Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Pitfalls of Off-Off Broadway

Howard Sherman at The Huffington Post put out an article yesterday about Community Theaters.  It's all about how we degrade "community theater", when in reality, some of the most inspiring work happens just there.  I want to take this all a step further.

Off-Off Broadway has a major problem:  
Very few people believe in it.

But that's not where the problem stops.  This is the Empire State.  With enough money, you can pay your way into anything.  This includes the producing of "Great Art".  And our newspapers buy into that concept.  As long as you get your theatrical production put up in an expensive building, pay a publicist for your connections, and advertise for your audience, you stand a pretty good chance of getting any paper you want to review you.  And so long as you have a passing product at the end of that mess, you'll get a good review, and you might get people to show up to see the show - but that's a long shot.

But let's say you're not made of money.  You'd better have a relationships with the next hit writer.  And as long as you're constantly putting up new work, the big papers will try to make it to your productions as much as they can.

If you don't fit into the last two paragraphs, then you sure as Hell had better have a crazy concept going on - you'd better be doing Viewpoints work, have some dance or movement twist, incorporate some angle in a bar, be doing site-specific work, or you'd better be riffing on another successful idea to borrow their credibility.  And then you'll get some of the big papers some of the time.

But let's say that you believe in actor-driven work.  Let's say that you believe that we have a lot of great stories in our history that haven't been told all that well.  And let's say that you commit to bringing justice to these relevant stories and sharing them with your community.  Let's say that your angle is as simple as doing good, believable work.  Nobody trusts that.  Why not?  Because everyone professes to do it.  But most theaters don't have the faintest idea how to accomplish that.  And audiences know that.  So, people wait to see what the reviews are gonna say before they'll trust THIS theater.  But the big reviewers don't want to come out, because most of them don't trust it, either.

So, you're faced with the following situation:  Because everyone pretends that they know what good acting and good theater is, and because every actor thinks that their talent gives them reality on the stage (so long as there's a good director and good blocking and good sets and lights and costumes) . . . and because everyone wants to pretend that there's nothing special about James Cagney and Marlon Brando and all of the rest of the greats we once had . . . the community is suspicious of theater that professes to be alive.  Because most companies misrepresent themselves.

As if that weren't enough...
  • Let's say that your theater has a Hit on its hands.  And because of the fact that your theater uses Union actors, you're only allowed 16 performances, maximum.  So, if you want to build your group, you can't have one big hit, share it with everyone in NYC, and build your company off of it.  You have to have multiple hits at 16 performances a pop.  
  • But then this city refuses to believe that a theater company can do consistent work.  Why?  Because very few groups have a way of working that is consistent from play to play.  
  • Why?  Because actors are taught that they shouldn't commit to one group.  Moreover, we're all barely alive, working two jobs, and constantly reaching for that one big role.  So, it's hard to keep a group of artists together in a city like this.
  • So, even when you get a group together and do consistent work, it's still hard to build an audience, because our community has taught us to be wary of anything that doesn't have a stamp of approval (that golden review) on each and every product.  
  • And because the skepticism feeds from the top down, it's a major uphill battle just convincing your friends to believe - forget the rest of the community.

Off-Off Broadway is a conglomeration, involving everything from community amateurs to seasoned, professional artists.  It's chock-full of vanity projects.  And there are way too many companies to count.  To put up a show for three weeks at a run-down theater costs a minimum of $8,000 . . . if you rehearse out of your home.  People make fun of the fact that so many fundraisers are necessary just to keep our theaters alive, but it's an amazing feat, producing in this market.  The amount of resistance that all of us producing on this level are dealing with is staggering.  And most of us can see it when we go see our friends' shows - with five other people in the audience.

Keep in mind:  Off-Off Broadway can't really afford previews.  The theater rental costs too much.  We can't have long rehearsal periods.  Our Union won't allow us - or they will for a lot of money.  We can rarely say our art has been vetted by reviewers that make a difference.  But Off-Off Broadway is the place to see passion onstage.  Very rarely can you see it elsewhere.  And anyone that tries to make a functioning company out of all of this insanity, all of this nonsense that has to be waded through to stay afloat as an arts organization, should be revered in some way or another.  This is a city that plays more to visitors than residents.  Everything feeds out, rather than back into the community.

I've thought for a long time that you can see great work in only two places:  1.)  On the biggest stages for the biggest bucks.  And 2.)  In a community theater.  Why?  Because at least amateurs are doing it for the love of it.  Most people in the middle are just trying to imitate the work we call great - so, the middle ground is false art, mostly regurgitated.  But some of them aren't.  Some of the work on the Off-Off Broadway level is truly inspired.

And that's where The Seeing Place Theater lives.  We're in the middle.  And we're doing work that should be noticed.  We're not amateurs, but we're not billionaires.  We're a bunch of passionate individuals, who have a craft and a means of creating life on the stage - and we're all committed to working as a cohesive group, in service of the stories we tell.  It's representative of the world we live in.  It feeds back into our community.

Now, how do we, as members of that community, overcome the pessimism that we're living into?
We have to reach our community to let them know we're here.  Over and over again.

What do you think?  What's your experience of  Off-Off Broadway and its value in our community?

25 comments:

  1. Hey, Brandon,

    It's clear from this post, and from knowing you, that you have seen a lot of theater in this city and have witnessed some major problems. Problems that you'd like to adjust in your own work and the work of your company. I have been here for a much shorter duration, but I admit that I too have been a little jaded with the theater I have seen here. Unlike yourself, I have seen some good attempts at great theater, but have yet to see something truly great (keep in mind, I can't afford a ticket to "Sleep No More"). I have been inspired by great performers and great ideas in top notch shows and some focused efforts in small off-off productions. But reading your posts and beginning work with your company, I gain faith that there are still great productions as a whole being performed in New York City. So, thank you for the encouragement!

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    1. Thanks, Javan.

      And also please know that I am truly touched and inspired by something in almost everything I see. If not, then I am always learning something.

      But that said, I rarely see what I would call a full production. Usually, the behavioral storytelling can brag one or two standout performances - but almost never the whole ensemble. In this city, much more attention is placed on the direction and the design - and a lot of the time, audiences don't even notice the lacking group performances, because their eyes are being directed elsewhere.

      For example, I was fortunate enough to see THE PITMAN PAINTERS on Broadway. And they had all sorts of slideshow things going on, crazy lights, all sorts of fun stuff. And it wasn't until the middle of the first half that I realized I had barely even LOOKED at the actors. The technology was filling in the gaps in their performances. It was still a great show in its overall storytelling. But I couldn't help but wonder what it could have been, had the actors been alive with it.

      And that's the best we've come to expect here. It's not bad. But life on stage is way more compelling.

      We're lucky to have an organic company that lives the situation fresh every night. And soon enough, our community will catch on. They've already started to.

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  2. I've been mulling over a response to this post, but all I can come up with is a simple, I agree. Wonderfully written with persuasive ideas. I think the most "artistic" theater is indeed happening off and off-off Broadway, though recently I was encouraged by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Cyrano on Broadway - two brilliantly done productions with some phenomenal acting and artistic choices (both tickets were free, I don't have that kind of money either, Javan!).

    I think it's one large balancing act. We perform for an audience and to gain a wider audience exposure is necessary. But to get the exposure needed, that sometimes takes a large amount of money or flashy spectacle. I am sure there is a middle ground somewhere, it's just a matter of finding it, either by utilizing resources or creating our own.

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    1. I'd love to see CYRANO and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, too...if they were free. (And SLEEP NO MORE for that matter)

      But isn't it funny that every time Steppenwolf brings over a production, it garners this kind of attention? Because Chicago is an ensemble theater town. They get it.

      I had the fortune of seeing Amy Morton and Tracy Letts out there in BETRAYAL. They're a lot of fun to watch - and certainly very skilled.

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  3. I agree. I think that, today, Off-Off Broadway is what Off-Broadway was in the 70s and 80s - a place for the artists to play and for great work to be discovered. The monetization of Off-Broadway (as being a place for commercial projects to go that are "too small" for Broadway) has taken away much of the experimentation and edginess that New York Theater was once known for. The problem is - Off-Off Broadway is not centralized the way Broadway and Off Broadway are, so it's very difficult to find where the good theater is happening, especially when (as Brandon noted) shows can only run for 16 performances or less.

    That's why we're committed to building our company to the Off-Broadway level while staying true to the artistic pulse available at the Off-Off Broadway level. LAByrinth has done it. I think Rattlestick Players has done it. The New Group has done it. The Seeing Place Theater, now in its 4th Season, is in on its way. It's crazy ambitious, but that how we roll. :)

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  4. I want to thank you for this post and for sticking up for the underdog of Broadway. As someone who's getting her start Off-off, and who also can barely afford to buy a ticket to [insert name of Broadway show], it's reassuring to hear someone else who feels annoyed and frustrated at the overall habit of both the audience AND industry members who quickly dismiss the opportunity to see great work onstage. It sucks, and it is difficult at times to curb the tendency to conform to what everyone deems is "great art"... I wish I had a solution for this other than maybe we've been given the "blessing-in-disguise" of building real relationships with our audience. Real relationships take a lot of time, work, and commitment but they pay off in big ways. Maybe we are being appointed secret healers of the city, opening our doors to the poor, desolate, art-starved audiences and the fresh new faces of young talent who have yet to feel the burn that comes from facing disappointment in this industry... Sooner than later we're bound to strike gold, right?

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    1. I love this - especially the comment about us being the secret healers of the city. Our commitment this season is to make sure that locals feel like they have art that represents them (especially in Hell's Kitchen, where we produce our work - where local art is hard to come by), and visitors to our great city get to see something that represents the heart of New York theater.

      Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your support of The Seeing Place and indie theater everywhere!

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    2. It's funny that, given the principals on which this country was based, we could be healing the city by saying...

      "Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor..."

      But that's exactly what this city needs. You're absolutely right.

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  5. Thank YOU! Love you guys, Erin + Brandon!

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  6. Wow. This post has really struck a nerve, and I love it. I'm in the same boat as Max when I say "I agree". I think I've been in NYC for around the same amount of time as you Brandon, and totally understand where you're coming from. I definitely go through my ups and downs, positives and negatives as an actor working in Off and Off-Off Broadway...but the one constant is the belief that I am doing good work, and that people will eventually find me. That being said, it is a constant grind to get the word out about said "good work", and I think that is the heart of your post. Being a self-producing artist, I try to find the fun in doing that "business-y" work. Yes, we are up against THE MAN, with his Scrooge McDuck-like vault of money, and his empty vault of creativity or talent. But, oh well. This is what it is. We keep fighting. We keep producing. We keep acting. And we (forgive the Journey reference) Don't stop believin'! We, ya know...hold on to that feelin'. Ok, sorry. But, seriously, we have to continue to find like minded people, who we trust beside us onstage, and keep shouting into our megaphone that WE ARE HERE! COME GIVE US A SHOT. Eventually, they will. Or, not. But, since we can only do our part to keep showing up, why not just believe they will come. IF YOU PERFORM IT, THEY WILL COME. Right?

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    1. That's totally true. I forgot about that maxim from FIELD OF DREAMS. New Village Arts in San Diego believed much the same thing - and it has worked out pretty well for them.

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  7. "When did we start settling for mediocre? When did we mistake good for great?", asked Jose Rivera at The New School for Drama commencement ceremony this past May. As I sat in the audience, I knew this was Mr. Rivera's call to arms. My classmates and I nodded our heads in agreement. He was pleading with us not to settle. We are the new, fresh, well trained, and dedicated, standard bearers of the American theater. Mr. Rivera was cajoling us to understand and not take that responsibility lightly. His theater, like mine, is the theater that reminds us as a people where we've been and where we are headed. It can enrich our souls and save our lives. It is a theater that protects us from our destructive selves while deeply connecting us with our gloriousness. Anything short of that is a failure to reach for greatness. That is why I joined The Seeing Place Theater this season. This is an ensemble with an open mind and an exposed heart. The Seeing Place won't abide the mediocre, it never settles for just good enough, and it consistently understands how to strive for greatness. Thank you for the post Brandon. Keep up the mastery!

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    1. That's really great. And as long as our attempts to strive for greatness don't lead us to unnecessarily beat ourselves up when we don't hit the marks we're aiming for, I'm all about it.

      It's gonna be a good year.

      :O)

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  8. This blog is 100% on point. It is incredible that in NYC, the center of theater in the USA, if 99% of the actors, many of which are incredibly talented, want to work on stage it has to be in non-paid Equity showcases--and the companies that produce these shows have to scrimp and save to be able to do it all. In an ideal world, the government would support the art necessary to create and maintain a healthy growing society, but that is not at all the case in the US. And in addition most foundations will not fund small fledgling companies at all. AND now, if Romney wins, whatever arts funding now exists will likely disappear. So what we are left with is a community of dedicated actors who make good theater happen even the cards are stacked against them. We do it well, but we could do it a lot better if a way could be found to pay actors fairly and make theater companies financially viable.

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    1. Absolutely! I'm gonna track all the non-voters down.

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    2. Wow. Could not have said it better myself. Thanks for your perspective, Alan.

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  9. I look forward to meeting you all someday soon... My name is Erika S. Lee and I am also a recent MFA graduate from The New School for Drama. Jason speaks so highly of your artistry and commitment, and this conversation is a clear example.

    As performing artists, we rarely have the opportunity to see and support other productions, let alone PAY for them! To support the initial post, we also rarely see performances that move, stimulate and change us for the better... Let's admit, that is no easy task, but I see far too many theaters taking the easy way out by depending on an obscene budget and production value. In the past few years, I've been lucky enough to see quite a few Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, and with very few exceptions I can say they were, well, beautiful. Shall we say, they were NOT seething with talent. It's terribly disheartening to walk out of a Broadway (or off-Broadway) show feeling empty, disappointed and more poor. Which is why I am glad to hear this discussion... It takes passionate, driven artists such as yourselves to turn that energy around and use it as inspiration to create the kind of art we also wish to see.

    Again, I look forward to crossing paths. Keep up the hard work, I've heard amazing things...

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    1. Thank you for introducing yourself, Erika! It's wonderful to have your contribution to this conversation. I have had that same thought too - being disappointed when spending money on something that didn't have as much heart as I was expecting. Looking forward to continuing to make that kind of art happen!

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  10. AMEN AMEN and AMEN again. A manifesto if I've ever read one. This is what I came here to do, and why I know I'm in the right spot.

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  11. So wonderfully written! The Off-Off Broadway Community is a tricky one. Because there is just so much going on and not many ways that easily let an enthusiast take advantage of it. But, I'd argue that it is more in our hands than we think as well. In my experience, the best way to get people excited about my Off-Off Broadway work, it so get excited about theirs (an go see it!). I feel that many actors do a show and just except people to come see it. Whatever happened to supporting each other as artists? Getting people to come to your shows can be as simple as going to other people's shows! And not only a "If I see yours, will you see mine" kind of way either. But bring excitement and enthusiasm to the community, and it will only help when it is your turn to perform. I know that there is a lot of bad theater out there though, don't get me wrong. I do feel there is a value in seeing it though. ONe of the greatest Squash Players of all time was still playing at age 96. Wehn asked why he plays with beginners still, he would reply " They do everything wrong, which continues to teach me what not to do." So if a show isn't amazing, the worst it can be is educational.

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  12. Sad but true! The most exciting theater I've seen is rarely if ever on Broadway.... the good plays I have missed seeing that were on Broadway were astronomically expensive.... the "common man" has been priced out of that market and baseball tickets!!
    There will and should always be a venue for experimental theater.... unfortunately financial support rarely is provided and so that type of work sputters along.... with it "costing" actors to participate rather than paying them for their work.

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