Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bad Economy for Broadway Could Mean Opportunity for Community Theater

OK, so by now we all are well aware that the economy sucks. Those of us involved in the performing arts are also well aware that usually the first thing erased from any recession-weary consumers' plans is to buy tickets to our shows. Theater is feeling the pinch all the way from Broadway to the little black box down the street. In a recent article from Cleveland Plain Dealer Theater Reporter Tony Brown citing a random dig at Cleveland from New York Theater ad agency Exec. Nancy Coyne, he also links to a New York Times piece documenting the economic woes being felt on Broadway (Broadway Has a Devil of a Time Finding Angels [Ticket Buyers, Too]) . Attendance is down and with the enormous cost of producing lavish musicals, many productions can't afford to stay open and many are closing long before their expected end dates. Their solution? Open more straight plays that cost less to produce than big musicals. From the New York Times Article mentioned above:

"In the winter and spring season Jane Fonda is returning to Broadway for the first time in 46 years in “33 Variations,” a new play by Mois├ęs Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”); Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons will star in “Impressionism,” by Michael Jacobs; and revivals of “Blithe Spirit” and “Hedda Gabler” are scheduled."

Even though Ms. Coyne seems to believe that pissing off tourists (specifically ones from Cleveland - Coyne: "We hate tourists from Cleveland") - despite the fact that 84% percent of Broadway attendees don't live in New York - and waiting for the New York theater elite to support more "enlightened" straight plays is the answer, clear research proves otherwise. In addition to the fact that most Broadway theater-goers are from out of town, Mr. Brown also notes that over half of all the people that saw a Broadway show last year did so outside of New York. At the same time it was also pointed out this week in another Cleveland Area posting that the New York Times reports that National Endowment for the Arts research shows the audience for straight plays is declining (Audience for Straight Plays Is Declining, N.E.A. Finds).

People want big lavish musicals. Big lavish musicals are too expensive to produce. No one can afford $200 a ticket to go see big lavish musicals. Produce cheaper straight plays. No one wants to see straight plays except New York theater snobs. Piss off tourists.

What's clear is that we're scrambling and no one really has a clue what to do.

I do have one suggestion. Go to a community theater show. You can see great performances - including large-scale musicals, escape from real-world troubles for a while, be enlightened, entertained and support local talent and theater - all at a fraction of the cost of seeing a Broadway show or even a regional or semi-professional theater production. If we as community theater artists are smart we will recognize this situation as an opportunity to market ourselves as a high quality (provided we actually produce high quality product), affordable entertainment alternative.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My Recent Sun News Interview About The Cassidy Theatre

I was recently interviewed by the Sun News about the state of The Cassidy Theatre. Nice optimistic article in this week's edition.

Musings from My City of Angels Auditions and Call-Backs

I've just finished up auditions for my upcoming production of the musical City of Angels. As challenging as the audition process can be (and yes - for those who have never been on the other side of the audition table, if you think standing up in front of people and singing or reading is tough, try casting a whole show) it's always a fascinating process and I try to learn a little more each time.

First let me say thank you to everyone who got off the couch and showed interest in this show. I really appreciate it. This time around I saw some amazing auditions, but it still amazes me sometimes how some auditioners continue to make classic audition mistakes. I realize we're talking about community theater, but I refuse to set the bar low because the production may be a "non-professional" one. There is nothing non-professional about the people that I have been fortunate to work with in the past and in order for this art form to grow and thrive we have to continue to challenge ourselves to produce the very best shows with the very best teams we can. Especially when ticket buyers' dollars are stretched so thin. Our customers should feel like they just saw a professional quality show for an amateur price - that's value and customers like good values. And like just about everything else in theater, it all starts with the audition.

I'm not going to get into a rant about audition tips and things like that. Far smarter and more qualified people have been there and done that (i.e. see Broadway Producer Ken Davenport's recent post or visit But I do have some observations from my recent round of try-outs.

Where are the men? Not to diminish the guys that did come to my auditions - they were great, but few. I know this is a common challenge for community theaters, but seriously, why don't men come to auditions? We know they do shows and love to perform, but they don't come to auditions. Is it because we have come to learn that we are in high demand and eventually the show will come to us? I think there is a bit of that unconscious awareness (can awareness be unconscious?) that the competition is much lower for quality male performers than it is for females. Personally, I like the audition process and don't mind going to auditions. Is it the show selection? Is one show considered more "macho" than another? City of Angels has fantastic and "macho" male roles and still the audition room was filled with women. I think it comes down to simple supply and demand. At the community theater (read "non-paid") level there are exponentially more women who are available and/or willing to participate in a show. So recruitment is essential and I continue using my network and searching outside it to add more great guys to what is already a phenomenal cast.

But obviously I did have a lot of great people show up and some...well, not so great. Actually, in many cases it wasn't so much that they weren't good performers, but the presentation (the audition) was off. They were either unprepared ("I really don't have a song ready, I just listened to this in the car on the way here..."), or unorganized (please make the accompanist's already tough job easier by having sheet music neatly organized in a binder! They can be your best friend or worst enemy!), or full of attitude - and not the good kind (I can't wait to spend 8 weeks of my life with someone who rolls their eyes at the slightest direction) or just plain full of excuses ("I'm really sick right now..."). Like it or not, directors can't afford to guess how an actor might perform under more perfect conditions. There are no "perfect" conditions in live theater. The audition is often your only shot to get it right. Indeed, to me a true professional and experienced performer (one I want in my show) is the one who can overcome adversities and unexpected moments and still put on a great show. Stopping the show because you hear a weird note from the pit is not an option. But when you are thrown off and flustered when the audition accompanist plunks unexpectedly, it says volumes about how you might perform come showtime. Many unexpected things can and usually do happen in live theater and how one reacts to these little unexpected audition moments can also say a lot about how an actor might react if a flat falls down or a costume rips. You have a cold at auditions? Good! Show me how you can sing through that and make me believe you're the healthiest person in the world right now. I can hear through a stuffy nose or a dry throat to get to the talent underneath. How many of us have gone on feeling an inch away from death? There's no guarantee those nasty little germs won't find you on opening night! You would never dream of going into a job interview and leading off the discussion by saying "I'm really not qualified for this job, but I like the building and thought it would be cool to work here"!!

But I also saw some amazing auditions from people who really put a lot of thought and effort into their presentation and I am always so grateful for that. From wardrobe, to hair, to general presentation, the little things make all the difference.

And I am grateful to everyone who came to auditions. And each one will get a phone call from me thanking them for their time and hoping that I will see them again in the near future, regardless of whether or not it will be for this project.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Conflicted About Conflicts?

If you've seen my City of Angels audition preview video, you know the auditions are coming up fast. Since my focus has been on directing over the last couple of years, I've been thinking about one of those thorny little theater issues that always comes up when casting a community (read "unpaid volunteer") theater production - cast conflicts.

One of the biggest challenges whenever I direct a show is organizing the rehearsal schedule. Readers of this blog already know some of my view points about the actual lengths of rehearsal schedules. Obviously another big component of rehearsals is who can actually show up to which rehearsals. Which is why it's so important to fill in that space on the audition form asking for conflicts as thoroughly and accurately as possible. But is it realistic for directors to always expect there to be nothing written in that space? It may not be realistic, but it is real.

I think it's rare but there are directors who won't cast anyone with any conflicts - not even the very best performers who may have an interest in being in their show. Being on the other side of the audition table, I would agree that this probably makes life a lot easier in terms of organizing rehearsals. In the ideal world, cast members would push everything else in their lives aside and commit to being at 100% of rehearsals. But I also think in today's hectic world where our volunteer actors are also parents, workers, students and volunteers in other organizations, casting only "non-conflicted" performers could be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

The very best performers - many of whom may be perfect for a given role - may want to do your show but have a few scheduling conflicts. To not cast them because of that is short-sighted. After all, we have an obligation to the ticket-buying public to produce the very best productions we can. If we can put the best talent on that stage, the audience will never know which rehearsals an actor showed up to and which they didn't. Of course, if we can cast a show with great performers who don't have conflicts (which I'm convinced doesn't really exist) that is the ultimate way to go and you don't have to worry about passing over some other fantastic performer with kind of a crazy schedule. But we all know these "great" community theater performers are not a dime a dozen and may require some flexibility.

Of course, this can go too far. If there is a diva who might be great in a given role, but thinks the schedule, cast and crew should bend around his or her personal schedule, run away as fast as possible. This person will only cause headaches, tension, resentment and other problems throughout the entire process. Every member of cast and crew needs to have the same commitment to the process in order for the project to succeed . I would much rather cast an actor who may not be quite as technically outstanding, but who has the heart, commitment and good attitude to help make the show a success, over a diva with an attitude problem. But surely, having a conflict or two does not mean one is not committed to the project and a couple legitimate work, family or other previous commitments shouldn't automatically exclude an actor.

But is it fair for one actor to have a few conflicts when other cast members might not have any? I don't think it's realistic to think that every member of the cast would have the same conflicts, responsibilities and schedules. As long as the conflicts don't interfere with the other cast members' work or the rehearsal overall, it shouldn't be a problem. But this is also why it's so important to have this information ahead of time. So the director can plan accordingly and respect the cast's time and make the best use of it with whomever is supposed to be there. Open communication and honesty with the rest of the cast can also go a long way in resolving conflict challenges. When the cast feels respected, it is amazing how far they will go to reinforce the team spirit and work together. I recently had a situation where the actor I had cast as a lead in one of my shows found out shortly after being cast that he would be called out of town for a few days for work late in the rehearsal process. Rather than re-casting the role, I decided to communicate that to the cast at our very first read-through, telling them we would have this challenge. They were prepared for it - they picked up the slack, the actor was well-prepared and when he returned he picked up as if he hadn't missed a day.

But of course as any organizer knows the best laid plans can always get screwed up. Someone is always going to call in sick, be late or even drop the show. Be prepared, be patient and be flexible. This is supposed to be fun, remember?