The Playgoer: Ish Sets OOB back 30 Years

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ish Sets OOB back 30 Years

Ok, since no other bloggers (or none that I've noticed) have taken notice this week of Charles Isherwood's latest love letter to downtown theatre, I guess I'll have to.

By love letter, of course, I mean it in the sense of the immortal Frank Booth: "You know what a love letter is? It's a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker!" (See here.)

In an otherwise informative piece on some of the collaboration going on between Off and Off-Off Broadway (or, as I prefer to say, smallish theatres and even smaller ones). Co-productions, transfers, that stuff. Interesting topic. But Ish has to ruin it with this opening:

Casual theatergoers may have little or no idea of the difference between Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. So here’s a quick primer.

If you are paying $65 or $75 for a full-price ticket, you are seeing an Off Broadway show. If you are fanning yourself with your program and wondering about fire-code violations, it’s definitely a double-Off experience.

Actor you recognize from television: Off. Actor you recognize because he’s your son’s second-grade teacher and he invited you (well, actually implored you) to see the show: Off Off.

Engulfed by the sound of uncrinkling candy wrappers: Off. Surrounded by tattoos and Obama buttons: Off Off.

Thanks for setting this huge swath of NY theatre back thirty years, Charles.

I know, can't I take a joke? Yes, when you write a New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure piece I guess it can't be all "spinach" and your job is to entertain your affluent readers as they read you over their Zabar's-catered brunch.

But these opening lines just give so much away at the biases still at work at the arts paper of record, and explain why...well, why they still just don't get it.

The beginning premise is exactly what pains me about this schtick. NY Times reader really do need a primer. An intelligent one. Not one relying on obsolete cliches.

For instance: If there is a "2nd grade teacher" starring in it, it's an Actors Equity member with a dayjob--and willing to work for free when he can't get hired for any of the 2-character star-fucking plays Off-B'way is doing. True, some of what you'll find in the OOB listings on a given week are essentially vanity projects with press agents. And, yes, it can be hard for the uninitiated to separate one from the other. But experienced playgoers (and critics!) should be able to tell.

Once and for all...say it with me....Off Off Broadway is not community theatre. In this city, it's where a lot of really good, professional artists do the shows no one will pay them to do.

Likewise Off Off is not (or no longer) defined by the rattiness of the venue. Or even really the number of seats. It's the contract, stupid.

And hence what's missing from Isherwood's entire piece--the economics. Nowhere, for instance, are the words "showcase code" mentioned (indeed never in the Times at all, as far as I know). But that, if anything, comes closest to defining, in objective terms, the difference between a show you see at, say, Playwrights Horizons and one you see at PS122.

Again, it need not have anything to do with the talent, training, or pedigree of the artists. Instead it's mostly about who's paying for the space, how big is the budget, and how much are the actors getting paid.

I guess if the actors aren't getting paid, many just assume they're not "professional." What they don't realize is that most (as in, the norm) AEA actors have day-jobs, since you probably only act for a salary, at best, twenty weeks a year, and at a couple of hundred a week at that.

Ah, but if you knew about the Showcase Code, you would understand that, wouldn't you. Or if you just bothered to find out. This is why I did aim to find out last summer and learn whatever I could. (Resulting in this article.)

Anyway, I know I'm taking this way more seriously than Isherwood intended. Clearly he'd rather indulge the old cultural stereotypes that Off-Off is just an environment too filthy, too idealistic, and--yes--too liberal (the Obama buttons) for well-heeled "culture lovers" to be caught dead in.

Notice, by the way, however tongue in cheek this may be, he is not just setting up these stereotypes to debunk them in the rest of the article. If anything, the trajectory of his story implies these plays are improving by upgrading one "Off" level.

This all reminds me, by the way, of something I heard a downtown producer once say--that the whole "Off/Off-Off" nomenclature has to go, since too many people think of "off" as in bad milk.

What's so unfortunate about this is that Isherwood blows a valuable opportunity to educate the NYT readership on what really is the difference between Broadway/ Off/ and Off-Off.

In other words, the story that needs to be written is: You may think Off-Off B'way means smelly spaces and amateur acting. But this ain't your father's Off-Off anymore. In fact, most of the best and exciting theatre going on in town is happening technically "Off-Off." That's because that's where artists go when they want to make theatre that isn't necessarily commercial and star-driven and doesn't require a huge overhead.

Or something like that.

Call it cheerleading, but at least it's more accurate than what Isherwood wrote.

Again the full article itself is worth reading, and contains some interesting info on God's Ear, Sound and the Fury and other shows making "the move."

But for all the good will Isherwood intends, after that intro how can I take him seriously when he pleads: "in general the wilderness of unruly and unknown troupes is a place where many regular theatergoers fear to tread, out of sheer bewilderment." Gee, Charles, why do you think that is? Maybe because the Times keeps telling them such theatres are filthy amateur-hour firetraps?

Finally--if I may put on my own "Obama pin" for a sec--we can all laugh about bad Off-Off experiences, and there are many of them. But right now is not the time. The stakes for non-commercial, "poor theatre" (poor materially, not artistically) are too high, the future of the artform too important, to encourage this kind of unenlightened misinformation at this moment.

In short, let's be part of the solution, not the problem.


Joshua James said...

Hey Garrett,

I had a couple actor friends who did Off-Broadway shows, shows which charged 35 to 45 bucks a ticket, something like that, and their pay was so small as to be insulting (I think my friend told me his latest paycheck was something like $379 a week after taxes and dues, but I don't know for certain).

There are Off-Broadway houses which are bigger, and some that aren't, so it could be the pay scale varies . . . but I think many of the actors at OB level aren't really making a living most of the time, much as we'd like to think they are.

But hey, I could be wrong. I'm only telling you what they told me, heh.

sbs said...

To be fair--if you're seeing a "2nd grade teacher," at least in the context of that article, you're probably seeing the invaluable Suzie Sokol of ERS, who (the article implies) was actually required to join Equity as part of ERS's co-pro with NYTW.

Which just brings up another of Isherwood's missed points with this piece: the inadequacy of the Equity agreement to deal with new/non-traditional methods of theatermaking. ERS is able to create the kind of work they do precisely because they are unencumbered by restrictions on rehearsal periods, actor roles, etc., prescribed by AEA.

Not to mention the loooong history in the NY avant garde of using non-professional/non-traditional actors as an aesthetic choice, not a compromise (Living Theater, Foreman, Richard Maxwell, Target Margin, ERS... to name just a few). But that's a whole other article for the Times to botch.

Anonymous said...

I've found myself defending Isherwood here now and again. But I'm with you--what a wasted opportunity.

You get the sense from the first few paragraphs that he doesn't really know anything about the off-off scene and, worse, doesn't have any interest in it.

I know people have accused Isherwood in the past of not really liking theatre, but his tone here seems to prove it.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some OOB company should dramatize Mr. Isherwood's only foray into high literature:

"Wonderbread and Ecstasy: A Biography of (dead gay porn star) Joey Stefano."

That is, assuming an OOB company can be found with enough Pulitzeresque credentials to tackle such heady matter.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm the only one, but I had no idea what Anonymous was talking about, so I googled it. Result here:

Playgoer said...

Ok, ok. I'm not going to (if you will) pile on poor Charlie for his porn book. Let's not hold that against him here, shall we? From the amazon description it sounds utterly serious and respectable.

Amusing, yes. But not relevant!

Anonymous said...

Slightly off point, but as long as you're (rightly) condemning Isherwood for sweeping and stupid generalizations about OOB, could we agree that maybe it's time to retire the stereotype of NY Times readers as Zabar's-patronizing walking emblems of cultural complacency? I go to Zabar's, I read the Times, I even (brace yourself) live on the Upper West Side. And yet, I go see all kinds of OOB shows, read other publications (and even blogs!), am not a thousand years old, and don't like the Roundabout.

Philucifer said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

You nailed it to the wall.

Thank you, thank you.

Thank you.

Playgoer said...

Point taken, Anon. I confess: I'm a self-hating Zabar's eating Upper West sider myself. Actually I can't afford Zabar's anymore, and moved further uptown.

And I agree, I should not fault stereotypes with yet more stereotypes. My bad.

Still, I do believe the shift of the Times target readership toward a more and more affluent demographic is not just my opinion but a manifest policy of theirs.

Anonymous said...

Hardly a SHIFT for the NYT. It has always targeted an upperclass readership. Look at the ads -- not just now, but 10, 20, 50 years ago. And the things promoted in the Living (what a friend of mine called, 25 years ago!, the "Having") sections.Just yesterday,bedroom chairs from $2800 to $8500. And bathtubs for five figures. This is nothing new. Check the restaurant reviews from FOREVER - always for people who can drop a nanny's daily pay on a dinner.