Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My worst night in the theater since Lincoln

The run of my play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre ends on Sunday.  If you want to see it, this is your last chance.    Here's where you go for tickets.  Happily it's been very well received.   More than the laughs it’s getting, I’m most gratified that no one seems to be leaving at intermission.  This is a big deal for me. 

I think back to maybe my most uncomfortable night in the theater EVER. Thank God this wasn’t my play, but there’s always the fear that someday it might be.

This was years ago. Before I had kids. There is a large theater scene in LA – lots of small theaters (99 seats or less) in various pockets around town like West Hollywood, East Hollywood, and North Hollywood. Nothing south because there’s no South Hollywood. Once somebody does name a neighborhood that then theaters will follow.

Anyway, my wife and I used to love frequenting these small theaters and seeing new plays and musicals. Not all were great, but most were worthwhile. And there’s always something exciting about watching live actors perform. I was also producing TV at the time and was always on the lookout for new talent. From time to time I would hire actors for guest star roles after discovering them in one of these modest venues.

One day we noticed that a certain actress had written a comedy. I'm not going to mention her name.  We were fans of her on-camera work so decided to give it a try. It was held at a small 49-seat theater just off Melrose Ave.

This was a Saturday night and there were maybe fifteen of us in the audience. Not a good sign.  We all sat in the first three rows. The actress/playwright sat behind us in the fourth row.

The play was awful. Painful. Torturous. And this actress/playwright laughed uproariously at every lame thing the poor actors were saying. No one else even cracked a smile. We all just squirmed in our seats and wished we could have crawled underneath them.

When intermission came (what seemed like nine hours later), my wife and I bolted. We got in our car and drove past the theater. Everyone else was leaving as well. Couples were racing to their Hondas and hatchbacks. I suspect that when act two began the theater was empty except for the playwright. Now you wanna talk about a douche-chill moment. Can you imagine?

All playwrights would like standing ovations and Tony awards, but I’m quite content to see everyone returning to their seats after intermission.

Interestingly, there are a lot of plays now that don’t have intermissions. Generally they’re comedies and less that ninety-minutes. But theater owners encourage this because it eliminates people leaving at the act break. I chose not to go that route. And it’s not because I want to live dangerously. There’s something about live theater – once you hit forty-five minutes you somehow HAVE TO use the bathroom. You’ve seen the lines. You’ve been in the lines. I should’ve read the reviews of that actress/playwright’s play. When the nicest thing anyone could say about it was you were allowed to pee, you know you’re not headed to Broadway.

24 comments:

Carol said...

My director always said part of the theatre experience is mingling with other audience-goers, so he was a big fan of intermission. Granted, we did Shakespeare, so intermissons were necessary (Sometimes we had 2) but we always tried to make them part of the whole experience.

So...is there any hope at all of A or B going on some kind of tour? Philadelphia is a BIG theatre town. Maybe not New York, but you'll get an apprecative audience. Just sayin...

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I saw a large production on Broadway in which the main character spoke directly to the audience, because of this device they decided to keep the house lights on during the entire performance. Even though the musical was written by renowned authors and featured major stars, it just didn't work and audience members were not waiting until intermission to walk out. The poor cast members had to witness, in full light, the fleeing backs of disgruntled patrons. Mercifully, the show closed during previews. I sat one row in front of the creative staff and overheard one of them say in a hopeful tone, "Well, some of the audience came back after intermission."

Stephen Robinson said...

I think an intermission provides a "formal" time for bathroom breaks/phone calls*. If you remove that -- even for a relatively brief production, then the audience will take those breaks individually. We've all had someone squeezing past us and blocking our view during the most dramatic moment in a play.

I'm now a parent, and I still turn my phone off during performances. Other parents react as if I'm Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. My view is that when the theater asks the audience to turn off their cell phones, it's probably aware of the existence of mothers and fathers. And even just 20 or 30 years ago, you would have had to wait until you could reach a pay phone to check in on your kids/baby sitter anyway.

Ken -- your description of the actor/playwright laughing at the awful lines reminds me of my theory that the *good* writers don't write in a vacuum. I imagine that you're *very* aware of your audience whenever you see your play. And even if you think that the actors are hitting your lines out of the park, you probably notice if no one else is laughing. If you don't listen to your audience, then you'll never improve your work.

Carl said...

Ken, have you ever had a line or bit of business that you felt was funny but just wouldn't get a laugh no matter what you did with it?

Corey (too lazy to add PNW) said...

"douche-chill"? That's so right and so wrong all at the same time. Get's the point across like a good kick in the balls....

RW said...

A lot of theatres (in the UK at least) get upset if there isn't an interval as it means they lose the bar revenue from interval drinks - many venues charge producers extra for on act shows!

Igor said...

Ken, what's this?!

"Anyway, my wife I used to love..."

Versus some other wife?

Wayne said...

My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing A or B last Sunday.

Even the "turn off your cell phone" announcement was funny.

Thanks for an entertaining two hours.

Ken Levine said...

Thanks. I wrote the pre-show announcement too. Yes, I'm neurotic.

Bill said...

With no second acts, how would my mother in law ever see a play? She is a traditional, new york city Second Act-er. I think she has seen the second act of every play/musical on Broadway for the last 30 years. Never paid for a ticket in her life.

Anonymous said...

Finally found it! One of the funniest preshow announcements ever from the greatest, Joan Rivers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9cjAhPA948

Pam, St. Louis

Bryan said...

Friday question:
Do you have any direct connections/stories about the writers of Barney Miller? It seems to me that it has become a bit forgotten over the years (I saw it mostly as reruns in the 80s/90s).

DBenson said...

A century-old Punch cartoon showed two melodrama actors on a stage looking discomforted.

ACTOR: 'Are we alone?'
VOICE FROM BALCONY: 'No, Guv'nor, but you will be t'morrow night!'

I think I've walked out at intermission just once, because the show -- a tiny amateur production of a dated musical, cruelly booked into a massive college concert hall -- was not only boring but inaudible.

Usually I stay because of optimism, or, in a very few cases, perverse curiosity. A classic case of the latter was a "West Side Story" which mixed excellent elements with jaw-dropping ineptitude and/or bad choices. Throughout, cast members thought they were invisibly offstage when they weren't. Tony, with a very good voice, threw a few extra "Marias" into that song and got out of sync with the very good orchestra, staying there until he finished singing several beats after they finished playing. Even the sets went from professional to grade school level from scene to scene.

Riff died in front of the curtain line at the end of act one, and was seen rolling himself back when the house lights came up. How could you not come back for act two?

I was rewarded by the "Somewhere" ballet, where somnambulist Jets and Sharks, wearing short-sleeve white shirts and ties, were joined by a genuinely expert ballerina (no other role in show) who made them all hold hands when not spinning and leaping.

I've weathered shows that were simply weak for one reason or another; this one took serious talent to get some parts impressively right and blinding incompetence to get other things hilariously wrong, sometimes in the same scene.

Mark said...

I refer you to the great Nat Hiken and "Little Miss Pioneer"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvPg6gQZd_s

Ben K. said...

I once was a very low-level film critic for an urban paper, and I would be sent to review movies the more senior critics didn't want to see. When I ended up watching the worst movie I've ever seen in my life -- one that was laughably, horribly, throw-tomatoes-at-the-screen awful, both boring and offensive at the same time -- there was nobody in the tiny screening room except me and the film's director. I still remember what it was like having to sit there quietly, unable to mutter even the smallest obscenity under my breath.

Paul B said...

There's a story, probably untrue, but funny nonetheless, that Pia Zadora was so bad playing Anne Frank, that when the police car pulled up to the house, someone in the audience yelled "she's in the attic".

RCP said...

I feel bad for that actress playwright who provided her own laugh track. Hopefully, she was able to be philosophical about it all.

Like Wayne and his wife, I also thoroughly enjoyed your play and found it fast, funny, and clever - plus, I cared about the characters.

D. McEwan said...

43 years ago I was in a truly wretched production of The Threepenny Opera. That show has two intermissions. Opening night we were so full, we had to risk fire marshall ire and added about 15 seats in the aisles to accommodate everyone.

At the beginning of Act 2 we were able to remove the extra chairs. They were now empty. At the beginning of act 3, we could have removed most of the regular chairs also, as only about one-third of the house had come back twice to suffer through the rest. I assume they had family members in the show. My parents were still there.

The LA times reviewed it. I and the actors who played the Peachums (I was playing Tiger Brown) got good notices, no one and nothing else did. (And actually, our Mackie was not bad, but he was murdered in the reviews) The LA Times review began: "The shark may have pearly teeth dear, but in the production of Threepenny Opera that opened last night, he's definitely lost a few of his incisors." It ended: "When the Street-Singer first tonelessly intoned Mack the Knife, it should have tipped us off that the ensuing three hours of Brecht would oft seem like six."

We had a deluded leading lady, who thought she was a star. She got pissed off, really angry, that every night, every performance, the Peachums got a big hand in the bows, and then she came out for her bow, and the applause dropped considerably in volume and enthusiasm. "Why do they always get more applause than I do?" she made the mistake of railing aloud backstage. She was answered by an audience member who was backstage when she said it: "Because they're better than you are!"

D. McEwan said...

Some years back, at a science fiction convention, we saw a preview of a just finished, low, low budget sci-fi movie. Now, it was just terrible. Utterly, totally terrible, and to no one's surprise, it was never actually released. It may never have been seen again anywhere. I was with about five friends, conventioning and having fun, and by one-third of the way into the movie, the out-loud mocking of the movie began. We joined in. I'm afraid we got a lot of big laughs saying mean, snarky, and funny things about this atrocious movie.

Then it ended, the lights came up, and there was the cast and the writer and the director, sitting right behind us. The guy whose knees were braced against the back of my chair all through it was Mel Welles, star of the movie, and the original Mushnik in Roger Corman's 1960, non-musical Little Shop of Horrors. I can't speak for anyone else, but I was embarrassed and ashamed. Mind you, all 300 people there had been laughing at it and mocking it, but every damn joke I'd said had been clearly heard by the folks who made the movie, and Mel Welles, a talented man, was already humiliated enough by the movie itself. Let's just say, much as I liked him in other movies, I decided against asking for an autograph that night.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I mentioned the Vancouver Fringe Festival before, but if you submit your play for next year's festival,I will attend surely.

DBenson said...

A line I always wanted to use to a small audience:
"You BETTER laugh! We've got you outnumbered!"

Anybody who wants it, can have it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

IME Edinburgh, because of the variable quality of the shows at the annual Festival Fringe, is the city whose inhabitants have the least patience with sub-par theatre/film/etc. I remember being at a show attended by about 15 people, all of us knowing at least one cast member personally. Part way through the first act, someone sitting in front of me said, I'm sure loud enough for the cast to hear, "Pretentious Celtic twilight nonsense." I think only three people stayed for the second act.

wg

MikeK.Pa. said...

Re: Mark said...
I refer you to the great Nat Hiken and "Little Miss Pioneer"

Nat Hiken was the master of misunderstanding and that episode was a classic example of how well he could pull it off.

rockgolf said...

Not sure if I've told this before on this site. In the late 70s they made an awful movie titled "Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" with Beatles tunes but starring Bee Gees and Peter Frampton.

Frampton's character, Billy Shears, introduced himself with the song "With a Little Help From My Friends". His first line was "What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?"

I stood up in the theater, yelled "YES!" and did.