Saturday, January 26, 2008

Memoir: What I Did For Love

I was twenty-five when I endeavored to produce a reading of my own work. I was a little like J. Pierrepont Finch with my copy of Mark Hillenbrand’s Produce Your Play Without a Producer in my hands, excited to elicit some interest for my self-proclaimed masterpiece.

The most difficult part of producing the show was getting people to help. At one point I contemplated driving around to find someone with a “Will work for food” sign to run the sound board. Finding actors wasn’t much easier.

There are plenty of actors in my area. At least there must be because we have plenty of theatres. Perhaps I simply didn’t know how to find them.

After placing several ads in the city’s major newspaper, I rented out space at a community center for auditions. My biggest hindrance to finding actors was actually Equity. Several friends from college had committed to taking part in the work, none of whom were Equity. If they were willing to take part, I wanted them in my reading no matter what. In fact, having them in the reading was a dream come true.

The problem was that while I was paying above Equity minimum for a reading, I couldn’t hire any Equity actors because, with my four college friends lined up to do the show, I would have had to give any Equity actors special billing and paid them a certain amount above the other actors, which would have been prohibitive. Even for a reading there has to be a certain ratio of Equity to non-Equity actors. I actually had interest from two Equity actors to take part, including one who had toured with The Phantom of the Opera; however, I was not willing to turn a blind eye to union rules. I respect Equity, and I figured that starting out my life as a producer would best be done playing by the rules.

I’m not affiliated with any theatre, so I needed to find a respectable place for people to audition, which is how I wound up auditioning at a community center. I had four women to audition for the female lead, a soprano role I would have died to give to one an alto friend. The best part was that my room in the community center was next to a room being used for kids’ soccer refs in training. It was an entire room filled with future refs, and whenever we had an audition, they could hear it through the thin walls. These women sounded great, and they could project! The organizer would stop over and give us the dirty eye, saying, “We’re trying to have a meeting here.” I apologized, but what could I do? Besides, it’s not like this was a cattle call; I had four women showing up!

The final actress to audition had a gorgeous operatic soprano, and she gave it all to the non-existent rafters. Being in the same room as that voice was thrilling, and when she performed her monologue, she knocked us (me and my collaborator) out.

When she left, the soccer ref organizer popped his head into the door to say, “She was good.”

Yes, she was. In fact, in the first day of rehearsal, she nailed the character 99%.

Oddly enough, I also hired one of the other women from the audition, and she and my female lead turned out to be former roommates. It’s a small world.

For the actresses I didn’t hire from the audition, I called them and let them know the news first hand. It was important to me that they not be waiting endlessly to know, that they knew how much I admired their work (for which I gave specifics in praise) but, for whatever reason, I had cast another person.

Finding the three remaining male roles, which included the lead, was much more difficult. I had actually scouted out some non-Equity talent prior and tried to establish contact, but I was young. I have a feeling I came off as a dreamer and not a doer, or perhaps I just sold myself poorly. Nothing came of it. From my first newspaper ad I found one of the very talented Equity actors whom I didn’t even audition. I actually had to run a second ad in the newspaper, and it resulted in a last-minute phone call. The actor had quite a bit of experience, but because of the timing and his lack of a vehicle, there was no way to audition him in person. He sang “Falcon in the Dive” for me over the phone. I didn’t know what else to do. It was him or no one. Sight unseen, I cast him.

He wasn’t perfect for the role, but he was perfect for the reading. He sang really well, but most importantly, he was a great person. I was such a tyro, and he stepped in to help out in many ways, fixing lyrics (my horrendous lyrics; I learned I am not a lyricist), stepping in in ways a musical director would have (if I was a tyro, my composer was a lump), and interpreting the part well, challenging me in some important ways to make some decisions about the character.

I never did find the final male role. I had two actors lined up—a very talented former student who had to drop out after the first rehearsal and another actor who simply never showed up. I finally divided the part up and had to give some of his roles to one of the actresses (who was so incredibly talented, she made it work beautifully).

I don’t think I could possibly thank all those people enough for helping me out on that reading—the actors, the photographer, the graphic designer, the website designer, the photo shoot costumer, and the hair stylist. I was pretty scrappy and paid as little as I had to/as much as I could (I financed the thing myself out of my teacher’s salary). The poster was photographed by a skilled hobby photographer (and very talented actress), the poster created by a very skilled college senior art student, the models worked for nominal pay and the experience, the hair done by my sister, and all the actors put forth so much for so little money. My friends in the cast, knowing me from my more timid days, supported me and ensured that nobody would steamroll me (which wasn’t a risk because I was very possessive, but I was thankful for their concern).

The experience was a bust in some ways. A big producing theatre in the area had promised to be there, and despite my reminder call, no one showed up. I mailed out expensive invites to many local theatre people, and none showed up. No matter what I did—phone calls upon phone calls, a write up in the local paper, expensive desserts for after the reading—very few people outside the friends of the cast showed up. I spent over $4000 on that reading.

And seriously, I wasn’t even in New York. I was pretty darn stupid.

Yes, the experience was a smash in other ways. At twenty-five I had practiced the rudimentary steps of producing and had actually produced something. I had directed a cast of professional actors. And I learned that, though there was much work to be done, my show had much promise. People seemed to like it, and the cast was enthusiastic for its possibilities.

Another big learning experience from the reading was the whole collaboration thing. The day following the reading, I called my collaborator and broke ties (It had been my project to begin with). He was a nice guy, but we didn’t communicate well, and he talked a lot but produced little (some of the blame which lies on my horrendous lyrics, some of which lies on him because he promised much and produced little). The song the cast seemed to like best, oddly enough, was the one where I had generated the basic melody. It’s best to say it was a learning experience, probably for both of us. I learned I needed a true collaborator and not a puppet, not to mention someone who didn’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber was all the rage . . . in 2003.

I write this for mostly selfish reasons. I’m now nearing the five-year mark of that reading, and, even though it’ll have little or no relevance to anyone else, I wanted to take some space and document the experience. I often wish I would have used that $4000 for a few other things that might have changed the course of my life, but then, what I purchased with it was something I could never place a dollar amount on—learning, growing, solidifying friendships, producing, memory-making, creating theatre.

I guess I did what I had to do. No, I won’t forget, can’t regret what I did for love.

the Broadway Mouth
January 26, 2008

P.S. I earlier wrote “You Simply Cannot Do It Alone or, How I Became a Theatre Expert in Three Easy Steps” about my learning curve when it came to collaboration and viewing my own work. If you are an aspiring creator (or aspiring-to-be-produced), it may be of interest.

1 comment:

The Director said...

Wow, nice story. I have an unpublished blog in which I describe my own process in creating something on my own. I'll probably publish it on Monday.

Congratulations on getting that done, though. Around here, I'd have a hard time getting a performance space. Especially considering that I'm unemployed and broke. ;)