Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dialogue: Mac Rogers III: Oh, Sandwiches!

Click here for Part I
Click here for Part II

Well, here we are with the third and final installment of this online dialogue. As I write this first question, Nosedive just had its fundraiser show, “Good Night. And, Get Laid,” and I’ve just overcome my hangover. Also, Nosedive is closing in on finding a space for The Adventures of Nervous Boy (Pete and I will be looking at a space right after I send this question). I’ve also just come out of my coma from acknowledging that I’ll never be even remotely as successful as Tyler Perry, and have come to terms with it.

Ah, just kidding. I knew that wasn’t going to happen for me.

But I do find the phenomenon with Mr. Perry absolutely fascinating. I mean…wwwwwwwow. Fifty million dollars. Yeah. The brain just reels at that.

You’re absolutely right about the really successful authors play to underserved audiences. However, it’s important to note that Tyler Perry…and I’m making no judgment on his work (it seems to be pretty much critic-proof)…is very flattering to his audience, more or less showing them what they want to see and telling them what they want to hear. The same goes for a lot of gay camp theatre. I’m not saying that this is bad (it’s what brings in the bucks and brings in lots of recurring audience members on a year-over-year basis), but flattering the audience and congratulating them on having the right opinions is just not something I’ve ever been interested in doing (something you mentioned in Part One of this dialogue). I also mentioned in Part One that I think that in order to get and maintain a very large audience you need to pretty much write and perform the same show, also something I’m not interested in doing (solely either peddling pessimism or pandering populism and all that). In his introduction to a collection of his plays, Wallace Shawn wrote something to the effect of refusing to tell the audience what they’ve always been told, which is that Others are Bad, You are Good. That’s always stuck with me.

Truth be told, this is all fine by me. I hadn’t gone into playwriting as a means to make a livable income (after reading that Boston Phoenix article nearly ten years ago, I went into this field knowing — not dreading or worrying, but knowing — that playwriting would never be my primary or sole source of income), although there’s a huge difference between doing this when you’re 22 and just out of college and doing this when you’re in your 30s or 40s. The despair and “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” question does seem to nag you a little bit more the longer you do this (and the question nags even more when most people you know who have Off-off-Broadway theatre companies disband their groups and go to law school). But having said that, fuck it.

I knew the answer when I first wanted to be a playwright and I can’t exactly be grumbly when the answer has stayed the same nearly ten years later.

Sure, I wouldn’t mind writing screenplays or scripts for TV as a day job, but I would see it as that: a gig that gets me rent and bill money. From what little exposure I’ve had to the world of mainstream filmmaking and screenwriting, it looks like something that would be hell on earth if I put any emotional investment in it (I definitely see it as a “take the money and run like hell” kind of environment).

(If I were to make the switch from writing plays to writing movies, but take the screenwriting seriously, it would probably be in the same Nosedive, self-produced, “Do It Yourself” vein.)

One of the reasons I wanted to do this “dialogue” was to cut through a lot of the bullshit that seems to be going on in the theatre blogosphere with the Ongoing Discussion of The Current State of Off-Off-Broadway Theatre (“Off-off or Indie? New York or Wichita? Modern or classic? Ribbed or colored?”), and try to get to the “meat” of what’s happening currently with Off-off-Broadway theatre. Overall I find the bulk of the “discussion” to be a waste of time (I mean no offense to those involved in it), since it’s mainly an attempt to ask why Off-off theatremakers aren’t getting throngs of audience members to Off-off shows and how to fix that, avoiding the simple supply-and-demand factors you just pointed out in your answer concerning Tyler Perry. True, I find myself getting caught up in the debate myself, but I also find myself getting caught up in an elimiDATE marathon on TV. I find it to be a better use of time to examine what two contemporary playwrights-producers-armchair-thinkers do in the world of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre. Aside from, of course, writing plays in the hopes of snagging chicks.

So, since you mentioned that even Tyler Perry’s plays are available to buy and rent on DVD, and since I’d like to bring this third part to a more positive light on the state of self-producing playwrights working in an oversaturated market, I’m wondering if you see any potential advantage in making use of the glut of new media we have access to? I’m not particularly interested in new technology (I don’t own an iPod and just got a cell phone for the first time since I got rid of my old one in 2002), but fellow Nosedivians Pete, Patrick and Ben VandenBoom definitely are. They’ve been working on digitizing the recordings of some Nosedive shows and our comedy sketches. Some of our shorter plays and comedy sketches are available to see on our site, as well as MySpace and (what’s pretty damn cool is that our “Cat Power” sketch, which we made for one of our fundraising shows, has been viewed nearly 1,300 times). Podcasts and (possibly in the future) satellite radio seem to be decent outlets for presenting short radio plays. I’m fully aware that these outlets do not guarantee getting paid for your work, but they are new outlets to expand to a larger audience with a minimum of fuss. Am I being too optimistic with this line of thought?

I should say straight off that I have no idea. I enjoy technology, though I don’t have an affinity for it, and I’m particularly excited at the idea of radio plays coming back in vogue. I love the possibilities of radio drama, but I’ve never known how I’d get anyone to listen if I did one. You can’t just invite everyone to a theater, turn off all the lights, and press play… can you?

I’m running all the applications of technology in theater through my head. I guess I’ve never been crazy about multimedia. I don’t think human beings interact well with film on a stage. The best rendering of multimedia I’ve ever seen, the Wooster Group’s To You, The Birdie!, still left me cold, although perhaps I’d be persuaded by The Emperor Jones.

Please understand, I’m no Luddite. I’m very fond of technology and the role it plays in my daily life. I just don’t feel like it generally helps theater, or at least, ostentatious displays of technology don’t help theater. Obviously, the computer board is a godsend, and I think advances in soundscaping can only be good. But blatant onstage manifestations of technology ruin all the fun for me. It feels like there’s a disconnection between what the human beings onstage are creating and the set that glides up and down the stage or the helicopter that lands or the car that flies. That said, I’m open to having my mind changed. I just feel like I haven’t seen that integration happen yet.

For me, the greatest benefit of technology to theater is at the level of awareness. Theater blogs and websites like nytheatre and Gothamist and culturebot make it that much more likely that people will find out your play exists. That’s the thing: the promotion of theater, even big-time theater, requires that you convince people to go to one particular place to see what you’re doing. Every other kind of entertainment is at a cinema or a store near you. The Internet doesn’t level the playing field, exactly, but it does make the game a little fairer. People are still gonna pick Netflix and iTunes 29 times out of 30, but now we can reach some of the people who barely knew we existed. We’re competing, at one level, in the same way everyone else is who has an internet presence, which is, who can get the most people to look at their website.

I think George Hunka’s blog has got to be considered the industry standard in bringing discussion and awareness of goings-on in the theater to the Internet. He keeps refining it. He’s added a rolling calendar side-column to his site, and as George draws more and more readers, I bet the competition to get listed in that column will get fierce. The My Name Is Rachel Corrie controversy helped too. That was the theater blogosphere’s first big hot-button controversy that didn’t peter out after a day or two. One of the biggest impacts bloggers have had on politics is their ability to keep stories alive long after newspaper editors would have tired of them, which in turn causes newspapers to pay attention to them again. George, along with a few other persistent writers like Garrett Eisler and Jason Grote, were the first theater bloggers to dictate the news to the news.

The biggest challenge, to me, is not the ways in which plays will integrate technology but rather the ways in which plays will tell stories about technology. I’ve often heard people talk about creating plays that mimicked some of the mechanisms of the Internet. I’m not totally sure how that would work, but I’d like to see someone try, as an experiment. We’re just being ridiculous as playwrights if we willfully ignore the fact that the internet is changing the ways in which human beings process information, from the moment they become aware of it to the moment they act on it. Obviously not every play needs a cyber-theme, but if we ignore it in all our work then we’re just not paying attention.

Oh, I don’t know the answer to this, either. But I am aware that Internet promotion has really helped with at least some outer-awareness of one’s work. There are bands on MySpace that don’t have record labels, but through the site, have managed to garner loyal fan bases in the six figures. Stand-up comic Dane Cook’s meteoric rise in profile is due in part to his Internet promoting (although I’ll say for the record I used to go see him in Boston and on Comedy Central and piss myself with laughter before he became Saturday Night Live host-worthy).

Nosedive isn’t exactly bringing in throngs of people to the shows (although with each run we have at least two standing-room-only nights, which is always nice), but through our Web site and this Jamespeak page, there is a higher level of awareness of the group and (possibly) of my writing. Hell, one time I checked out Mr. Hunka’s site and saw it featured a Map of Theatre Blogs. I clicked on it and was floored, absolutely floored, to see that Jamespeak was on it. Wow. I mean…WOW! I’ve never heard of this site, yet I’m literally on the map. Cool!

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I often feel like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk when he finds his name in the phone book and goes, “Wow, I’m SOMEbody!”

(I also get hopeful when I get a nice letter from a guy in Germany who isn’t even a theatergoer praising a Jamepeak entry. That’s pretty gosh-darned cool.)

(Added to that, I’m personally very excited of the idea that new digital video cameras and programs like Final Cut may enable us to make really fast and cheap DVDs of our plays that actually look nice on disc, or maybe even allow Nosedive to make really nice feature films quickly and inexpensively. Yeah, I know, I’m sounding all positive n’ shit. Sorry about that. I’ll snap out of it soon.)

There are of course the obvious drawbacks. The Internet is huge and anyone — and I mean ANYONE — can promote him- or herself on it. There’s no quality control. Everything needs to be offered in catchy sound-bytes. The noise-to-signal ratio can get out of hand and trying to find anything of any value can be a quagmire (which is what happens when anyone and everyone can participate, not unlike the world of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre). Not to mention, so far, almost no one has been able to figure out how to make it pay (with a few rare, singular exceptions). But at the same time, the Internet isn’t going away any more than the television is, so we might as well try to take advantage of it. But hey: it’s also a way to market your stuff for free to an expansive audience. And hey, who knows? Maybe Podcasts and satellite radio will bring back the idea of the radio play, and maybe online forums such as MySpace and YouTube can bump up mailing lists by getting that one person out of 30 to notice.

And if it doesn’t, fuck it. It’s free.

As far as plays about technology are concerned, I guess that just may come naturally as weird technological doohickeys become ingrained in our culture. I noticed that it wasn’t until Nosedive’s seventh production, Mayonnaise Sandwiches, that we had characters that used cell phones. This wasn’t any attempt at making a comment on cell phones or anything (the way it is in the forthcoming Nervous Boy), it was just written at a time when cell phones were so pervasive in my day-to-day activities (even when I didn’t have one) that it just made sense to have characters use them (and have them easily fit as a story device). I think it’ll just be a matter of time before writers will effortlessly incorporate iPods into their stories because they’ll be so omnipresent (like writing a play where a ringing telephone is a crucial turning-point in the story).

(Incidentally, in college I wrote one short play satirizing the Internet as a useless tool that did nothing more than disseminate misinformation and turn people’s minds into goo, called Cyberchat. It sucked. And no longer exists. That’s all I have to say about that.)

But I think you’re right that ignoring this cyber-glut in our culture is ostensibly suicide for young modern playwrights, since we often do a pretty decent job of making ourselves irrelevant to potential audience members (how many new plays do you see that make you think, “Wow. I don’t relate to this at all?”). Again, I think this will just come naturally to writers as these technological gizmos pervade the cultural landscape.

I’m glossing over a whole lot of points here, I know (i.e., awareness of our work being due in part to the field itself being really small, trying to fight over-saturation with over-saturation), but I still figure it’s worth noting some of the positive aspects of Internet promotion and having some techno junkies like Pete in your corner who has the time and inclination to be as up-to-date as possible with whatever new breakthroughs are happening (even if this means sometimes investing time and money in toys — like mini-discs — that go absolutely nowhere). I’m no Luddite, either, but at the same time, you really should have seen me the other day try to skip a track on Pete’s iPod when he came over. It was a fiasco, like watching a monkey try to operate a microwave. It really was a case of “How does Grampa make this damn thing work?!” He and my sister got much amusement out of watching me try (and fail) to operate the device.

Now, I want to get into asking you about the importance of creative independence that comes with the world of self-producing Off-off-Broadway theatre, but I realize that may take me another thousand words or so to get into that and I’ve already nattered here long enough without being able to come up with any appropriate segue. So, before getting into (what I see as being) the genuine perks of this gig I’ve figured I’d ask you your thoughts on branding and marketing. One of the things you’ve mentioned in both Parts One and Two of this dialogue, we really don’t like the idea of self-promotion, but it’s something we really need to suck up and do. And as we do this longer (when this gig stops being a lark that we do for fun just out of college and becomes this thing that genuinely drives us), we also have to think about (ugh) demographics, bottom-lines, box office receipts. So far, Nosedive does (I think) a pretty decent job of branding the company as a whole (with the monkey logo and hell, we’ve even got moichandise!) but sometimes has problems promoting each individual show (this becomes especially true since apparently people who read this page, read my email blasts or meet me who’ve never seen one of our plays are under the impression that I almost exclusively write comedies). How conscious are you about branding efforts and having to think about “demographics” (I hate the word but really can’t think of any other)? Is this something that becomes part of the “rules of the game” as we enter said game for the (well sixth year for me)? How much of a boon and how much of a hindrance do you see having to think of your shows from a business angle? Or do you not have to think this way too much? This, I hope should tie in with both using technology to help with free promotion as well as talking about the importance and value of creative independence inherent to self-producing Off-off-Broadway theatre.

Ah, you’re killin’ me with the branding question!

No, you’re absolutely right. Sean’s sister Michelle, who works in arts funding on the West Coast, came to visit a couple months ago and completely gave us a talking-to about branding. She said we need a look and a logo and an organized email list as soon as possible. Sean, Jordy and I hear something like that, we immediately agree, declare our intention to utterly follow through, and then we get more interested in writing something. We need a marketing director! We need a brand strategist! In my day job I work with brand strategists from time to time, and the good are basically inventing our thoughts for us. They are creating the images we see inside our heads when we think of certain words or terms. I remember at my last bank job they told us at one of those big assemblies that we should all consider ourselves “brand ambassadors,” that our everyday behavior helped establish the public perception of the bank. Where some people see Big Brother in phenomena like this, I see desperation, executives desperately trying to position their companies in the market of high-speed impressions.

New York theater is an excellent microcosm of this worldwide situation: a teeming hive of businesses all fighting over the same small pool of customers. If your company isn’t in the top twenty, most likely your customers are all your friends. Most of the time this doesn’t bother me, but occasionally I can send myself into a bad spell by considering how I’d feel if I made a shampoo, and the only people who bought my shampoo were my friends. I’m not sure why, but that seems to throw the confidence-sapper into sharper relief.

Gideon hasn’t remotely gotten on the ball with branding, certainly not to the extent that Nosedive has. The nice thing about you guys is that you match a fun image with quality product, but I know a lot of good theater companies that are struggling because they have lousy websites and lousy promotional copy, and mediocre ones that look and feel successful because they pour effort into their posters, post cards, logo, website, fundraising letters, and online presence, and synch it all up to one strong look. People notice them, talk about them, and weirdly enough, like their plays better, just because they look like winners. One thing I’ve noticed about Manhattantheatresource, where I do a lot of my work, is that people often like the plays better there because the waiting area they’re in before the show is so much nicer than it is at, say, The Producer’s Club. We can gripe all day long about how these things shouldn’t matter, but that won’t help us grapple with the fact that they do matter.

The nice thing about demographics Off-Off Broadway is that they’re easy. It’s basically white people in their twenties and thirties who will be attending the shows, because those are the people, to a large extent, who are making the shows. If I’m being narrow-minded in this understanding, someone comment at my blog and tell me so.

I think the key strategies for building an audience Off-Off Broadway are:

1) Good branding (consisting of a logo, a website, email and snail mail updates, and individual show promotional materials that are tied together by some sort of visual strategy)

2) A consistent record of good shows. (I’m being idealistic by putting this at #2.)

3) Widening the group of artists you work with. When you see good work from other companies on other shows, poach their people. No one’s making any money, so people are drawn to good work. If you’ve got the goods, people will be interested in working with you. I’m doing a show with a company that isn’t Gideon this June because the company that approached me about it does awesome work. For best results, extend this beyond actors to directors, writers, and designers. Extend into other kinds of theater. In the next year and a half, I’d like to write a play in collaboration with puppeteers, for example.

4) Tirelessly reaching out to media. If you last long enough and bug them diligently enough, eventually they will pay attention.

5) Carefully crafting non-pushy, non-obnoxious email and snail-mail updates about your shows and your company’s progress. (This is really hard.)

6) Fair and polite treatment of everyone you work with. I’ve stayed away from shows on occasion for no reason other than that the people who made the shows, while talented, were jerks. People won’t forgive you for being a jerk unless you’re super-successful.

What else? What have I forgotten?

The funniest thing about this list is how few of these things I take care of on a regular business. I know these are the things I should be doing, but I’m so busy and so tired! Whine whine whine!

I think these things can present interesting and exhilarating challenges if you have the time to pay attention to them. If you don’t, they really seem like a drag.

Notice, however, that I haven’t mentioned tailoring content, even though I’m the guy who took a gay sailor musical to the Fringe. Here’s the thing, though: I loved writing Fleet Week. It just happened to coincide with local public taste (as Hail Satan did not). If I wasn’t, it would have been hell. I was proud of it. Nothing is worth tailoring your content to what you think the audience wants. No level of success will offset how miserable you’ll be all the time trying to read the public’s mind. This isn’t even about integrity; this is about enjoying your life.

Plus, if you want the ultimate example of masterful branding matched to highly personal, non-pandering content, look no further than Richard Foreman. His posters are unmistakeable from a mile away, in their look and typeface, and as a result he has a higher profile than any other avant-garde artist of the last fifty years.

Well, now that I’ve outed myself as thoroughly shallow, what else do you have for me?

Ah, then. My work here…is done. Bwahahahaha!

Actually, nice try. You still got three more questions to answer before you’re free from this bizarre experiment.


Sorry, Mac. I had a hunch that you didn’t really want to talk this aspect of self-producing, but I figured it was (is) something that we need to acknowledge. It may seem shallow, but it really isn’t. As you even mentioned in your first answer in Part One, you need to look successful to be successful. There have been times when hunting for spaces that Pete and I refuse to take the space — even if the price and size is right — just because the lobby looks like shit.

At some point in the game of self-produced theatre you do have to think about this stuff, especially since there are — according to Zachary R. Mannheimer — more than 1,000 Off-off theatre companies in the city (whether or not Mr. Mannheimer’s figure is accurate is irrelevant, since that number seems about right to me) vying for the same group of people.

Added to that, a lot of newbies (i.e., recent college grads) coming onto the scene seem to be playing the branding/marketing game quite well (again, I’m making no judgment to the work of said newbies).

I mean, let’s face it: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having promotional material that makes your show look like a Mac Rogers show (the way you can distinctly spot a poster for a Richard Foreman play and recognize what it’s selling).

Having said all that, I would like to mention one (now defunct) Off-off-theatre company (that shall remain nameless) that seemed to be a perfect example of having the cart before the horse in terms of marketing and branding. They had a very impressive-looking logo. They had very impressive-looking business cards. They had a very impressive-looking Web site. They had a very impressive-sounding mission statement.

And they didn’t stage a single show while they were a company.

This was a very weird thing that Pete and I had to consider. By all accounts, this company appeared to be so much more on the ball than Nosedive. Sure, we had a logo (which was almost pure chance). But we didn’t (and still don’t) have business cards. We didn’t (at the time) have a Web site. We didn’t (and kind of still don’t) have a mission statement.

Despite this, we did have a track record. They didn’t have any product to go with the impressive logo, business cards, Web site or mission statement. And when the company ended up disbanding without staging one show, that ended any such worry of them as a competitor in a competitive market.

That list you gave is pretty spot-on, although, hell. With regards to item #3, should we be stop being coy with our readers and let ‘em in on a bit of a secret? Ah, hell, why not?

[For those of you reading this who are not aware, Nosedive Productions has just cast Mac to play the eponymous Nervous Boy in its June production of The Adventures of Nervous Boy (A Penny Dreadful). It’s gonna be pretty crunkin’ incredible, if I do say so myself.]

I also would agree that #5 on your list is the toughest. Sometimes (I flatter myself in thinking that) I can come up with mildly amusing emails to people, sometimes I draw a blank and have nothing to say other than, “PLEEEEEEEEASE come see my show!!!”

For the longest time, I was under the impression that tenacity and perseverance is what makes you survive in the world of self-producing theatre in New York. And truth be told, I still am. Dave Sim, the self-publishing author of Cerebus, says that to stay afloat in a creative field is mainly determined by hard work, good decision-making and perseverance. After getting ready to stage our 11th production (19th if you count the fundraising sketch shows) in six years, I think I’m beginning to understand what he means.

This ties in to item #4. I think after me sending countless press releases over the years to media outlets has given Nosedive a bit of a leg-up in getting listed in places such as Time Out New York and The New York Times.

(I don’t know if you’ve ever used a press agent or not, but we did for one of our shows. It soured me to the whole process, especially since his main advice for selling the show was to “have titties on the postcard.” Money well spent. Sigh.)

Still, Pete, Patrick and I are often trying to find ways to figure out who goes to see our shows and how we can get them to consistently come (we even had a meeting this past Monday where we discussed how we’ve been dropping the ball with marketing and promotion).

Tailoring content can be a bit of a bitch, unless of course, it’s not. In retrospect, I could have tried pushing literary discussion groups and other such academic outlets to see Dying Goldfish, our virtually unsellable play. Then again, I could have tried drinking straight antifreeze every night. It’s really a photo finish as to which endeavor would have been preferable. One option, however, is to send your press releases to specialty magazines for audiences that may have an interest in the individual play (i.e., I recall sending releases for Evil Hellcat & Other Lurid Tales to Fangoria and other such horror fan mags). We don’t really do that too often, though, since I too prefer whining about being too tired and spread too thin.

And the perk about trying to market the shows yourself is that you keep the image and look your own (rather than handing all those aspects to some outside marketing director or brand strategist). This, I think, ties into having more creative freedom and creative control in the world of self-produced theatre.

(Finally, I was able to come up with some ham-handed segue for the next part.)

So let’s finally take some time to talk about creative control and creative freedom inherent to self-produced playwriting.

Now, although I’ve not been able to make a living off of Nosedive (aside from a few times where it’s served as a small supplement to my income), one true perk is that I get do stage my show the way I want it staged, and now do it so I either don’t lose any money or lose about as much money as a night of heavy drinking (there was a time in the company’s arc where we were actually making money off the shows. Not enough to do much with it, but from The Awaited Visit to about Evil Hellcat, as well as Christmas Carol, ticket sales ended up being a couple hundred bucks over the budgets).

So I’ll just get to the next question, which may be either a very easy one or a very difficult one, depending on how you regard it. We’ve covered this a little bit before, but let’s focus on it. How important to you is creative control and creative freedom? Which would you prefer, being relieved of the burdens of producing but not being able to “call the shots” on a production or still having the burdens of producing but maintaining a fair amount of control? One of the great perks of this gig is being able to get away with the silliness rattling around in your brain and being able to show it in front of an audience with no equivalent of “network notes.”

Bear in mind I’m not sure if you’re as turned off by the process of mainstream filmmaking and scriptwriting as I am (it really seems that the odds of not being eaten alive in the Hollywood and Hollywood-esque realms are astronomical), or if you’re seeing the Hollywood business model usurping the Off-Broadway world as I am.

(I’m not necessarily talking about the compromises inherent to collaborating with a director, actors and other designers. I’m really talking about censors, bean-counters, non-creative businessmen and those other little demons that have the final say in virtually all mainstream creative outlets.)

I ain’t going to lie. For me, getting a group of total strangers to come together and pay to see me run across the stage naked screaming obscenities or get dating advice from a talking pizza-box or other such ridiculous nonsense is another great bonus to the gig.

Now I’ve outed myself as a narcissistic sociopath.

Ah, that’s bullcrap. Everyone here already knew that. There’s no closet for me to come out of.

(And before you try: you can’t answer, “I’d rather be relieved of the burdens of producing and maintain creative control.”)

Aha! You think you’ve deprived me of my one way of wiggling out of your dastardly question! Well you haven’t! I can still wiggle out!

My answer is sometimes I want to call all the producerial shots, and sometimes I want to sit back and just be the writer. I like experiencing both, and doing one for too long makes me eager to experience the other.

Nervous Boy is an imperfect example, as it’s an acting gig for me, but it’s useful in illustrating my point. With Nervous Boy, I won’t be part of the producing conversation. I won’t have input into casting, design, promotion, space selection, anything like that. That would definitely wig some people out, and I understand that. I know several actors who have become producers, writers, or directors because they didn’t like the feeling of being cogs in the machine. They think, “Hey, this director’s an idiot. I could do better.” “Hey, this actor I’m working with sucks. I could cast better in my sleep.” “Hey, this rehearsal space sucks. I bet I could find something better for the same price.”

I’ve had these thoughts too, on occasion, but I’ve also had enough pleasurable experiences being a cog that I’ve come to enjoy it. After all the producing I’ve done, when I occasionally get to do a show where I have only ONE JOB it feels like unutterable luxury. It feels like I’m being decadent. On top of that, I like the feeling of being part of someone else’s composition. I read an interview with Wallace Shawn once (funny how the guy keeps coming up, isn’t it) where he was asked why he kept doing Woody Allen movies, and he said that being in a Woody Allen movie is like being inside of someone else’s dream. I like that feeling as well, when I can get it. When I did Andrew Frank’s production of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck last year, the combination of Andrew’s vision and the production design gave me that feeling of being inside someone else’s dream. It made me return to my own dreams with more relish.

Now, obviously it’s different when you’re acting. When you’re involved in a production purely as a writer, there’s quite a different feeling. I’ve never had that complete experience, because I’ve only ever worked Off-Off, where ultimately everyone pitches in. I’ve come close, with Nineveh and the three productions of Roll. The only times I’ve ever done nothing but write were the times I worked with The 24-Hour Plays and Raw Impressions Music Theater, but those aren’t good examples because the real agony of the writer-who-is-only-a-writer takes place during the rehearsal process.

That’s when you’re sitting in the corner and just watching. You know you can give notes, but only after the rehearsal is over, because the actors need to have one director, not two. Mostly you’re in the way. The only thing you might conceivably be good for is to do on-the-spot rewrites you won’t want to do. Otherwise it’s all this boring watching, unless you decide not to go to rehearsals, as I often do. If I’m just the writer, I actually hate going to rehearsals. I get bored. I wish I was acting or directing. I really only want to go when they have something to show me, like an Act One runthrough or something like that. Watching other people rehearse the same three-minute segment over and over again makes me so bored I want to scream.

So many writers (me included, often) become producers. When you’re the producer, there’s always something for you to do. Until the show is closed and the set is packed away and the trash has been picked up off the stage floor, there’s always something for you to do. You could always be pushing some aspect of the show forward. I sometimes hate producing; I hate the endless work of it, the endless meetings, the knowledge that, if you happen to be chilling out on some occasion, it’s never justified, because there’s always something you could be doing.

What I love about producing is putting the team together. I like courting and assembling the personnel that will make a production awesome. I love sitting in on auditions and then talking over casting later. I love keeping a mental catalogue of all the theater practitioners I see around the city and then pulling from different shows to put together a project of my own. I love this networking aspect of it.

I’ve never produced something that I didn’t write or co-write, so I don’t know if I’d like pure producing. But I guess my overall answer to your question is that I wouldn’t want to give up either experience entirely. I’d like to alternate them, production for production, ideally.

Dastardly, eh? Ah, you are a crafty one, Machary. A crafty one indeed.

Just rented Steven Soderbergh’s film Schizoplolis last night. I had never seen it. That’s some funny. Why the hell doesn’t Soderbergh act? His comic timing is uncanny!

This entry will be sent to you a little later than usual, since you sent this answer just as I was up to my eyeballs in writing a 1,400-word article on REO asset managers. Yes, the party just never stops in the world of trade mortgage news (how I currently pay my rent).

Actually, your attitude on the subject seems like a pretty good one. There’s fun to be had calling the shots, and there’s fun to be had just watching others do what they will with the script.

And go on. Admit it. In addition to putting the team together, you love exploiting the casting couch, dontcha, dontcha? Ahhh…I’m priceless.

(That’s a joke, ladies. There is no “casting couch” in the world of unpaid self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre. Just come on by to my place and I’ll prove it. Giggedy!)


True, it’s great sometimes not having the burdens of production on your shoulders (participating in Wild Child’s “Freshly Squeezed” reading series and Vampire Cowboys’ “REVAMPED” were incredibly fun and relaxing for me, since I wasn’t responsible for any producing, administrative, or janitorial responsibilities). And also, producing can be a colossal pain in the ass (the joke I often make is that I’m a writer-producer-janitor, “A Triple-Threat!”). Having said that, if a production of a show of mine rocks or sucks, then I’d like to be accountable for the praise or the blame, particularly if the production tanks. Hell, if I’m going to down in flames, then I want to at least be in the cockpit.

You bringing up Wally Shawn (and yeah, he has been coming up a lot) reminds me of the time Sydney Pollack said in an interview conducted by Charlie Rose that he didn’t pride himself on his acting abilities, and that he saw himself as a director who would take acting jobs mainly to learn from other directors. He said he acted in Eyes Wide Shut because he wanted to see how Kubrick directed. He acted in Husbands and Wives because he wanted to see how Woody Allen directed. It was a very interesting concept, and very surprising to hear him be so forthcoming about his complete disinterest in his skills as an actor (surprising because, like Soderbergh apparently, he’s a pretty damn good actor).

I, too, can’t really sit through the rehearsal process. I get too fidgety. And there really is nothing more useless than a playwright in the rehearsal studio when the cast and director are fine-tuning a three-minute scene over and over again.

(Digression: I don’t know about you, Mac, but my fellow Nosedivians, much to my surprise, gave me a lot of flack for my “process, schmocess” line in Part II. Combining that with my comment above, people may get the impression that I have no respect for actors and the work they need to do in order to put on a show. I didn’t think I’d have to explicitly state this, but that isn’t the case. Despite what my Nosedive colleagues think, I don’t have an innate disregard for the process that the director and actors need to go through in order to put on a show. I’m fully aware that it’s damn hard to act and damn hard to direct. I used to act more regularly, but eventually I lost my taste for it. Whatever an actor and director need to do in order to get themselves in the right physical and mental head-space to put on a good show is fine by me. I do, however, think that sometimes what’s referred to as “the process” can really be called “dithering” and “foot-dragging.” Getting the show staged and getting it staged when you said it would be staged is the primary goal. Then again, I’ve always been of the “Finish the Fucker” school that Joshua James writes about.

My sister, a recent grad of Vassar’s theatre program, was particularly irritated by my apparent lack of interest in the process. She wrote me this long email telling me how wrong I was, yet more than implied that maybe directors should be removed from the process because they stunt the collaborative effort.

Um…yeah. Fuck that.

I mean, I’m all for collaboration and all, but there’s got to be one person or small group of people in charge [or at least reserving the right to make the “final call”]. Yeah, sorry Becky. Ya almost had me there. “Process, schmocess.”

So, for readers out there who think I don’t have respect for actors or the process they need to go through in order to perform a play, that isn’t true. And don’t read anything more into my comment about being fidgety and impatient during rehearsals than, like Mac, I’m a fidgety guy. End digression.)

With playwriting, as opposed to screenwriting, you have more creative control and ownership even if you’re not directly involved in the production. If some company you’re not involved with stages, say, Roll, it’s still very much “your show.”

From what I understand, this is not the case with mainstream screenwriting. There are many times a script gets rewritten and re-rewritten and re-re-rewritten by numerous screenwriters. The “written by” credit is virtually meaningless. The most obvious example I can think of off the top of my head is David Mamet being credited as the sole screenwriter for Hannibal despite the fact that there isn’t a single line of dialogue in the movie that can be attributed to him. I also remember when, while just out of high school, I had a job as an usher for the local movie theatre. One movie that was playing that summer was The Net with Sandra Bullock. I was more than a little bemused to see on the poster five credited screenwriters. Five. For ultimately a shitty Sandra Bullock vehicle. That was the first time I realized that most movies got “gang scripted,” something I thought (and still think) is just damn crazy. (Did Armageddon really need nine freakin’ screenwriters?)

Now, I’m not dead-set against relinquishing any and all control or against writing for companies that will force me to waive any creative control or ownership. As Dave Sim wrote (when writing about self-publishing comics):

“There can be nothing more beneficial on many occasions than going for a cool and relaxing dip in a swimming pool. Likewise with the companies. A dip into their pool can be very relaxing, lucrative and prestigious. But you should get in and get out within a certain time frame. You don't want to live in a swimming pool no matter how cool and refreshing it is, do you?”

That always stuck with me.

(Actually, a lot of Dave Sim’s essays on self-publishing have stuck with me. His mini-book, The Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing, although talking about self-publishing comic books, became Nosedive’s Bible when we discovered it. Despite some of the advice being very specific for comic illustrators, we found many of the lessons were easily translatable to the realm of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre [or actually, any creative endeavor]. In particular, his 1993 Pro/Con Speech really hit the nail on the head when it comes to embarking on a creative endeavor independently versus going under the wing of a bigger company. But again, I digress.)

Like you, I became a producer of my own work by default. I wanted the stuff staged, realized no one was going to do it for me, and there you are. Of course, on one hand, the longer I do this the more I find self-producing irritating and draining. Yet on the other, the longer I do this the more I find self-producing the only thing that makes sense. Being able to say exactly what I want to say, exactly the way I want to say it (to again refer to Dave Sim) becomes increasingly important to me in this day and age of art-by-committee (something entirely different from collaboration).

(And sigh, yes, I have had a handful of occasions where being the cog was a nightmare, in particular having to once write a children’s show for a theatre company where I found out halfway through the process that, not only was I not getting paid, the company was retaining the copyright to the work. Added to that I was just having a miserable time writing the damn thing. It was from that point on that I realized the novelty of having someone else shoulder the weight of a production got very old very soon. I also realized that if I was going to be writing stuff on commission, I’d be doing it for money and put in virtually no emotional involvement to it [not unlike the lack of emotional involvement I have when writing a 1,400-word article on REO asset managers for a trade newspaper on mortgages]. The experience also taught me to be extra wary of whom I accept offers from.)

Well, okay, I’ve pretty much gone all over the map here without quite leaving the driveway. I guess it’s time to, y’know, ask you something. So, I’ll ask a couple of scattershot questions here at once. Is there anything you’d like to add? What experience(s) have you had, since moving to New York, that’s made you go, “Damn it Feels Good To Be a Playwright” (in your best Geto Boys impression)? What experience(s) have you had, since moving to the Rotten Apple and staging plays, that’s made you think, “I should have been a plumber?”

(And yes, you can simply answer, “James. Five cups of coffee is enough.”)

Five is never enough.

First I’ll address a couple points you made. With regard to Process vs. Product, obviously it’s true that Process is important. Without Process there is no Product. The danger, to my mind, lies in the mental slip that can happen. When you create student or indie or Off Off Broadway theater, your rehearsal process is just as intense and exciting as it is for people doing Broadway or West End. Having an intense, interesting rehearsal process doesn’t cost any money. However, the actual run of the show is a very different experience from Broadway or the West End. The audiences are tiny. Press attention is marginal or nonexistent. There’s a feeling of anticlimax. What grows out of this, quite naturally, is a sense that the rehearsal process, being the more exciting part, was the whole point all along. And this is what I strenuously disagree with.

There are a couple dangers, it seems to me. One is that the artists end up spending too much time away from the audience. I’m of the opinion that theater artists need regular contact with audiences. Too long a period of time without that contact dulls your instinct for communion, for what reads, for what manifests in the public arena vs. what you feel inside your head. With process for its own sake, there’s no mandate to get out there in front of the headlights on a regular basis. The other danger is that we begin to feel that it’s okay to present ill-prepared or unfinished work in the name of “progress.” When I hear that I’m about to see a “work in progress,” I break out in hives. “Keep your ‘progress’ to yourself,” I think. “Invite me back when there’s a show.”

Like you, I certainly don’t intend my position to convey any disrespect to actors or directors or anyone else. Process is important, vitally important, but as a means rather than as an end. To me the only end is the show.

As far as writing for Hollywood, I think in this post-William Goldman Adventures In The Screen Trade era, there’s no excuse for not knowing the deal when you write a screenplay. It’s never gonna be art. Don’t care about it. They can do anything they want with it. Write the best piece of craft you can, take the money, and then go write a novel or a play. You can care about those things, because you can write them your way. When you write for film and television, unless you also want to become an executive producer or a director, you write for fun and cash. You don’t fall in love. I’d love to write for movie and TV as my day job. Sign me up. I don’t have any illusions about what it entails, and it’d be more fun than any other day job, to me.

Hmm, “damn it feels good” experiences…here’s a couple.

1) The first readthrough of Nineveh, when the cast met me, and one by one said some variation of, “You wrote this? You look like you’re fifteen years old!”

2) Getting the good review of Happening To Your Body in the New York Times the same day the second production of Roll opened.

3) Pretty much the entire experience of The Lucretia Jones Mysteries, everywhere we did it.

4) Writing F with Jason Green while Homer Frizzell made us steaks.

5) Getting to show Nineveh to my parents.

6) Creating Fifty Million Dollars with Pete Muller and the Raw Impressions team and watching it come together perfectly.

7) Opening night of Fleet Week, and the little conversation Jordy, Sean and I had as we were saying goodnight.

8) The night Fleet Week won the prize at the Fringe Festival, and one of the conversations I had shortly afterward.

9) The night a lady came to Hail Satan wearing a red tail.

“I should have been a plumber” experiences…

1) Nearly the entire experience of producing a month-long fundraiser for the relief effort after 9/11, which involved booking and teching dozens of shows, soothing several dozen egos, firing a director, hardly ever sleeping, and all while breathing the acrid fumes of Ground Zero and realizing my troubles didn’t amount to shit, so I didn’t even get to wallow in it.

2) The night we realized no one from the media was going to see Dirty Juanita, because nobody had any idea who we were, and we had somehow been clueless enough not to get that ahead of time.

3) My first short for the 24 Hour Plays, which I made insanely too long and complicated, so that the actors forgot most of their lines since I had made them too hard to memorize. That was the first thing I had go up in New York, and I was convinced I was already finished in the theater community.

4) Having to cancel a production of a play of mine about terrorism after 9/11, being bummed about that, while simultaneously feeling I had no right to be bummed about it.

5) Thinking about all the people who didn’t see Hail Satan whose shows I had faithfully attended for the past couple years. If you’re reading this and I blew off a show of yours since last October, there’s a good chance I did it for a reason. (Conversely, if you’re with Nosedive or Ripple Productions, you have my allegiance for life, and you know why.)

Well, more good ones than bad ones. I really can’t ask for more than that.

Oh shit, the last question! Is this going to be hard?

Oh, you betcha! Now, without re-reading, tell me (in 800 words or more) what movie did I refer to in Part One, Question 3 and how it relates to…okay, just kidding.

Yes, we are indeed at the end. And fear naught. This time there’ll be no tough question for you to answer, mainly because it will most likely give me the urge to provide a follow-up, then we’ll be stuck in this weird cyber-Q&A indefinitely. Or at the very least, I’ll be thinking up questions for this Q&A indefinitely.

I don’t think we’re in any disagreement about the importance of showing a finished product to audiences. I, too, get a bit queasy when I’m invited to see a “work in progress.” And theatre artists do have a tendency to alienate themselves (ourselves) from audiences, for whatever reason. I’m not sure if this is intentional (i.e., adopting the, “We’re being experimental. This is theatre! If you’re not understanding what we’re presenting then that’s because you’ve been too inundated with reality television and action movies, bozos!” attitude), or if it’s just a lack of getting the damn thing done and seeing how people respond. My guess is it’s not quite intentional but more of a matter of hedging bets.

Although to be fair, I can sympathize — to some degree— with the attitude some groups have of seeing a production or production company as a form of social club. In other words, I can understand the thought of, “Well, if we’re not getting paid, not getting audiences and not getting reviews, we might as well be doing this for the fun of it!” Well, yes, that’s a fair point. But I guess for me part of the fun is seeing how (and if) audiences and reviewers respond to this weird thing I wrote a couple years ago when I was unemployed and lovesick for this heroin junkie.

Overall I’m of the opinion that if I spend all this time and energy writing a play, I really want to make sure it makes sense when it’s staged in front of a group of people who don’t live in my brain. You’re absolutely right that theatremakers need regular contact with audiences, if only to make sure that what we need to make sure the stuff is coherent.

(This always happens with me during dress rehearsal. Pete and I have no idea, after working on a project for so long without an outside audience, if the show we’re about to helm and present in 24 hours is remotely coherent. I can never tell, and neither can Pete at that stage, so it’s just a matter of hoping we’ve all done it right and that it makes sense to an audience. This has been the case with…well, all of the shows. It was very particularly noticeable when we first staged A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol, since we all forgot — up until opening night when audiences were laughing loudly — that oh, yes. It’s a comedy.)

I really don’t know why I’ve been harping on the Hollywood industry. I don’t even think (trying to be as objective about myself as possible) that it’s sour grapes. I’ll admit that yeah, being a Hollywood screenwriter would be a better day job than ones I’ve had before, although I’d have to stay in New York (I don’t like the idea of having a car). I think my resistance may come from being spoiled by theatre. (Yeah, you really didn’t think it was possible to put the words “spoiled by theatre” in a sentence and not have them been ironic, didja?) On one hand, I think there is a side of me that thought that playwriting was a field that eventually led to screenwriting. And that’s certainly true. But on the other, I’m actually surprised at how little the move to Hollywood — aside from the sole appeal of a bigger paycheck — interests me, even being in the game a lot longer than many (odd to think that an independent New York theatre company that’s only six years old is one of the “elder veterans” in the field). The appeal is actually diminishing over time, which is something that I really didn’t expect.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, Nosedive is getting a bit of a kick out of the new, cheap technologies that can allow us to start making movies our way, without having to hunt down Lenny Kravits to agree to make his big screen debut with us so we can con some rich moron into financing our picture (present company of wonderful rich philanthropists out there reading this who love Lenny Kravits excluded). I’m really not averse to the idea of filming low-budget film versions of the Nosedive plays during a run or shortly thereafter in the near future. This is once again trying to stay in the realm of the deluded and avoid the real world for as long as humanly possible.

There’s an intense emotional rollercoaster one rides on when voluntarily entering the realm of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre, particularly when there’s no money involved in it. When things are bad, they’re very, very bad (being completely broke and putting on a play that garners no critical or commercial reception can bring you into a serious fit of despair). When things go well, it’s a bizarre high that really doesn’t compare to anything.

Our production of Mayonnaise Sandwiches in March/April 2004 really exemplified this emotional rollercoaster. We had a lackluster attendance for the first weekend, which made Pete and I realize that we were going to lose the bulk of our investment on the show (being semi-employed at the time also made the prospect of not getting any cash back at the end of the run was an added kick in the pants). The few people who came to see it that opening weekend seemed…well…mixed about the show. No one seemed particularly thrilled about it (even the smattering of positive comments from the half-dozen or so of the dozen or so who came each night were subdued and polite, not eager). We got a very “Schmeh” review from I got a very long email from a colleague saying how much he hated the show and how much (he thought) my writing had gone downhill since moving to New York.

So, to recap: we were amidst a run of a play that (it seemed) no one was coming to see. The few people who did come to see seemed to either not like it or not get it. Our one review of the show was damning with faint praise. And there didn’t even seem to be a snowball’s chance in hell of us would recupe our financial losses.

Definitely a “What the fuck are we doing?” moment for Pete and I.

Then, in the middle of the second weekend, things took a big turn.

For some reason, the show ended up getting a really good word-of-mouth response. After seeing the show, Jamie Taylor, the artistic director for the All You Can Eat Theatre Company, sent out an email blast raving about the play (bear in mind this was a person I only vaguely knew at the time — she had directed a production of Closer in the theatre above us at the 78th Street Theatre Lab at the same time we staged Evil Hellcat & Other Lurid Tales, so we had definitely met and had engaged in some very friendly talks about the trials and tribulations of putting on shows in the city — so to have someone we only vaguely knew yet part of our chosen field/community go to bat for us like that for nothing [not counting the time you told your peeps nice things about Allston] was an incredible high). Our last four nights were of the “Standing Room Only” persuasion in terms of attendance. We had to set up a wait-list and turn away latecomers and those who didn’t make reservations. This, too, was a new experience for Pete and I (we weren’t in the habit of having to turn people away). Because we had such a high turnout of audience members for the last four shows, we were able to recoup a few of our financial losses (not enough to make us rich, but enough to write off the personal financial loss on the show as equal to the financial loss incurred on a night of heavy drinking).

During the final weekend, listed us as an “Editor’s Pick,” and the Village Voice listed the play under the “Voice Choices” on the Web site. A month later, called us to offer us an award for being one of the best plays they had seen that year.

So, staging Mayonnaise Sandwiches was one of the more surreal experiences I had staging a show in New York, since I went from wanting to lie under my bed in a fetal position until it all went away to being a rock star amongst rock stars in the span of a week. It opened with a “Shoulda been a plumber” air, closed with a “Damn it feels good to be a playwright” vibe.

(I think it’s needless to say that our final weekend the Nosedive gang — already known for being Professional Drinkers — drank so hard I think we gave ourselves some serious brain damage.)

(Right now, as I write this, I’m coming off of a personal high after coming up with an idea for a show on Wednesday and finishing the rough draft — tentatively entitled Hot Chicks in Hotpants — on Friday. It’s not too often that I do something as nutty or as obsessive-compulsive as writing an hour-long play in three days, only every now and again. I’m also surprisingly happy with how it turned out: a full-on, silly-ass comedy, something I don’t often write. So I’m currently coming off that high that one often gets when you finish a play that was hardly what one could call a strenuous process. Seriously, nothing compares to it.)

Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of that Tyler Perry financial success.

[Hey, maybe this online dialogue will reveal to the world how tragic it is that we are the unsung heroes of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre. Or at the very least, help me finally find and seduce that Handsome Middle-Aged British Lady of Affluence who has been eluding me all my life.


So I think that just about covers it. Again, I’d like to thank you for participating in this, Mac. I definitely had a lot of fun engaging in this dialogue. It’s been a very fascinating couple of months. I do think readers of this know far, far more than they ever wanted to know about either one of us. And now it’s time to get ready to stage The Adventures of Nervous Boy.

Of course, not to get too gushy (it really ain’t my thing), but I do have to say, in this day and age of media bombardment, the glut of pop culture, the over-saturation of entertainment options, I do find theatre — a medium that forces you to sit down and shut up for two hours or so — increasingly important.

Also, since it’s a field in which anyone can enter without any track record or necessarily any ability, it is increasingly important that there are theatre artists out there consistently creating plays that are worth an (over-stimulated) audience’s while.

Added to that, since the field is primarily non- or low-paying, it is nice to see said worthwhile theatre artists sticking it out as long as possible. Despite many obstacles, hardships and miniscule stakes, I’m quite impressed that you’re consistently and frequently writing and producing such diverse and worthwhile theatre, of which I think the city desperately needs more.

So Mac, I salute you.

I for one am very eager to see something happen with that Raw Meat play, as well as seeing Fleet Week: The Musical get a second chance at being on the stage. After all, musicals about gay sailors do sell. So do, I think, plays about sewer-residing cannibals.

And, as promised, you get the final word.

Chatting your damn ear off,

James “Verbal” Comtois

First off, let me tell our vast audience that the fact that you’ve had to wait so long for part three is entirely my fault and none of James’s. I took an average of six days to answer each question. My only excuses are that I have two jobs and am in a new relationship, so I haven’t been up for air in months. Writing answers to James’s questions is like taking a break.

James, I was trying to remember if there’s anything you talked about that I’d like to add more on. (Heh-heh. He said “moron.”) But I think between us, I think we covered it. You may want to have your next dialogue with somebody who doesn’t agree with you on quite so many things. You and I are not so very different, Comtois!

It’s kind of sobering to consider that we’re working on our next project together, isn’t it? After all our big talk on this dialogue. I mean, I don’t know how many people actually read this, but you’ve got to think one or two are gunning for us. “Oh, so you guys know EVERYTHING, huh? I guess if you two are working TOGETHER that’ll be the most perfect show EVER, right? You’re gonna show us ALL how it’s done, right?”

The pressure’s on. Nervous Boy really can’t suck now!

I just want to thank you for asking me to participate in this, and thank you for your thoughts and your patience. As you say, when an Off-Off company lasts more than a couple of years, it’s remarkable. It’s really easy to give this shit up. There are way easier ways of hanging out with your friends. For Nosedive to be around for six years is a testament to people’s faith in what you’re trying to say. So I salute you right back.

I think what many theater artists in our rough age group feel that we’re missing is some sense of belonging to a movement. We don’t really have the whole experience of sitting around at cafes arguing about which theater manifesto will save the world. No one’s rioting at our plays. No one’s overthrowing the existing artistic order because no one knows what it is. There’s no sense of a generation of artists creating a new aesthetic. To bring up Wallace Shawn one last time in this discussion, I’m reminded of how Shawn wrote that he got into playwriting because nobody – including his extremely critical and legendary father, New Yorker editor William Shawn – knew what a play was supposed to be.

I think what we have to be able to do now is be willing to be lonely. We have to be willing to find our way in a culture that’s breaking apart into kaleidoscopic shards. We have to be willing to forge ahead with a bunch of little mini-movements without the giddy comfort of feeling that we’re riding a wave. We have to see lots and lots of plays and take the flakes of value we find in each and find out own path made up of tiny-ass stones in the dark. We have to be willing to be lonely. We have to allow it to be a pleasant surprise when others want to walk with us. It has to be okay that there won’t be a revolution. What there must be instead is a gradual and persistent persuading, play by play, that there’s another way to see and hear and react.

Thank you again, James. And I look forward to reading the next one of these!



Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Getting the Hang of This

My friend John Walsh (who designed our monkey puppets for “Jiffy Squid” and A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol) pointed out that I had erroneously stated in my last Jamespeak entry — entitled “Sit. Down!” — that The Adventures of Nervous Boy (A Penny Dreadful) would have my first on-stage appearance in any of the Nosedive shows, since I did make a…uh…“cameo” in The Awaited Visit. Thanks for pointing out my error, John. In my defense, you can understand why I didn’t count that as an on-stage debut.

We held auditions this past weekend for Nervous Boy, and Pete and I were (are) very happy with how they turned out. Many thanks to Mac for helping out with said auditions and also many thanks to Jason Green for sending some actresses our way. (And thanks to the actress friends of Jason who came to audition.)

* * *

I have to say, one of the upsides to Pete having me manage Jamespeak all on my own is that I get to post the damn entries as soon as I write them. One of the downsides, however, is that I can no longer yell, “BOISVEEEEEEEERT!” whenever the entries don’t get posted. (Yes, I am a bit crestfallen that Pierre is no longer my whipping boy. In this regard, anyway.)

Another weird concept with this blog format is that I can get away with posting more often and posting shorter entries. The problem with that is that I really don’t like posting 100-200 word entries for Jamespeak. I’m very much of the “Why bother post?” mindset. On average, the entries I’ve been posting on this site have been (on average) 1,000-1,500 words, which seem a bit too long for typical scrolling blogs.

So, this leads me to ask if I should just post on a daily basis but have said posts be in the 100-200-word category? If I get into that habit, sure, I can post every damn day, but then the odds of me taking (or having) the time to write my typical 1,500-word humorous yet scathing screed on Why People Are Morons (or some other such topic of equal importance) diminishes.

All of this rhetorical questioning is a bit disingenuous. We all know perfectly well that there’s no chance in hell that I’ll be posting on Jamespeak on a daily basis. But I’ll still try to strike some sort of balance between posting a little more often and continuing to write entries in the same length and vein as before.

(“And can you do a better job of proofreading, James?” asks the audience.

“NEVER!” replied the defiant blogger.)

Working on something more substantial,

James "Blogger of Substance" Comtois

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sit. Down!

As you can see, Pete has revamped Jamespeak and set it up on an actual Blogger page. I think he may have been because he was sick of being my damn editor and tired of me nagging him to post the pages faster. Now it’s all up to me [ulp!].

I think the new page looks pretty cool.

Also, Nosedive Productions is getting ready to cast The Adventures of Nervous Boy, our new play, which will go up June 8-10, 15-17, 22-24 (Thursdays through Saturdays) at 8 p.m. at the Gene Frankel Theatre (formerly Juvie Hall) on 24 Bond Street between Lafayette and Bowery. This play will have yours truly make a cameo appearance (my first on-stage appearance in any of the Nosedive shows).

Thirdly, I just finished the rough draft of a brand spankin’ new play: a full-length comedy (with the working title Hot Chicks in Hotpants, although there’s a chance that title may change by the time we stage it). I’m pretty happy with it, especially since this is the first script I’ve written that’s a full-on flat-out comedy that’s over an hour long.

Although I said that the third and final entry for my online dialogue with Mac Rogers would be posted before tax time, it will be coming soon. I just sent him the final question and am hoping we can proof and post it within a couple of days.

And finally, I want to offer delayed kudos to Qui Nguyen for his Off-Broadway debut, Trial By Water. Yet another excellent script, Qui. I for one am really glad I saw it. Congratulations for getting an Off-Broadway production under your belt. (Damn, with Mac Rogers’s Fleet Week: The Musical and Qui Nguyen’s Trial By Water, I realize I’m bein’ left in the damn dust by my peers in the “Big Time Theatre” Game.)

And with the announcements out of the way, let’s get on to me yelling about something…

* * *

One reason for the importance of theatre in this day and age of distractions, constant cell phone interruptions, emails, text messages, media sound bites, podcasts we can fast forward through, DVDs we can skip through and TV shows on digital cable or TiVo we can speed through, is that it’s a form that ceases all self-satisfying distractions. There’s no skip button. There’s no fast-forward. There’s no excerpting from. While watching a play, you can’t chat on your cell phone or text someone. You can’t be wandering around.

In short, theatre forces you to Sit. The Fuck. Down. And Shut. The Fuck. Up.

Sometimes, it forces you to do so for two hours or more.

As a culture — hell, as a species — we need this. In a culture that fosters fidgeting and distraction (and distraction from the distraction) and flat-out dithering, we need to every now and again engage in a medium, in an art form, that forces us to sit still and be quiet (sometimes for an extended period of time).

If we can’t be bothered to — every now and again! — Sit The Fuck Down And Shut The Fuck Up for two hours or so, our minds and souls may be in some serious trouble.

Forgive me for sounding slightly hyperbolic here. Part of it is simply to stress that yes, although theatre is a very unpopular and ignored medium (and although it won’t die out or go the way of the Dodo it will continue to remain a very unpopular and ignored medium), it is still an important art form. A very, very important art form. Another part of it is because it seems that asking people to “sit down and shut up every now and again” is asking a whole lot — possibly too much — nowadays, especially in New York.

Now, I’m not even pointing fingers or naming names. I’m a fidgety guy myself. Although I don’t have an iPod or digital cable, I get a kick out of visiting my fellow Nosedivians who have said toys and getting to play with said toys. I often watch DVDs and abuse the “skip” button. I talk on my cell phone (although honestly not too often, since I’ve never really liked using the phone). And I’m fully-aware that seeing some really bad plays — and boy, there sure are a lot of them out there — make the whole process of sitting still and shutting up all the more arduous. I know that suggesting surrendering control, sitting still, being silent and paying attention for a two hour chunk of time is suggesting attempting a task that requires a Herculean force of will.

(I could — and probably should — place some blame in people’s allergy to theatre on the scores of shitty plays out there, but let’s save that ongoing and possibly never-ending rant for another date.)

Having said that, a great, good or hell, even passable play can be a cathartic and calming experience (or at the very least, a damn good head rush).

And let me be blunt: we’re adults, goddammit. Surrendering control, sitting still, being silent and paying attention every so often is not the Herculean task we believe it to be.

This train of thought occurred to me after seeing Trial By Water, a two-hour play that had no intermission. After the show ended, I walked out to the lobby, and was reminded how a good two-hour intermission-less play effects your brain and your body. It took me a good five minutes after the show ended to regain my ability to return to the “real world” of polite post-show chit-chat and talks of where to go for a post-show beer and wondering if I got any voice messages. My imagination was soaring and simultaneously my mind was calm. For all you yoga-addicts reading this, you know what I’m describing. Although I would venture that the crucial difference is that my thoughts were not focused inward — as is what happens often with intense meditation and yoga — but on the outside stimulus of the play I had just witnessed.

[Slight digression: Has anyone actually noticed that the people who practice yoga generally seem to be the singly most stressed, spastic and scatterbrained people?]

I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. We’ve become a very infantilized culture, a culture that demands immediate gratification (and demands it all the time), a people that can’t sit still unless it’s when we’re in front of the TV (and even then we can’t go a full episode of Lost without needing a bathroom break, rummaging through the fridge, or surfing the channels with the remote during commercials). We’re letting our imaginative and cognitive muscles slowly and steadily atrophy. I’m not naïve in thinking that this trait of ours is going to dissipate. However, this is something we should be aware of, acknowledge and try to curb to some degree.

Neil Postman’s warning that we are amusing ourselves to death has never sounded truer, which is why I’m very grateful for the medium of theatre, one of the few that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being slowly and steadily drained of my imagination and ability to pay attention to complex ideas.

Needing his quiet time,

James “Fidgety” Comtois

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Crowded House

One of the things I want to get into today is talk about large casts versus small casts, and the weird conundrum that both provide.

I recently sent my script of Dying Goldfish to Steve Kelsey, Pete and my former high school theatre director, who sent me via email some very good and insightful notes on it. Aside from a few pieces of confusion resulting from a possible generational gap (i.e., he was skeptical that a 24 year-old would meet up with someone at a bar at midnight), his dramaturgical comments where really helpful to me in figuring out where I should proceed with rewrites.

In his notes, Steve pointed out that the cast list was quite unwieldy for professional production (ten actors — five men, five women), yet acknowledged that this was probably essential for bringing in audiences for an Off-off production.

Here’s what Steve wrote to me:

“Do you need to hire all those actors needed for the [wedding] reception [scene] to tell the story you are after? I know that a large, unpaid cast helps box office in a self-produced show but a large cast reduces the viability of an after life for the script.”

He’s absolutely right. It’s a weird thing you have to keep in mind when doing an independent/community/amateur production of a play.

The truth is, when more people get involved with a small show, more people come to see it, since each person involved brings their own friends, fans and family members.

When Jason Parker Green and Mac Rogers did F at ManhattanTheatreSource, Mac admitted he was floored at how many people came out to see the show, since he had never (at the time, anyway; this was before Fleet Week) seen such a high turnout of audience members. I had talked to Jason shortly thereafter, and he said this was due to the rules of the game.

“We had a bunch of writers with a bunch of different cast members involved. That’s why we had so many people come out to see F. You want a lot of people to come see your show on this level, you need to have a lot of people involved,” he said.

This makes sense. One director with her respective audience base, plus four writers with their supporters, plus 13 actors with their supporters equals standing-room-only attendances in that 50-seat house.

I’ve written a few shows that have 25 to 30 speaking roles in them, but Pete and I figure out how to break those roles to accommodate cast sizes of 7-9 actors (bear in mind many of these speaking parts are just tiny one- or two-line parts for characters given names such as DRUNK GUY TRYING TO PICK UP CHICK or ANNOYING CHICK AT PARTY).

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I’m intentionally writing plays that require large casts or not. In other words, am I doing this because I know on some level that I need to write plays that require large numbers of people to be involved in for the production to stay afloat? I really don’t know.

These rules, however, do not apply for the rules of Off-Broadway. In fact, the rules for survival in the Off-off world are the rules for death in the Off-world.

If you submit a script to an Off-Broadway theatre that offers 10 or more speaking roles (and it’s not a musical), the odds of it even getting read are slim. When you have to pay every actor scale in a professional production, it doesn’t make sense to pay someone every night just to say three lines or to be a glorified extra. With large casts, costs can skyrocket.

I will say I find it vaguely amusing that in the world of self-produced Off-off-Broadway theatre you have to be indulgent in order to be economical.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of double- and triple-casting. Personally, I like the idea of having a cast of eight or nine playing 25 or 30 speaking roles. This is something Nosedive did for A Very Nosedive Christmas Carol and will be doing in the upcoming Adventures of Nervous Boy. It can give the play a fun, ensemble-y feeling. Frankly, it feels very…well…theatrical.

(I am also aware that this sort of logic cannot necessarily translate into getting the script picked up for production of an Off-Broadway show. You tell a seasoned producer or director that he or she can come up with a way to quadruple-cast your show that has about the same number of speaking roles as the number of people in Bavaria, they may break your kneecaps.)

I really don’t have an answer to any of this. Suffice it to say in the meantime as I await either Mr. Big-Timey Producer to hand me the Standard Rich & Famous Contract to sign or a Handsome Middle-Aged British Lady of Affluence to be my patroness in exchange for sexual favors and the occasional poem dedicated to her immortal beauty, I’ll probably continue to write plays that require cast sizes of ten actors. What the hell? They’re fun. And they bring in more audience members to your 50-seat house.

Besides, figuring out how to double- and triple-cast the thing is Pete’s problem. (Ah, I’m just kidding, Pierre, ya big lug.)

Petty and petulant,

James “Director’s Bane” Comtois

April 4, 2006

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.