Blogs > The Arts Whisperer

Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

theater junk food

Last week between Wednesday and Saturday I attended four world-premiere plays. That is rather amazing, four world-premieres in four nights. It's especially impressive when you consider you can usually go from September to June without seeing any new work around here.

The plays (in order) were "Pool Boy" at the Music Theater Lab of Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, "After the Revolution" at the Nikos Stage of Williamstown Theatre Festival, "Murder for Two" at Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls and "Imagining Madoff" at Stageworks in Hudson.

World premieres are not rare in these parts. This summer there will be about a dozen new plays offered to area audiences. That has to be a tribute to area audiences who are sophisticated enough to understand work in its earliest stage of development. A dozen new plays are about ten more than Broadway usually offers.

Indeed, two of the plays had seeds planted here. "Murder for Two" was workshopped at ATF last summer through play readings where the work got feedback from the audiences. The playwright of "Imagining Madoff"had a short play in Stagework's Play by Play series of ten-minute plays. Her work was so impressive management sought out one of her full-length plays.

Musical Theatre Lab's mission is to nurture new emerging talent and offer full productions of work by young artists. They have been very successful sending several plays to Off-Broadway and to regional theaters. The Nikos Stage also has a history of providing Off-Broadway with material.

The success rate of the four plays helps to explain why year-round theaters find it too risky to do untested work. Two plays were excellent ("Murder for Two" and "After the Revolution"). Two were failures ("Pool Boy" and "Imagining Madoff"). A 50% failure rate will put a company out of business very quickly.

But that doesn't excuse never doing new work. If a company has five slots in a schedule it seems reasonable that the company take a risk on one of those shows. I'd settle for a regional premiere. Anything is better than the same tired titles that are trotted out year after year.

I often hear board members say "Our customer base won't support new or edgy work." Often that's the truth because any subscription-based organization that has nurtured an audience with the works of Neil Simon will not have people who will appreciate the plays of Martin McDonagh (a great playwright who doesn't even get a slot at summer theaters).

It's like a diet. Give your kids sweet empty calorie foods when they're young and guess what they will eat as adults? Too many theatergoers are hooked on junk food.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

You Never Know

Picking material is an art. I was incredibly impressed with the NT-Live production of "London Assurance" that was at the Spectrum Theater this past weekend. It was a delightful, frothy work that offered a lot of laughs and never took the material seriously.

Yes, it had a brilliant cast and London's National Theatre has seemingly unlimited resources that make their productions look splendid. What impressed me was that not only did the cast and director make this ancient and creaky play such a pleasure, but that someone had the vision (and conviction) to put this material on stage. If I read the play, I would dismiss it, seeing only the flaws and not the potential.

I suppose some of this is reading a play knowing the great resources you have at hand. With that in mind, I dread the thought that some inferior company might see this production and decide to produce it. It could be a disaster.

On the other hand, mid-week I was at Barrington Stage's Musical Theatre Lab. This company has produced a number of works that have gone on to successful runs Off-Broadway. They've also produced a few that rightfully disappeared.

"Pool Boy" - at least in its current form - will be one of those likely to disappear. It has some strength, but what amazes me is that its flaws are so obvious you wonder why people like the Lab's artistic director William Finn ("Spelling Bee") is so high on the musical.

Not only is Finn an advocate, the work has found a remarkably high profile cast. Sara Gettelfinger is a well-respected and talented performer who has appeared in a number of Broadway successes ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") and national tours (Cruella De Vil in "101 Dalmatians"). Playing her husband is John Hickok who has equally impressive credits. Both are great in the show, but not great enough to save the material.

Usually when you see actors of this caliber it means they believe the work has a future and they hope to be part of that future. Why else spend a summer performing in an American Legion Hall in Pittsfield? You wonder what they saw in the material that I (and most other critics) didn't.

Last night I saw "Murder for Two" at Adirondack Theatre Festival. I went hoping for the best, but fearing that a two-person murder-mystery musical with one performer playing nine roles would be too derivative of those "Tuna" shows and "Irma Vep's" that it might be, at best, pleasant.

It was a terrific night of theater that was more fun than I could have hoped for. It is an inventive approach to familiar stuff that is well-performed. I sense this a career show for its creators as it should have a future life Off-Broadway and in regionals throughout the country.

It's another case of seeing things on a printed page that translates to a good time on stage. Or not.

The point is you never know. Not even the experts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lake George Opera needs to get it's act together

I have been a fan of Lake George Opera Festival all the way back to when it performed in the Queensbury High School in Glens Falls. But now I am starting to fear for the organization.

Opera has a loyal but limited fan base and I'm starting to hear rumblings about LGOF. This season did not help the discontent. They offered a lackluster production of "Carmen" and a shallow presentation of the less-than inspiring comic one-act (extended to two acts) "Viva La Mamma."

I've always wondered about a 12-month a year organization that has such a limited schedule as does LGOF. Consider that they offer only six performances of "Carmen," one of the most popular and commercial operas ever written. The Little Theatre in Saratoga Springs sits about 500 people, so this means the entire run of "Carmen" is about equal to one performance at Proctors or the Palace Theatre.

"Viva La Mamma" with four performances had a potential audience of 2,000 people.

I'm not suggesting LGOF perform at one of the large venues. It's great to see opera performed in an intimate space. However, LGOF has to figure out how to better use that space. The same set seems to be used for every major opera and having the musicians high above and in the rear of the singers is less than an ideal situation. All the shows look under-rehearsed.

Tickets to any opera is not cheap. LGOF charges $85 for the better seats. The cheapest ticket is $45, which is about the cost of Capital Rep's most expensive ticket.

It isn't easy. A ten show run in a house with a 500 seat capacity with an average ticket price of say $60 means a gross potential of $300,000. That's not a lot of money with which to run a company that keeps a twelve month presence in the area.

You can't charge much more money for the product LGOF is offering and you can't go out and get major star performers for the salaries they must offer. Nonetheless, they have to improve or audiences will desert them. Start with production values, adventurous programming and finding the best emerging talent in the industry.

Lake George Opera Festival is a valuable cultural asset for this area. Let's hope they are around for a long time. Let's hope they make some improvements that will help make that happen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

discount tickets

There are usually three things that usually prevent people from seeing as much entertainment as they would like. They are time, money and availability of product.

In the summer there is no lack of product, what with local music festivals, SPAC and all the things going on in the Berkshires.

That leaves time and money. I am powerless to help with your time, but I might be able to help with the money problem by showing you how to secure half-priced tickets in the Berkshires and for some NY venues.

Through Sept. 5, two organizations, Barrington Stage Company and the Berkshires Visitors Bureau, operate five discount booths in the Berkshires where day-of-show tickets are sold for half-price. Best of all you don't have to drive over to find out what tickets are available. There is a hotline 413-743-1339 to find out what is available. (which doesn't guarantee they'll be there if you wait too long.) Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis and transactions are only done in cash. There is a $3 handling charge per ticket.

Ticket booths are available at:
Pittsfield Visitors Center at Ben & Jerry's, 179 South Street, downtown Pittsfield, Mass.
Adams Visitors Center, 3 Hoosac St., Adams, Mass.
Southern Berkshire's Visitor's Booth, 362 Main Street, Great Barrington, Mass
Lenox Visitor's Center, Lenox Town Hall, 6 Walker Street, Lenox.
Chatham Bookstore, 27 Main St., Chatham, NY

Participating cultural venues are:
Barrngton Stage Company
Berkshire Choral Festival
Berkshire Theatre Festival
Capital Steps at Cranwell Resort
The Colonial Theatre
Jacob's Pillow Dance
Mac-Haydn Theatre
Shakespeare & Company
Theatre Barn
Williamstown Theatre Festival

I think this is a great idea. I hope some area organizations think about the same type of thing in this area between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

performing in the heat

I hear people talking about the heat and saying it is so hot they don't even want to attend one of those free outdoor plays or concerts that are so available in our area.

I certainly understand the attraction to air conditioning when the temperature gets above 90-degrees and especially when it approaches 100. I also understand how being in a hot, humid environment can reduce the fun of a concert or a play.

Then I consider the performers who must expend all sorts of energy trying to make a couple of hours of our day a little brighter. When I do that I feel almost obligated to attend a performance. Let's face it, we have a glass of something liquid to cool off with. Those on the stage have hot lights beating down on them.

I've always been respectful of my theater friends who devote so much of their free time to appear in a play. An average rehearsal period is six weeks, four nights a week. Then you give up two or three weeks during the run of the play for performances.

I sort of understand because I've directed several productions so I realize the reward of creativity. I have to admit I've never considered being involved in such sacrifice during the few months we have beautiful weather.

Most of the shows being offered this month - "Annie Get Your Gun" at Albany's Park Playhouse, "Once Upon a Mattress" in Clifton Park and "Hamlet" in Saratoga Springs, just to mention a few - all started rehearsals in June and most will perform to or near August. Giving up most weekday nights and every weekend during the summer is quite a sacrifice.

Consider that while we sit on out blankets fanning ourselves and sipping a drink they are in heavy costumes with makeup on their faces, singing and dancing in hot, humid weather with powerful lights above them making everything harsher. And they have to smile.

Remember too, almost of all the talent you see on stage (and those you don't see backstage) aren't getting paid to be in the production. And if there is pay involved it barely covers gas expenses to rehearsals.

Certainly there is the reward of the audience's applause and the fun of performing but it is still a major sacrifice and a commitment of time. I don't know how they do it, or completely understand why they do it. I'm just appreciative of the fact they do do it.