Original Cast Recordings (Learning about Musicals, Part 1)

When I was a kid, I first discovered musical theater through the wonder of the original cast album. It was 33-1/3 LPs in those days, and the collection we had in the Denton household was relatively compact and extremely eclectic. From the time I was, let’s say, 4 years old, until my senior year of high school, this was pretty much my musical comedy universe:

ankles anniegun brigadoon birdiecabaret camelot carousel damny fiddler finian gentlemengreenwillow guys gypsyhellodlly irma kingandi kissme_ mame milk mosthappy musicman mfl newgirl oklahoma paljoey sweet westside wildcat 31RAE4RHZ3L

[Note: the album cover with no title on it is Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow.]

It’s probably worth mentioning that while I saw several of these shows in summer stock at Shady Grove, I only saw one of these productions in the theater myself – Merman in the Annie Get Your Gun revival at the National Theater in DC in 1967. (Read something about this in the archive.)

We also had a few original soundtrack albums: The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Doctor Dolittle, The Wizard of Oz, plus 8-inch albums of Hans Christian Andersen and Call Me Madam; a weird little TV soundtrack of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan; a Mary Martin recording of songs from Anything Goes; an operetta album with The Red Mill on one side and Up in Central Park on the other (which I very rarely listened to).

And then were two great historical compilation albums, both of which I wish I still owned (and which I can remember almost word for word). We had Joe Laurie’s Show Biz, a history of vaudeville narrated by George Jessel that featured rare recordings of the likes of George M. Cohan, Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, and Harry Lauder. And we had Merman: A Musical Autobiography, which was a four-record compilation of Merman’s hits, interspersed with deliciously hokey narration.

From all of this, what did I learn that helped me become a theater reviewer?

First, because I really devoured these albums for the most part, playing them over and over, I learned a couple of dozen standard scores pretty much by heart. And I became curious to discover more work by these same actors and composers and lyricists.

Second, and much more important, I learned to appreciate the work, good and bad, for better and worse. I think even as a kid I recognized that Wildcat was not in the same league as Fiddler on the Roof, but I loved it just the same. Even the biggest and/or most forgotten flops have nuggets of wonderful in them: I still love the hokey finale of Ankles Aweigh, “An Eleven O’Clock Song,” and though a lot of Loesser’s Greenwillow is  ponderous, the song “What a Blessing” is a gift that will never stop giving. [Here’s a sample: “What a blessing to know there’s a devil / Ever leading me into some vice / And though easily led, I can hold up my head / Knowing I’m fundamentally nice.”]

All of this work was lovingly preserved, despite what critics and audiences may have said about it. In the ’50s and ’60s, when digital recording wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye, this was a major operation that cost a lot of money. And so kind of on the courageous side — an important lesson about theater to always remember.

Chris Harcum, Aimee Todoroff and Elephant Run District

Elephant Run District was founded in 2010 and in a relatively short time has cut a significant swath in the NYC indie theater community. (Read their creation story, which includes how they got their name, here.)

In addition to producing a number of excellent new plays, ERD ran a salon series (the “Stampede Labs”) that brought artists together to collaborate and also appreciate each others’ work; they’ve created an innovative podcast concept (where they record live performances of new plays); and founders Chris Harcum and Aimee Todoroff have exemplified the idea of good citizenship in various organizations (including serving as reviewers for nytheatre.com; read reviews by Chris and Aimee).

I first got to know Chris before ERD came into existence, as an actor in plays at Metropolitan Playhouse (Andre and Poe-Fest) and the Brick (Adventures of Caveman Robot). He was working primarily in his early days in NYC as a solo performer (his day job was as a teaching artist for NYC public schools). Our reviewers enjoyed his one-man shows in various summer festivals:

  • Seth Duerr wrote of Chris’ 2003 FringeNYC show, Gotham Standards: “At once, powerful and insightful, Harcum’s show is a 75-minute solo tour-de-force that is something to be seen.”
  • Matt Freeman saw Anhedonia Road at the 2004 Hell Festival at the Brick, saying it “sounds like Eric Bogosian running smack into The Wizard of Oz.”
  • Richard Hinojosa praised Mahamudra at the 2005 Moral Values Festival at the Brick: “I enjoyed his descent into his own nightmare and I came away thinking about ways that I too judge myself and others too harshly.”
  • And Kimberly Wadsworth began her rave review of Chris’ FringeNYC 2006 show this way: “About five minutes into Chris Harcum’s Some Kind Of Pink Breakfast, I realized that I have personally never been more of a target audience for a particular piece. “

My own experiences of Chris’ solo work have been just as satisfying. I admired American Badass (2008 FRIGID Festival) so much that I published it in Plays and Playwrights 2009. Then came Green (2011), Two Lovely Black Eyes (2013) and The Preservationist (2014, part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s East Side Stories series); with a tour-de-force performance as Moliere’s The Hypochondriac (which he co-adapted with Shira Gregory and Greg Tito) coming in between.

 

hypochonriac
Chris Harcum in one of his funniest performances ever, as The Hypochondriac

 

Green was the first of Chris’ plays directed by Aimee and presented by ERD. Since then they have been fairly constant collaborators. She directed his multi-actor play Rabbit Island (2012) and the latest ERD show, which opens today, Martin Denton, Martin Denton (there’s no modest way to say this, I’m afraid: yep, it’s a play about yours truly).

Now I haven’t told you what’s at the heart of Harcum/Todoroff/ERD work–what makes it tick, what makes it special. It is a deeply felt social conscience, a sense that as citizens of the world they have a duty to ask challenging questions and tilt at the occasional windmill while still engaging and (importantly) entertaining their audience. Green is a sci-fi play with strong environmental concerns behind it. Two Lovely Black Eyes considers issues of gun ownership and gun control. Aimee’s outdoor production of three short Brecht plays (a rare ERD foray into classic material) was all about social justice.

American Badass consists of a dozen monologues running the gamut of American society circa 2008; one particularly prescient one, spoken by a neoconservative leader at a college commencement, includes this line:

Okay. I’m sure the fine people at this university assign lots of good books to read. History and theory. That’s good. That’s important but it’s not as important as one thing. Winning.

The work of these folks at ERD is important, and it’s great that just about all of it is documented on Indie Theater Now and nytheatre.com. I encourage you to check it out and please comment about it here!

What’s Indie Theater? (A Synthesis)

So this week I’ve posted ideas about what indie theater is from three of its seminal practitioners, Kirk Wood Bromley, Trav S.D., and John Clancy. Today I conclude this series with some thoughts of my own, hopefully tying everything together.

When Kirk sent me that email in October 2005, I wrote back to him:

The central idea of my manifesto would have been that Indie Theater is created as an end in itself, as opposed to being a “showcase” or “workshop” or whatever you want to call it that’s intended to “try out” material that can then be “fixed” for consumption at a “higher” level of the theatre food chain.

It’s a view of making theater that corresponds to my own practice in making a nonprofit theater support and advocacy organization and in making various websites and web-based resources over the course of two decades. I believe in making the thing that I want to make, that I think needs to exist. I don’t make it because I can but because I have to.

That’s the kind of company I wanted to make. It’s the kind of theater I want to see. And I think it’s the kind of theater that Kirk, Trav, John, and so many other indie artists I have talked to over the years believe in.

***

Shortly after the First Ever Indie Theater Convocation, we launched a new website called indietheater.org. Its mission was to exclusively highlight the work of indie theater artists, and it lasted for a few years before being merged into nytheatre.com. One of the first pieces I wrote for indietheater.org was called “What’s indie theater?” (sound familiar?). In it, I said:

The first New York International Fringe Festival was my first real immersion in this community, and what I learned right away was that it was just that: a community. (Still is.) I also discovered that there was an astonishing lot of creative, challenging, smart, exciting theatre happening in places well beyond the boundaries of what I had always thought was “New York theatre.” In those days, in the mid- to late-’90s, it was in the Lower East Side, in venues like Nada and The Piano Store and Expanded Arts and House of Candles and the Present Company’s Theatorium; and also on the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village and the East Village and Gramercy Park and in pockets all around Manhattan.

Wherever it was, this kind of theatre had an energy that was almost always missing from its more mainstream counterpart. It wasn’t the deadly amateur-hour no-budget theatrics that I was afraid it was going to be; it was raw, gritty, and, yes, economical: a crucible for creativity; a laboratory for experimentation, a breeding ground and playground for up-and-coming theatre artists. It was good, first and foremost—stuff worth seeing, stuff worth tracking down, stuff worth tracking….

 

Here’s what I think indie theater is:

  • Indie theater is Cheap Art.
  • Indie theater is diverse—by, for, and about people of every stripe.
  • Indie theater looks backward, forward, sideways, at itself, in every direction.
  • Indie theater takes risks.
  • Indie theater challenges audiences, its creators, and, most important, the status quo.
  • Indie theater is entertainment.
  • Indie theater is political.

***

Final thought: Indie theater is as much a community endeavor in 2017 as it was in 1997. I did an informal poll of sorts on Facebook a couple of days ago. I asked folks “What theater-related thing are you doing today/tonight/tomorrow?” I got 77 replies, breathtaking in their breadth and diversity. By and large, folks talked about the show(s) they’re currently acting in, rehearsing, directing, designing, etc. But no fewer than 22 (more than a quarter of the responses) talked about helping out or seeing work by colleagues and students. 29% of this (non-random) sample of indie artists were spending their free time supporting other indie artists. I am awestruck…and not one bit surprised.

 

What’s Indie Theater? (Part 3)

John Clancy, great playwright and director, co-founder of the New York International Fringe Festival, and founding executive director of the League of Independent Theater (on which more soon!), is as seminal a figure in the NYC indie theater movement as there is. Here are some of his thoughts (emphasis mine), adapted from a longer piece he created for Indie Theater Now a few years ago. He takes a long view on the subject, and a historical one.

indieconvo2005-1
John Clancy at the First Ever Indie Theater Convocation (2006)

John called our community a “neighborhood….It was a place I used to live and work in and one where extraordinary work by remarkable people was a common event, the frontier of new American theater, the independent theatre world of New York City.”

The works “stretch across that territory and represent some but by no means all of the trends and tribes that have grown up over the last fifteen years or so. By tribes I mean both the common understanding of the word, a group of people with a shared history, territory and language who don’t much trust those outside the fold, but also Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of a rhizome, something characterized by

‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances…’

“They describe it further, writing that

‘a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’

“I don’t know a better description of what it was like to work in independent theater in recent years.”

John wrapped up his essay this way:

And here’s one more perspective….this is great and helps make a larger point:

“…this new theatre makes available an unmediated perception that is probably without precedent in the theatre’s long history. It intentionally sacrifices suspense, naturalistic representation, characterization, romance, vicarious identification with a star, sympathy-arousal, mirth-provocation (and even the courting of audience ‘approval’) for the stubbornly single-minded purpose of triggering a radically deranged and psychically liberating- or shall we say ‘mind-blitzing’ or even a ‘mind-blowing’ beyond-the-rational insight into the human soul.”

That was written by Robert J. Schroeder in May of 1968 in the preface of his great collection The New Underground Theatre.

Heh.

The more things change…

Call it Off-Off, underground, downtown, alternative or independent, the fact is it’s been going on for sixty-plus years now and it’s high time it got taken seriously.

What’s Indie Theater? (Part 2)

brick

Trav S.D., who is one of the great Renaissance men of contemporary indie theater (actor, composer, author, playwright, critic, director, impresario, et al), recently posted the following on Facebook (emphasis mine):

I have a large family of friends I have been collaborating with on theatre for close to 20 years. I think of them as my “Brick” friends (after the Brick theater in Williamsburg), and we tend to call ourselves that, although we all work in dozens of locations besides the Brick, many of us were already collaborating years before the Brick was even born, and most of us work with other people in other settings, and so forth. For example, though I just did a play there, it had been at least a half-dozen years since I had last done so. Still, no matter where any of us go the Brick is “home”, and it is what the bunch of us will have in common no matter what we’re doing,no matter where we are. It occurred to me just now that one of the strongest things that binds most of us together is a total absence of interest in the usual academic jargon, pretension, and fascination with trends that characterizes a lot of alternative and experimental theatre work. I cover the beat as an arts journalist and I can tell you — this sets the bunch apart. The representatives of most alternative theatre companies sound like grant applications, and to sound like a grant application is to sound like a pile of manure, the manure of a donkey that has been swallowing jargon. My friends are every bit as devoted to pure (not-necessarily-commercial) art, but seem focused only on the ACT: the expression, the moment, the SHOW. Getting the thing up and on. The “thing” may often be the weirdest “thing” imaginable, but there is a pragmatism to the process, no nonsense, or bullshit. I think most of us would be ashamed to don that armor. It’s a diverse group of artists but this is one thing I think that we have in common: we possess “intellectualism”, perhaps, but without sucking up to this or that cardboard, temporal, false God. It’s why the struggle for success has lasted so much longer for many of us — we’re unconcerned with doing what you’re supposed to do in order to “succeed”. But we can live with ourselves, and we can live — very happily — with each other. Now that we’ve been at it a while, I think something like a definition is taking shape, and in the end none of it will have been in vain. (Trust me, ask any one of us. It feels like it’s in vain A LOT).

Trav graciously gave me permission to post this here. It is, to my mind, a clear and heartfelt explanation of the indie theater impulse.

Note, interestingly, that the Brick Theater that Trav alludes to here is the same one where Kirk Bromley saw Memoirs of My Nervous Illness in 2005 (see yesterday’s post about Indie Theater). (The Brick has always personified indie theater to me; it’s the only double winner of nytheatre.com Person of the Year Awards, perhaps for that reason.)

 

What’s Indie Theater? (Part 1)

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade pushing hard to brand the work created by this “tribe” that I hang with (as John Clancy likes to call it) as indie theater. As chief promulgator of the term, I get asked a lot to define it.  Because I’m an expansive sort of fellow, I’m going to provide many answers to this question (at least 3, to start with), in this series of posts.

We’ll begin with the man who was the first to come up with the term “indie theater,” at least within my hearing. That would be Kirk Wood Bromley, a brilliant playwright whose works can be found on Indie Theater Now and who has just this week been selected as a new member of New Dramatists. Kirk’s company Inverse Theater won the very first Cino Caffe Fellowship at the 2005 New York Innovative Theatre Awards. In his acceptance speech, he suggested that the off-off-Broadway sector ought to rename itself “indie theater”:

Shortly afterward, I posted about this concept in my blog (at the time, the “nytheatre i”), endorsing the idea of re-branding our community for its audience; and it drew a healthy and positive response.

On October 25, 2005, Kirk sent me an email (which I published on the blog in full) that expanded on his thoughts about indie theater. Here it is, with emphasis added:

Hey Martin,

I’ve noticed over the last month that the Indie Theater thing is catching on, at least on your blog. As you mentioned, at the NY Innovative Theater Awards (maybe they should change it to the New York Independent Theater Awards?), I recommended we drop off-off-Broadway as a term, and replace it with Indie Theater, though I hardly think I’m the first to have suggested this.

I want to share a few thoughts with you and your readers about this “change of terms”—thoughts I’ve had since suggesting it that night.

First thought: I was taken aback at the post-NYITA party at how many people came up to me, strangers all, and told me that they had LOVED my speech and that they TOTALLY agreed with me about the “indie” thing. I think there’s a sign right there that there’s an urge in the community to ditch the “off-off” phrase. It’s like they tell you in school—always ask your question, no matter how stupid you think it is, because chance is many others have that question as well. I think that in making that suggestion, as obvious as it felt to me, I hit on a sentiment that many others shared.

Next thought: I think what’s interesting about the term off-off-Broadway is that it probably originates from a position of pride and power and conscious differentiation on the part of various artists in the ’60s and ’70s, when it “started.” There was off-Broadway, which was a natural offshoot of Broadway. Off-Broadway is more of a term of necessity (the necessity being that we don’t have or don’t feel confident enough in raising sufficient funds to be “on” Broadway), and in a sense, that single off grants it an air of artsiness, of difference, of being tastefully “off.” And in that sense, it’s an empowering phrase.

Then came off-off-Broadway, which has in its double “offs” a sort of playfulness, a “way off” quality, a “so far out it will blow your mind” quality, an absurdist, ironical, sassy, almost drunken (“I’m babbling…I can’t stop saying ‘off’…I’m so Dada”) kind of thing to it. You can almost hear them saying it. “Yeah, baby. We’re not just off. We’re off off.” So I think that when it originated, it was a way to declare one’s weirdness, one’s total fringe nature, one’s way-outness, which, at the time, was “super cool.”

I think, however, that this has changed. In a sense, the “off-off” in off-off-Broadway was co-opted by Broadway and off-Broadway. There are now shows that exhibit “off-off”-ness on off-Broadway, and even on Broadway. Urinetown comes to mind. Martin McDonagh. Mabou Mines. And, of course, typical off-off gurus like Albee and Shepard have had Broadway runs. And the list goes on. Off-Broadway is littered with stuff that is “way out there.” That is “way off-off.”

So for me, who started doing plays in NY in 1991, the “off-off” in off-off-Broadway just always felt like a slap in the face. It said to me “you aren’t good enough to be off-Broadway or on Broadway. We can do things that are as smart and hip and cultured as you can do, but we do them better and bigger and a lot more people come see them.” So, in this sense, off-off felt ghettoizing. It was a term that “fringed” me, but I was being fringed by people who had absorbed those parts of the fringe that they thought could make it in the big time. So really, the only thing that made off-off artists unique was that they weren’t good enough for off or on Broadway.

This is why the terms Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway are irrelevant now, in my mind. And worse. They’re insulting, pejorative, and marginalizing, and they go to your head when you work off-off-Broadway. At least they go to my head. In a sense, these terms are only there anymore due to Equity’s need to categorize productions so they can crunch their numbers. Should we let that define our scene?

So, with “off off” theater being done on Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway, one has to ask—what term should we use to describe that kind of theater that…that…what?

And that’s the question—what am I trying to describe with the term “Indie Theater”? And I think the answer is easy—I’m describing “artist-driven” theater, as opposed to “producer-driven” theater. That which, at every point in its development, answers the question “What do we do here?” with the answer “Whatever the artists want,” NOT with “Whatever the producer wants.” Theater that has as its sole goal the creation of something satisfying to the involved artists’ sensibilities, not the creation of something gratifying to the involved producers’ financial portfolio and its various budgetary outlays and speculations. Theater that is done to please the audience as the artist imagines it, not as the producer imagines it (and these are two VERY different audiences, for “the audience” is simply something we imagine as existing, something we create in our minds in its various forms, tastes, characteristics, demands, and then we create in line with that imagination, we create to “meet” that image).

Indie Theater is the term that describes the kind of theater that is done the way the artist wants to do it. The producer helps facilitate the artist’s vision (as opposed to the artist facilitating the producer’s budget). The artist is “independent.” The artist is “free.”

That’s why I think Indie Theater is the right term. It can exist at any level of theater. I did several plays in the late ’90s at tiny spaces downtown with a producer who insisted on dramaturging and casting and cutting my plays so that they would be “more appealing to a larger audience.” This was not indie theater. It might have looked like it, but the sacrifices I made to get produced compromised my independence, so “size” is no signifier of indie theater. Indie Theater can exist even “on” Broadway.

Of course, that’s rare. But it happens. The fact that it happens in a 2,000 seat house doesn’t matter. And that’s the other reason I like Indie Theater as a phrase, because I can feel an artistic alliance with artists who appear on Broadway or off-Broadway, if I feel they are acting independent of a producer. They don’t have someone telling them what to do. They aren’t writing or directing “for the bottom line.” They’re indulging their artistic interests and obsessions, and they’re playing to their ideal audience, not some imaginary stupid audience that producers tell them “you have to appeal to in order to stay running.”

And this isn’t to say all producers are evil or ignorant or condescending to audiences. There are times when a producer simply serves an artist’s vision, and that can be independent theater. The important point, I think, is that the artist is in charge, not a producer who is restricting the artist so that she or he can remunerate an investment.

Off-off-Broadway, as a term, is bad for the brain, in my opinion. Bad for the ego, and when you’re not getting paid, the ego is all you have. Because you’re always wondering “When do I get out?” You’re always asking, or it’s always there in the back of your mind, “When are the powers-that-be going to come and tell me I’m good enough to be off-Broadway or on-Broadway?” The financial aspect obsesses you, but the “recognition” aspect is almost as important. You want to be “lifted up.” You want to be accepted by the popular kids.

But the problem with this is that you forget you are free. When you’re doing Indie Theater, no matter where you’re doing it and how much you’re getting paid for it, you should always take a step back from your gloomy self-pity and say to yourself “I am thankful at this very moment for everything I have, because I am free.” There are artists all over the place that are not free, and that is the problem with producer-driven theater. Some of these artists would perhaps say they’re free, but that’s only because the goal of pleasing the producer-imagined audience has so seeped into their unconscious minds, that’s just how they create now. They haven’t succeeded unless they’ve been able to “make a hit.” A true artist doesn’t give a damn what the audience says about her or his work. She or he only gives a damn if her or his work has achieved the goals that she or he set out for her or himself. The free artist is her or his only true audience, and it’s that audience that she or he seeks to please. That is a free artist. An indie artist. All else is mental slavery, which is very cool now in America. Look at American Idol. Hey, I think I’ll stand up and sing in a way that will hopefully please the most people. Being pleased with yourself because others are pleased with you is a state of frozen infantilism, but that’s very cool now in America. It’s very cool to pander to everyone. That’s a sign of strength and talent.

I want nothing to do with these people or anything that they think or produce. Let them have their money. I have my freedom.

Third thought: I went and saw Memoirs of my Nervous Illness last night, on your recommendation. I liked it. And part of what I liked about it was that I felt I was watching Indie Theater. I wasn’t watching off-off theater. This theater was not twice removed from any kind of Mountain of Gold where everyone’s happy and beautiful and rich. It was right where it was. In a theater, at the center of itself, very much “on,” being done by artists doing exactly what they wanted to do in exactly the way they wanted to do it. They were free, independent artists, and knowing that was half of what I loved about the experience. It was brave and free.

For me, at this point in our culture, with so much being created by hyper-programmed, hyper-market-tested, hyper-budget-conscious mega-entities, the vision of a free artist doing what she or he wants, even if what she or he wants to do is not completely realized or recognizable, is far more satisfying than watching a bunch of artists doing what their producer told them to do because that’s what they all think I’m going to like. I’d rather watch my neighbor sing in his backyard than see a Super Bowl Halftime show. There’s humanity in the former, there’s nothing but lucre in the latter.

Of course, some will argue that Indie Theater is too vague a term, that it’s too hard to define it, that you can’t ever know where the decisions came from when you’re seeing a production. But I think that vagueness is a strength. It will bring discussion. More discussion than “it’s off-off because it’s in a 99-or-less-seat theater.” Indie is a badge of honor, and there will be discussion as to who can wear that badge. And individuals and collaborators and organizations will strive to wear that badge, at every level. It will become a “way of working” that production teams will aspire to, instead of a bleak condition of financial non-success that production teams are stuck in.

And my final comment: this notion is not new. Look at music. Just look at music. If you’re someone with any musical taste, there’s one thing you look for in music—a free artist making music as she or he wants to. You know the sound of crappy pop when you hear it, and you don’t want to hear it. You want to hear a musician being free to compose and perform what she or he is hearing. And the freedom of the musician is by and large what turns you on. Watch the Bob Dylan special on PBS and you’ll see that “indie” has nothing to do with popularity. Billions can become enthralled with someone simply because she or he is indie. It is an attractant!

That’s what I hope Indie Theater can signify. Artistic desire realized, free of all external considerations. Theater that is loved because it surprises and challenges and expresses an uncompromising effort toward attaining a new discovery that the artist set out to discover without any safety net or map or formula or power telling him where to turn, how to act, what to grab.

Fact is, the choice is the same as it’s always been—liberty or death.

Yeah, it’s a lot to take in, but that’s what Kirk is like. I was planning to cut it down a bit, but I don’t see what to cut. It’s all kind of essential.

It’s idealistic, too; that’s part of its appeal for me. I don’t even know if Kirk would agree with all of it anymore. But this manifesto is what got us started.

Falling in Love with Indie Theater

fastest
The New Group’s production of The Fastest Clock in the Universe (1998)

Back in 2011, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards folks invited me to be a guest blogger on their “Full Of IT” blog. I wrote three pieces for them in the last week of January that year. One of them, titled “Why I Love Indie Theater,” reverberates clear and strong.

The piece begins with this confession:

When I began nytheatre.com, nearly 15 years ago, I was a Broadway guy. For me, back then, “New York theatre” was the stuff that got done between 42nd Street and Lincoln Center, with the occasional anomalous foray to Greenwich Village, or, rarely, somewhere else in Manhattan. All the other stuff—what used to get lumped into a category called “off-off-Broadway”—was completely off my radar. My preconceived notion about it was that it was located in undesirable parts of the city, was experimental and/or somehow dangerous, and probably lacking in the professionalism (not to mention lush production values) that I was used to.

I then debunk my preconceived notion (which should not surprise anyone reading this!).

There’s a great paragraph in the article about how the theater I got exposed to in 1998–the first full year I reviewed on nytheatre.com–changed my perspective about the NYC theater scene. Here is what I wrote, now annotated with links to reviews of those productions from the nytheater indie archive:

Thinking back on some of what I saw in 1998—the year I really found my niche and shifted my energies and nytheatre.com’s focus to the world of indie theater—makes me feel a little giddy: Matt Maher in W. David Hancock’s The Race of the Ark Tattoo at P.S. 122; Kirk Wood Bromley’s The Death of Griffin Hunter at Walkerspace (the first show of his I ever saw); Let It Ride!, the first production of Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight! series, at the Lamb’s Theatre; Tim Cusack in Rachel Kranz’s Stunt Man, Eric Winick’s Ian Fleming Presents Steve Gallin in Nobody Dies Forever, and David Summers & Gary Ruderman’s “So, I Killed a Few People…”, all at the 2nd FringeNYC Festival; Marc Geller’s revival of Dark of the Moon at T. Schreiber Studio; Philip Ridley’s The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the old INTAR space on Theatre Row; David Fuller as King Lear in Rod McLucas’s production for Theater Ten Ten; Joe Calarco’s R&J at the John Houseman Studio Theatre (before it went off-Broadway); Letty Cruz’s revival of The Mulligan Guard Ball at Creative Place Theatre; Mark Lonergan’s The Return of Avant-Vaudeville at Nada, where we saw the first glimmer of what would become his first hit, Velo/City; Storm Theatre’s revival of The Shaughraun at Looking Glass Theatre; and Jason McCullough’s Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig at ATA (which was directed by Adam Rapp before he was famous; Shay Gines was the publicist… and that’s where she and I first met).

It would not be overstating the case to say that these productions, and others I saw that year, taught me about 1000% more about the possibilities of theater than 20-odd years of Broadway/off-Broadway had. Thanks to the quality, diversity, and sheer exhilaration of this work–and to the welcoming embrace of the community of artists who made it (most of whom remain good friends 20 years later)–I fell in love with indie theater.

Here is how I closed that blog post (emphasis added):

One of the things I love about being a theatre reviewer is that I don’t have to supply the topic for the evening’s entertainment—that’s the job of the playwright and other artists. All I have to do is show up, watch, and listen.

So, to all the indie playwrights, directors, actors, producers, designers, etc. who are reading this: I’m never going to tell you what kind of art you should make. The only thing I want you to do is to make the art that you know you have to make, and to do it with honesty and without cynicism, embracing the independence that working outside the mainstream provides. You inspire me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Documenting MDD

Rob Reese reminded me of an interview I did with Micheline Auger on her website Theaterspeak in 2013.

Check it out.

It is, if I may say so myself, really good. I tell an even better version of the nytheatre creation story than the one I put up here. I talk a lot about how I learned about theater during my formative years (which I expanded on somewhat here). There’s some great stuff about how Kirk Bromley’s play Smoke the New Cigarette changed my approach to reviewing. (“What Bromley and his collaborators are showing us in Smoke the New Cigarette is how easy it is to categorize, to assign, to decide about art—and how wrong-headed any of that ultimately is.”)

The interview also includes a succinct narrative of the history of NYTE and its various programs and accomplishments. And it features some very concise words of wisdom that I am still proud of (this is what Rob quoted in his Facebook post today):

Do the work you care about. Do your work: don’t write Facebook posts when you’re disturbed about something happening in the world; make a play instead.

This is probably even more relevant now than it was 4 years ago.

***

Looking back at this interview prompted me to seek other interviews I have given online over the years:

  • Jody Christopherson’s The Life and Death of Nytheatre.com: An Interview With Martin Denton (Huffington Post, Oct 2013) – my favorite quote is this: “I look back over these 17 years and recognize all the astonishing things that I have done and that have happened to me as a result of founding and running nytheatre.com — from emceeing the Opening Ceremonies at FringeNYC more times than anyone else, to being a character in a play that Gus Schulenburg wrote for Nosedive’s gala a couple of years ago, to just actually knowing all the remarkable, talented artists I have come to know since 1996. Not to mention that one podcast when there were two accordionists in my living room.”
  • Doug Strassler interviewed me for the NYITA Blog (Oct 2013) – Doug talked to me about the initial conversion of nytheatre.com into an archive-only site and the rise of Indie Theater Now.
  • Loren Noveck’s The Great Play Download (The Brooklyn Rail, Dec 2011) – Loren talked to lots of associates and colleagues as well as myself in crafting this piece about the genesis of Indie Theater Now.
  • Zack Calhoon featured me in the People You Should Know series on his long-running theater blog (Visible Soul, Feb 2011) – Zack asked, among other things, about the genesis of our publishing program for this piece.
  • Tim Cusack’s Not the Same Old (Stage Directions, March 2010) – on the 10th anniversary of the Plays and Playwrights anthology series.
  • Christina Hamlett interviewed me for her Inklings series (Independent Publisher, January 2005) – favorite quote: “Right this minute [sometime late in 2004] there are about 188 current productions listed on nytheatre.com, plus more than 160 coming attractions. Time Out-New York, which is known for its comprehensive listings, has about 140 this week. In September 2004, we reviewed 51 productions on nytheatre.com; in contrast, Time Out-New York and the Times reviewed about 35 apiece.”

Thanks to Chris Harcum’s Martin Denton, Martin Denton, I’m being interviewed again lately: we did a piece that we hope will soon be in The Brooklyn Rail, and TDF Stages is calling on Wednesday. So the documenting continues…

 

 

The 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation

On April 9, 2006, NYTE hosted the 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation at the Players Theatre Loft.players-e1497620313641.png

The idea was to bring artists from the world of NYC indie theater together into a room to explore common concerns and challenges. One of the things we discovered as nytheatre.com evolved was that while we (Rochelle and myself) were getting to know hundreds of indie artists quite well, they very often didn’t know each other at all. So we figured it would be beneficial to give all these people that we respected so much an opportunity to meet and get to know each other.

We had no idea if anyone would show up for the Convocation. More than 100 people did (I list them all at the end of this piece).

Playwright Rich Orloff could not attend the Convocation, but he wanted to be there in spirit. So he contributed an “Invocation for the Convocation,” which represents the ideas underlying this event quite beautifully and succinctly:

A prayer to the gods of theater:  Dionysus, Shakespeare, and box office.  We, the practitioners of New York’s independent theater (that’s “e.r.”), whose identities are many but who are united in our quest to transform imagination into living theatrical experiences, we come together tonight in the hope that you will forgive our trespasses and discount passes and hear our humble prayer.  Although the needs of our theatre groups (that’s “r.e.”) are many – including but not limited to the desire for affordable theater space, affordable rehearsal space, affordable advertising, roach-free dressing rooms and free roaches – and although our individual prayers may be numerous –including but not limited to wishing Equity gave us permission to charge enough to break even, increased government funding for the arts, or even for that matter, a government worth funding – we won’t bother you with that now, although some individuals may follow up with you at a later date.

Tonight our focus is but one and is about becoming one.  We wish to become a community, a community defined not by who we are not but by who we are:  resourceful, perseverant, deliciously diverse, and profoundly unpredictable.  Bless our desire to become a community.  Give us strength to build a community.  And give us wisdom to appreciate community.

If you grant our prayer, oh gods of theater (“r.e.” or “e.r.”, your choice), we promise you no more and no less than art and entertainment that represents the full spectrum of human creativity.

We’ll also gladly comp you, with proof of divinity.

And let us say, Amen.

At the Convocation, I delivered some prepared remarks (also at the bottom of this post), and then we opened the floor for discussion. LOTS of discussion. It turned out that our indie theater artist colleagues had lots of common areas of concern: real estate, the showcase code, branding and marketing, the showcase code, and real estate.

It turned out that the most important thing we accomplished that day was bringing them all together. As I’ll explain in a future post, the League of Independent Theater was essentially conceived that day. In a world before Facebook (remember that?), the blogosphere exploded with activity following the Convocation. I think we made a bit of a leap forward on April 9th, and I am extremely proud of what we made.

***

Here are the attendees at the 1st Ever Indie Theater Convocation: Jesse Alick (Subjective Theatre Company), Kyle Ancowitz (Blue Coyote Theatre), Gyda Arber, Mark Armstrong (The Production Company), Robert Attenweiler (Disgraced Productions), Jay Aubrey (Themantics Group), Jesica Avellone (CollaborationTown), Scott Baker (TheDrillingCompaNY), Paul Bargetto  (East River Commedia), Kevin Bartlett (FringeNYC), David Beukema, Shannon Black (Spiral, Inc.), Kathleen Blake (Spiral, Inc.), Arian Blanco (Hudson Exploited Theatre Co.), Manny Boccieri  (Feed the Herd Theatre), Yuval Boim, Jason Bowcutt (New York Innovative Theatre Awards), Brendan Bradley (Impetuous Theatre Company), Kirk Bromley (Inverse Theatre), Raphael  Brown, Tara Brown, Cris Buchner (Six Figures Theatre Company), Mark Canistraro (Empower PR), Michele Carlstrom (breedingground productions), Todd Carlstrom (breedingground productions), Maggie Cino, Geeta Citygirl (SALAAM), John Clancy (Clancy Productions), Tara Clancy, Michael Colby, Curtiss I’Cook (Tupu Kweli Theatre Company),  Wendy Coyle, Michael Criscuolo, Tim Cusack (Theatre Askew), Guensley Delva,   Christopher Eaves (eavesdrop), Tim Errickson (Boomerang Theatre Company), Bubi  Escudero, Sharon Fogarty (Making Light Productions), John Gideon (Inverse Theatre), Steven Gridley (Spring Theatreworks), Jack Hanley (eavesdrop), Elena K. Holy (The Present Company/FringeNYC), Joshua James, David Johnston, Avner Kam (FringeNYC), Kevin Kittle, Adam Klasfeld (One Armed Man Productions), Julie Kline (Rising Phoenix Repertory), Frank Kuzler (Boomerang Theatre Company), Larry Loebell, Mark Lonergan (Parallel Exit), Jeni Mahoney (Seven Devils Theatre Conference), Elisa Malona (Subjective Theatre Company), Bryn Manion (Aisling Arts), Ian Marshall (United Stages), Larry Myers, Nick Micozzi (New York Innovative Theatre Awards), Rob Neill (NY Neofuturists), Loren Noveck (Six Figures Theatre Company), Owa, Eric Parness (Resonance Theatre Ensemble), Douglas Paulson (breedingground productions), Ross Peabody (Feed the Herd Theatre), Anthony Pennino, John Pinckard, Craig Pospisil, Janis Powell (Spiral, Inc.), Michael Puzzo (LAByrinth Theatre Company), Robin Reed, Rachel Reiner (Resonance Theatre Ensemble), Wendy Remington (Aisling Arts), Jonathan  Reuning (United Stages), J. Scott Reynolds (Handcart Ensemble), Timothy McCown Reynolds (Inverse Theatre), Stan Richardson, Kiran Rikhye (Stolen Chair Theatre Company), Alex Roe (Metropolitan Playhouse), Kate Rogers (breedingground productions), Jo Ann Rosen, Katie Rosin (Kampfire Films Marketing & PR), Robin Rothstein, Tom Rowan, Kori Schneider (The Production Company), Jordan Seavey (CollaborationTown), Stephen Speights (Blue Coyote Theatre), Tony Sportiello (Algonquin Productions), Akia Squitieri (Rising Sun Performance Company), Jon Stancato (Stolen Chair Theatre Company), Saviana Stanescu, Justin Steeve (breedingground productions), Daniel Talbott (Rising Phoenix Repertory), Tomi  Tsunoda (breedingground productions), Ken Urban (The Committee), Ed Valentine, Chris Van Strander, Dana Viltz, Thomas Weitz, Jamal Williams, Jill Wirth, T.J Witham (CollaborationTown), Rachel Wood (Boomerang Theatre Company), Shela Xoregos (Xoregos Performance Company).

[Note: This is the official sign-in list; any omissions are inadvertent!]

***

Here is my kick-off address at the Convocation (emphasis added; edited for length):

Indie Theater is real.

In New York, where I have been watching and documenting at least some of it for the past decade, it’s a movement that takes in hundreds of playwrights, directors, actors, and other artists, most (but by no means all) of them in their 20s and 30s, creating theatre that seeks to speak to the world we live in, to redefine the experience of theatre for the audience and the performer, to express fundamental truths with urgency and wit in a contemporary context.

This is theatre born in the information age. It’s theatre that acknowledges technology. It’s theatre that’s created for generations of Americans that probably don’t have a substantial theatre-going tradition. It’s theatre that’s affordable and accessible to everyone; that doesn’t cost a lot of money to buy a ticket for; that speaks many languages and speaks to the issues that matter to the diverse groups who make up its audiences.

It’s the laboratory for new American drama and the starting-off-place for young talent. Some will move on to film or TV; some will break in to “mainstream” theatre off- and on Broadway. Many will quit, uncompensated, overworked, undiscovered. The rest will continue to create theatre that deserves to be acknowledged as the cutting-edge of the art form, that will and should have influence over future artists.

Indie theater is where it’s happening, where it’s at. It’s the most exciting place to be if you’re a theatre-goer, theatre creator, or theatre critic, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the place within the theatre community where consistently—not always, but a great deal of the time—you are surprised, you are challenged, you are confronted with new ways to tell stories. Indie theater is a place where there’s energy, innovation, imagination, enthusiasm for the art. It’s not the only place where these things happen, but it’s the place where they happen with the greatest frequency. The very best theater that money can buy happens on Broadway, on the West End, wherever; the thrilling raw new stuff almost always happens on the edge, where Indie lives.

The myth of Indie theater—of off-off-Broadway, as it has frequently been called—is that it isn’t any good. That it’s wacky and well-meaning, but not serious…. We know that bad art is the exception in indie theater, not the rule. But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know this….

The fact is, off-off/indie theater is marginalized. Badly marginalized.

The Best Plays series, which is pretty much the de facto reference on American theatre, provides spotty coverage at best. Theatre World, the only other print annual that I’m aware of, is even spottier. And there isn’t any website that provides comprehensive archival info about the indie theater movement—sure, the data is out there, spread all over the web, but it’s not easy to get to. That particular situation is something that we can correct, by organizing the facts about the movement and making them easily accessible, online, to everyone who wants and needs to find them. This is an important first step in getting the word out about indie theater. [Note: This is, finally, what we are going to achieve with the nytheater indie archive!]

But more is needed. Coverage of indie shows is insufficient…. All theatre is marginalized in mainstream media; it’s time that the indie theater community recognizes that the coverage that will help build audiences and provide artists with constructive feedback comes not from the established sources but from new ones (yes, like nytheatre.com; but others too).

So a second goal is to provide a place where indie theater gets talked about intelligently, consistently, and at length. Not 300-word reviews by people who may or may not have any idea what they’re talking about. No, what’s needed is a forum where practitioners, academics, students, reviewers, and audience members can contemplate the art in a serious, informed, leisurely manner. Textbooks don’t talk about indie theater—yet. There’s a textbook and then some just waiting to be written about the movers and shakers of indie theater’s first decade. Here’s where it starts.

Off-off-Broadway has long been regarded as a place that artists want to get away from, I think. That needs to change. Indie theater is, can be, must be, an end in itself. There’s an audience for populist theater—cheap art, as our friends at Bread and Puppet Theatre like to call it. Theatre shouldn’t cost $110. That’s unconscionable. Indie theater provides an important commodity to the public. Don’t think of the art you make as merely a stepping-stone to somewhere else in your career. This art is valuable all on its own. And even though it sometimes feels like there’s 20 million tiny theatre companies in New York, indie theater is much more scarce than it needs to be.

Now that said, the work created by indie theater artists deserves to be seen by larger audiences. Not all of it, obviously; but a good deal of what’s produced in NYC’s indie theaters rivals, if not exceeds, the work presented on Broadway and in the large institutional nonprofit theatres—perhaps not in terms of production values, but certainly in terms of quality of writing, directing, acting, design, ideas.

But indie theater shows don’t, as a rule, move on to other productions. Some do; the Plays and Playwrights books we’ve published have helped, and efforts of other groups like Algonquin Productions and FringeNYC have helped. But for every Urinetown—and that show is the only really big success story that’s emerged from indie theater so far—there are hundreds of worthy shows that haven’t had an opportunity to make their mark.

So here’s my third and final goal—to create a nexus for information that will actually be used and relied upon by producers, by theatre departments at colleges and universities, by theatre festivals, by agents, by funders, and by others in a position to make tangible things happen for emerging theatre artists. We need to find ways to get these people to understand and respect the work being done by this community, and to back up that understanding and respect with dollars and other meaningful support. We’ve got to move the mainstream nonprofit theatre community away from a development mentality and toward a stewardship mentality. Indie theater doesn’t need to be “developed.” It needs to be produced. It needs to be seen.

Ok, I’m basically done with my little speech now….

My final thought is this: all of this can be done if the people in this room, and hundreds of our colleagues, agree to work together to make this happen. There will be power in numbers. All of the things I’ve talked about are already being done somewhere, by someone. But not in unified fashion; not in a way that says, hey, this is a real artistic movement that deserves acknowledgement and respect because it is so large, so pervasive, so powerful. So the initiatives I’ve described here—and others that this group will identify in the future—are achievable only if we stay focused on the big picture. I’m excited to be leading the march and eager to work with this community to bring about significant change.

I am looking forward to discussion here about how much of this we think we’ve accomplished in eleven years, and what still needs to be done. The nytheater indie archive is in so many ways the culmination of all that I was hoping to do at the Convocation. I am eager to talk about what the community needs, a decade on. So please comment!

Bill Irwin and David Shiner

I watched Old Hats on PBS last night, and that has inspired today’s post here at MDD Speaks: a look back at the careers of two of my all-time favorite clowns and performers, Bill Irwin and David Shiner.

Little-known fact: I appeared on Broadway with these two gents. It was my longest run on Broadway, in fact (approximately 12 minutes).

fm

Yep, I was in Fool Moon. I appeared in the cowboy movie sketch, which is the centerpiece of Act II (and is repeated in Old Hats). I played the Clapboard Guy. It was one of the most unforgettable and delightful experiences of my life. I remember Shiner telling me sotto voce not to worry, just to make it big. And I remember Irwin standing right at the edge of the wings, displaying a hearty thumbs-up whenever I attempted to follow the complicated directions that Shiner pantomimed for me and the other hapless audience members who were part of this hilarious sketch. (There’s a version of the sketch on YouTube.)

But let me get back to the beginning. Like a lot of people, I didn’t know anything about Bill Irwin until he turned up on the Tony Awards, particularly when he did a long performance from Largely/New York in 1989.

I guess I remembered this when I was in NYC during the summer of 1993 and decided, on a total whim, to see Fool Moon during its initial Broadway run. I saw it again two years later; on this occasion I brought along my niece Julie. We had front-row seats. I was determined to get her into the show: there’s a segment that Irwin does at the top of Act II which involves a small child chosen from the audience.

Well, Julie didn’t get picked… but I did. (See above.)

When Fool Moon came back to Broadway in 1998, I saw it again, and this time I wrote about it.

Then Fool Moon went on tour and came to the Kennedy Center in DC (where I was still living at the time). I maneuvered to make a trip to a matinee the team-building event for my department at Marriott. And the whole family attended the show one evening, where once again, Julie didn’t get picked… but her younger sister Sarah did.

We went to the Green Room after the show and waited for Bill Irwin. When he entered from his dressing room, he walked over to our young star, yelling out “Sarah!” and giving her a big theatrical hug. A fond memory for the entire Denton clan.

Both Irwin and Shiner went on to other projects after Fool Moon. Shiner starred in Seussical (and I thought he was terrific in it, though I had some reservations about the show: here’s my review.) Irwin starred on Broadway in The Goat and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, winning a well-deserved Tony for the latter. Irwin was also off-Broadway at CSC in Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, which I adored; and had his own season at Signature in 2003-4, headlining his own plays The Harlequin Studies, The Regard Evening, and Mr. Fox: A Rumination. (I wanted to like Irwin in the 2009 revival of Waiting for Godot, but sadly that show didn’t work for me very well at all.)

Separately but especially together, Irwin and Shiner almost unfailingly make me happy when I see them on stage. They made me happy again last night in Old Hats, which I saw in its earliest incarnation at the Signature in 2013, in the front row–where I got to take part in the group hug that David Shiner has with members of the audience. Another fond reminiscence.