If you like theatre, you should know about L.A. Theatre Works. But I’m betting you don’t. So here’s a heads up to get the new year rolling.
L.A Theatre Works has been producing plays for audio in front of a live audience for over 25 years. They started off with CD’s in the mail and now distribute via all the usual channels, including Audible. Their catalogue has grown to over 400 titles. And many of these are blindingly good, must-listen shows.
Not that they weren’t on a roll before. But now they are REALLY, REALLY on a roll.
After acquiring the Helen Hayes Theatre in April of 2015, this upstart Off Broadway producer has moved stoutly onto the Great White Way. Even more impressive: the new Broadway space is dedicated to only contemporary playwrights. That’s right.
The company now has three (count ‘me) spaces around Manhattan. And from the looks of it, new productions are lining up in the queue like planes at EWR.
You can see the exciting lineup for next year here.
In most American cities, you can wait and wait for a show to come along that you’re really excited about seeing. Maybe once or twice a year you get lucky. But in America’s theatre capital, you’ve got the opposite problem.
In New York, there are always more good shows on than you have time to see. Being an avid theatregoer on “The Main Stem”, as Erie Smith in Eugene O’Neill’s HUGHIE called Broadway, involves no small amount of white knuckle drama. And that’s before the curtain even rises. The art of play selection is fraught. If you select a dud, not only do you have to absorb the body blow of that experience, you also squander a slot you could have used to see something good. So pick carefully, people.
I’m on a #NYCtheatreBlitz right now. So far every single pick has been dead on. Note that seeing theatre in New York does not have to be expensive. In fact, if you know how to work all the various specials, email lists and that juggernaut of theatre discounts, TDF, you can see theatre here for far LESS than in the hinterlands. Which really makes no sense when you think about it. But so it goes.
Taylor Mac is having a mainstream moment. The New York artist’s new play HIR opened last night at Playwrights Horizons to an industrial strength NYT rave. I’m seeing the show Sunday. Glad I got tickets a while back before the sell out whoosh kicked in.
If you’re a regional theatre, going to Broadway sounds like a dream. But unless you know what you’re doing, taking a show to the world’s toughest theatre market can play out more like a nightmare. It’s tough. And very few can pull it off.
On paper, southern Oregon would seem an unlikely incubator IN THE EXTREME for Broadway buzz. 100 years ago, Ashland, Oregon was (to put it mildly) in the middle of nowhere. It still is. But today nowhere is somewhere – at least in the theatre world. And thanks to Angus Bowmer, a whole phalanx of succeeding individuals, and a good mix of sheer chance and historical luck, Oregon Shakespeare Festival has become a Broadway launching pad. Incredible but true.
While it’s too soon to say for sure, another OSF-hatched American Revolutions world premiere may soon be headed for the world’s biggest stage.
We’re not in Kansas any more. Doing a show in the hinterlands is one thing. But New York is a whole different deal. Normally America’s theatre capital exports plays to the rest of the country. But what if you decide instead to swim upstream and take a play from somewhere else to New York? You better have your helmet fastened and your seat belt buckled.
OSF did it with enormous, box office busting success on Broadway last season with Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-nabbing ALL THE WAY. It didn’t hurt that Bryan Cranston was attached. But such a Cinderella story is definitely not the norm. A lot of the time, that Guffman moment when Corky announces to his star struck cast that “We’re goin’ to Broadway!” doesn’t work out so well for regional AD’s.
Kid, there is no more challenging place on earth to put on a show than the five square miles of broken pavement and concrete canyons that make up midtown Manhattan. It’s crowded, it’s expensive, the critics are search and destroy ninjas and the audience has a million entertainment options. How do you convince 100 or 200 or 500 or 1200 grizzled New Yorkers to come out, night after night, to pay money for your show?
It’s gotta be good. Really good. Not just ok. Not just something mildly interesting. It has to be smart and sharp and new. It has to be New York smart. It has to be something the audience wants.
The summer season presents additional problems beyond the standard hurdles. Any theatregoer in their right mind is out on Long Island or Martha’s Vineyard hiding from the heat for several months. With a few exceptions, most of the small stage action is in the country where festivals like CATF and WTF and OSF are working their magic. August in Manhattan? It’s a desert out there, babe. Need to fill the house on a Tuesday night? Bring reinforcements.
THREESOME, the new play developed by Portland Center Stage and ACT Seattle, is finding out just how hard it can be to get traction in the New York summer theatre landscape. Now on at 59E59, a small midtown shared space which is sort of New York’s equivalent of Theater Theatre, the show got a decidedly mixed review from the almighty NYT (hovering just an inch away from a straight thumbs down, and earning the tart somewhat damning summary in the weekly Theater Listings: “more a debate about gender politics than a bedroom farce”) and a 2 star blasting from the Daily News – so far the only two mainstream media to review. I also gave the show two stars in my review, faulting it mainly for some totally implausible plot details. The acting and directing is perfectly good. The problem is the play. When what’s on the page doesn’t speak convincingly, there’s only so much you can do with that.
Apparently the New York audience agrees, and the show has been in the booth (on sale at TDF for 50% off) since opening. Heading in to the weekend, advance sales are struggling to break 40% for any given show. You can easily see how it’s selling on the 59E59 site.
The takeaway? While going to New York is certainly fun for young actors or anyone else who has never worked there before, it does not necessarily build anyone’s brand if the show gets mediocre reviews and plays to half empty houses at an unbranded space in the dog days of summer. Donors and foundations are inevitably called upon to fill the void left by low ticket revenue. But is this a path anyone wants to repeat? Why do this? This isn’t “the thrill of Off Broadway”. It’s an expensive rental with upside down financials. Does such a venture make New Yorkers want to come out to Portland to see more theatre (the way ALL THE WAY on Broadway has spiked interest in OSF), which should be one of the goals of building the PCS brand by taking a show to NYC? Not at all.
Next time, the selection of a good play at the outset is the key decision moment. It all starts with a great play. Without that – it’s just going through the motions with meager attendance and a large tab for someone else to pick up.