millions of dollars being spent on upgrading and renovating buildings (PS 122, DTW, 3LD, the Kitchen, and HERE to name a few), all of which maintain staffs of full time curators and administrators. A significant percentage of this funding was borrowed and this has placed very expensive burdens on the institutions that threaten their sustainability. While I do not complain about having new spaces and beautiful lobbies and cafes, I wonder very much where the artists who produce the work enter into the funding equation.
The reality is that all of the spaces I have mentioned are presenting plays by small local companies and ensembles that are incapable of paying themselves even a minimum wage. The mostly all volunteer army of Independent Theater – (the Artists) work at rates that would be criminal in any other industry, and must work outside jobs to survive. So while the buildings have improved, the quality of the art inside has not. Theater takes time to develop and when the artists toil in part time dedication the result is to be expected. When will an equal gesture of funding be made toward the artists who make the work?
The system as it stands today means that there is rarely any reward out there for the successful production or ensemble. Beyond the temporary glory of a great review, where is the great production left at the final curtain? With touring options incredibly limited, with festivals offering no cash prizes, with Off Broadway transfers a myth, with funded residencies non-existent, where do the artists find the resources to keep producing? The clever and well connected ones are going to Europe, or are making solo pieces. For the rest, the best advice going is "get a millionaire on your Board!"
Since that dream is out of reach for most of us, (but not all!), I believe that what is needed are year long fully funded residencies that provide not only space, but salaries for the artists! Why are buildings continually created or renovated without equal endowments to properly program them?
The last question is whether or not the City’s existing spaces are being properly utilized. New York is a University Town and almost all of them have a theater, and many have more than one. Since these theaters already exist and are often under utilized (See the Skirball Center), why are more not given to deserving small companies as funded residencies? How interesting it would be for the current drama students to share their space with a real working company!
I have been working in New York long enough to see many small companies go under or completely transform their core artists. It is heartbreaking to see so many promising artists get ground down by the nearly impossible demands of simply keeping body and soul together and a roof over their head. Independent Theater is consistently making the work that the rest of the theater establishment has abandoned. It is serious and challenging in both form and content and is pressing the boundaries of the art form.
The Artists making this new work have out of necessity dedicated themselves to a monastic poverty sustained only by the measure of their belief. Does it really have to be this way? The time is ripe for a reconsideration of our funding priorities and time for the artists to claim their fair share of the pie.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
- 85% of the OOB population holds a college degree. This is 58% higher than the national average.
- 86% voted in the 2004 presidential election. This is 22% higher than the national average of 64%.
- 68% of respondents are age 21-40
- 53% of respondents are female
- Income level of Off-Off-Broadway artists is near the national average, and slightly below the NY state average
- 91% of respondents live in New York City
- 10% of respondents reported making their living exclusively from their work in the theatre
- 48% of the respondents currently belong to at least one theatrical union
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Paul Bargetto.
I have been working as a director and independent producer in New York City since 1996. I began my career at the Collective:Unconscious, a self described "art hole" on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. For my first year in the big city I lived in the basement, under the stage with six other artists. In this wild and sleepless theater I began exploring and creating my first experiments as a director and producer. Traveling down to Ludlow Street at that time was still a somewhat risky proposition as its commercial heart was driven by the drug trade and the random mugging. That and theater! There was an amazing cluster of small Off-Off-Broadway theaters on that block at that time including The House of Candles, Todo Con Nada, The Piano Store, Expanded Arts, and of course Collective:Unconscious. Soon the bars followed the theater audiences down the block and for a brief time the scene was in full flower. The International Fringe Festival was born the following year on Suffolk Street. I was young, burning with ambition, and thrilled at the possibilities of making theater in such an amazing community.
Then the real estate bubble tidal wave that was poised over our head crashed down with a vengeance. Exploding rents shuttered almost all of those small theaters within three years and drove many of the artists to move out of Manhattan. A general migration began to the outer boroughs, first to Williamsburg, just over the bridge in Brooklyn and then to Queens and Long Island City. Those neighborhoods would also in time face the same problem and today's theater artists have been driven farther and farther from the creative center of Manhattan, the audience for their work, and most importantly from each other.
Those few blocks of Ludlow Street are unrecognizable to me today, it has transformed into an expansion of Soho boutiques and bridge and tunnel bars. The building that used to house the Collective Unconscious was torn down and never rebuilt. An "art hole" to the end!
Yet independent theater continued to grow and thrive! Each new year has brought more and more artists, many of them with freshly minted MFA's from ivy league schools. Despite the space churn and ever rising costs more and more dreamers bought the one way ticket, formed companies, and chased down their vision of a new theater and an artistic home. That process has continued right up to today, so that now, Independent/Off-Off-Broadway contains the largest population of theater artists in the city, and the nation.
This has created an incredibly fertile scene, with many brilliant artists who are pushing the boundaries and creating new forms. I have never seen as many exciting new plays, ensembles, and festivals as there are today. But this historic migration of American and international theater artists to New York City has created and exposed a host of systemic problems. I believe that the system of funding, presenting and producing as it stands today is at a crossroads and faces a fundamental crises. I believe that our already threadbare funding is consistently being misdirected, that the outlets and touring options available for successful work are limited or non-existent, and that the artists making this fabulous revolution are so under compensated as to guarantee that it is unsustainable. I will discuss each of these issues in greater detail in more entries to come.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Lanie Zipoy.
I looked over the Off-Off-Broadway demographics survey conducted by the Innovative Theatre Foundation, and saw that 93% of Off-Off Broadway practitioners live in New York state. Granted, that isn’t a mind-blowing statistic. I don’t think any of us in the community are surprised that the number is that high. Still, there is a golden opportunity here.
I’ve long said that Off-Off-Broadway theatre is made by New Yorkers for New Yorkers. While I’m grateful when a tourist checks out one of my shows (audience is audience!), I advocate that we focus our efforts on New Yorkers. Theatre for us, by us in our varied neighborhoods.
Most of us, at least according to the survey, are not native New Yorkers. We were drawn here for the art and culture as well as the opportunity to live cramped existences next to other people who also came to NYC for the art and culture. Let’s inspire our neighbors, the ones we know and the ones we don’t, to put the Wii down, leave the apartment and take in a show. After all, you can play your Wii in Memphis, Topeka, or Ft. Lauderdale, but you cannot see A Brief History of Murder or Erosion anywhere.
At the Off-Off-Broadway Community Dish meeting the other night, I threw out this idea that OOB theatre is for New Yorkers. I suggested we start an ‘I Heart NY’-style campaign for Off-Off-Broadway. Jenny Greeman of New Perspectives loved the idea, and fancies a viral video campaign, t-shirts, the works. I’m certainly game.
First, we need to define our world to New Yorkers. Let’s figure out ways to make our work analogous to our fellow New Yorkers who aren’t artsmakers.
A friend of mine, who works for one of the banks that received so much government money, attended a show with me a little while ago, and when I told him everything that went into a production, he was impressed. “You’re mini-entrepreneurs,” he observed with respect. Yes, we make things happen. We turn bare stages into a beautiful (or in some cases not-so-beautiful) sets, and bring worlds to life. Now that he understands all the effort it takes to mount a production, he’s even more of a theater fan. We had dinner last night, and he rattled off all of the productions he’d seen in the last few months.
Next, let’s meet with Jenny Greeman. T-shirts, viral videos and more are needed to brand what we do. Other ideas are certainly welcome. I think we have an opportunity here. Who’s with me and Jenny?
Monday, January 11, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Lanie Zipoy.
In Michael Margolis’s new book Believe Me: Why Your Vision, Brand, and Leadership Need a Bigger Story, he asks, “Is your story big enough?” Last night, the entrepreneur and executive coach led a thought-provoking discussion at the Off-Off-Broadway Community Dish, a consortium of independent theatre companies with a great listserv and delicious bi-monthly meetings. The organization gets its name from the mouth-watering potluck cooked by its members (Marielle Duke’s broccoli and cheese crescent rolls were a big hit) and the accompanying discussion about awide range of issues affecting OOB. Founded in 2002 by Zachary Mannheimer, the group is now led by Boomerang Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Tim Errickson and Amanda Feldman, Lark Play Development Center’s General Manager.
Throughout the evening, Margolis asked the million-dollar questions – ones that we as a community need to diligently answer every day.
“What is Off-Off-Broadway’s cultural contribution?”
Every one of the 12 members in attendance had a different answer to this question. Our contributions are as varied and diverse as the hundreds of OOB companies currently producing work in the city. As a community, we also make a significant financial impact on the city, offering jobs and supporting local businesses.
Gideon Productions’ Sean Williams, however, observed that OOB companies’ strength lies in the singularity of vision, each company’s ability to push its worldview.
“What is the bigger story?”
Margolis emphasized that OOB as a community and individual companies must develop their brands, the unique stories that connect the community and the companies to audiences. He suggested keeping three factors in mind:
(1) The Past – the origins of your company/community. How, why and when was your company/community formed?
(2) The Present – the ethos of the company/community. What are the qualities and ideas your company/community stands for?
(3) The Future – the cultural contribution of the company/community. What value does your company/community add tothe world?
“What is the contract with your audience?”
Margolis stressed that audiences today want authenticity and intimacy. Companies should be open and honest in their marketing efforts and represent productions with integrity. Also, OOB’s smaller venues may be assets when reaching potential audience members. The immediacy of the stage is a selling point, offering a dynamic experience for the audience.
I was really struck by the audience portion of the discussion. I firmly believe that the greatest story ever told is not the one you’ll see on stage. Instead, it is the 40-word blurb you write about your production, the marketing image you choose to represent your upcoming show, and the connection you make with the most important person to any theatrical endeavor: the audience member.
I have the greatest respect for playwrights, directors,actors, and designers as well as the beautiful alchemy of creating a theatrical piece. Theatre, however, is most magical when it is a call and response between the artists and the audience.
In 2010, I challenge us to tell a bigger story, to build our individual and collective audience bases, and to strengthen our community’s identity. I would love to hear any ideas about how we can accomplish these goals.
For more information on Michael Margolis, visit http://www.getstoried.com, and to join the Off-Off-Broadway Community Dish, check out http://www.communitydish.org.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
We're proud to announce next week's guest blogger: Lanie Zipoy! Lanie's first post will be Monday, January 11.
Lanie Zipoy has worked in the Off-Off-Broadway community for over six years as a producer and publicist. She produced Mac Rogers' Universal Robots, which was named the 2009 Best Off-Off Broadway Play by the Independent Theater Bloggers Association and received four 2009 New York Innovative Theatre Awards nominations. She has served as the publicist on Thoroughly Stupid Things (Outstanding Playwriting Award, FringeNYC 2008) and Jesus in Montana (Outstanding Solo Show, FringeNYC 2005). Her clients include Ground UP Productions, Hip Obscurity, The Production Company, Theaterlab, T. Schreiber Studio and Wide Eyed Productions. She is currently producing a revival of Caroline, or Change for The Gallery Players, opening January 30th.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jeffrey Keenan.
Today is my last post and this has been an incredibly fun week of Guest Blogging for y’all here at the New York Innovative Theater Awards blog.
If advertising slogans are correct, producing live theater is sort of like joining the army: It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. No, it’s not feeding displaced refugees from Afghanistan, and it’s not serving the poverty and disease stricken of Haiti, and it’s not digging a well for the thirsty children of Sudan, but it’s a way of keeping your humanity intact. It’s a way of checking in with the collective unconscious while hanging out with your friends and exploring the whys and wherefores of being human. It allows you to stretch your creative muscles and begs of you deeper compassion and communication skills. It opens up worlds that you might never be able to travel to otherwise, and if you’re really, really lucky, people applaud when you’re done.
Allow yourselves to make mistakes but ALWAYS be sure to learn from them. Don’t be afraid to make your friends and families get involved, but ALWAYS make sure they know how much responsibility you’re giving them. See everything everyone does. Read every single Shakespeare play (except Timon of Athens and King John—those are real stinkers).
Surround yourself with incredibly talented and smart and beautiful and motivated people. If you, yourself, are none of those things, become them. You really only have to believe it to make it so.
Money is the worst excuse possible to deny yourself ANYTHING—certainly throwing a show together. Can’t afford a theater? Find a bar who wants the business. Can’t find a bar? Use the largest apartment you can cajole out of your friends. Invite the most talented people you know to sit down and read a play together. WRITE SOMETHING.
Perhaps I’m not as strong with encouraging action as I am at taking it, but I hope for those of you who’ve produced something theatrical, this emboldens your resolve. For those of you considering producing something, I hope this pushes closer to your goals. For those of you who wonder how the hell I got this gig, I’m right there with ya! Let’s go have a drink and talk about something else!
2010 is still in its infancy after the horrible gestation period that was 2008 and 2009. Don’t let that fresh “new year’s smell” go to waste! Make up your mind to get involved. You have nothing at all to lose.
Thanks again to the New York Innovative Theater Awards Foundation and their amazing Executive Producers: Shay Gines, Nick Micozzi and Jason Bowcutt, and Morgan Tachco for all their help, support and thoughtfulness, and Christopher Borg for allowing me to shamelessly use him as blog fodder.
Here’s to a very productive year ahead!
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jeffrey Keenan.
I don’t wish to sound too self-important, but if it wasn’t for me, Christopher Borg would still be slingin’ hash in some two-bit restaurant in a sketchy neighborhood of Washington DC.
I only mention that little tidbit of information because Christopher Borg yesterday insisted that I, as this week’s guest blogger, relate the story to you of how his break-out solo show—Dan Butler’s The Only Thing Worse You Could Have Told Me—nearly didn’t happen.
After the trial-by-fire that was my first production, learning to be both producer and director for the first time at the same time, I didn’t relish the thought of donning both of those caps for my second show. Subsequently, I’d met and agreed to work with a man in Washington who was brilliant at telling you exactly what you wanted to hear, sometimes even before you knew to ask the question. We’ll call him Ted.
Ted’s job was to more or less act as the production manager. I’d pay for everything and make all the final creative decisions and Ted’s job was to execute it. I was the architect—he was the engineer. And we were both very excited about the prospects of what this relationship was going to allow each of us to accomplish individually as well as a team. The sky was the limit!
I had been worried that a one-man show was going to be pretty boring with just one guy (especially someone like Borg) standing alone on a stage talking for two hours. And having built an entire 30’ wide metropolitan apartment on stage for my previous show—complete with a functional working kitchen, patio deck with sliding glass door and furniture to fill the whole thing—my next show was going to have to be pretty spectacular to outshine the last.
At Ted’s urging, he and I designed a very involved and modern set incorporating ten different levels with video screens and live cameras to incorporate not only live footage as each performance played out, but also to create multiple videoscapes that would run simultaneous to the monologues giving them greater depth of meaning we thought, and wider visual appeal. Ted’s undergrad degree was in video production so he easily convinced me that he could not only create all of these videoscapes but he could easily tech them into the show as well. Envisioning this clean, sleek production, I was only too happy to give Ted all of this responsibility so I could focus on the other aspects of running a producing theater company.
The morning we moved into the theater to begin building and installing this ultra sleek and modern set, Ted didn’t show up. The theater was only about a half mile from my apartment, so I was there bright and early to let the various delivery guys load in about a half ton of wood for the platforming and all of the electrical and video equipment for the spectacle.
Ted, I eventually found out, had literally left the country overnight. His father had unexpectedly fallen ill in Africa and in a fit of blind concern, Ted up and flew half way around the world without telling anyone. In his possession at the time were all of the design plans, all of the costuming, all of the props—everything we had been working with or planning to use for the production because at the time I didn’t have a committed rehearsal or performance space in which I could store anything. And as a producer, Ted was adamant that he wanted the responsibility and control associated with owning and producing a show.
I was apoplectic. We were approximately 10 days away from opening a show I’d been advertising and selling tickets to for months and I suddenly didn't have a single production element I’d been planning on. I couldn’t cancel the show because every single dollar I had (and quite a few that I was counting on getting) were tied up in the show, so I sat down with Borg and tried to figure out what to do.
Ultimately, we did exactly the opposite of what we’d planned. I convinced all of the vendors from whom we had purchased or rented equipment to return to the theater and pick it all up and Borg and I embarked on reblocking the whole piece. We didn’t use any set at all—just the bare brick walls of the existing stage complete with heating ducts, electrical box, and old, boarded up windows. My lighting designer’s plot was no longer applicable, so we spent two long days in tech redesigning the lighting. The only set piece we used, as trite as it sounds, was a solitary coat rack on which hung all of the new costumes that Borg and I threw together at the last minute to try and create thirteen distinct and believable characters.
We somehow got the show open, and four long days later, The Washington Post ran a review on the front page of the Style section, complete with a picture of Borg as the drag queen from the show. It was an out and out rave. And as might be expected, one of the more congratulatory aspects of the review remarked on how amazingly effective simple staging can be to highlight good writing and great acting.
The Post did make one mistake though: the phone number listed to buy tickets was actually my home phone number. That telephone rang non-stop for three straight days. It was heaven and hell all at the same time.
I would never advise anyone to willfully scrap an entire design concept at the last minute, but I can’t underscore strongly enough that less is almost always more. Focus your time and money on your actors—there’s no better way to spend it.
Question of the Blog: How do you create spectacle with no money?
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jeffrey Keenan.
I love Cher. The reasons are many and varied. I’m a homosexual: that’s one. She sings catchy tunes: that’s two. Bob Mackey’s gowns: uh, ok, that’s still one. The movie Moonstruck: that’s three. Longevity: that’s four.
I also like Cher because her name is a homophone: a word pronounced the same as another but one that differs in meaning, whether spelled the same way or not, i.e., "Cher" and "share."
Sharing is brilliant idea when it comes to producing local and/or economically conscience theater.
The first crossover hit of my short but illustrious career as a producer in DC was with the locally written show Courting Chris. Courting Chris was a sort of Cyranno de Bergerac meets Will & Grace—perfectly timed for the culture and very, very funny to boot. Sam Schwartz, Jr. principally wrote the piece, but he was also my “Creative Other” at the time. Whenever I was directing his work, he would attend nearly every rehearsal sharing ideas on character and staging, and likewise, when I asked for rewrites, he would invite me work on the text with him. We shared those responsibilities.
The initial theater for Courting Chris was a tiny, 50 seat house in the Capital Hill neighborhood of Washington DC, far removed from the theater centers downtown and in the northwest quadrant. Small shows had been happening there for years, mostly as neighborhood or community projects not aspiring to great heights. But Courting Chris was a different show: new, topical, well written, funny… the audience and first-round reviewers all agreed.
The Theater Alliance under whose auspices I was producing Courting Chris, an organization that has since gone on to become one of the most highly respected small theater companies in Washington DC, at the time was a tiny little thing. Once the reviewers and word-of-mouth had sparked huge interest in the show, there simply wasn’t the space or time available in that little house to accommodate the crush for tickets.
The Church Street Theater in DC at the time was a rental house. 150 seats in a charming nineteenth century former girls' school gymnasium that had for years acted as a neighborhood playhouse. Luckily, it also sat smack dab in the middle of the “gayborhood,” just off of 17th on a picturesque little street north of downtown.
Church Street needed a show and my show needed a venue. Because of scheduling vagaries, we lost two of the four actors in the intervening weeks, and we spent a hectic pre-opening two weeks rehearsing new actors and retooling the show to fit in to this much larger and more accommodating space, but we opened mid July to a resounding flurry of glowing reviews.
A typical show in DC runs for 4-5 weeks. This show ran for fifteen. And Mr. Schwartz was nominated for his first Helen Hayes Award for best new script.
Before I’d hung up the reins after seven years of producing and directing in DC, I had produced theater in eight different venues across the city and had co-produced shows with at least five different organizations. In each case everyone involved benefited because each of us was willing and able to do the requisite work. And all of those relationships evolved out of friendships and professional respect.
Cher was particularly amazing in Moonstruck. But she wouldn’t have glowed half as brightly if Nicholas Cage hadn’t been there to absorb and reflect her light. If I do say so myself, they “Cher’d” the screen together brilliantly.
With whom could you co-produce?
What do you bring to the table?
What do you need?
For a review of Courting Chris, click here.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
This post was contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jeffrey Keenan.
Everything in my life is big. My first apartment in New York City was (is) a two-bedroom in Chelsea. My personal (and amazing) recipe for Macaroni & Cheese easily feeds six people (unless one of them is Jason Bowcutt and then it feeds, um, well, only, um, Jason Bowcutt). A single pair of my pants alone could easily house as many as three different Vietnamese families.
Everything in my life is big.
The first show I produced so many years ago began production with a budget of nearly $30,000. At the time, being a naïve, first-time producer/director, I assumed that amount was entirely logical. Hell, I’d heard that some Broadway shows were costing into the seven figures back then (the mid 90s) so $30K was a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Except that I didn’t have $30K. I didn’t have anything close to $30K. At the time, I was working as that pathetic voice you’d get in the morning when you called to complain that your Washington Post landed in a puddle and was unreadable, or you were going on vacation and didn’t want newspapers piling up outside your front door, or perhaps the damn thing didn’t even come at all. I was that shlub you screamed at at 6:30 in the morning. And for that wonderful abuse, I was paid $12 an hour.
Not having the capital to throw at the show from my own life (I'm from very humble beginnings in rural Ohio: Dad, a pastor; Mom, a substitute teacher), and having no formal training in business (I got a BA from one of those small, pricey private Ohio colleges for which I’m still paying back loans), I did the only thing I could: I decided to pay the damn thing off on the back end.
A business decision like this would only be made by a very, very stupid person or an incredibly optimistic one. Luckily I qualified as both. "Paying on the back end" is the process of using the profits of the show to pay for it. If you can't immediately see the flaws in that plan, send me an email and I'll enumerate them for you. The first show I produced in DC was called Party: an amusing one-act excuse to get seven naked men together on stage.
DC was, and still is, a rather conservative cultural town and no one at that time had ever seen seven penises gathered in one place at the same time outside of DC’s notorious gay strip clubs and the occasional Republican Congressman’s house party. It was my fervent belief that the impressively sized gay population of DC would support theater if it A) made them laugh and B) made them hard.
Turns out I was right.
I started advertising the show six months from its opening date. I begged, borrowed and stole from everyone I knew to get the barest minimum of cash together to put a deposit on the theater and to buy the materials for the set. I believe I didn’t pay rent on my apartment for three or four months prior to opening (luckily, one of those impressively sized gay DCers happened to be my landlord). Another friend had just started an event ticketing company and he was anxious for clients so I signed him up immediately. With the ticketing work and patron care spoken for, I concentrated on publicizing and producing the show.
The DC gay press let me set up business accounts to charge my full and half page ads, one of which I ran every single week three months prior to opening. I convinced The Washington Post to do a news story about this young, gay upstart (me) bringing liberal gay theater to DC. I got local bars to promote the show and pay for personal appearances of the cast. During the gay pride march of 1997, I convinced one of the buildings along Dupont Circle to allow me, just for the day, to hang a huge promotional poster of my mostly nude cast that could be seen for blocks. I borrowed a friend’s sports car and rode the scantily clad boys through the parade route handing out thousands of postcards. And somehow, the show opened to a sold-out house on a Friday in late June.
The first check I got from the ticketing vendor the following Thursday was for nearly $18,000. And we were sold out solid for the first six weeks. The show ran a total of fourteen weeks before we closed it for another show already contracted to come into the space. It grossed a total of just over $160,000. And in Washington DC in 1997, I paid my actors $300 a week.
Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. While this story reflects a lot of luck and a huge amount of hard work, it’s still ample evidence that there is no reason on the face of this earth why you can’t work to make your shows happen. Money is a minor obstacle. Faith in yourself is a vastly larger one.
As a betting man, I’m pretty sure you can do it. If you’re willing to do it. (And you have enough actor friends who don’t mind getting naked.)
Question of the Blog: How important do you think audience response is to your goal?
Coming Soon: Rough Waters Ahead!
Monday, January 4, 2010
This post was contributed by guest blogger of the week, Jeffrey Keenan.
True story: My great grandmother on my father’s side was a dime-a-dance girl in
Grammy, from my five-year-old perspective, possessed an indomitable spirit and an irrepressible personality. She could make all the family adults blush with embarrassment and concern announcing to the assembled grand kids that it was time for Penny Grab! Penny Grab was a game where Grammy would produce a HUGE mason jar of pennies which she would dump into her lap and we grandkids would nearly kill each other trying to claim as much coinage as we individually could. We would all hover on our knees like salivating hyenas mere feet away from Grammy as she would eye each of us with a knowing, anticipating grin. Finally, she yelled “Go!”
We lunged at her lap and grabbed and scooped and hoarded as many of the coins as our little pointy, diggy hands could get. I don’t really remember Grammy’s specific reaction to this game—thankfully, I was too busy grabbing at the bounty of her booty to recall any raised-chin, closed-eye, languid smiles—but I remember my parents and grandparents suddenly drawn to other pressing pursuits whenever Grammy pulled out one of her jingling jars.
Both of those pieces of information about my long-dead paternal Great Grandmother I share to illustrate a pretty simple point: Get yours. Grammy did her part for the war effort in 1919, and she made good money as an uneducated, second generation Irish immigrant with lots of hungry mouths to feed. Sure the neighbors talked: It was unseemly! How unladylike to sell one’s favors and personal attentions to strangers! In the night, no less?! And how close they stood!
It taught both Grammy and me (though my epiphany happened much later) to not give two hoots about what those neighbors and the church ladies thought about how one conducts one’s personal affairs, be they actual affairs or something else entirely. Grammy eventually married a man who drank too much and occasionally beat her, but they had three strong boys, all of whom got good jobs in
None of this, I know, has anything to do with End of Year funding issues. To that topic I resoundingly announce I have nearly no earthly idea how to help anyone. Why are you so broke at the end of the year? Did you not plan well enough? Did you overspend? Did you financially over commit? Were your revenues substantially smaller than anticipated? Did your entire Board resign, empty your checking account and treat themselves to brunch at Five Points in the Village?
Take a tip from my irrepressible Great Grandmother who didn’t have problem-one inviting her grandchildren to feel her up even as she was entering her 100th decade of life: Be ashamed of nothing. Once you truly come to understand and embody that mantra, there’s not a single thing you can’t do or dollar you can’t earn. And please don’t automatically assume I’m suggesting every red-blooded Off-Off-Broadway artistic director in New York start posting Craigslist ads for discrete, affordable hummers in various bar bathrooms around the city (though that’s not necessarily a bad idea), I am suggesting that you re-examine your ideals and your goals and your commitment to the same. How badly do you want this? Your answer to that question will determine your next steps.
Question of the Blog: How badly do you want this?
Coming Soon: Ideas to Raise Money Not Involving Oral Sex