Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Upfronts and Downsizing

When I wrote my first play twenty years ago I made a real rookie mistake.  There were eight characters in it.  The vintage comedy plays I grew up with by playwrights like Kaufman & Hart all featured multiple characters, outlandish costumes, physical comedy, props galore, several themes, a romance, some satirical poking at society, and usually three or four stories intertwining to service all of the characters.   They generally built to a big final scene where most, if not all, of the characters were on stage at once, and in principal, the laughs would be flying fast and furious. 

So having never taken a playwriting course I used that as sort of my guide and wrote UPFRONTS AND PERSONAL.  (I should mention that I’ve had several readings and have done major rewriting on it since my first draft twenty years ago. I’m probably on draft fifteen.)

I was lucky enough to finally have it produced by the Gallery Players in Brooklyn in 2019 and they did a terrific job.  A current production is going on now through the 23rd at the Riverfront Playhouse in Aurora, Illinois -- equally as excellent.  Get your tickets here.  

I caught a couple of performances this past weekend and what a joy after two years of Zoom plays, to hear an actual audience laugh from start to finish.  Everyone did a great job and it really worked.  

But as I watched it I got a little wistful.  When I first wrote it I sent it to Garry Marshall who owned a theatre in Southern California.  He called back and said, “Very funny!”  I asked if we could develop it for his theatre and he said, “Too many people!”  “How many is good?” I asked.  “Two!!!” was his answer.   (My next play was a two-hander and his theatre did produce it.)  

The point is most theatres don’t want large cast plays anymore — especially if they have to pay the actors.  I certainly get that.  That’s the world today.  But it saddens me that these bigger plays that are real crowd-pleasers are going the way of the dinosaur.

I’m so glad I got at least one in although I’ve had five different plays and one musical produced since I wrote UPFRONTS AND PERSONAL.   I probably won’t be writing another like it, but I’m sure glad I was a rookie and didn’t know any better at the time.  

The photos are from the two productions.  Looks like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?


jenmoon said...

As the world's most minor actor, I prefer stuff with large casts (it's not like anyone's gonna get paid anyway) because then I have better odds getting in! I only get into small plays if they're online only--somehow I get better roles that way.

Bob K said...

Possible Friday Question: I admire how you seemingly are able to almost ruthlessly edit your own material. When I was writing scripts, it was the most difficult thing I had to do. And in most cases, I just wasn’t able to do it properly. Were you always able to do this, or was it a skill learned over time?

Glenn said...

Larry David wrote "Fish in the Dark" for Broadway and it has 18 speaking roles.

Glenn said...

Generally what you wrote is TRUE. But university and college theatre departments look for large cast plays. They want to use as many of their students as possible in the production.

Richard said...

Ha Ha. When I saw the title in my RSS feed I thought it was going to be about Network Upfronts. Either way, I still learned something from Ken's story.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

This is exactly why in recent years, much to the chagrin of older fans and people who grew up with the show in decades past, SESAME STREET has greatly reduced its number of characters, both in terms of the human adults (there's practically only three of them left) and Muppets as well; as far as the Muppets are concerned, they've been reduced to what they call their "Core Six," which is six specific characters who are likely to appear in every episode in some capacity; these are Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Cookie Monster, and Grover . . . any other Muppet characters are essentially reduced to glorified cameos every once in a while.

The reason for this being in recent years, their parent production company Sesame Workshop has seen a turn-over in staff, and many of their newer executives previous worked for Viacom, which not only is a major conglomerate of a corporation, but also handled much of Sesame's competition, like BLUE'S CLUES, DORA THE EXPLORER, and other kiddy shows that had relatively smaller casts of two or maybe even three characters at most. A lot of research goes into how SESAME STREET is produced, and their research indicated that children better handle shows with smaller casts of characters, which is the main reason they reduced their own cast . . . unfortunately, this caused a lot of controversy, from people who were outraged that longtime characters like Gordon, Bob, Luis, and others were "fired," to the fact that longtime Muppet Performer-director-head writer Joey Mazzarino just up and walked away from the show, feeling these new changes (not just reducing the cast, but also doing away with parodies and celebrity guests) stripped SESAME STREET of its heart and soul.

maxdebryn said...

The cast of my high school's production of "South Pacific" was huge, as I recall (this was circa 1975). There must have been close to thirty students onstage at one point or another.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

On the other hand, as jenmoon says, amateur theater groups often don't mind large casts because they have lots of members who want to be in the show. They pay performance royalties, too - and there is a phenomenal number of them. Around here, the amateur groups often do older material because the royalties are less (or, in the case of Shakespeare, free). My nearest group likes a cast of 10-12, but it's a smallish group. Bigger ones can be more ambitious.


DBenson said...

Many years ago there was a show called "Bullshot Crummond", a broad parody of pulpy British adventures. The cast numbered five, three of whom frantically played several characters. Since then I've seen variations of the same idea, with varying levels of seriousness. Ironically, the productions surrounding the tiny casts are often more elaborate than many big-cast shows I've seen.

There's a version of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" that treads close to "Bullshot", the conceit being a few actors whipping it together in a cheap music hall. Rolling garment racks represent a crowd scene, facing chairs a train compartment, etc.

Similarly, "Around the World in 80 Days" deploys a cast of five in a single malleable set. I've seen it staged in a steampunk setting and as an outsized Victorian board game.

There are "radio plays" that enact large-cast stories like "It's a Wonderful Life" with just a few actors, usually set in an old-fashioned radio studio.

Shakespeare and classics like "Cyrano de Bergerac" also get reduced-cast treatments. The concept is often a small troupe of period players enacting the play in a village, with sets and props more or less what they could plausibly be carting from town to town.

I fully expect to see "Cats" served up as a one-person show, a lone protean singer with a pianist and a box of hats, scarfs, etc.

mike schlesinger said...

Well, not always. We're going to NY next month, and among the shows we're seeing are MACBETH (14 actors), THE HANGMEN (13), THE MINUTES (11), THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG (9) and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH--28! (And that's only the straight plays, not musicals.)

Roger Owen Green said...

I saw over the weekend the 2022 10×10 New Play Festival at the Barrington Theater in Pittsfield, MA. "10 Ten-Minute Plays x 10 Playwrights = 100 Minutes of PURE JOY!" Six actors, but usually two to three performers per script. Except for the last one about voters, where the whole cast - except for the reporter - played multiple characters. I saw it online; unfortunately, it's no longer available. But if it's available next year, Ken, and it's online again, I highly recommend it.