Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Standard Model

I’m going to be talking a bit about the “standard model” for producing theatre in this country, so I figure I should describe it, the way I see it and understand it.

I, of course, have certain thoughts and feelings about this model, but I want to present it without bias (or as little as I can manage) and objectively. Here goes:

Plays are produced by theatres or producing bodies (commercial producers, etc.). Theatres are led by an artistic director, usually a “person of vision”, whether they’re the theatre’s founder or a stage director of some renown. They have two jobs: selecting the season and raising money. The artistic director reads scripts and decides which ones are “ready” for production. This gets the ball rolling.

Whether it’s a new play or not, the theatre selects the particular director for this production. In many theatres, it’s expected that the artistic director will direct at least once per season. The theatre hires a director that either they’ve worked with in the past, or has a solid reputation (i.e. gets good reviews). The director primarily selects the design team.

If the play has been developed with a particular director, they may be considered, but ultimately, the decision falls to the theatre, unless there’s some sort of agreement in place, or the play has hit a certain level of production/development previously.

The casting process usually involves the artistic director and staff of the theatre, the managing/executive director, the play’s director and the playwright. Many things are considered in the casting: rightness for the role, definitely, but also “bankability” and personality. While the playwright can veto anyone, they can’t generally insist that someone gets a certain part. Ditto for the director.

The actors are generally “jobbed in” for that particular production. They may have worked with the theatre or one of the other members of the artistic team, but they may not have. In the case of many (if not most) regional productions, the actors are primarily drawn from a major urban center. It’s roughly the same for designer and other members of the team. Some regional theatre and some theatres in urban centers have in-house production people and some have resident designers.

Notes on the script are given by the director, the artistic director, the theatre’s literary manager/dramaturg, and cast members. The playwright can ignore any suggestions, but there is the expectation that suggestions will at least be attempted. If it’s a world premiere, in particular, it is understood that going into rehearsal, some rewrites are necessary (regardless of the amount of workshopping/rewriting that has already gone into the script).

The rehearsal process for a new play lasts roughly four to five weeks, ideally, including a week of technical rehearsal and dress rehearsals. This is followed by a period of “previews”, sometimes lasting as long as three weeks, usually a week or two. These are full performances of the play, usually in front of subscriber audiences or comped houses. Reviewers are traditionally allowed in during previews, though the reviews are held until opening. During previews, often the cast continues to rehearse and the play continues to evolve, though there is always a point at which script changes are cut off and the play is “locked.” Once you hit opening, there are no more rehearsals, no more rewrites. The play runs for two to eight weeks (in the non-profit world) after opening, depending on reviews, subsciptions, ticket sales, etc. At the end of the run, the cast disperses, the director, designers and playwright have all moved on already, and the theatre is preparing for another production to start tech.

That’s the standard model of producing theatre in this country. And it’s killing us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


I often ask myself that question, about a great number of things: “Why did I eat that?” “Why do I watch so much Scrubs?” “Why do I own both The Rock and Cliffhanger on DVD?” “Why do I still have a subscription to TimeOut New York?” But mostly I ask myself, “Why am I still doing theatre?” It doesn’t pay very well, the people are generally insane, the hours suck, it’s insanely competitive and, more times than not, it lets me down, both as an artist and as a patron. So why the hell do I keep going back?

Because it’s important. Because I believe, truly believe that the arts are a vital part of our personal lives and the greater cultural life of our country. Because I truly believe that theatre changes lives, changes cultures, changes the world. Call me an idealist. No, really, call me one and I’ll answer.

So…why this blog? Because I’ve been reading this guy and this guy and feel like there’s a conversation that needs to happen and we need voices having it. Theatre is coming to a crossroads, in terms of producing/development models and we need full-throated discussion about it. The more voices, the better.

Then…why the whole anonymous thing? I work in New York theatre, I have friends in New York theatre. Sometimes my friends do things I like. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I’m involved in projects that make me proud and sometimes I’m not. The hardest thing about working in theatre is that it’s a small, small community that talks a lot. You have to tread carefully for fear of offending someone, hurting someone’s feelings, or hurting your own prospects. This doesn’t help the conversation we should be having. If my name is out there, people wonder about my motives. Behind the shield of anonymity, I can really speak my mind.

And…what’s up with the 99 seats thing? The beginning of the answer can be found here. When I moved to New York City, I caught the tail end of the last flowering of “fringe” or “Off-Off-Broadway” theatre. It seemed that all of the city, in tiny, little venues, amazing shows were happening. Something vibrant was truly occurring in these 99-seat black box theatres. Unfortunately, within a few years, the Ice Age set in. So many of them are long-gone now. I worked for a long while in one that’s hung on (sort of…more on that later) and still feel most at home, most comfortable in a tiny, funky, oddly-shaped space that shouldn’t be a theatre, but is. In the prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare talks about “this wooden O” holding worlds. That’s what I think about 99 seats…in front of those 99 seats, the universe opened up.

Trust me, I won’t quote Shakespeare all of the time. And I won’t go on and on about the importance of theatre. But I will speak my mind, from the back row of my own, personal black box.