Friday, February 26, 2010
As you are probably aware, March 27, 2010 is World Theatre Day. Here in New York City we will be celebrating by encouraging people to read or distribute the 2010 International World Theatre Day Message (by Dame Judi Dench) to their audiences, having a big party and participating in flash mobs through out the city.
Flash mobs can be amazing fun; creating a public spectacle and a piece of performance art. Want to be a part of one of these exciting and fun events? Email email@example.com and let us know.
Check out more information about World Theatre Day in NYC.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Desiree Burch.
I am sitting in bed in my underwear, on wrinkle-sheet island surrounded by dirty clothes. It's Tuesday morning and my whole life seems like a hangover today. Though yesterday's festivities consisted of rehearsals for The Soup Show rather than booze and bartop dancing, one typically leads to the other. I am a performance artist. Please, someone Google what that means and tell me. I am not sure. It's been a somewhat miscellany category that has defined what I do for the past decade. It's the private beach none of us performers knows we are on until we find ourselves there: alone, exhilarated overwhelmed and thankful.
There are too many days that I wake up and think that I should have gotten it more together. I graduated from Yale. Surely I could have sucked it up and gone to work for a marketing firm right now. I'd have a regular schedule and direct deposit and a gym membership and a regular appointment to get my various labia waxed and I would be happy. Or my parents and creditors would be happy, and I would be... secure. I might even be in one of those one-bedroom co-dependencies some of my friends call relationships. The ones they invite me over to for dinner, and look at me with big wet eyes, asking about my exciting life performing in bar basements in Europe or taking off my clothes for reviewers and liberal theatergoers. They tell me how excited they are that I am still following my dream (which indicates they believe my goals have more to do with fame than process, but most of us in this country are subject to the 'Carrot on the Stick' model--including me at times--so it's forgivable). and how much they envy me. I smile in ascension and enjoy their free food and wine, exploiting a socially symbiotic relationship that makes us each feel better about ourselves.
Part of the reason I do what I do is because these people suck. Not all of them, of course. Some are truly our friends and family. Others give us money. We love these people. Sometimes. But mostly, it's fundamentally hard--at least for me--to respect someone who has compromised their dream. It means they've abandoned hope for themselves, which in turn leads them to abandon hope in humanity, and they are helping to turn this world into the hell it presents itself as on a periodic basis. Sure, people grow up, dreams and goals change. But when you just decide to turn yourself off, you're that dead bulb on a string of Christmas lights that ruins the whole damned thing. If you let yourself get trapped in this state, you might as well get a job manufacturing cancer.
Happiness is a risk--or as our country calls it, a pursuit. Most of that time is spent chasing after something. For me, it's what's going to eventually get me out of this bed. Similarly, the things that bring a deep sense of happiness seem to come from Sisyphean efforts--art, love, teaching, social work, cleaning--things that fill us with passion for great change while silently affirming that nothing really ever changes, because life is the great Sisyphean effort that ends in the same dirt nap. That fight builds passion, and makes us who we are. So it's not that we're so brave or crazy as artists, but that we are living out the integrity of our lives. I am alive when I perform. And all the other moments that I can truly call alive are all want to be performed/shared/explored creatively. The words in my mouth are as tangible to me as my right arm, and I want to shake hands with as many people as I can in this world, and tell them what I see. Whether that is for my sake or theirs is unimportant.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Next week's Blogger is Desiree Burch.
Desiree Burch is an NYC-based comedian, emcee, writer, and performer, known for work with the New York Neo-Futurists in “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” and for her acclaimed solo show “52 Man Pickup” (four stars from Time Out NY, and The List, UK) which has been featured at Ars Nova, The Ohio Theater, Galapagos Artspace and in the New York (spotlighted by Backstage) and Edinburgh International Fringe Festivals. One of New York Magazine’s “10 People that Funny People Find Funny,” Desiree has supplied laughter for MTV, VH1, NBC News, The New York Post, Comedy Central, Huffington Post, Caroline’s, Gotham, Comix and comedy clubs around the country, and in the upcoming feature-length documentary “I Heart New York.” She previously hosted/curated the reading and variety Smut (“Art that should carry a Parental Advisory Label” – NY Times) and in 2008, founded The Hysterical Festival for women in comedy.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Doric Wilson.
The last mentor I focus on may seem a bit odd. One assumes that to be a mentor, wisdom and age is essential. But to teach an old dog sometimes you need a new trickster. About ten years ago I went hear pianist Ellen Starr in a club on 46 Street. Jazz singer Robert Locke invited me to join his table, and introduced me to Mark Finley. I met Mark when I had completely given up
on theatre. I had vowed that the next off-off-Broadway production I would participate in would be my funeral. But we started talking and by osmosis he eventually taught me to see again.
I am four times Mark’s age (if he is to be believed) and however smart and talented he is, the jury may still be out when it comes to wisdom. I have no idea how many people have directed my plays over the years, but no one has ever given them more honest productions, including me. What stands out in Mark Finley's work is an ability to zero in on the tone of a script and to cast it flawlessly. He then stands back and lets it blossom. In fact his perfect casting may be the root of his genius. His productions seem inevitable. He also is a wise (ha! There’s the Wisdom!) and wry playwright. And an excellent actor. And the least convincing drag performer in the entire history of transvestism.
Lorraine Larson shaped my mind to creative possibilities, Richard Barr taught me how make that imagination a reality, and Mark Finley made me believe again. Because of him I am working on a new play. And to me that is the very essence of Alternative Theater. Creativity, imagination, and belief. I did ultimately make it into those sophisticated drawing rooms. But I didn’t stay all that long. Turns out there were even more rattlesnakes slithering around there than back home in the Gorge.
Saturday, February 20 , after 9 pm, Doric Wilson invites everyone to help him celebrate his 71st th Birthday at a no-host get-together at Zuni (598 9th Ave at 43rd Street). In lieu of presents, Doric requests that friends consider making a small tax-exempt donation to TOSOS.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Doric Wilson.
Had I not left school early (so to speak) I never would have walked in the door of the Caffe Cino. It was during the run of And He Made a Her that I met my second most important mentor. Richard Barr was involved with Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater. (He is the first voice you hear in Citizen Kane). After producing on Broadway (Bert Lahr in Hotel Paradiso, Nancy Walker in Fallen Angels, etc.), he decided to move Off-Broadway to, in his words, “Turn the theater back to the playwright.'' In 1960, Richard mounted Edward Albee's first play, The Zoo Story, beginning a long time relationship with the playwright.
He also presented the first American professional productions of works by Ionesco and de Ghelderode and the world premiere of Samuel Becket’s Happy Days. In 1967 he became president of the League of New York Theaters, instituting the 8 pm Broadway curtain and inventing the preview (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) to replace out-of-town tryouts. But more significantly, he was the first producer to recognize the importance of Off-Off-Broadway. Among the playwrights he found there were John Guare, A. R. Gurney, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Terrence McNally, Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Lanford Wilson, and even Doric Wilson (no relation). An alternative theater award really should be named after Richard Barr, no one ever did more to legitimize what we do. He taught me how to produce and gave me the courage to start TOSOS.
I was sort of an unpaid assistant for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and got to watch and learn.
At the time, there was a lot of concern. The play was very long with some heavy going language
new to the delicate ears of uptown. Thanks to the McCarthy hearings, Uta Hagen had been
away from the stage for a long time. In 1963, no one was sure if she would be welcomed back.
A week before it started previews, Clinton Wilder, the co-producer begged me to use whatever
influence I had over Richard to get him to make Edward change the title of the play. Richard
budgeted Virginia Woolf for $65,000 but brought it in for $30,000, giving it a cushion to run long enough for word-of-mouth to counter hostile reviews. And the reviews were very Republican.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Doric Wilson.
I have been very lucky when it comes to mentors. Alice Clark (the beautiful lady who lived on the hill), Dorothy Seeburger (president of the Richland Players), Bernie Hart (famous Broadway stage manager and brother of Moss Hart), Harry Grier (curator of the Frick Collection), actress Nancy Wilder (I played older Patrick to her Auntie Mame), Gore Vidal (a person with opinions), Howard Richardson (playwright, The Dark of the Moon), Joe Cino (legend in spite of himself), the list goes on and on. I intend to concentrate on the three most important to where I am now.
It was in Kennewick that I encountered my first mentor. In Minnesota in the early years of the last century, a young woman named Loraine Larson, enrolled in a University Law School. The
dean informed her that no woman would ever graduate from HIS school with a law degree. Four years later after graduating with top honors, she walked back into the dean’s office, tossed her degree on his desk, and walked out. She never did practice law. She became a monologist who specialized in Scandinavian dialect pieces. In the early 1940s Miss Larson was stranded when the Chautauqua unit she was performing with disbanded in Kennewick. She got a job in the high school teaching English and Speech and directing the school plays.
I met Miss Larson when I started high school and signed up for the debate team. She proceeded to teach me everything I would ever need to know about theater. For her I did the sets for Our Town, and later played the lead in Kind Lady. She got me into the Drama Department of the University of Washington. I was thrown out after one semester when I initiated a one-man protest against a sniper at a nearby gay cruising park. It was Miss Larson who convinced my mother that it might be best for all concerned if I moved to NYC. Not an easy decision in 1959.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Doric Wilson.
I have reached an age when the days of my life are numbered like the grains of sand in a fairly intimate fish bowl. It tends to make one look to the past more frequently than to the future. Because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, the landscape was very much a part of what I ultimately became. The Cascade mountains, the high desert of eastern Washington State, the Columbia River Gorge where my grandfather’s ranch was–-this was my real birthplace, however I initially and very firmly denied it. I hated the tumbleweeds and cheat grass and the forever blowing winds of home sweet home. I was determined to be someone far more elegant than the Horse Heaven Hills would permit. I refused to be a character in a Sam Shepard play. I knew in my heart and soul I belonged to Noel Coward.
No one knows where I first encountered theater. It would be years before I would move to town where I could see a movie. Our radio on the ranch was a crystal set strictly reserved for the news and crop reports. All I know is that by the mid-1940s I was putting on plays in my grandfather’s barn with my poor cousins as less than eager actors. King Arthur and his Court or ravaging, pillaging Vikings or Cowboys killing the Indigenous Peoples. All for a penny.
At the end of World War II, I moved to the nearby town of Kennewick to live with my mom and go to school. My mother was a war widow and away at work for long hours seven days a week. I was left all alone with my imagination and a more modern radio. (Most of the playwrights at the Cino in the 1960s grew up with radio, not television.) I never played games with the neighborhood kids, I organized them in huge, costumed, carefully plotted extravaganzas. Julianne Clark remembers, at age seven she was my first leading lady.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Thank you to Katie Rosin and Antonio Miniño from Kampfire Films PR for blogging for us last week. Your marketing and PR tips are good rules to live by.
Next week's guest blogger is Doric Wilson.
Doric Wilson was the first playwright at NYC's legendary Caffe Cino, his comedy And He Made a Her opening there in 1961. His success, in the words of playwright Robert Patrick, helped “establish the Cino as a venue for new plays, and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off-Broadway.” A social-political satirist, Doric Wilson has focused his career on the development of queer culture, receiving in 1994 the first Robert Chesley Award for Lifetime Achievement in Gay Theatre; the 2007 IT Award for Artistic Achievement; and in 2009, the ATHE Career Achievement Award for Professional Theatre. He is an elected member of the National Theater Conference.
TOSOS theater company www.tosos2.org
publisher: United Stages http://www.unitedstages.com/index.php
Saturday, February 13, 2010
contributed by Shay Gines
With the surprise election of Republican Scott Brown in the special Massachusetts Senatorial race and the fact that political experts expect the U.S. to swing toward the right with more Republicans being elected in November, the Healthcare Reform bill finds itself in a precarious situation with increased pressure to pass it and quick. Without the super majority that Democrats have enjoyed this last year, it is not likely that they will be able to push the bill through. For some Democrats the rocky road ahead may not seem worth the fight and enthusiasm for the bill is waning.
Both the House and the Senate have already passed their version of the bill. However, they are not the same bill. Normally at this point, representatives from the House and from the Senate would meet to address the critical differences between the two, make compromises and merge the bills. Then each house would re-pass the bill before it is sent to the White House for the Presidential signature.
However, with the loss of that one crucial Senatorial seat the bill will not be able to garner the votes needed to pass in the Senate. Proponents of the bill have stated that they are considering their options which include breaking the bill into smaller pieces or scaling back. However, the current front runner is passing the bill through “reconciliation.” If the House supports the Senate’s already approved bill, it would allow the Senate to pass the bill with a simple majority vote and bypass a potential filibuster by Republicans.
While some supporters see reconciliation as the most amenable solution, there are some possible complications that need to be taken into account. Bill supporters from the House who feel that they have already made too many concessions want certain guarantees if they approve the Senate’s version of the bill. They want assurances that the inconsistencies between the two bills will actually be addressed by the Senate. The flip side of this is the threat from Senate Democrats who will reverse their vote if the final bill diverges too dramatically from the bill they originally passed. Ahhh politics.
Meanwhile Republicans are baring their teeth, anticipating that Democrats will try to avoid a full vote in the Senate. In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribute, Utah Senator Orin Hatch (R) said passing the bill through reconciliation would be "one of the worst grabs for power in the history of the country" and it would lead to all out political war.
In his State of the Union address, Obama said "Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people."
However where healthcare once occupied the top spot on Obama’s agenda, it is now overshadowed by the economy and creating new domestic jobs. Obama and his administration are turning the focus to more achievable prospects. The politicians are tired of the debate and so are the American people. Hill staffers predict that if the bill is not passed by mid-March, then it will no longer be an attainable goal.
Given the choices, what would you do?
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Contributed by Guest Bloggers of the week, Katie Rosin & Antonio Miniño of Kampfire Films PR
Here is something Kampfire received last week that we think you all will be interested in:
The Theater Subdistrict Council is pleased to announce the second round of a grant program designed to recognize the vital role that theater plays in the overall economic and social well-being of New York City. Projects receiving support will seek to celebrate the live art form of theater and create and expand the audience base attending live theater, as well as enhance the body and quality of performance options. Funding for the grant program is provided through contributions to the Theater Subdistrict Fund made in connection with the transfer of development rights from Broadway theaters.
Eligibility in this second phase of the grant program is open to organizations and/or consortia that:
- offer theater-related cultural programs based in and operating in the five boroughs
- are incorporated in New York State
- have been in existence and providing cultural services for two years
- had an operating income of $200,000 or more in FY09
Those considering submitting an Intent to Apply are strongly urged to attend one of three information sessions to learn more about the application process. All three sessions will cover the same information, and reservations are essential to assure we can accommodate you. Locations and times are as follows:
Friday, Feb 19, 2010 10:30 a.m. - 12:00 noon
Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (enter at Amsterdam Avenue at 65th Street)
Monday, Feb 22, 2010 2:00 p.m. - 3.30 p.m.
Marriott Marquis Hotel - Astor Room, 7th floor - 1535 Broadway (between 45th and 46th Streets)
Tuesday, Feb 23, 2010 10:30 a.m. - 12:00 noon
Spector Hall, NYC Dept. of City Planning, 22 Reade Street
You must register for the information sessions by emailing theatersubdistrictcouncil@
To review grant program materials and download the Intent to Apply form go to
Theater Subdistrict Council Program Administrator
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Monday, February 8, 2010
Contributed by Guest Bloggers of the week, Katie Rosin & Antonio Miniño of Kampfire Films PR
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Thank you so much to last week's blogger Heather Cunningham . Her blogs were so insightful and are full of resources for set, props and consume designers. Thank you.
Next week's bloggers are Katie Rosin and Antonio Miniño from Kampfire Films PR.
Kampfire Films PR is a full service Marketing and Public Relations agency founded by Katie Rosin, offering exceptional and custom campaigns for each client’s unique needs and projects. Rosin was instrumental in the launch of the Broadway musical Brooklyn and the National Tour of Mother Load. She worked on the publicity team for the comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, and his movie Comedian. Antonio Miniño later joined the Kampfire Team, after having produced and marketed various fashion shows, theatrical productions, as well as produced and hosted for the award winning Fashion TV. Together they have represented companies of all levels, genres and aesthetics in the Arts. Kampfire Off-Broadway highlights include: GLAAD Award Nominee, She Like Girls, Ohio Theater; …Another Man’s Poison, Jay Sharp Theater; Swimming With The Polar Bears, 45 Bleecker Street; Much Ado About Nothing & American Rapture, Beckett Theater; Glimpses of the Moon, Algonquin Hotel; IT Awards recipient, Elizabeth Rex, Center Stage; Mother Load, Sage Theater; Wasps in Bed, Beckett Theater; Anaïs Nin: One Of Her Lives, Beckett Theater; Triple Threat: 2007 Drama Desk Nominee (mis)UNDERSTANDING MAMMY: The Hattie McDaniel Story, Theatre 5. Kampfire clients include: 3Graces Theater Co., Astoria Performing Arts Center, BOO-Arts, Maieutic Theatre Awards, New York Innovative Theatre Awards, New York Neo-Futurists, Nicu's Spoon, Oberon Theatre Ensemble, Pascal Productions, and Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heather Cunningham
OK, here’s where I show you all what a geek I am, as if those of you who know me didn’t already have ample evidence of that.
I went to the Catskills last October to a dear friend's wedding. She is herself a costume designer that I have had the pleasure of working with, so I feel quite certain when I say she will forgive me to learn that one of the things I did while I was there for the weekend of her wedding was to hit up a yard sale in a barn that had a sign out reading “estate sale”. In addition to several fake pearl necklaces (perfect for any number of periods but in particular for the 50s), a brown clutch, and some playing cards that were not plastic coated, the prop Gods bestowed upon me not one, but two vintage match boxes. One for Ohio Blue Tips and one for Birds Eye Diamond (Red Tip) Matches. At the time I was collecting props for Holy Days in which there was a line “Could you get the matches off the stove? Both boxes. OK. The red tips are five cents and the blue tips are ten.” I stood in the barn and stared in disbelief. When I had gathered my wits about me I asked the man how much. He told me $3. I bought them on the spot. He must have thought I was crazy, but I couldn’t believe my good fortune to find vintage packaging in perfect shape (that I wasn’t even looking for).
One of the things that Retro Productions does to a) raise money and b) clear out our limited storage space is to have one or two yard sales a year. Because the people of the neighborhood and our company members know that these sales raise money for the companies productions, we are often the recipients of large donations of, well, junk. But last year the mother of a company member brought out a box that she had rescued from her neighbors basement, thinking I’d be interested in its contents. Apparently her neighbors’ parent had been a paper and greeting cards sales person and had this box of samples in storage for about 50 years. What timing! Our spring show this year, The Desk Set, which takes place in the mid-50s, has a scene on Christmas Eve and strings of Christmas cards make up some of the décor. Done and done. Of course, we are scanning the images and printing them on stronger paper, but now that we’ve done that if anyone is interested in buying them you should give me a holler or come to our next yard sale.
I was doing a little Ebaying last month and was very excited to find a 1953 TIME magazine with Shirley Booth on the cover. Ms. Booth, one of the most well regarded actresses of the 1950s played Bunny in The Desk Set on Broadway. You better believe I bought it… and I’m gonna put it in our production next May!
There have been other, less impressive, but no less amazing gifts from the prop Gods… like the day I was walking through a flea market and found a violin for $10 (I thought for sure that would be a big ticket item I was not looking forward to paying for), or the donation of vintage suitcases from a neighbor of my parents what was cleaning out her attic. But these are some of my favorites, and I think illustrate just why I’m such a geek for Retro, and the thrill of getting the details right!
I’m not much for dedications, but I would like to dedicate these blogs to my parents, Jack and Rebecca Cunningham, without whom I might not have bitten off the constant project that is Retro Productions. Theater professionals themselves, they have taught me not just everything I know about period work, but most of what I know about theater. I could not do what I do without them.
I would like to thank a few people who helped me with my guest blogging this week. First of all to Shay and Morgan for thinking of me, giving me the confidence to attempt this (I’ve never thought of myself as much of a writer), and for giving me a few laughs in the process. I’d like to raise a proverbial glass to the company members of Retro Productions whose combined talents and generosity blow my mind every day. I’d also like to thank my dear friend and terribly talented costume designer Viviane Galloway for her input… come see her designs at Retro in May!
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Heather Cunningham
At Retro Productions we concentrate on the 20th century, so most of my advice comes from researching the decades of that era. I have no insight into researching the Elizabethan or Victorian eras, nor can I help you with the Civil War. But ask me about the Great Depression, World War II, Mid-Century modern, Woodstock or Viet Nam and I can probably point you in a few good directions.
As a prop designer my favorite research books are the Taschen All American Ads series. They chronicle print ads by decade and are divided into useful categories such as Alcohol and Tobacco, Technology, and Fashion and Beauty. I also recommend tracking down Sears catalogues from the year you are researching; they sell a little bit of everything and the models have the most “up to date” hair and make up. And most vintage magazines, be they LIFE, LOOK or even LIVING FOR YOUNG HOMEMAKERS will offer fantastic insights from both their articles and their ads.
Also on my bookshelf are the Time Life This Fabulous Century books that break the century down into volumes by decade. They offer insight in to the political climate of the time, popular entertainment, historic events, and even youth culture. And they do it all with some of LIFE and TIME Magazines best photos of the decade. Please note, however, that I am a fan of the actual books, not the booklet versions, which are more like magazines and have a lot less information and illustrations to offer. The kicker of this is that they have the same exact titles. If you are looking for these, you will do well to make sure you are looking at the hardback editions.
Another decade by decade series to look for is the Getty Images Decades of the 20th Century. These are smaller books but have beautiful photographs of everything from famous entertainers to day to day life.
If you are hitting any year from 1955 to 1981 I strongly recommend reading Thomas Hine’s books Populuxe and The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) in the Seventies. Hine is incredibly readable and includes fantastic illustrations. He really analyzes the design of the time as well as what made the popular, well, popular.
If you are heading out to the library to find any of the above titles I might also suggest a quick visit to the Picture Collection. And the National Archives are online now too… and searchable! They have many digital images you can peruse, for free, on their website.
One item of warning. Although I do quite a bit of prop searching on ebay I have come to learn that the sellers, while often well intentioned, don’t always know exactly what they have. I do not recommend using ebay as a place for research unless you are prepared to follow up with a more reliable source.
And remember, if you get the basic shape, tone, texture and material of the time period, the pieces themselves don’t have to be vintage! That goes for costumes, props, music, you name it!
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
There has been a remarkable amount of positive momentum in support of the Tax Abatement proposal. With the inspiring and unprecedented cooperation of all the Manhattan Community Boards (CB), that momentum continues to grow. The Arts Task Forces from Community Boards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 12 have already passed resolutions or letters of support for this program and it has passed at the board level for CBs 2 and 9. As a normal part of the process, Community Boards hold forums where the public is allowed to express opinions on the proposals. Because public opinion carries substantial weight, your voice could help determine the fate of this movement.
This Wednesday, February 3rd, at the Fulton Center Auditorium, 119 Ninth Avenue (between 17th and 18th Streets), Manhattan Community Board 4 is going to consider a letter written by its Theater Task Force to support a tax abatement proposal that benefits Off-Off-Broadway.
At 6:30, on that evening, members of the public are invited to sign-up for a public session at which they will be given two minutes to speak on any topic that interests them.
Any member of the public, who resides or works (or performs) within the confines of Community District 4, 14th Street to 59th, 8th Avenue to the Hudson River, is invited to attend.
Get more details
Read the letter from Community Board 4 to Speaker Quinn's office.
Monday, February 1, 2010
It’s in the details. Whether your production is on Broadway or in a 40-seat theater on a side street in an industrial neighborhood, it’s in the details. The angle of the heel on the shoe, the buttons on the coat, the frame of the chair, the packaging of the cigarettes. And when your audience practically sits in your actors’ laps it is even more important that those details be as right as possible.
It’s hard work. It’s my own fault Retro Productions does nothing but period pieces. But the truth is, I love those details. I love doing the research and playing hide and seek with the items that will make those details right. And nothing drives me crazier than going to see a show set in 1960 and seeing a modern package of Ronzoni on the stage.
I know there is an argument, especially in Off-Off Broadway where money is ridiculously tight, for simplifying the experience. Why do you need a set, costumes and props to tell the story? Why not just focus on the acting, and save a ton of money in the process? And that’s right for certain plays (and hell, focus on the acting no matter what). But if you are doing a play that belongs in another world, say, the New York City of the mid-1950s (as Retro will be doing again this May with THE DESK SET), you really can’t get away with that.
The world has changed and so has the way people interact with each other and the material things in their lives. We dial and hold the telephone differently. We pack and carry our suitcases differently. We even type differently (tell the truth, would you even know how to change a typewriter ribbon now if you had to?). As the things around us change, so do our interactions with them, which is why I object to modern props and costumes in a play set in the past.
So how do you get the details right when your combined costume, prop and scenery budget are just a couple of hundred dollars?
1) RESEARCH! (The good news is if you have a library card and an Internet connection, you can do this step for free!) Know what it should look like and you will start to see the things around you that may not be vintage, but come so close that they won’t stick out like a sore thumb. (Check back for some of my favorite 20th Century research resources.)
2) “Beg, borrow and steal” (I’m not condoning the latter.) Obviously we all do this anyway, but it still applies! In addition to treasure hunting at estate and yard sales, junktique stores, salvage dealers, freecycle, ebay, craigslist, dollar stores and thrift shops I also fully admit to dumpster diving. I’m always checking out what people have tossed… one mans trash is another mans treasure!
3) Time is on my side, yes it is! And it can be on your side too. I occasionally take up to 6 months in advance of a show in order to get what I need within my budget. Time to spare can be your greatest ally when working on a budget.
4) Learn Photoshop. Need a mid-40s dust jacket for War and Peace? A ‘60s box of Wheaties with a ball player on the front? A can of tomato juice out of the ‘50s? At Retro we’ve done them all… with Photoshop.
5) No matter how gorgeous the costume, the look is not period complete without the right hair and make up. As a producer it makes me crazy (and I’m willing to bet costume designers hate it too) when actors don’t understand that the wrong hairstyle or shade of lips can throw the entire balance of the design off.
6) Don’t focus on what something is; see what it can be. I’ve had more than one designer for Retro who took apart something they bought at Goodwill and made it into something else. I’ve seen an early 90s cotton wrap dress transformed into a 30s day dress with a few cuts and stitches and a set of vintage buttons. And that modern sofa looked a lot less “Jennifer Convertibles” once the throw pillows of 50s fabric were put on top of it.
7) She’s crafty and she’s just my type… learn how to make stuff. Because when you can’t find it, you’ll have no choice but to make it. Giant wheel of cheese? Check. Bad modern art? Check. Wood burning cook stove? Check. Room sized “electronic brain”… check back with me in May.
And the diner jukebox that everyone loved… a combination of plywood, colorful plastic rods, kitchen lamps, and, yes, photoshopped images… if I had a buck for everyone who asked me where we got an old jukebox I’d have more money than it cost to make it.
And that’s one definition of being innovative, don’t you think?