Tag Archives: broadway

Look Ma! I'm a meme!

How to Keep a Long-Running Performance Fresh

I’m sure we all remember it, heck, we might even be living it right now. Those halcyon days of educational theatre, where we spend months rehearsing a show, only to perform it two or three times over the course of a weekend in May. All that preparation, all that work, only to get a couple of cracks at glory.

That’s a reference to a typical high school schedule, where you must work around numerous conflicts and extra-curricular activities. By the time we’re in college, rehearsal schedules tend to clock in at 5 to 6 weeks, and performances tally anywhere from the high single digits to maybe 20 to 24. Hardly enough time to get bored, or the performances to become stale or uninspired. But what happens when we grab that brass ring at last, the long-running contract? It could be a tour, or a Broadway show, even some regional theatres that operate continuous schedules, producing the same show(s) for years on end? We’ve finally been rewarded for all our efforts, and that reward is…to do the same thing 6 nights a week for the next 6 months, even a year, maybe even longer?

A quick glance at my IBDB page might reveal I’m not an expert on this subject (I have a strict rule about the shows I do in New York City—they must be unpopular, even if they are very good).

Look Ma! I'm a meme!
Look Ma! I’m a meme!

But seriously folks, I do know a little bit about this. I’ve logged over 200 performances as Ravenal in Show Boat, heaven knows how many performances of the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde, and I just passed 100 as El Gallo in The Fantasticks. And I’m still going. And these minor feats aren’t even a blip on the radar to someone like Broadway star Howard McGillin, who totaled more than 10,000 performances as that creepy guy in the basement in The Phantom of the Opera.

Now, if that last paragraph of not-so humblebrag didn’t completely turn you off, stick around and let’s talk about how to keep your performances honest and true to the work, while the mileage keeps climbing.

As actors, we have certain responsibilities. We must stay true to the author’s and the director’s vision. We must keep our bodies and spirits in as good a condition as possible, so that we can access our own abilities. We are responsible to our fellow actors, to give them what they need to be successful as well. But how do we do this, when we’ve been doing the same thing, night after night, week after week, month after month? Ah, we have now arrived at one of my favorite theatrical bits of wisdom, one I couldn’t believe more strongly in if it were my own.

Okay it is my own. Don’t judge me.

sincere

As actors in a play, we are all kids in a sandbox on a playground. We can create whatever we want, build what we need, tear it down and start again. If I don’t like what’s happening in the center of the sandbox, I can go check out a corner for a while, and build something there. Maybe a friend will join me. Maybe everyone will come to this corner and we’ll all play together. Or maybe someone will drift to a different part of the sandbox and the whole process will start again. But there’s something none of us are ever allowed to do.

We can’t go play on the slide. Or the swings, or the merry-go-round. We all play in the same sandbox.

Do you follow me? We’re allowed to use different colors, as long as we’re all painting the same picture together. Some actors are comfortable giving the exact, same performance night after night. And that’s fine. Some actors are more comfortable listening and responding, and letting the performance flow more organically. Neither is wrong, both are viable, we just all should be striving for the same goal. Telling the same story, staying true to the direction and the text.

But what about the boredom? Doesn’t it get incredibly monotonous after a while? If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to move on to something else. I would argue that the show is never exactly the same from one night to the next. We are all humans, affected by the events of the day, and those events can (and probably should) have some impact on your performance. Sometimes you make the most amazing discoveries from the oddest of circumstance.

Not long ago in The Fantasticks, my fellow actors and I completely fell apart with laughter during one of the scenes (thankfully the scene is supposed to be funny). I can’t even remember what happened, I just know that we started to laugh and couldn’t get it back under control. The audience had a good time with us, and eventually we all got it together and proceeded with the show. The following scene is a simple, lovely monologue that I get to deliver, and I suppose it’s been fine enough. But this one day, after splitting our sides with laughter and tears rolling down our cheeks, I entered the speech practically exhausted. I was unable to do what I normally did, so I just said the words.

And the speech was never better than that one night, when I just got out of the way, and let the words do the work. The show has a handful of fans who see it quite often, and on this day our most loyal fan was there. We spoke after, and had to acknowledge the um…foolishness that happened on stage. But he offered up, the moments found after that were new, vibrant and alive, and I probably wouldn’t have found them otherwise.

So really, it’s not that hard to maintain a performance for a long period of time. Do your best to stay healthy, get along with all your fellow artists, listen and respond. Even if your performance is “by rote,” as long as you don’t shoehorn your work into the path of someone else’s, it can appear as fresh as opening night.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost half hour.

actor complain

A Little Perspective

This week we’re taking a slight diversion away from our normal “how to” vibe, and treading out into deeper waters.  

If you’ve read the byline below, you know that I’m currently a standby in the NYC Off-Broadway mainstay, The Fantasticks. And since you’ve been following the StageAgent blog religiously, you know that as a standby, I’m often in a Starbucks during most performances (it’s a tough life). Well, circumstances have resulted in me being on for the last couple of weeks as Hucklebee, one of the Fathers in the show.  

Fantaticks logo

My initial response was, “Damn, there goes all my free time.” I mean seriously, I have two guaranteed hours (four on two-show days!) to write, to plan, to concentrate on what’s next, to make a grocery list…you get the idea. As a parent of two small children, time is at a premium. But you may think I’ve completely missed the boat, that I should be elated at having a performing opportunity—and you’d be right, it just took me a couple of days to get here. Well, a couple of days and a close friend who reminded me that performing is always better than not performing, and a wife who said simply to do the job I was hired to do.  

So I’ve been doing the show, and after a few performances, it began to feel comfortable and, dare I say it, enjoyable. I’m truly blessed with a giving, loving, talented cast, who were there for me when I said some…questionable lines…let’s say. Soon I’ll be back to my coffee and protein bistro box (pretentious twit), but for now it’s a blast.

That isn’t to say that it all comes without challenges. There was the stress of being ready, as this was my first time going on in any of the roles I cover. June was a crazy busy month, with school ending for my children, their activities coming to a close (dance class, gymnastics), new activities starting (summer swim team, more gymnastics, theatre camp is coming)—frankly I’m exhausted. And with school ending, I’m the primary caregiver as well, as that lady that makes our lives possible (my wife) works 50-60 hours a week. Caring for the kids is an all-day job, and when I’m relieved of duty at 6:15 pm, then it’s time to go to work!  

I know, I know, poor me—I’m getting somewhere I promise.

A weekend or so back (Pride weekend, I believe), I was walking from the show to my car (I drive on Sundays when the parking is free) when I locked eyes with a woman, probably around my age. I nodded in that weird New Yorker “I’m acknowledging you, but I promise I’m not crazy” way, and kept going, but about ten feet later, I feel her tap my shoulder. She said to me (and all of this is paraphrased to the best I can remember), “Excuse me, but didn’t I see you in The Fantasticks last Saturday? The show was so great!”

I thanked her, and we struck up a short conversation. Her name was Ellen, and she too was an actor. Her family had just come in from Texas, and her mother wanted to see two shows, Les Miserables and The Fantasticks. I remembered the performance she was at, and it was a good show, with a lively, responsive audience.  

We were slightly above Hell’s Kitchen, she lived in the neighborhood. I told her I used to live close by, but moved to New Jersey when my wife and I had our first child. She seemed lovely, genuinely interested in praising the show and chatting with a stranger.  But as we began to say goodbye, she said this, and it practically floored me:

“Well, you’re married, have two kids, a great show to be in, you really are living the dream!”

I swear the blood ran out of my face. I thought, “Wow…if you only knew.”

Look, I preach a lot of positivity and self-love and self-reliance, but let’s be real for a moment. This life is hard. I’ve talked before about the sacrifices and the lack of money and the disappointment and having to pick yourself up over and over and over again…it’s exhausting. And sometimes, maybe even lots of times, we as actors choose to complain. We have to let out these feelings of discouragement. It’s only human, and we aren’t to be punished for it, but it can take over and become our default position.

actor complain

I’ve been super lucky in this career:  two Broadway shows, four National Tours, lots of amazing Regional Theatre—yet somehow I tend to retreat to how little money I’ve made in my lifetime, or how quickly those two shows (which I loved) closed in New York, or how I’m not certain where my path is leading as I get older. Currently, though I’m absolutely proud to be part of the New York theatre tapestry if you will, even my current job can seem like a glass half full. I think it’s a terrific show, with great people and a timeless message, but let’s face it, we’re not Wicked or The Lion King. It can be hard to be a simple, sweet, and sentimental show when you are surrounded by flying monkeys and herds of animals.  

I thanked Ellen, wished her luck and continued to my car, half smiling with gratitude yet shaking my head. “If she only knew… .”

But she does know. It was me who didn’t. Everything she said was absolutely true, and as I repeated this story a few times, I began to realize it myself.  

I’m sure there will come a time…or many times…when I fall back into the old habits of diminishing what I have accomplished. A director friend I love told me once, “You know how New Yorkers survive? They complain. They look at each other across the subway car and say, ‘man, it’s @#$%ing hot outside.’ They take solace in a short of shared misery.” Maybe we as actors do exactly that, we share our misery so it eases the sting, until we can celebrate a new win.  

So for me, a little perspective and a lesson learned. Ellen, if you’re out there, if this message somehow reaches you (go viral troopers, serve your dark Web overlords!), good luck to you again, and thank you for stopping me.  

And also, thank you for stopping me.

IMG_4389

Of Tonys, Snacks, and Hamilton

IMG_4389So, that’s the 70th Annual Tony Awards in the books, and it was a great night! I spent the evening with about a dozen friends–several teens included–and we had a viewing party at my arts conservatory with the show projected on the big screen in our theatre. It was awesome! It was like we were in the Beacon Theatre, well, except that we had snacks and weren’t quite as dressed up as the Tony-goers were. And our ballots weren’t quite official.

We gathered around 7:00 PM with the red carpet arrivals playing on a monitor in our lobby, while a 60 Minutes episode featuring Hamilton coverage was streaming on the big screen. For only a dozen people, we had food enough to feed a small army. It’s so fun to see what people bring to a potluck! From roasted garlic chickpea snacks and chocolate-covered Oreo cookie balls to chili cheese dip and this crazy good grape salad (yes, you heard me, grape salad–with cream cheese, brown sugar, and pecans) and other healthy and not-so-healthy munchies. And to top it off, we had margaritas, Prosecco, and a chocolate fondue fountain — classy, eh?

So on to a quick recap (see complete list below). Hamilton didn’t break The Producers 2001 record, but it still won eleven of the sixteen awards including (as should have been pretty obvious) Best Musical. The Humans won four awards including Best Play. The four primary acting categories were all won by actors of color (three for Hamilton, one for The Color Purple)–a historic first for the Tonys, and James Corden was a terrific, charming, slightly silly host.  

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After a somber opening speech dedicating the evening’s show to those killed in the Orlando shootings late Saturday night, Corden in his delightful opening number spoke to something I mentioned in my previous Tony blog: that for many kids watching the Tonys every year, this was a chance to see Broadway in action and maybe even dream about being a Broadway star. Our little viewing gang of performers, parents, and kids in performing arts school agreed and cheered loudly when the number was over.

All of the performances were top notch–although due to a little glitch in streaming, we didn’t see all of the Waitress number–gonna need to find that on YouTube later. We were all thrilled to see a young student and friend rocking the house as part of the children’s cast of School of Rock, both in the main telecast number and the fun little bumpers they were doing out in front of the theatre throughout the night. Our kids (and a couple of adults) were all right down front on the floor for the Hamilton numbers and singing/rapping during commercial breaks. The grown-ups in the room gave a pleasant shout of surprise when Frank Langella won for The Father, and applauded loudly for Jessica Lange and her award for Long Day’s Journey into Night. And we all laughed when our youngest viewer, upon Broadway legend Angela Lansbury’s entrance, said, “Oh! That’s the lady from Mrs. Santa Claus!” It was a good reminder that Broadway always has its classy past to lean on, but the future, as demonstrated last night,  is wide open with possibilities.

Complete List of 2016 Tony Award Winners

Best Play: The Humans

Best Musical: Hamilton

Best Revival of a Play: Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Revival of a Musical: The Color Purple

Best Book of a Musical Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre: Hamilton

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play: Frank Langella, The Father

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play: Jessica Lange, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical: Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical: Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play: Reed Birney, The Humans

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play: Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical: Daveed Diggs, Hamilton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical: Renee Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton

Best Scenic Design of a Play: David Zinn, The Humans

Best Scenic Design of a Musical: David Rockwell, She Loves Me

Best Costume Design of a Play: Clint Ramos, Eclipsed

Best Costume Design of a Musical: Paul Tazewell, Hamilton

Best Lighting Design of a Play: Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Howell Binkley, Hamilton

Best Direction of a Play: Ivo Van Hove, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Direction of a Musical: Thomas Kail, Hamilton

Best Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton

Best Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton

Tony_Award_Medallion

Countdown to the Tonys: It’s Gettin’ Ready Time!

Poster_for_the_70th_Tony_AwardsSo, there’s this little show happening on Sunday night. Most of America could care less (sorry about the ratings in advance CBS), but for those of us who LOVE Broadway – it’s our Super Bowl! It’s almost Tony time!!! Who’s going to/hosting a viewing party? ME, ME!!! Sorry, I guess I’m just a little giddy.

Now the odds are pretty good that a musical skit called Hamilton will pick up a few medallions, but the bigger question is, will it beat the record number of Tonys won by The Producers in 2001? Honestly, I really don’t care who wins or loses; it’s the performances, the specially edited montages and numbers created for the telecast that I want  to see.

As a kid growing up in California, I looked forward to this every year. (I know you’re nodding your head right now if you grew up anywhere other than New York thinking, “Me, too!”) It was my only chance to see the people who were on the records (yes, RECORDS) of the Original Broadway Cast recordings that I listened to and memorized religiously. Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky enough to see many touring companies in my childhood, but very few were “the real people” from the records. Now that I live in New York, I have the pleasure of seeing “the real people” frequently. I don’t get to see every show, but it’s exciting to watch the Tonys knowing that I was actually in the audience for some of them.

Now, this may be a simple statement, but I would think voting for the Tony Awards must be hard. I mean, with the Emmys or the Oscars, voting members of the various unions and guilds involved in the making of the productions for the previous year’s body of work are sent screeners –DVDs of the nominated TV shows or films–shortly before the given voting period, about two months from nomination to awards presentation. Voters see a final product that never changes, that they can watch and replay looking for nuances in design or acting often in the comfort of their own homes. And according to the Oscar and Emmy websites, votes are mostly cast in peer categories (ie, editors vote for editors, actors vote for actors) except for the best picture or best TV series categories where all voters can offer up a ballot (and maybe some special awards, but this really isn’t about the Emmys or Oscars, so back to the Tonys).

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The Antoinette Perry “Tony” Award

Tony nominations are decided on each year by a core group of up to 50 people and, once the nominations are made, there are approximately 850 voters. Tony voters come from guilds and unions supporting actors, directors, and scenic artists; casting and talent societies; critics’ organizations; and members of The Broadway League and American Theater Wing.

The Broadway Season runs roughly May through April. The nominations for 2016 were announced on May 2 and are being presented this weekend on June 12. That’s 6 weeks from nomination to awards. Many of these Tony voters have to watch a year’s worth of LIVE theater, not having any idea what might or might not eventually get nominated AND everyone votes for everything; there is no peer separation (although they are asked not to vote in a particular category if they didn’t see all the nominees). Tony voters are typically invited to attend a show once the reviews are out, and the local, NY-based voters do their best to get to a show quickly. Broadway shows can come and go in the blink of an eye; many can close long before actual nominations are determined. How can you keep it all straight? What if a particular style of music just isn’t your thing? What if you don’t feel well and are in a bad mood when you see the show? It’s not like you can just stop the DVD and watch it later. Maybe, you’ll be able to attend the show one more time after it is nominated, but there is no guarantee that will work out.

I chatted with a few of my friends who have been Tony voters for several years asking for a few thoughts, and their responses were all quite consistent.

  • Keeping track of it all: Few of them really take any extensive notes on the shows. They might check off a master list, so they know what they’ve seen, or jot down a brief thought or two if they see something early in the season, but most of them just go with their gut feelings. Whether it is a virtuoso performance or sets and costumes that evoke the overall emotional feeling of a piece, what is right there on that stage will stick with them so when they finally see the lists of nominees, they are transported back into the theatres to make their final decisions.
  • Avoiding the hype: They all do their best to avoid reading reviews of shows or getting caught up in any hype, actively avoiding listening to recordings or watching the many clips online, so they can be swept into the storytelling of the piece that first time they see it and let the show wash over them. For voters outside of New York, this can make things easier because they are not inundated with as much local advertising, but it’s also harder because they’ll usually wait until the nominations come out to travel to see shows, so that’s a lot of time to ignore friend’s post on social media.
  • Judging the performance and not the show and vice versa: Sometimes there are standout performances in less than amazing shows, and beautifully written music in a show that closes very quickly. The voters I spoke try to remain as open as possible and to focus on the group of nominees in front of them, not basing their decisions on whether a show is still open and trying to spread the love around a bit, acknowledging the gems hidden in many shows. Even if a style of music or design concept may not be something they care for personally, they are able to acknowledge the storytelling and impact of a piece and the elements that support it and vote accordingly.

So, maybe you’ve seen some of the shows. Maybe you’ve only been connected to them through the multitudes of clips, blogs, and talk show appearances. Maybe you will wait until you see all the segments presented on the live Tony broadcast before making a choice. So go with your gut, or vote with your hearts and your heads. Here’s your ballot. Enjoy the show!

 

Budget Bills

Acting by the Number$: Can Theatre Pay the Bills?

Art is awesome. I love making art. All I’ve ever wanted to do was tell stories, the kind that help us examine the human experience. That’s what I believe acting to be, particularly in the theatre. A stage play is alive, happening right in front of you, existing only for a moment until another moment replaces the previous one, building to a climax. It’s a chance for us as an audience to put ourselves in another situation—it may be farcical or it may be life and death—and then ponder how we would behave. That’s what I love about theatre. Sure, you can take the same emotional journey with a film or a television show, and that art can be equally valid, but the added element of the story unfolding live in front of you, where any number of factors could influence the tale being told, I find to be irreplaceable.

Now from a working actor’s perspective, reality has to come into play. You want to do stage work, it’s your passion, but do you remember all the times someone in your past told you that “there’s no money in theatre”? I hate to break it to you, but that person was right. Yes, it is possible to earn a sizable income in theatre. It is also EXTRAORDINARILY unlikely.

Budget BillsImagine you are a chorus member in a hit show on Broadway like The Book of Mormon or Something Rotten, and you will be part of this show for a year. We can roughly estimate you will make $100,000. (Current union production contract minimum is slightly more than $1,900 per week, so let’s say you have some understudy bumps, media bonuses, perhaps hazard pay, and we’ll call it $2,000 a week for fifty weeks—we’re estimating, remember?)

Sounds like a reasonable amount of money. Who wouldn’t be happy with that salary to sing, dance, and act for a living? But hold on second…you don’t get all of that money. There’s union dues to pay, commission to your agent and/or your manager, taxes, contributions to your retirement (and I know most of you are young and don’t think about that, but believe me, PLAN NOW)—your $100,000 just became about $63,000.

Still sound like a lot? Maybe, it sounds like a lot to me. I grew up poor in the South. My very first performing job paid me more money weekly than my Mother had ever made in a week, and she worked full time for the same company for 26 years. Growing up with little (but enough I admit) colored my perception of what “a lot of money” truly is.

 

Back to our “net income” of $63,000. You live in the New York City area, currently the second most expensive housing market in the USA, behind only San Francisco. The average rent in Manhattan is $3,100 per month—now I know “average” is skewed by some really expensive apartments, but stay with me. It’s unlikely you live alone, that’s just too much money. Assuming you have one roommate, you spend $18,600 on rent, not including utilities. Then you spend money on things like entertainment and, you know, food. Being responsible, your grocery bill is probably around $400 per month (so $4,800 a year), and let’s estimate $2,000 for entertainment. Simple math gets us to $37,600 left over, and we haven’t covered any medical expenses, health club memberships, trips home for the holidays with your family, clothing, audition expenses, or anything else you can imagine.

In short, you can live, but that’s about it. Maybe you’ll save a little. Maybe you’ll have nice things. But odds are, that show will end, and so will your salary. One final ray of sunshine, four out of five Broadway shows fail to recoup their investment. Some shows do manage to run for more than a year without recouping, but it’s rare.

AND ALL OF THIS ASSUMES YOU’RE ON BROADWAY FOR A SOLID YEAR, which I’m sorry to say, most of us aren’t. Most of us are working in regional theatre, stock, showcases, tours, all places where the money is significantly less.

We don’t do it for money. We do it for love. (Cue Marvin Hamlisch…)

Look Ma

Now, before I go cry into my bucket of Ben & Jerry’s, yes, of course, there’s a way to survive. You can act for a living. But to me, the only way to do it, is by using ALL of the mediums that are out there beyond the stage: Television, Film, and Commercial work.

Why do those mediums pay so much better (on average) than theatre? I don’t have the definitive answer, but the best explanation I’ve ever heard is that in these mediums an image and a performance is captured forever. You (the actor) are paid so that someone else can use your work and likeness to promote their product or tell their story. And once it’s done, it’s done, never changing, no matter how rich and alive your work may be. You give over your SELF forever, and usually the compensation is respectable.

These jobs are often very quick—I’m speaking of commercials and “non-star” work right now; I’m not talking about series regulars or leading roles in film, I have no experience with that. Commercials are very short in length, and can be shot in a day, a weekend, or maybe a week at most if it’s very technical or involves a tough location. Small roles in TV and film are often shot in a day or two, as time is money.

So in essence, you can make a reasonable sum of money in a short amount of time. For example, last year I shot a commercial for a Health & Beauty product (don’t laugh), in which I DID NOT SPEAK; I merely snored on camera. My job requirement was to lie in a bed with my pretend wife, and snore loudly. I arrived on set at 7:00 AM, and was released at 10:30 AM. Two of those hours I spent chatting with the other actors and enjoying the free coffee and breakfast.

And for my troubles, I have been paid roughly $2,500.

“Wait, I get paid for this?”
“Wait, I get paid for this?”

Look, I know all of that was a massive humblebrag. And talking specifically about money can be distasteful, but I need you to see what I am talking about. YOU CAN’T IGNORE THESE MEDIUMS. They could save your butt someday.

The most awesome aspect of that commercial experience happened in March of this year. I shot the ad in February 2015. My initial payment came a few weeks after the shoot (that’s standard), then a little more arrived later (also standard), but that was the end of the contract. In January 2016 I returned home from a theatre gig, with no survival job, no unemployment, no income at all. But in March, as I was auditioning for whatever would come next, a check arrived in the mail. My commercial had been “picked up” for another year, so there was this lovely check in my hands, the first money I had made in 2016.

You cannot assume that just because you can act on a stage that you can act in any other medium. There are separate, definable skills that you must hone; there is a language you must learn. So get into a class, pronto.

Yes, art is awesome. You know what else is awesome? CHECKS. Checks are awesome. We often need checks to make art. Very rarely we get lucky, and we can have both.

Advancing art is easy, yes—financing it is not.” Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George.

 

News, thoughts, opinions and advice for the performing arts community.