Monday, July 10, 2017

The state of theater

Nathaniel Thomsen, Eric Bischoff, some guy, and Sydney Kaser
Back from a weekend in Seattle to see my play, LOVERS’ LEAP performed at the Edmonds Driftwood Players 8th Annual Festival of One Acts. I was thrilled with how well mine came out, and all eight of the plays were terrific. Proud to be amongst ‘em.   Special thanks to Diane Jamieson, my director Eric Bischoff, and great cast -- Nathaniel Thomsen and Sydney Kaser. 

My play is a two-hander (two actors) and all of the plays had limited casts of no more than four. And truly that is the trend these days. In both short pieces and full-length plays.

OSLO just won the Tony for Best Play. It’s a huge production. Fourteen people in the cast. You’ve got to be an A list playwright with ties to theater companies or producers with big money to finance something like that. If playwright J.T. Rogers was a nobody who just sent that off to theaters and festivals he probably would get no takers – despite how brilliant the writing and concept is.

Production costs have spiraled. So theaters now want plays with no more than four actors, simple sets or (better yet) abstract suggestions of sets, and little or no complicated technical requirements. Hold off on the fog machines. 

And you can write a spectacular play under those conditions – numerous playwrights have – but it really does limit the types of stories you can tell. Neil Simon couldn’t write THE ODD COUPLE with those restrictions. You say, “Why not? It’s just about two characters – Felix and Oscar?” True, but did you know there are eight people in that cast? There are the four poker buddies and the two Pigeon sisters. And it’s a very different play without them.

Like everything else, these decisions are being made for monetary not creative reasons. Here in Los Angeles now that Equity screwed all of its members and the theater community by insisting on pay formulas that the local chapter voted against by a two-thirds vote – there are even fewer plays and productions mounted.

And to me, this is an even bigger problem for Equity actors. We playwrights just have to adjust our thinking, but we can still churn out our plays. And directors direct, no matter the size of the cast. But if there are only two roles instead of nine, seven would-be jobs for actors are gone. And if producers decide to just by-pass all the Equity bullshit and do their plays with non-Equity actors, there go more roles for actors who have worked hard to qualify for Equity.

What I need to do is write a one-man show that I can star in about my life. Needless to say, one-man shows are more popular now than ever. I could discuss my early years, career, and struggles along the way. I could dispense sage advice learned from my years of ups and downs. Yeah. That’s what I’ll do... for my next ten-minute play.

13 comments :

Peter said...

What I need to do is write a one-man show that I can star in about my life. Needless to say, one-man shows are more popular now than ever. I could discuss my early years, career, and struggles along the way.

Make it a musical and I'm there.

Anonymous said...

Ken,
This is not the first post to rail against the new(ish) union rules.
It appears from the outside looking in as another case of union leadership not listening to the members. The leadership would inevitably say that they are looking out for the best interest of the membership, and they may actually believe that. This would certainly look to be a case where it could eventually weaken the union given that it suppresses entry level union jobs and incentivizes hiring non union for entry level, or moving the factory to a non-union area. I realize that these are not really entry level the same way that the mail room, etc. is, but the point is the same.
I know what side you are on, but could you do the devil's advocate version of why the leadership wants this? Both from the how does it benefit them standpoint and, assuming they are acting with pure motives, why do they think it benefits the rank and file? Or do they not care at all about themselves or the rank and file, but just want to oppose anything from "the man"?
-Just Me

Glenn said...

I'd see a one-man show about you, Ken. You have a great chunk of the script on your blog already.

P.S. There are *four* poker buddies in the Odd Couple. Tsk, tsk.

Cliff said...

I was able to attend the theater Friday night. Very interesting set of 8 plays. I don't envy the initial jury that waded through 400 (!) submissions before settling on the eight that were the finalists.
Not all of the short plays were comedies, and a couple were very, not comedies. My wife and I discussed how difficult it was to do our vote. At least in the big awards, drama and comedy are in different groups. We discussed our choices all the way home. So, good job to the 8 authors for providing plenty of things to discuss.
Entertaining concept. Now to figure out who won, and what the award may be?
Cliff

Ken Levine said...

Just me,

I am very much a union man. Proud member of the WGA, DGA, SAG, and AFTRA.

But in this case, I do not honestly believe the union membership is acting in the best interests of its members. I think it's a power struggle and the need for the board to control its LA chapter. And when over 2/3rds of the LA members vote against this I say (a) the board is not following the wishes of its members, and (b) why even have a vote?

This is not a pro or anti union issue. Readers of this blog know how passionate I've been about various industry contract negotiations. But that's not this.

Eric J said...

"Like everything else, these decisions are being made for monetary not creative reasons."

Actors, directors, stage hands, playwrights want jobs. They expect to be paid. Of course, these decisions are made for monetary reasons, because everyone involved in theater expects to be paid in money.

Face it. The people who provide the money, AUDIENCES, are just not into you. Their hard-earned money is the real applause.

Craig Gustafson said...

I saw a 1940s movie called "The Doughgirls," with Ann Sheridan, Jack Carson, Eve Arden and the immortal Joe DeRita - 15 years before becoming "Curly Joe" with the Three Stooges. And he was actually very funny in this, much to my shock.

Since it was adapted from a Broadway play, I tracked down the script, to see if it was worth submitting to direct at my local theater. Got the script, opened it up to the cast list... and put it right down.

There were over *fifty* speaking roles. Even with doubling, there's no way that's going to happen.

Donald Benson said...

In regional professional theater I've seen a lot of shows with casts of four or less -- and many boasted elaborate production. Is it cheaper to put a one-actor piece onstage with full-on set changes that to field eight actors in the stock living room?

In the last few years I've seen a couple versions of "Cyrano de Bergerac"; both designed to shrink the cast demands. One popular device with this and other classics is to present a small group of "strolling players" or some such. The entire cast doubles, triples and even quadruples in plain sight. There's no attempt to persuade you the cast is any larger than it is; if a major character briefly becomes somebody else by wearing a cloak, so be it.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz did a very clever version of "Comedy of Errors", where instead of two sets of twins you had just two guys, each playing a pair of twins via obvious but engaging tricks of set and costume. This became kind of a theme, with other characters improbably doubled (A grand duke and a campy madam, both in the same scene). The production had comic virtues beyond the gimmick and was revived in later seasons.

Companies that do a season of shows will often stage a bunch of tiny-cast plays to "save up" for a big-cast epic; usually a classic that resists doubling and other tricks.

High schools, colleges and ambitious amateur groups still do big cast shows. Not only do they want to give the maximum number of students experience, but they increasingly have that market to themselves.

Peter said...

Ken, you've probably got superhero fatigue by this point, but I recommend Spider-Man: Homecoming. Michael Keaton is a terrific bad guy and there's lots of John Hughes style comedy.

If you go, stay to the end of the credits for probably the funniest post-credits scene ever. It brought the house down at the screening I went to.

Buttermilk Sky said...

What about the State of Levine? Every night on the news we're seeing fires, blackouts, planes crash-landing on the freeway. Are you OK? Looks kind of apocalyptic out there.

Mike Barer said...

I didn't you had something running up here. I would have checked it out.

Jim said...

If you want to see real cut to the minimum, then have a look at the Berlin Comic Opera's version of Oscar Straus' "A woman who knows what she wants", where 20 roles are performed by a cast of two. Here's the trailer. They're probably outnumbered by the percussionists. Possibly by the triangle players too.

MikeN said...

How many of these actors who opposed the union deal happily voted for politicians who supported $15 an hour minimum wage? How many people will end up out of work from that?