Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From the Trenches: Stories from the Fringe

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Andrea Alton.

Hello Again Everyone!

It’s Wednesday, and my hair is looking great, I’m feeling good and my meds are in full swing, so here’s my next post. Since I shared some of my Fringe experiences in my last post, I decided to reach out to some people to get their Fringe experiences.

But…before I get to that, just a quick update on the cockroach I mentioned in my previous post. (The one that was in the dressing room of the Off Broadway Theatre.)

A LOT of people have expressed an interest in the roach….well, like six. Whatever. That’s not really relevant. So in 2008 I was in the dressing room with the seven and a half foot dead cockroach and I remember our director, Jay Duffer, asking me, “Do you want me to get rid of it?” For some reason that is beyond me I said, “No, don’t bother.” What the hell was I thinking? It was a dead roach, and I love it when people do things for me, but I think I just assumed that one of the other casts, the venue director or someone that cleaned the theatre would get rid of it. Or I thought Jay would scream like a big girl even though he’s (sort of) a manly man. Regardless, the roach stayed on the dressing room floor for the entire festival. So the lesson here is if someone offers to get rid of dead cockroach, just say yes.

Now on to my hard-hitting interviews with my running commentary in the side notes.

What was your funniest or most horrifying Fringe experience?

Kathleen “Last year, in our TOSOS production of The Five Lesbian Brothers' "The Secretaries," directed by Mark Finley, our tech was short, and we didn't have close to the time we needed to correctly block everything. The venue managers were far more concerned with us being able to pack up and get in and get out in the 15 minutes allotted than they were with us being able to set light levels and make sure our set pieces were placed. So our stage manager, the amazing Jen Russo, was pretty much teching the show as we went on opening night. During one exit, the stage went dark, and we heard an amazing CRASH that sounded like someone had fallen into a drum kit. Turns out someone HAD fallen into a drum kit!

The lights went up, and we saw a pair of legs sticking up from the orchestra pit. The blonde herself, Karen Stanion, had taken a header off the stage. Costumer/Playwright Chris Weikel was sitting in the front row, and he leapt into the pit, swept Karen up, and lifted her back onto the stage. She played the rest of the show with a rapidly developing massive bruise on her hip. She and the show were triumphant, and the show went on to the Fringe Encore Series”.

Karen: “Actually the bruise was on my ass and let's not forget the hot mysterious guy who also asked if I was okay when I was in the drum set. The guy must have been my guardian angel since everyone who was there says he never existed!”

Kathleen Warnock (Producer) & Karen Stanion (Actor), The Five Lesbian Brothers' "The Secretaries”, FringeNYC 2010

*Side note: If anyone knows who the hot mysterious guy is, please contact me asap. I’d really like to meet him.

When you worked on past Fringe shows, did the A/C work or were you sitting or working with a bunch of smelly people that looked like they were going to pass out?

“In 2004, I was in a play that was in a venue called Arthur's Dress Shop. It was an old storefront with an antique window A/C unit that stopped working before our opening show. No A/C was typical in the Fringe back then, so no big deal, BUT this play was set in 1604 London. We were wearing these period costumes - long, heavy dresses, long sleeves, even petticoats. You could easily get distracted counting the drops of sweat that were falling from my nose. Our director eventually stole fans from the TKTS line and handed out popsicles as people came in, so amazingly most of our audiences stayed. It was a bit like Bikram yoga, but with bonnets.”

Vanessa Shealy (Playwright/Actor), One, Two, Whatever you do... FringeNYC 2011

*Side note: Kudos to the actors, director and audience. I can’t stand hot theatres, I’m a wimp but if someone gives me a popsicle, I’m usually pretty happy, and I would have stuck around.

When I sent Cash Tilton my list of questions, I asked him to answer just one, but he sent back an e-mail with nearly all of them answered. Since they were so entertaining, I decided to post them all.

What was your craziest Fringe experience?
“I had a Facebook stalker who had fallen in love with the character I played and didn't really distinguish between me and the character.”

What was your funniest Fringe experience?
“I had a long speech about bullfighting with dozens of Spanish words with dozens of syllables naming all the dozens of participants in a bullfight. During our opening performance, I got hopelessly balled up in the middle of the speech, stopped, took a breath, and said, "Let's start this over again." Biggest laugh I have ever gotten in my life.”

What's the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?
“In general, the shortage of tech/dress time in the performance space.”

What was the first show you saw at the Fringe?
“1990 or 1991. Don't remember the title. It was a two-character, four-actor show (that's two actors per character) in a little bitty space up some stairs. It wasn't bad at all.”

Did you meet someone and fall in love?
“Regrettably, no.”

Did a homeless person, mouse/roach walk across the stage?
“No, but a thief did steal a bunch of stuff from the women's dressing room during our severely limited technical rehearsal in the space. Agita, police investigation, not much rehearsing.”

Fondest Fringe memory?
“A reviewer wrote that I had "godlike comic timing." Someday I'm going to have that embroidered on my pillowcases.”

Cash Tilton (Actor), An Off-White Afternoon (2006), One Seat in the Shade (2008), Stand Fast (2010)

What was your biggest obstacle and do you have any advice?

“I'd have to say, getting an audience to see the show! FringeNYC has gotten bigger and bigger, and now it's positively teeming with interesting pieces to experience. Oftentimes getting the word out there about your show in this sea of options is an enormous challenge. I think my company, like many, did our best to title the show interestingly, send out a bajillion press releases, Facebook invites, and email/text/telephone/smoke signal every motherf**ker we knew, and many motherf**kers we didn't to come check us out. But looking back, I think we should have better budgeted our resources to pay a press agent. It would have relieved us of an enormous burden and helped us better focus on the work itself.”

Carl Holder (Actor/Co-Author/Producer), The Boogyman Thumbs A-1-A, FringeNYC 2010

*Side note: I immediately liked Carl when I met him a year ago because he asked me if I wanted a beer and a taco as I was putting on my mullet to play my character, Molly “Equality” Dykeman, at his Fringe fundraiser. If someone offers you a beer and taco, you are immediately bonded for life.

What was your biggest obstacle or one of the hardest things you had to overcome?

“The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was dealing with fight choreography for "Venus and Mona" in the 2010 Fringe. We had so much of it with coordinated sound effects that we consumed almost our entire tech solving blocking and sound system problems. Because we had so much fight choreography, the actors' call time was an hour and fifteen minutes before curtain (and we only had 15 minutes in the theatre--30 if you count the time after the house opened). We ended up renting a space down the street, doing our fight call there, then heading to the theatre for the actors' half-hour.”

Melissa Attebery (Director), Venus and Mona, FringeNYC 2010

*Side note: I’ve worked with Melissa twice and she’s a wonderful director. She’s directing the play One, Two, Whatever you do... this year at the Fringe so go check it out.

My friend Robin is now the Queen of Festivals, but back in 2008 she was putting up her solo show for the first time. I wanted to know what one of her weirdest Fringe experiences was from that year.

“When I did my solo show at the Fringe in 2008, I expected the journey to be exciting, fun, stressful, rewarding and scary. Scary in the “OMG, I don’t know how I can perform and produce my solo show” way. Not the “OMG, I can’t believe I have a stalker” way.

My show, “My Salvation Has a First Name (A Wienermobile Journey),” is about how the Wienermobile saved my life after years of bullying. As one might expect, I’m open and honest about what that experience was like. Apparently, my stalker who I’ll call Hockey Puck (more on that later) was moved by my show. After the first performance, I got an email from Hockey Puck on MySpace (yeah, when MySpace was still popular) telling me that he loved the show and wanted to know if I wanted to go out with him. I was flattered, but not sure if I should accept this offer because his profile picture was of a hockey puck with the Boston Bruins logo.

I didn’t write back right away, and when I showed up for my second performance, the Venue Director handed me a business card from Hockey Puck moments before I went on stage. I wrote him back on MySpace saying I was busy with the Fringe, etc. and that I couldn’t meet.

He tried to reach out again including joining my mailing list, and I finally replied with the standard lie saying that someone from my past had come back into my life and we were going to give the relationship another try. That did the trick. He responded saying, “Thanks for letting me know.” I never heard back from him again. I guess you could say that I really arrived with the Fringe. I got great reviews, a stalker and hate mail. Not too shabby for my first Fringe. J”

Robin Gelfenbien (Actor/Writer/Producer), My Salvation Has a First Name (A Wienermobile Journey), FringeNYC 2008

*Side note: Robin’s show is going to the Chicago Fringe Festival in September. If you are in Chicago, go see it! It’s a wonderful show and you may even get a free wiener whistle and at the United Solo Festival on Theatre Row in NYC Nov. 15 .

What’s it like being a reviewer for Fringe shows?

“I've been going to shows at the Fringe since 1999, but once I started reviewing Fringe shows for Theatre is Easy, I found myself getting a bit obsessive. One finds oneself seeing more and more shows just because one can.

I still get tired thinking of the day I saw five shows, starting at 12 noon. I ran into a fellow reviewer at what I thought would be my fourth and final show of the day, and he talked me into joining him for one more. As we rode the bus across town, I thought, "Dan, what are you doing? GO HOME!" Of course, that fifth show ended up being one of the highlights of all of my years of the Fringe.”

Daniel Dinero (Director/Reviewer/Fringe Adjudicator), Currently directing The Austerity of Hope by Dan Fingerman at The Fresh Fruit Festival

I’d like to thank everyone who shared their stories of past Fringe festivals. I had reached out to a few venue directors and technicians, but I didn’t hear back from them in time. L We had a MySpace and Facebook stalker story. Does anyone out there have a Friendster story?

If anyone has any Fringe stories or advice they’d like to share, please post them. More roach stories are welcome, too!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Navigating the Fringe

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Andrea Alton.

Hi Everyone!

Happy Monday! I’m not a big blogger. In fact, I’ve started two blogs over the past few years and quickly abandoned them; but when the opportunity to be a guest blogger for the week arose, I quickly embraced the opportunity. I think it’s the allure of a one-week commitment.

I’m also knee deep in the midst of producing, writing and acting in a solo show, The F*cking World According To Molly, which will premiere at the Fringe in August so I thought it would be a good time to share my Fringe experiences and some insights and tips that I’ve found out, and that friends have shared with me. My next post will be about other people’s Fringe experiences but this one is about me.

Some people have told me they’ve done the Fringe and will never do it again. It was to chaotic, harsh, a money pit and not what they needed. I can understand this. However, the New York Fringe has been a good fit for me. I thrive on a little creative chaos, the chance for my work to be seen by a wider audience excites and motivates me and if it wasn’t for deadlines, some of my work would never go from my computer screen to the stage. I’m now working on my third production with the NY Fringe.

My first foray was the 2003 production of Big Girl, Little World, (written & directed by the talented Jay Duffer). I loved this play, I loved the character, the cast and creative team. After years of playing small character roles in various productions in New York I had landed a part where I could play a serio-comic role, be offbeat, navigate a tricky emotional journey and at the end of the play, the character had a breakdown and breakthrough. It was a dream role for an actor and I got to be on stage for the entire show with the exception of twenty seconds where I exited to get a prop.

It was an interesting and intense experience. I learned to focus the second I stepped into the theatre because there is hardly any changeover time when you are doing a Fringe show. (Usually thirty minutes or less) I realized the importance of having a dedicated team of people that are focused and committed to putting up a good show.

I learned to be thrifty and use my time wisely. I did my makeup at home to save time (not always the best option for hot, humid August days, but it worked). I hid behind a big van outside the theatre and tried to do some sort of vocal warmup before we were allowed into the theatre because I have the laziest mouth in the history of theatre. I would run lines while walking to the theatre. I would do anything I could to save time so I would be ready and somewhat relaxed by the time they called places.

Mostly, I just tried to not let the stress and chaos of the Fringe get to me. I was getting paid to act and play a part that I loved, that’s what I kept reminding myself. The show got great reviews, the audience loved it and I felt like I did some of my best work under unconventional working conditions.

Overall, it was a good experience but still there were stumbling blocks. This was the year of the blackout. We had a sold out show with industry, press and producers coming on the last Friday night, but that show had to be cancelled because there was no power. They rescheduled the show for a Sunday afternoon but the interested producers and press couldn’t make it.

There was also the day the venue manager slept late and all the shows ran an hour behind. The A/C was always hit and miss, and I think we were warned that the lights had a short and could just go out mid-show. Still it was an exciting, challenging experience and one of my fondest theatre memories. I think my biggest lesson I learned was to just go with it. No matter how prepared you are, shit happens. When a festival puts up two hundred shows in three weeks and has a massive audience to get in and out, glitches will occur.

My next Fringe show was the 2008 production of Carl & Shelly, Best Friends Forever. My writing partner (Allen Warnock, also extremely talented) and I wrote a two-person comedy where we played six different characters. We produced it with the help of a few other people. It was a wonderful show and I’m proud of what we did but it was extremely stressful. I walked around with a clenched jaw for a month and ended up getting a nasty sinus infection near the end of the run.

We didn’t have the most Fringe-friendly show from the perspective that we had eight different locations, about eight costume changes for each of us, thirty-five props and no money, but somehow we pulled it off. We ended up barely breaking even, put up a solid show and even got a backer out of it on our first night which enabled us to put up a three-week commercial run in 2010.

In retrospect, I would have done a lot of things differently. We had no money for marketing or a press person and because of this I felt like we were this little production that only a few people knew about. We probably would have made the money we spent on marketing back in ticket sales but it’s sometimes hard to think clearly when you see all this money going out and don’t know how much you’re going to get in donations.

I also would have delegated more. I had people who were willing to help but I would too often say “I’ll do it” because it seemed like it was just quicker if I did it myself. I always had a huge “to do” list and my stress level was high. I also wouldn’t have been such a perfectionist. I tend to fight for things because I want to put up an awesome show but sometimes you have to let go. I think I realized with that production that everything’s not worth fighting for especially when you’re working within the constraints of a festival.

I still ended up with a lot of favorite experiences, like when we got into the theatre and I realized that for the first time since I had moved to New York, I would have my own dressing room. I put my bags down and a smile crossed my face and then I looked on the floor and saw a dead cockroach the size of my foot lying on its back, dead.

My other favorite experiences were the Midwestern couple who asked for our autographs after the show and we chatted for a bit. They were just two nice people who wanted to experience New York theatre outside of Broadway and they stumbled across our show. Then there was the last show, when Allen came out in the wrong costume and the time when I was high on one too many allergy pills and I jumped two pages of opening dialogue. The type of dialogue you can’t really miss because it sets up the rest of the show. Somehow we found our way back but I will never forget the “oh shit” look on Allen’s face when he realized I had jumped two major pages.

So now I’m working on a solo show that will go up in seven weeks. I’m still rewriting the script and have a million things to do but I have complete faith it will come together. It always seems to and this time I’ve got a prescription for Valium so all will be well.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Andrea Alton

We are happy to announce that this week's guest blogger is Andrea Alton.

Andrea Alton is a New York based actor, comedian, producer and award winning playwright.  Favorite theatre credits include; Big Girl, Little World (NY Fringe Festival), The Strangest Kind Of Romance (Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival), Labor Day Weekend & The Chiselers (Emerging Artists Theatre), Reckless  (Kaleidoscope Theatre), Blue Window (Firehouse Theatre, Or.), White (Trash) Wedding (The PIT, writer/performer) and Carl & Shelly, Best Friends Forever (co-writer/actor) which premiered at the 2008 NY Fringe Festival and had a month commercial run in 2010.

Andrea also performs sketch comedy, stand-up, characters, improv and has performed at the Chicago, Toronto, DC and San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festivals.  She also recently performed at the SoloNOVA Festival and will be appearing at three different HOT Festival shows at Dixon Place as her alter comedy ego Molly “Equality” Dykeman.  She is one half of the comedy duo Carl & Shelly and is a member of Emerging Artists and TOSOS Theatre Company.

As a writer, Andrea’s work has been produced throughout the country most notably in Chicago, Maryland, New York, Provincetown and Florida.  Her play Cat & Dick won the grand jury award prize from the Speaking Ring Theatre in Chicago and she recently returned from Provincetown where here play Pioneer Loving was performed at The Universal Theatre Festival.  Current projects include working on a Young Adult Novel, finishing several one-acts and putting the finishing touches on her one person show The F*cking World According To Molly which will premiere at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Big Changes to the Nominee Notification Process

The IT Awards Update went out yesterday and included news about some significant changes in the way that the 2011 nominees will be notified.

Doug Strassler interviewed Executive Director, Nick Micozzi (see the full interview here):

DS: There are going to be some significant changes to nominee announcement this year.

NM: It's pretty exciting - there are two big changes: 1) Nobody will know who the nominees are until they are announced at the party on the 18th, and 2) we're cutting the admission price in half – down to only $10. Since we’re not informing the nominees in advance, we’re not giving out any comps to the nom party this year.* But to off-set that, admission will only be $10.

What do you think?  Do you like nominees knowing in advance of the public announcement or do you favor the surprise.

We want to hear your opinion.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Problem Solvers

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Crystal Skillman.

Hello fellow problem solvers - here's another fantastic idea that goes with what we were just chatting about! From David Dower - read below! A must cup of joe read:

To take what I was saying earlier about writing for specific ensembles - certain actors and directors. It really is an amazing pay off not only for the playwright (i chatted below about what I learned) but for actors too. The power the playwright has is to create new characters that can show the versatility of the actors we love and admire. The wonderful Jody Christopherson (rocking Mrs. Perfect! in our Theater in a Van piece - yup it's a 10 minute rock musical in a van people - at the Brick's Comic Book Fest) just wrote about how awesome it was for folks to see her sing too - highlight that work for her as well. It made me so proud! Makes me feel like what I do has a real function and effect. 

Take a look at the TCG article and given your indie profession - what are you doing with your work that paves the way for more new work from your fellow artists or highlights them and how? What's your wish list of things to be done on our indie scene? 

And then here's another one for you problem solvers - two BIG questions that have been on my brain for a while: how do we sustain ourselves financially which we do this (HUGE one) at the indie level - how can we work together to make that happen. Can we? AND how do we make sure we're reaching audiences outside the theater? And are we? 

I think about this a lot. That's what I love about Theater in a Van (more here if you don't know them: - it's $5 and is right there. Hop inside and see theater. Site specific work also attracts a lot of normally non theater goers. And like the Vampire Cowboys Saloon Series that is sadly ending! But how can we do more along these lines out and IN the theater. 

Lots of questions! I know you just woke up. Coffee needed! Cup o 'Joe on the way .... but any thoughts would love to hear 'em while I'm hanging this week. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Good Morning!

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Crystal Skillman.

Hello indie theater peeps! I’m sorry I’m hopping on the blogging bandwagon so late in the week – good lord - but here I am! You deserve a latte for waiting!

But wait – you didn’t mind waiting did you. In fact you totally just took over that teeny corner of Starbucks and starting staging a new play, didn’t you?

Ah, and the space is free, has a built in audience – and they’re giving you free frappacinos now and well your play has come to life! And by doing it by being here, being inventive and using the time, resources and talent you have in the room you’re a stronger writer, and you have a new play. And are excited for the next one.

Well that’s what you get when you leave an indie theater artist alone – because we’re problem solvers.

We LOVE to problem solve.

That’s what makes it so powerful to me.

People are often asking lately, “How are you writing so much?” The secret goes back to this in my experience: the best thing that indie offers for emerging writers, is getting to write for specific companies.

A big problem to be solved in theater – at all levels – is how do writers get out of the “rewrite” incubator? How do they move beyond writers groups, and readings, and workshops? Which are all good, but not to be mistaken from learning from a production. How do we get out of “perfecting on paper” (which I honestly feel like is ridiculous for a profession that literally the whole point of it is to get rid of those pages and make them live ultimately!) and embracing what’s in the room, creating a new play that works beat to beat and builds and kicks the ground from under us – makes us question – has something to say. How do we create work that is timely and timeless? That can show what we can do and challenge what we can do in theater? 

Six years ago I was stuck. Not with writing – I never stop writing J, but it felt like my full length plays would never see the light of day in NY. There was a lot of support and great opportunities but there was also a lot of: “You’re so clever! I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do in the future” thing. And I was like – wait – aren’t I doing it? When is the future now?

Then a huge act of courage in my eyes – my very close friend Daniel Talbott asked me to write a play in a hallway of Jimmy’s No. 43 years ago (part of Telling Trilogy) – it was through that work that I began to actively work in the room with actors – great ones – and craft my work beat to beat with them. All of a sudden I was learning, and - I became more aware of this as I went -  I was achieving a sense of the moment to moment present drama in my work, the history - that had been missing. Everything else had been there (my inventive structure, language, ideas, something to say) but this – what drives the engine of holding us there for whatever stage time is needed to tell a great story theatrically – had been missing.

The key for each theater artist to discover this - and what indie theater offers so well – is the ability to write for amazingly talented people hungry who are working at all levels, as indie theater at its best is a playground, a home.

Working with Daniel’s indie theater company Rising Phoenix Rep with Daniel Talbott, Julie Kline, Denis Butkus, Sam Soule changed me. And as I was changing I realized all those times I was at a party with someone going “you just need to find your process” was totally coming true! This was my process. This was me! And it was making my work more personal, more me.

I came from making photographs, who was doing very well at Parsons, I really do love photography so much, but wrote a first play that made me cry by taking a playwriting class by accident really. Suddenly I understood that this obsession with theatre that I had since I was a kid but knew that I couldn’t act or direct – this, this was what I wanted. And I looked around me and accepted that visual art world wasn’t about words. The work - it goes up on the wall.  Oh man, and I have to work on listening better for sure, but I am indeed a blurter and babbler by nature. It was so clear living in that world was not going to fly.

But Indie theater accepted me being a babbler – that’s how Daniel and I came to work together. I was so blown away by his production of Mark Shultz’s Gift at P.S. 122 that I just followed him and Addie around talking, while picking up the set: a rug, a chair. On the ride home to Brooklyn.

Writing for specific companies was only a part of this most recent journey – the next step was discovering that I had much more personal stories to tell – and letting the inventive storytelling uncover that, be a part of that, serve that.

So it looks like I never sleep. And sometimes it does get that crunchy for sure. J But after communicating and creating work that shows how the process of writing for certain theaters really works for me, it seemed to inspired others to take more risks on me.

Most recently I discovered Cut a ten minute play written for Special Sauce Co in Feb, should be a full length. Meg Sturiano trusted I could write the play in a month :) and brought it to life at The Management with their amazing actors. That is another secret of indie theater to me: we dive. When we see opportunities we know we’re right for we rise up and jump! Mrs. Perfect! (a crazy fun 10 minute rock musical running with theater in van) and Action Philosophers! (a wonderful marriage of bringing to life a great indie comic book on stage) come from that. Those pieces are specifically for the comic book festival at the Brick. In fact all the great pieces in the fest are!

Adapting Action Philosophers! (written in the past two months!) has been intense and amazing in terms of how that script changed. With each change our team, our ensemble was behind us. Fred Van Lente, my wonderful husband and his co-creater and my good friend Ryan Dunlavey, was too. Fred and I are always helping each other on our work as fellow writers which means the world to me. As I see it develop into a great comedy, a funny as hell night out, I hear all their words of support along the way underneath each scene that helped me get there.  Not to mention how most of us all met in the Saloon Series that the amazing Qui Nguyen asked me to write for a couple of years ago when – oh!

You need another latte. And I want you to chime in here and shut me the hell up. Post comments yo. What are the ways that indie theater solved problems for you, made you a stronger artist? Or were there times that it didn’t?  Look man we’re hanging out here all day – fuck work. Let’s chat theater. Oh yes! Getting latte now …

You know, I like this Starbucks play we’ve created in this corner.

I like how you made the future now.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Guest Blogger of the Week: Crystal Skillman

We want to thank Jack Hilton Cunningham for blogging for us last week and wish him all the best in his exciting new endeavors.

We are very overjoyed to announce that next week's guest blogger is Crystal Skillman.

Crystal Skillman is the author of recently critically praised Cut (The Management/ Horse Trade Theater Group, directed by Meg Sturiano); and The Vigil or The Guided Cradle, directed by John Hurley, which received the 2010 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Full-Length Script.  Action Philosophers! (adapted from the comic by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, also directed by John Hurley) is running in the Comic Book Theater Festival at The Brick in Brooklyn this summer (7/23, 6/28, 6/29, 7/1 all at 7 PM). Mrs. Perfect! (directed by James David Jackson), a short rock musical commission for Theater in a Van, will be running at the festival on the weeknds. Her play Perfect is currently running with LiveGirls! in Seattle thru June. Other productions include: Birthday (directed by Daniel Talbott for Rising Phoenix Rep, Waterloo East in London); Nobody &; Telling Trilogy, (RPR). Hack! an I.T. Spaghetti Western (Impetuous/Brick, w/director John Hurley); Killer High w/director Hope Cartelli (Piper McKenzie/Vampire Cowboys Saloon); Geek (new play commission, Obie-Award winning company Vampire Cowboys); Sex &; Death in London (Rising Phoenix Rep’s Cino Nights this fall). She is happy to announce that this summer Samuel French will be publishing her plays Nobody &; Birthday (Birthday will also be done in the Camden Fringe Festival in London this August). In Spring 2012 she will be the resident playwright at Overturn Theater Ensemble.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Becoming a Playwright at 73: Getting Produced, Getting Published

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Jack Hilton Cunningham.

To quote Steven Sondheim, I career from career to career.  At first I thought I might be an actor but in grad school I discovered, and all on my own, that I was not.  Then I decided directing was where I should focus.  I took my first course in set design and I put aside my foolish notion of becoming a director and became a designer.  I briefly returned to directing at SoHo Rep many years later.  I designed for about eight years; opera, regional theatre, summer stock, and Off-Broadway.  Then along came our daughter and I needed a job.  One fell into my lap:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc., textbook publishers.  So for 22 plus years I worked in publishing.  From time-to-time during those 22 plus years I designed a show or two.  After my retirement from the textbook industry I careered into desktop publishing until that industry diminished and then faded away almost as fast as it had appeared on the horizon.  OK, so I went back to stage design.  By this time our daughter Heather’s Retro Productions was on its feet. I, along with my wife, Rebecca Cunningham — renowned author of the leading textbook on costume design, The Magic Garment — also retired, began designing in earnest once again.  But wait, then I careered into yet another career:  playwright.

I had always wanted to write.  In my college days I tried my hand at poetry but was a dismal failure.  When I retired I wrote a novel — I did manage to complete it but did not manage to find an agent.  These days one cannot publish, or find a publisher, without an Agent; publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts.  So now I have a 300 or so page novel, unpublished, on the shelf.  I told myself, “Give up, face the fact, there will be no career in writing for you.”

I’m retired so why not just settle back, enjoy life, and watch television, since I don’t play golf.  While watching a wonderful documentary about nurses in the Vietnam War, a light bulb came on over my head. Several of the nurses’ stories touched me. I told my wife that there was a play there somewhere. I began mulling it over and over in my mind and decided to work on the idea.  As I began work, I realized that my idea was far too limited for an evening in the theater.  As I began to do research on the Internet I stumbled over a group of letters written by a WWII soldier to his family.  Another light came on over my head and the full scope of my play, Women and War, began to materialize. I tried contacting the owner of the letters for permission to use them, but did not receive a reply.  I continued to search for more letters and I discovered that there were almost no extant letters written to servicemen during the wars of the 20th Century.  I decided to write the letters myself.  As my research continued, I unearthed stories of women like the Hello Girls of WWI, the Mother’s Movement, and the Doughnut Girls of WWII.  These, and other stories seemed a good way to round out the nurse stories and letters to and from soldiers/officers to their sweethearts, wives, and mothers.

I began work on Women and War in 2006. I wrote and rewrote.  As a matter of fact I over-wrote.  I had enough material for several plays.  I asked Peter Zinn, a director for Retro Productions, to read it.  He liked it.  As the producer of The Bleecker Street Theatre’s Monday Night Play Reading Series, Peter offered to produce it in an open slot.  We gathered a number of Retro’s actors, plus a few others for it’s premiere reading with an audience.  It was a bit heavy, much too long, and employed too many actors.  Peter encouraged me to cut some of the monologues, pare down those remaining and shuffle the entire script like a deck of cards — to reorganize, reorganize, and reorganize again.  He was right — it really began to work theatrically.  In 2010 Retro Productions produced it in repertory on Monday nights. 

I was humbled when audiences told me that Women and War was important material not only for young audiences but for all ages.

I seemed to have a new career; one that I had not planned for — playwright.  I decided that since so many people were complimenting my play I would submit it to publishers.  I sent the manuscript to four of the top play publishers.  Before long I received a reply of interest from Samuel French.  I did not hear from the other three.  The editor who had read the script came to the last performance of the Retro production at the Spoon Theater.  I was offered a contract by Baker’s Plays, an imprint of Samuel French.  Before I knew it, I was a published playwright.  The Bleecker Theater along with Retro Productions subsequently produced Women and War at the Arclight Theater and a one-night presentation at the Players Club.

At 73 I have a new career indeed.  My novel is still sitting on the shelf, but I have excised two plays using its characters and content.  I have gone on a writing binge and have four additional plays in progress.  Stay tuned . . .

Women and War a play by Jack Hilton Cunningham.

Guest Blogger of the Week: Jack Cunningham

We would like to thank Joey Rizzolo for is thought provoking post last week.

We are excited to announce that this week's blogger is Jack Hilton Cunningham.

Jack Hilton Cunningham:  Jack graduated from Brooklyn College in 1968, the first MFA in Theater Design.  Over the years Jack has designed scenery and costumes for opera, summer stock, Off- Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and regional theatre. In recent years Jack, and his wife Rebecca, has designed sets for Retro Productions.  The Innovative Theatre Awards recognized their set design for Mill Fire for Retro Productions with a nomination for outstanding scenic design.  Jack is retired from John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Publisher of college textbooks.  Jack’s play Women and War originally produced by Retro Productions and later in conjunction with The Bleecker Theater is published by Baker’s Plays, an imprint of Samuel French, Inc.  He continues to write and has four plays, one a musical, in process.