The Playgoer: Small Blackboxes, Big Companies

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Small Blackboxes, Big Companies

This season Lincoln Center Theatre (with its "LCT3") is joining the Roundabout in running what is effectively an Off-Off Broadway blackbox for new plays. Huzzah.

This is definitely a promising development--especially when the tickets for these venues are kept separate from the subscriptions and limited to about $20 a pop. These are the kinds of conditions that allow, say London's Royal Court theatre, to premiere and nurture new writing in their famous "Theatre Upstairs."

But another necessary factor to make this work is devoting the company's best resources to even this smallest of productions on their slate. And picking plays that really benefit from the A-list talent only they can attract. Otherwise what's the point. We have plenty of independent producers and small companies renting cheap black boxes as it is.

Case in point: LCT3's debut show: "Clay." "Clay" is essentially a solo performance piece by a writer-actor (or writer-rapper? rapper-actor?), Matt Sax, who already performed it at two prominent Chicago companies, About Face and Lookingglass. I saw "Clay" and was very impressed with Sax as a performer. But I couldn't shake the question: did Lincoln Center Theatre really need to produce this? I imagine "Clay" would fare no better or worse in a two-week independent run at the Ohio Theatre, say, or on Theatre Row. Aside from the extra design-element frills LCT provides here, the show--again, at its core a show for one man and a mic--seems eminently producible on a low budget.

Ironically I ultimately found the LCT3 staging over-produced. At least, for the good of the material, which I don't believe supported the set's needlessly plush curtains and towering finely-detailed backdrop. All I really feel like saying about "Clay" is that the way to see it would be in an open space, at a 10pm show, with booze in the seats. Sax's whole frame for the piece, indeed, is a concert--and that's exactly what this production does not feel like. The sleek 42nd St. Duke theatre is a tidy blackbox with a rigid proscenium seating arrangement. So you don't really feel like putting "yo hands in da air" (as Sax beckons us to) when you're physically prevented from even seeing the audience around you.

If "Clay" were truly staged as a concert--with tight dramatic interludes bursting out of that form--then Sax would really impress us as a rapper with a rare playwriting sensibility. As it is, he seems more like a mediocre playwright who really does know how to bust some rhymes!

In sum, yes, I think "Clay" was not a great choice to launch this well intentioned series. But no so much because of its inherent quality. (Experimenting with new writers, after all, does entail some aesthetic risks.) The problem instead is that "Clay" does not uniquely benefit from a Lincoln Center production. Oh, there's the added publicity, of course. Which is considerable. (It's not just a better production budget LCT offers--it's the marketing budget.) But I guess I'm still enough of a purist and idealist to believe that when good work happens in this town, no matter where, word does get out.

No, the reason it doesn't really benefit from LCT's sponsorship is that it did not require any new actors, director, or, I assume, substantial re-writing. You had the playwright as the sole actor, the original director, and the piece had already been performed in two professional productions.

I don't think the best use of these new spaces is for remounts and imports.

Not having seen last season's "Speech and Debate" at the Roundabout's analogous wing (their "Underground" space) I can't verify if that was any better. But I was encouraged by some remarks about their vision for the program in a recent Variety piece about it by Sam Thielman.

Haimes [Roundabout AD Todd Haimes] and producer Robyn Goodman, who curates the series, launched Underground on the theory that promising young playwrights would have a better shot at success if they got an initial boost in the form of a low-profile, high-budget production. Name actors, professional designers, hot directors -- all the things you can't get if you're performing in a loft downtown.
Emphasis added. Yes, it's the combination of "low-profile" and "high budget" that a company like this can uniquely offer our emerging writers. And, yes, that does involve a willingness to lose money.

There's a reason few other companies can do this: The ratio of seats to production budget is a precise one, and most companies that produce in spaces the size of Underground (62 seats) have to choose between underfunding their productions or closing in the red.

However, Roundabout is a larger operation than most. Rather than run the theater on a shoestring, Haimes and Goodman decided to amp up production values, keep tickets under $20 and let the theater's operating budget absorb the cost -- but that cost is a deficit of at least $200,000, even if every seat for every perf is sold.

Hey, I'm not out to make saints of the Roundabout. No sir. But I do think this is the only way to go if you really want to make a "third space" (or for the Roundabout, 4th? I lose count) viable and truly valuable to the artform.

Because what so many promising playwrights is someone able to produce their work on the scale for which it was intended. Scale as in size, yes, as in more than three characters (imagine!). But also the scale of talent required to make the play work. If you dare to write a complex, demanding role for a middle-aged character, good luck getting a 50 yr old Equity professional to do it for just two weeks on a Showcase code for just a metrocard in return. And even if you are lucky to get such illustrative talent, do you really want to trust your inexperienced college-friend director to manage the ego's in the room?

So while "Speech and Debate" may have been fluffy (was it?) and we don't know about their next play ("The Language of Trees"), Roundabout so far does seem to be stepping up to these stated goals. After all, it's this ability to throw resources at emerging artists who really need them, that the British playwrights have always benefited from--at such major institutions like the Royal Court and even the National.

As for "Clay", good start, A-for-Effort and all that. But I'll be much more impressed when they begin with a young playwright's script from scratch, hand it over to Bartlett Sher and cast Elizabeth Marvel and really put it to the test under the best possible conditions.

1 comment:

isaac butler said...

Hey G,

I have read (but not seen... yet) Language of Trees. It ain't fluffy in the slightest. It's a really beautiful play and i have high hopes for this one.