Thursday, January 7, 2010

The One That Almost Didn't Happen

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?


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