Monday, July 25, 2016

One actor, one desk, two phones

One of the shows I saw while in New York last week was FULLY COMMITTED by Becky Mode. It’s a one-man show that starred Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from MODERN FAMILY). He was amazing and I recommend seeing it when you don't want to mortgage your house to get tickets for HAMILTON

In her Playbill bio, Ms. Mode notes that since 2001 FULLY COMMITTED has been one of the ten most produced plays in the United States. Very impressive. And not to take anything away from it…


It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. When I wrote my first play it was extremely well received and got big laughs during staged readings. But the late Garry Marshall summed it up. He read the play, called me, and said: “Very funny. Too many people.” Neophyte that I was, I had written a play with seven characters. In today’s world, that was like writing LES MISERABLES on spec.

The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write, but I feel worse for the actors. Twenty years there were a lot more parts out there for thesps. And unlike writing where all we need is an idea and Final Draft, actors have to be hired in order to practice their craft.

Even plays that you think of as two-handers “back in the day” usually had more. ODD COUPLE for example. In addition to Felix and Oscar there are also three poker players and two Pigeon sisters.

If Shakespeare were writing today, HAMLET would be reduced to one prince and a skull.  

Getting a play on Broadway, even a modest one, requires a bankable star. If Jesse Tyler Ferguson was in THE MINDY PROJECT, as sensational as he is in FULLY COMMITTED, no chance does he do that play on Broadway.

In Los Angeles, we have the added hurdle of the ridiculous Equity mandate that actors be paid minimum wage for all performances and rehearsals for shows playing in venues of 99 seats or less. Two-thirds of their membership voted NOT to enact that provision but the Equity board in New York ignored them and instituted it anyway.

This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, isn’t it the union’s obligation to follow the wishes of its membership? There is a big lawsuit now filed by members of Equity to block this new ruling. When have you ever heard of members suing their own union?

Secondly, in LA, no one makes money in small theatres. We playwrights sure don’t. Producers don’t. And if this new provision goes into effect in December as scheduled, the result will be fewer productions and eventually fewer theatres. As I said, there are fewer roles for actors as it is. There will eventually be no roles.

Or, actors will break from the union, or start their own union, or non-union actors will be hired instead.

The truth is there are very few full Equity productions each year in Los Angeles. There are only a handful of large theatres and in many cases they import road shows of Broadway musicals so bring in their own casts. Local Equity actors are shut out of those. So where they gonna go?

Had the Equity actors voted to enact this provision I would just have to shake my head and deal with the consequences. If small theatre in LA is killed, well, it was their wish. I can still write plays and land productions elsewhere. But clearly it’s not their wish.

One actor, one desk, two phones. FULLY COMMITTED might be the only show LA theatres can produce. If that.


RandomQues said...

"in LA, no one makes money in small theatres. We playwrights sure don’t. Producers don’t." So who does then? Surely someone has to make money for a theatre to continue.

CRL said...

My next play will have two phones and no actors.

Igor said...

You take a story that's inside baseball (I suppose here I should add, "metaphorically") and make it interesting & entertaining. Hm, I'm starting to notice something unusual about you.

Anyway, how about: "Two Actors, No Desk, One Phone"?

I'm going to assume a second actor costs more than the savings on the desk (plus, reveal, it'd probably need a table of some sort), but think of the savings on only needing one phone. (Unless of course you can get two phones under a two-for-one plan with T-mobile or such.)

Now to be honest, I don't yet have a story, but many lines of dialogue will be variations on, "Can you get off the damn phone?! I'm expecting a callback!"

Michael said...

Hi Ken,

Your post on small cast plays is a good example of art adopting to finance. Here's a related Friday question I'd be interested in getting your view on. In the 1990's German tax law made it worthwhile for Germans to finance independent film as a tax write-off and independent film flourished until the tax loophole was filled. Today independent films struggle to find an audience. TV - especially cable and streaming - are the media of the moment. The money is flowing as Netflix, Amazon and everyone else seek to stake out a prominent position in on-line entertainment. Scripted series sell but not every good idea works as a series. Is there or will there be a place on-line for the self-contained one-off stories we used to call independent film?

Jee Jay said...

"If Shakespeare were writing today, HAMLET would be reduced to one prince and a skull."

A lot of Shakespeare's plays are written to be done with small casts. Actors can double-up and triple-up roles where characters deliberately never appear onstage at the same time.

So, even 400 years ago, they were watching the coin.

Anonymous said...

With all the frickin' money that's made in this town, you'd think some of the people who've made out so well in this industry could figure out a way to create tax breaks for themselves via the funding of some small community theaters in Hollywood.

Garry Marshall found a way, although it was a larger theater for mostly accomplished actors. Still, he made it happen. Why was he such a damned genius, compared to all the other multimillionaires in this town?

A Millennial recently said to me, "the boomer generation had all these great actors, but all we have is a bunch of riff raff!

Without places for young actors to hone their craft, with some exceptions, it's going to stay that way. We're going to have a load of good looking jock actors, and that will be about it.

We suck, because we deserve it. We worked to make it so.

Covarr said...

RandomQues: I can't attest to small LA theatres, but between ticket sales, county and state grants, and renting our building out for other events such as local political debates, the community theatre I'm with generally brings in enough money for maintaining the venue itself, for advertising, and for licensing new shows in future seasons... and a little put aside, I assume, both so that we have enough of a buffer that a single bad show won't bankrupt us, and so we can spend a little more licensing musicals, which bring in better audiences so are worth spending more on. (This fall we're doing THE LITTLE MERMAID, which isn't cheap; we cut costs like crazy in the 2015-2016 season just to afford it.)

We're always looking to keep costs down, whether that means showcasing plays by small-time local playwrights, who are often so happy to see their work performed that they're willing to let us do it for free (and in several cases have also been actors here), allowing cast to supply some of their own costume pieces when possible, cheaping out on inferior building materials for sets, and focusing on plays with fewer sets. Just this last year we've done two locally-written plays that didn't cost us anything in licensing, and OUR TOWN, which by design has only chairs and tables for sets. This year was admittedly tighter than usual, but still.

We don't bring in enough money to pay our casts or crews. Virtually everything done here is on a volunteer basis. I'm sure in a big city like LA the small theatres are slightly better off than middle-of-nowhere WA where I live, but there's more of them and advertising is a lot more costy.

All in all, I'd be very surprised if they made much more than just enough to stay afloat. Community theatres and small commercial theatres squeak on by, and even if they only just break even, they keep going as long as there's people dedicated enough to keep pouring their time into them, even if the monetary compensation is a mere token or none at all.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Whenever I see people complaining that being forced to pay higher wages will drive out business, it puts me in mind of this. I mean, if these new rules will make the system under which live theatre is produced in LA unsustainable, maybe the current system doesn't deserve to survive.

Lou H. said...

Equity sounds a lot like PETA: they'd rather the world have well-off actors even if that means fewer actors.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Apparently, Clark Gesner made a nice living from YOU'RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN performances at small theaters and schools everywhere. It's six actors (can be any age, but perfect for schools) a small band or piano and some plywood.

JonCow said...

Two actors and one phone. "Call-Waiting for Godot."

B.A. said...

Jee Jay: I remember performance of 'Twelfth Night' where the Malvolio character also played another role; in one scene the two had speak to each other so he covered his 'evil' mustache with his hand to be the other guy. Pretty funny to see now but it may have gone over differently back then.

Jim said...

One of the things that so made British actors attractive to Hollywood was that many learned their trade in the hell-hole otherwise known as weekly rep. That's where a provincial theatre would hire a permanent company for a thirty week winter season in which they would put on thirty different plays. In any given week you would be performing one play in the evening, rehearsing the moves for the next week's during the day, then learning the lines for the one the week after that when you finally got back home in the evening. It was bastard hard, but when your Hollywood director said "let's give it a bit of colour." you had an awful lot of experience to fall back on.

Anonymous said...

"Apparently, Clark Gesner made a nice living from YOU'RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN performances at small theaters and schools everywhere."

Yeah, but at the price of his eternal soul.

I hated that show when I was a kid. Lucy was a bitter bitch, and Linus needed to be kicked in the nuts till he dropped that blanket, in my 7 year old view. Charlie Brown was best buried alive. Snoopy was delusional, and probably suffering from rabies. Those kids would't have lasted in my crew.

Jeff Weimer said...

OT: Marni Nixon, who dubbed your muse in West Side Story passed away yesterday.

Based on the length and depth of the NYT obituary, they were fairly prepared for it.

Igor said...

JonCow said... Two actors and one phone. "Call-Waiting for Godot."


That Guy said...

Your memory plays you mildly false. There are Four non-Oscar-and-Felix poker players (Murray, Speed, Vinnie and Roy) not three.

Eric J said...

My wife and I went to many small theater performances in L.A.(Santa Monica Blvd?) over the years we lived in Sherman Oaks. Most were evening performances in small theaters in areas that didn't seem safe during the DAY. The theater was no refuge. Horrible A/C circulating musty air and seats that a waterboard wouldn't use. We saw some fun performances, but finally decided living to see another day was more important.

If theaters can't find audiences it's because audiences don't want to be found. If a theater can't attract audiences big enough to pay the bills, maybe they shouldn't survive. Few audience members are up for festering holes in sketchy areas to see a play.

Actors will act. They're finding or creating their own learning spaces. There are interesting performances on youtube for budding actors. All that's needed is a smartphone and a place to sit or stand, but many have surprisingly ingenious production values.

I have few thoughts on saving live theater. Live theater is an interesting experience, but I don's see it as a necessary one. For those who do, if live theater is really necessary for developing acting talent, then they will be willing to subsidize the training with grants to local plays or high school drama departments. Apparently, those who hire actors don't see it as a problem.

DBenson said...

What about "Love Letters", which requires two actors but doesn't require them to be off-book?

Last year saw a one-man musical. The playwright/star played Irving Berlin, recounting his life and singing his songs, accompanying himself on the piano. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but I found myself worrying that somebody somewhere was thinking, "well, no more need for wasteful two-person musicals."

MikeN said...

How many of the people who are upset about minimum wage rules causing loss of jobs and shutdowns will then eagerly support an increase in minimum wage in California to $15 an hour?

BobinVT said...

I remember reading years ago that Neil Simon mounted one of his last plays off Broadway to protest the absurd, expensive union rules that he felt were strangling non-musical Broadway. The rules featured things like mandating a minimum of four musicians even for non-musicals, stage hands making over $100,000 per year (remember, this was years ago), and other such excesses. I remember him saying that for his plays, he always demanded that the four musicians attend each performance. They would usually just stay home for straight plays since there was nothing to do. Simon said at his plays they played cards in the pit during the show. Anyway, I thought of this as I read today's post. I don't remember the name of the show, but it didn't do well. Not sure if that was due to being off Broadway, or maybe it wasn't very good.

Loverofthisblog said...

"your memory plays you mildly false" Sigh......Thank you.

Cap'n Bob said...

Well, that shoots down my dream of playing the old fart in TWELVE ANGRY MEN. Come to think of it, is that title too sexist for modern sensibilities? Will it be 12 ANGRY PERSONS?

Anyway, you said 99 seats or less. Did you mean 99 seats or more? I won't even mention the correct use of fewer.

Breadbaker said...

Of course, what this also means is less employment for set designers, set constructors, costumiers and hair and makeup artists and the other people who service a larger show. They're "costs" in this world, and we cut costs.

James said...

A cynic might think that New York wanted LA's theater scene crippled to keep the center of the live-theater world (the US world) in New York. New York lost film, radio and live television to Hollywood. Why encourage more actors to be successful in live theater on the coast too?

flurb said...

AEA has a lot to answer for - I'm a member, and I try to be as vocal as I can, but everything regional is being run by New Yorker types who really don't care if there is a regional theatre, let alone 99-seat houses in LA.

But I feel the need to respond to Eric J above: If live theatre doesn't seem like a necessary art form, it's because, due to many factors, theatre producers cut actor salaries first - they won't even look at plays with cast of much more than five. As a result, most new plays are crappy, and for reasons other than writers not learning their craft (though there's a lot of that going around too, and thank you Ken for not being part of it).

Look, you can't really get anything going - you can't give the sense of a world with a cast of five or fewer. Yes, there are exceptions, but come on - there's nothing wrong with AMERICAN BUFFALO that wouldn't be made better by having f*cking Ruthie come on stage with a couple of her friends. There's an actor's joke that two-character plays are boring because if there's a knock at the door, we already know who it is. This crippling of playwrights in the service economizing - all while ticket prices rise to record levels, and out of all proportion to the cost of living - is giving us new plays that are small in size and smaller in ideas. Who can blame a theatre subscriber for wondering why she's forking out $75-150 to see a nothing play like the two-man RED, whose only glory is borrowed? No wonder she lets the subscription lapse.

A playwright needs a certain amount of activity on a set to give vitality to her or his story. If a brilliant craftsman, he or she can make wonders happen with as little as five actors, but, frankly, a play with fewer than that is almost always merely a kind of lecture demonstration, and can only sustain interest for less than an hour.

Just as an experiment, some fellow actors and I established a reading series to exhibit the very kinds of large cast, big canvas plays that used to be regular fodder in New York and then elsewhere. Sidney Kingsley's DEAD END, from 1938, has more to say about today's income inequality than any documentary you've decided not to watch yet on Netflix - it's astoundingly entertaining and moving and funny, much better than the movie that got made from it. We have a rabid coterie of fans every month, but we can't afford to produce these plays fully, because the system is so screwed up.

Andy Rose said...

If the rank-and-file wants it, I don't see why union leaders should deny it. But that said, "Most upstart ______ never make money" is something that could be said about almost any endeavor, not just plays in LA. Most magazines fail. Most TV shows fail. Yet writers are constantly warned against donating their creative talents and time to others "for exposure." Most restaurants fail (and fail miserably) but no one would suggest that cooks and servers and dishwashers work for nothing until it gets on its feet. So what's the difference? (That's not a leading question, by the way... I assume there must be a legit reason, and I'm genuinely curious.)

Wayne said...

The theater will live longer than the theater union.

DBenson said...

There's a difference between a creative endeavor that may lead to greater things, artistically and financially, and a service job where superlative performance raises your employer's baseline expectations but not your paycheck. Making a better hamburger at the drivethru might in fact get you fired, or at least forcefully reminded they can replace you with a teenager living at home.

Yes, there are abuses of actors and other creatives who take risks ("We'll pay you in exposure!"). But there is a qualitative difference between an actor willing to sacrifice time and sweat for a new play and an "ordinary" worker getting lowballed by a billion dollar corporation.

cadavra said...

We saw FULLY COMMITTED a couple of months ago and enjoyed the heck out of it.


One actor. One set. 75 minutes. And the tickets were $149 each (plus about $12 each in fees). And those weren't even the TOP ticket prices.

$149 is one thing for a big, splashy musical with an ensemble, orchestra and lots of sets and costumes. But one set, one actor, 75 minutes, over at 8:15? Our enjoyment of the show was thus somewhat compromised by the feeling that we'd been ripped off by producers using a popular TV star to make a fast buck off tourists.

Terrence Moss said...

do you use final draft or another program to write scripts?

i know the script format enough not to need it, but was once forced to because my collaborators insisted on it.

personally, I HATED using the program and felt better off with just a Word document.

what are your thoughts?

YEKIMI said...

Don't know if you've seen this yet but what do you think of the "Cheers" theme set to images of historical gay bars and people? Like it or hate it?

Anonymous said...

Jim Said:

"One of the things that so made British actors attractive to Hollywood was that many learned their trade in the hell-hole otherwise known as weekly rep. That's where a provincial theatre would hire a permanent company for a thirty week winter season in which they would put on thirty different plays. In any given week you would be performing one play in the evening, rehearsing the moves for the next week's during the day, then learning the lines for the one the week after that when you finally got back home in the evening. It was bastard hard, but when your Hollywood director said "let's give it a bit of colour." you had an awful lot of experience to fall back on."

Bingo. I had a friend who was in the middle of that. I went to visit him in England, and he was playing in a magnificent theatre (the beatles once played there) in a small town, six hours drive from London. Additionally, some of the leads or co-stars were highly experienced professionals who were very well known in England, and had done a lot of television in very successful series.

Imagine acting in a comedy play with one of the cast of "Friends" right after their series run. You'd learn a lot, as a green pea.

I noticed UCB, which doesn't charge much for tickets, certainly not enough to open a new, modern theater, opened another new, modern theater lately. I would suspect that some members of the original group, one of whom made a hell of a lot of money, decided to plow it back into "community theater" to give back to the town that helped them earn their riches.

Why is Amy Poeler so smart? How come she can figure out a way to open a new, modern theater for fledgling artists to practice their craft, without having to declare personal bankruptcy in the endeavor, but people like Seth McFarlane is flummoxed by the notion?

Why aren't the producers of wildly successful, and even multiple wildly successful television shows, not figuring out a way to build or refurbish theaters for the community that they look down on from their tony homes in the hills?

John Hammes said...

Anonymous CRL said...

My next play will have two phones and no actors.

7/25/2016 6:34 AM

MY next play will have TWO actors, TWO phones, TWO desks... and no dialogue.
Actors and audience just staring at each other for two hours.

Working title: "ESP - The Musical !"

Diane D. said...

Cap'n Bob
Since no one more qualified answered you, I will tell you what I remember from previous discussions on this blog. Ken did indeed mean 99 or fewer seats, because rules are different for small theatres (defined as less than 99 seats, apparently). One rule that was different was they did not have to pay actors for rehearsal time. They changed that rule, which means a huge increase in expense that could mean the closing of some of those theatres. If I have any of that wrong, I hope someone will speak up.

Actually, no one makes money. They do it for pure love of live theatre, and the actors have the added advantage of gaining experience. It is strange to me that fabulously wealthy actors, directors, and other creative people don't support these small theatres. it would be pocket change for them.