Monday, May 9, 2016

It's all a crap shoot: The art and science of programming a season

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the closing performance of The Encore Musical Theatre Company's production of "Always...Patsy Cline," which was a near-perfect, two-hour romp through approximately two dozen of the country superstar's songs. It was easy to see why most of the four-weekend run was sold out: Cline's memorable tunes and Ted Swindley's script were given life by a superb team of actors (Emmi Veinbergs and Sonja Marquis) and musicians (under the direction of Dan Mikat) whose skills and love of the material were evident from the moment the lights went up on the first number. Because they were having blast, so too was the audience - so much so that I expected the woman next to me to burst into song at any moment. (Thankfully, she didn't, but you could tell she really, really wanted to!)

But it was a conversation with development director Chuck Colby during intermission that got me thinking.

One of the toughest tasks faced by artistic directors everywhere is deciding which shows to schedule in an upcoming season. As every AD knows, it's one part art and one part science, with a whole lot of luck added to the mix.

In other words, despite careful planning, examining historical trends and the best of intentions, putting a season together is like a roll of the dice: Sometimes you come up with a seven, but oftentimes you don't.

In the past, conventional wisdom recommended that theaters should program two comedies, one drama and a musical in a four-play season. Others stressed the importance of mostly "name" shows each season in order to guarantee a certain level of ticket sales (which would then subsidize the one "risky" show of the season).

So how'd that work? Pretty much like you'd expect: Some shows sold like hotcakes, while others tanked big time.

In recent years, however - thanks to the long recession we've been in - so-called experts have recommended ADs schedule mostly well-known comedies, small-cast shows and as many musicals as a theater can afford. Some have even discouraged new works. ("Who's going to want to see something they've never heard of before with so much competition out there," I've heard these so-called experts say.)

So how'd this philosophical change work out? Some shows sold like hotcakes, while others tanked big time.

In other words, it appears that "conventional wisdom" gets you only so far - which brings me back to my discussion with Chuck, who noted how "Always...Patsy Cline" outsold the earlier "Sondheim on Sondheim" by quite a bit. Both of us found that to be rather interesting; "conventional wisdom" might suggest otherwise - that the "god of musical theater" would outrank a long-deceased country western singer. But that wasn't what happened.

A similar question was raised last year when The Purple Rose Theatre decided to shut down its excellent production of "2AZ." Despite great word of mouth, the slick execution of a well-thought-out marketing plan and the popularity of zombies, the early closure left many wondering why audiences failed to materialize in the numbers "conventional wisdom" may have predicted. (Some theorized that the box-office letdown was because "2AZ" was a world premiere - hence, an unknown product with no track record. But that doesn't explain the success of many other world premieres at The Purple Rose.)

There are many other examples of unexpected box-office failures, of course; "name" shows expected to sell well at the Fisher Theatre, for example, did just the opposite. And I could go on and on.

So what defies "conventional wisdom," you might be wondering? A lot, actually. And much of it comes down to what I refer to in this and many other instances as "The Infamous X-Factor." More about that in a minute or five.

Personal experience with conventional wisdom

But first, a momentary diversion.

As many readers may not know, I spent much of the 1970s through the 1990s working as an executive for various local professional theater companies that specialized in what's known as Theater for Young Audiences (meaning professional adult actors performing shows for children, teens and adults). With lofty titles that included administrative director, producer and executive director (and without the lofty pay to go with them), my responsibilities often included working with our artistic directors to plan our future seasons. Or in some cases, to plan them myself.

And so I've experienced first hand what goes into putting together a slate of shows - and then watched as "the fates" went to work proving us to be a mix of geniuses and fools.

What I learned from years of firsthand experience was this: Even the best planning can't escape The Infamous X-Factor.

Those who know me both in and out of theater can tell you that I'm a data-driven guy: Numbers and spreadsheets are my constant companions.

Because most of my theater career was spent producing shows that toured to schools, libraries, recreation centers and other such places across the state, that meant we were invited guests at these facilities - and since the managers and I couldn't attend every performance, I needed a tool that would help us determine how successful we were at providing a quality product and service to our customers.

And so I developed a brief survey form (that many of our production managers hated, by the way) that we distributed at every performance to five or 10 of "the decision makers" who brought us into their space and/or paid for our visit, such as the principal, PTA president, sponsoring teachers, etc. These were passed out prior to the performance and usually collected before we left, and from these we developed various statistics that helped us understand our company's strengths and weaknesses. (Why didn't we give surveys to the kids in the audience, you might be wondering? Because - as anyone who has ever worked in this field of entertainment can tell you - children are the most honest audience members you'll ever encounter: If they love the show, you'll know it; you'll know it even more if they hate it! Adults are not so honest - at least not to your face; they are are much more prone to be honest and critical in writing.)

The surveys, then, helped us to quickly spot problems that our sales team and production managers might not have realized. (Or that they tried to hide from management.) And they also served as a window into the country's rapidly changing culture and what adults considered "acceptable" for children's entertainment.

So after combining the survey results with actual sales data, it became pretty clear which shows were successful and which were not; which types of shows were more popular than others; which shows should be carried over into another year and which should not. And suggestions from our customers would also help shape our future.

But relying on data alone can also prove disastrous - as we learned with a show called "The Wacky Adventures of Mother Goose."

One of several shows we commissioned from Canadian playwright Jo Hubbard (a one-time puppeteer on the CBC-TV series "Sun Parlor Country"), "The Wacky Adventures of Mother Goose" was just that: a satirical retelling of classic fairy tales. We introduced it in 1980 and it sold well enough (and was popular enough) to return the next year for half a season. A few years later it was revived by popular demand, this time as a mini-musical - and once again it sold quite well and was very well received.

Therefore, based on the extremely positive feedback we received, we decided to extend the show into the next season - with the same cast, the same director, and the same music director. And when the first performance of the new season hit the road, it bombed. Horribly so.

Not with the kids, however. They loved it - hence, the reason why our production manager and cast didn't know a dangerous storm was brewing.

So imagine my surprise shortly after the first performance when - via U.S. mail - a handful of surveys arrived that deemed the show one of the most offensive productions ever presented in front of a young audience. (Yes, I'm exaggerating, but only slightly so.)

Since no one on our team could explain the differences of opinion, past experience told me to chalk it up to a bad day at the school and leave it at that. (Everyone connected to the show claimed it went well.) Bad move.

The next performance received a similar response from the adults. (Again, the kids loved it.)

So where was the disconnect?

In the script, Hubbard included an updated "bit" used for centuries to entertain kids and adults alike, one that's familiar to (and beloved by) fans of the "I Love Lucy" series. Remember the "Vitameatavegamin" episode? In "Mother Goose," it wasn't alcohol that caused the Baker to create a rather unusual cake, but some other cockamamie excuse (that I no longer remember). The result, however, was the same: His skills deteriorated - and the stage got messier - the more the Baker ingested this substance.

So why was this scene perfectly fine one year, but detested the next?

Mothers Against Drunk Driving had entered the public consciousness, effectively removing from the public square any and all such portrayals. (Remember Foster Brooks? His long-beloved character was swept into the dustbin of history at around the same time and for the same reason.)

After calling the second school and getting a blistering earful, I made the decision to cancel the rest of the tour - and to replace the bookings with a very popular (and much more expensive) show at no extra charge by mime O.J. Anderson. (Removing the offending scene would cut too much time from the show, and there was no time to create something new in its place.)

Reactions to the cancellation were interesting, however: Several of the schools I called still wanted the show, even after I read them comments from the written surveys and told them what the second school said of the production. "Trust me," I told them. "Wouldn't you rather have a guaranteed fabulous event instead of taking a risk with a show that may likely offend some people?" Ultimately, everyone agreed to make the change. And as predicted, everyone loved O.J.!

Yes, ya gotta love them Infamous X-Factors.

So what exactly is an Infamous X-Factor?

Basically, what I refer to as an "Infamous X-Factor" (from a theater perspective, at least) is anything an artistic director can't predict when planning a season - such as a blizzard on opening night; playoff games added to the schedule that now conflict with your production (and compete for limited parking) a few blocks from the stadium; your landlord shuts down your rental space; the rights to a show are pulled because a revival is opening soon on Broadway; the cast comes down with food poisoning; a nearby competitor opens a show that runs the exact dates as yours; and what was once socially acceptable no longer is.

The list goes on and on.

But of equal importance are the many decisions we humans make based on feelings that can change one moment to the next. Don't feel like catching a show tonight? Then I won't go. Not in the mood for a musical? Then I'll check out a drama. Don't like Sondheim? I'll skip the next show at my favorite theater. Get a better offer? I'll skip the theater altogether. Running low on cash? I'll go to a movie instead. Don't have someone to go with? Then I'll stay home.

This list, too, goes on and on.

So, yes: Things don't always go as planned. Some shows sell well, while others don't - and it's not always easy to figure out what happened - if at all.

The bottom line, then, is this: Planning a theater season is one part art and one part science, with a whole lot of luck thrown into the mix. And one can only hope that fate deals far more winning hands than losing ones.

But as any artistic director will likely tell you, it sure is a whole lot of fun planning (and then executing) a new season - as long as you keep plenty of Tums close by at all times, that is!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Change: a nerve-wracking tale of Two Muses

Imagine for a moment that you're a business owner. You've built your business quite nicely since its inception, as the number of patrons visiting your business continues to grow, and your reputation for providing quality products and services is quite high. And indications are for those trends to continue.

So what does the smart business person do to help grow the business? Take some risks, of course! With loyal customers and a solid reputation to back you up, it's likely time to shake things up a bit - expose your patrons to something new or different, and hope your ideas please your existing customer base while they also bring new faces into your business.

And so you set plans into motion - and then the unimaginable occurs: Your landlord also decides it's time for a change. The property is being sold, and you're being evicted.

Sounds like a nightmare, right? Unfortunately it's not.

What I described above is pretty close to the scenario in which Two Muses Theatre found itself last fall, when its landlord (Barnes & Noble in West Bloomfield) informed executive/artistic director Diane Hill that its landlord had decided to do something else with the property - which meant that both businesses were now without a home.

So with a season already announced and underway, what's a producer to do?

Find a new home, of course. Quickly - and therein begins the off-stage drama.

As other theaters have learned the hard way over the years, uprooting from one location to another is fraught with danger. Will your established customers follow you to the new location? Will the number of seats available to sell remain comparable? Will the new facility's rent and utilities blow the budget? Will the space meet the needs of the announced schedule? And on and on and on it goes.

After a frantic search, Two Muses accepted an offer from Paul Stark of Monster Box Theatre in Waterford to move in and share the space. And while that sounds like a great solution, that too is fraught with potential problems.

Specifically: With approximately 9 miles between the new and old locations, will Two Muses' customers follow them to Waterford?

But more importantly is this: Of the two, Two Muses is much better known and enjoys a much better reputation. From reports I've received since its opening, the quality of shows at Monster Box have fluctuated greatly.

And so I'm sure Diane has to be wondering: Will Monster Box's erratic reputation rub off on Two Muses? If people show up at a Monster Box show and don't like it, will that reflect badly on Two Muses as well? Will patrons - potential or otherwise - confuse the two? Or think them one and the same?

It's certainly a scary and uncertain future that Diane and Two Muses face - and that's a shame.

Since its inception, Diane and everyone involved with Two Muses have worked hard to create a home for women artists through which quality programs are made available to the community at affordable prices. And they've been rewarded for their efforts by developing a strong base of loyal patrons and donors who've eagerly supported the theater.

To see that damaged in any way is disheartening - especially since its final show in West Bloomfield, "The Light in the Piazza," was a superb piece of theater and one of its best efforts.

Unfortunately - and despite excellent reviews - audiences for "How I Learned to Drive" at Monster Box have reportedly been a fraction of what they were for "Piazza."

And so I'm sure Diane is asking herself, "Has it been the weather that's kept audiences away? Or is it the edgier show? Maybe our patrons haven't found us yet? Or are we too many miles away from our fan base?"

With one weekend left, there's still time for folks to come out and support Two Muses in its new home. Personally, I hope they do, as this scrappy little theater has been a fine and important addition to the community. I very much have enjoyed their shows, and I wish them a long and prosperous life.

But that won't happen unless patrons show up and buy tickets for this and the next show, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." (It's a musical, so that might help!)

I'm keeping my fingers crossed...

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CLICK HERE to read Frank Anthony Polito's review of "How I Learned to Drive" from

CLICK HERE to read Patty Nolan's review from

CLICK HERE for show information: "How I Learned to Drive"

Friday, March 11, 2016

Two quick questions (and their answers)

A couple of conversations I had in recent days reminded me I have a backlog of topics to discuss and questions to answer, and so now that I've filed my 2015 income tax return - always a laborious pain in the neck - it's time to get back to chatting about what's important to readers of this blog: what's happening in Michigan's professional theaters.

So what were those questions, you may be wondering? Although they were similar, the two were asked by different people during separate conversations.

"Is there really a lot of very good theater happening around town, or are you and the other critics just making it sound like there is?"

That's a question I get quite often, actually. And my answer these days is always pretty much the same: Yes, there is a lot of very good work being staged in our professional theaters this season - and it's happening in theaters both large and small, new and long established.

In fact, of the 35 productions I've seen so far this season, only one was underwhelming and disappointed me - and my review for reflected that. (I suspect the theater involved wasn't pleased with my crankiness, however.)

Of the other 34, several were spectacular (none of which I'll name, since they might be recommended for possible 2016 Wilde Awards nominations), while the rest were very enjoyable and worth my time. In short, the hits far outweighed the misses, thanks to the hard work and dedication put forth by some of the best talent to be found on stage anywhere in the country.

The second question - which has come up a handful of times this season, actually - asked for my opinion regarding the onslaught of new companies that have popped up recently. My answer somewhat varied depending on the context in which the question was asked, but here's my overall observation and opinion on the subject:
  1. The fact that we have so many new companies around town is a sign that we have a healthy and vibrant professional theater community here in Southeast Michigan. It shows that we have an energetic and creative population of young artists who want to put down roots and earn a living here, despite the many obstacles they face.

    Personally, I welcome their efforts and wish them the best; we're blessed and lucky to have them here at a time when so many young people flee the state for supposedly greener pastures.

  2. What I find fascinating about the new companies is the fact that each is seeking to carve out a unique niche for itself. The Detroit Public Theatre, for example, is determined to become a major artistic force in the rebirth of the Motor City, and its founders have charted a course that seems very likely to succeed. Others, however, seem content to expand the existing theatrical pie by taking risks on productions and subject matters their larger counterparts would never tackle, or by locating themselves in cities in which theater is not a destination spot. (Southgate and Marine City, for example) And then there are those that simply want to shake up existing paradigms and test boundaries.

    So now we have theater in cities where few or none have been before, and patrons have choices they've never had before.  To me, that sounds like a win-win situation, wouldn't you agree?

  3. What's even more fascinating is how the word "competition" doesn't seem to come into play with these new companies. Instead, they've replaced it with "cooperation." Unlike in earlier days when theater executives seemed quite concerned that new or established companies would steal away their customers, we're seeing far more cross pollination than ever before - whether it be actors and directors working at multiple venues, or cross promoting shows in programs and other promotional materials. Co-locations have also been on the rise, with Puzzle Piece Theatre sharing the space owned by Slipstream Theatre Initiative, while Two Muses Theatre is about to produce its first show at Monster Box Theatre.

    Gone are the days, it seems, when producers viewed every competitor as a threat to their existence. (Or at least it's getting that way!) So if the industry is to survive and thrive, working together to grow and prosper makes total sense.

  4. If I had to choose a term for what is happening these days, I'd say what we're seeing is a theatrical renaissance - a time in which theatergoers across Southeast Michigan are blessed with more choices and opportunities than ever before, and at prices to fit everyone's budget.

    I've observed such periods several times throughout my 40-plus years in and around the local industry - but this feels different. This time, the theatrical bloom is not in response to something - such as the economy or a war. Instead, it appears to be a confluence of people and their shared goal of creating theatrical magic - to tell their stories, to engage their peers in conversations about things that matter to them. And to tell their stories their way. I find that quite exciting.

    I also recognize that their stories may not be my stories. And they're not necessarily meant for me. I'm perfectly fine with that, too.

  5. But I have to wonder: Is the market able to support the explosion of professional theater we're experiencing? Are their enough patrons to go around? Enough grant and support money? Can theaters with a maximum of 30 or 40 seats sustain themselves in the long run? Or will these new theaters be able to accomplish what the industry has been concerned about for several years now - and that is to bring new faces and customers into their venues - especially younger folk?

    Only time will tell, of course. But from what I've observed during my visits to some of our newest theaters, this current renaissance might be one for the record books!
COMING SOON: A brief return to my roots; a project I've been thinking about for quite some time; and the perils of change.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Brief thoughts on four shows I've seen these past two weekends

In recent weeks I've had the opportunity to catch four shows around town, but given my schedule recently, I haven't had much time to write about them. (My next post in a day or two will expand on that a bit.) And so while I have few minutes to spare today, here are some short notes about each of them, arranged in the order in which I viewed them:

Not so odd: Tipping Point does Simon well

As I believe I've said in at least one prior post, the most consistent producer of quality shows is Northville's Tipping Point Theatre.

Under the leadership of James Kuhl, everyone you encounter there is friendly and engaging - even the volunteer ushers who direct you to your seats.

But equally of importance, Kuhl and his team know their audience, and as such, they deliver to them the types of shows they enjoy with production values that rank among the best the industry has to offer.

Its current show is no different. With that said, however, I'm not a fan of "The Odd Couple (female version)."

When Neil Simon's original "Neil Simon" debuted in 1965, it examined something that was quite rare up till then: two middle-aged straight guys living together. Social mores at the time looked suspiciously at two men in such an arrangement, with an assumption that the two must be gay. (An historical note for my younger readers: Being labeled as gay was seen as a terrible, horrible, dirty thing back then, which meant most gay men were deeply and securely hidden in the closet. Men were often fired and harassed - or even arrested - for nothing more than a passing suspicion.) And so Simon had some fun with his play, exploring male relationships and their ways of bonding. Stereotypes, too, were part of the equation, as Oscar was a butch sportswriter and Felix was a "light in his loafers" (to use an old expression) news writer.

The show enjoyed great success, and 20 years and a popular TV series later, it spawned the female version.

Why, I don't understand. For starters, social dynamics at the time were different for women than men. (Both of my grandmothers took in borders, for example, and no one gave it a second thought.) And to me it seemed to be unoriginal and not very creative for a celebrated playwright of his caliber.

Nevertheless, the bazillionaire's instincts proved better than mine, and the play has been a popular staple off theaters everywhere ever since.

So too were Kuhl's instincts, as tickets have been flying out of the box office, with many (or most) performances totally sold out.

Which only proves one thing: What do I know!

I do know a slick, well-produced production when I see one, however, and that's exactly what's on the Tipping Point stage through March 6.

Fine direction by Lynn Wilde Concannon briskly moves the story along, while the entire cast brings energy and fun to their roles. (People around me a few weeks ago especially loved Sonja Marquis' scene changes.) And Patrick Loos and Nick Yocum make a delightful team as the Latino neighbors. But kudos to Katherine Banks and Dani Cochrane as Florence and Olive, respectively, for making me believe Simon's time wasn't wasted in crafting this update.

The Bottom Line: I really did have a great time, probably the best I've had in all the times I've seen productions of this script.

Want to see what other critics thought about the show?

David Kiley,

Patty Nolan,

Daniel Skora, It's All Theatre

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

The show is now closed. For more information about the production: CLICK HERE

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Yes, Butler did it (so to speak)

One of the many things I love about the Detroit Repertory Theatre is its emphasis on producing new works - whether as a world premiere or something that's new to Michigan. And as a history nut, I especially love it when the Rep stages a show that has its roots in a real life incident.

It's current show, "Butler," is both.

Based on the true story of a runaway slave who shows up at Virginia's Fort Monroe near the start of the Civil War asking for asylum, director Barbara Busby crafts a production that's both funny and engaging.

It also features two seasoned pros as adversaries Major General Benjamin Butler and Major John B. Cary: Todd Hissong and Robert Grossman, respectively. Butler is an inexperienced officer, having recently earned his commission after practicing law and serving as a state legislator in Massachusetts. His counterpart, Cary, is a teacher-turned-Confederate officer, and the two tangle over what do with Shepard Mallory.

It's a fascinating story that had repercussions for slaves throughout the area, to which playwright Richard Strand hews quite closely. (Do the research; it's quite a tale!)

To watch Hissong and Grossman create such strong, unique characters is quite fun. And Peter Podalski as the "by-the-rules" Lt. Kelly, has many fine moments. (The woman behind me kept commenting on Podalski's eyes. Catch the show to see what she means; his expressions are priceless.)

But I was particularly impressed with Christian Williams as Shepard Mallory. A relative newcomer to the professional stage, Williams must make an unlikable character likable, which is not an easy task to achieve. Yet that's exactly what he does. And he does so while working alongside two accomplished veterans of the local stage without looking the least bit intimidated. That alone is worthy of acknowledgment!

The Bottom Line: I highly recommend the show!

Want to see what other critics thought of the show?

David Kiley,

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

"Butler" runs through March 13. For more information about the production, CLICK HERE

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Scary futures can be fun indeed

I love it when theaters take risks - especially the smaller theaters that have tiny budgets and limited resources, but instead are gifted with enormous creativity. I also love it when they accept the challenge and conquer it through careful planning and meticulous craftsmanship. And I love it even more when those risks are handsomely rewarded by stellar reviews and sold out houses.

Such was the case with Puzzle Piece Theatre's decision to stage "R.U.R.," a rarely performed script by Czech author Karel Capek first presented in 1921 that explores a question frequently addressed by science fiction writers throughout the 20th century: What would be the fate of man should artificial life forms become sentient?

For director D.B. Schroeder, the question must have been: How do I take a "fantastic (but somewhat dated) melodrama" with a large cast (including six robots) and squeeze it into a somewhat tight black box performance space and make it relevant to today's audiences?

It was a heavy task to be sure, yet one he and his team accomplished quite well.

From the moment I walked into the performance space I was immersed into a possible future in which lifelike, unthinking robots (or androids, as we refer to them today) are tasked with doing our heavy work. And that's exactly what was happening around me as I entered the space: Robots Marius (Stebert Davenport), Sulla (Anna Marck) and Radius (Joshua Daniel Palmer) silently and methodically went about clearing the stage.

The three performed their work with great precision, with every movement carefully drawn - and with focused eyes that never wandered. (They even navigated around unsuspecting patrons who didn't immediately realize what was happening around them - and they did so without any unnecessary blinks of the eye or noticeable irritation.)

This set the tone, quite frankly, for what was to come: a well-played melodrama that flowed like clockwork. Even the music used throughout the production perfectly underscored the plot as it unfolded.

The Bottom Line: So despite the script's dark message, "R.U.R" was indeed a fun and enjoyable night at the theater. Risks can indeed pay off, and here's proof!

Want to see what other critics thought of the show?

Martin F. Kohn,

John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press

Patty Nolan,

Daniel Skora, It's All Theatre

"R.U.R." is now closed. For more information about Puzzle Piece Theatre: CLICK HERE

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'You'll rue the day' you missed 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play'

About a week ago I heard from a very excited Vanessa Sawson who had just seen "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale. To say that she loved it would be an understatement. "(It) was incredible," she exclaimed. "I have to see it again." And then she asked me to join her at last night's performance. How could I refuse? Her enthusiasm was infectious. (That, too, is an understatement.)

So there I was, sitting next to her, waiting for the show to begin. She was itching to talk about it, but wouldn't. "You have to see it for yourself," she bubbled. Her excitement was palpable.

And now I know why.

What I experienced, though, is hard to explain. (It takes a while to digest.) All I know for sure is that I'll never see Bart Simpson quite the same way ever again, thanks to a heart-choking final act with Dyan Bailey playing America's favorite young rebel.

Imagine, if you will, the very near future. A global catastrophe has occurred, and the world we knew no longer exists. Instead, survivors roam the forests and streets in search of supplies. Death and fear are everywhere. But since there is safety in numbers, small, tight-knit groups form for mutual survival. For one such group, their entertainment is recalling their favorite episodes from the hit TV series "The Simpsons" - most notably, the one entitled "Cape Feare."

The episode, which originally aired on Fox in 1993, is among the favorites of series aficionados - and rightfully so, as it's a parody of the movie "Cape Fear" and is filled with more cultural references than one can possibly find on their own. And that gives the playwright (and actors) plenty of things to work with as the story moves through three very different acts (the third of which is a rather dark musical) and across 82 years.

But why "The Simpsons" as the starting point of the script, you might wonder?

In a 2013 interview published in the Gothamist, playwright Anne Washburn told John Del Signore that the idea for the play was something she had had for a long time - "to take a TV show and push it past the apocalypse and see what happened to it." Her initial inclination was to use "Friends," "Cheers" or "MASH" - or "any show that had had a long term viewership and was much beloved and cheerful."

But then she settled on "The Simpsons," which is now in its 27th season and is American television's longest-running prime-time series. Her decision makes total sense, as the series is a cultural cornerstone that multiple generations are familiar with. And that means the plot she developed would have resonance and meaning for theatergoers young and not-so-young alike.

That certainly seemed the case at last night's performance. What's even more intriguing, though, was eavesdropping on (or participating in) conversations after the show, as patrons struggled to share their thoughts on what was likely an experience they didn't expect. If only I could have followed them to their cars or bars where they likely continued their conversations.

Because if they're like me, they're still not sure what the heck they experienced. I do know, however, that everyone in the room was intensely following the plot and focused on the action as it unfolded - even if they were unsure what was occurring. (At one particular point - following a very tense confrontation - not a sound could be heard throughout the audience as Brandy Joe Plambeck's Sam and Joel Mitchell's Gibson shared a powerful, poignant moment.)
Long-time readers know I love challenging, thought-provoking theater. As I continue to scratch my head in a mix of wonderment and bewilderment, there's one thing I know for sure about "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play": Director Joe Bailey and his team of artists and craftspeople took yet another risk and nailed it.

The Bottom Line: Although I'm still not sure what it was that I saw at The Ringwald, I do know that I loved it, thanks to excellent technical work and performances that will stick with you for quite a while.

Want to see what other critics thought of the play?

David Kiley,

Patty Nolan,

"Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" runs through March 14. For more information about the production: CLICK HERE

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What a debut: Kickshaw kicks ass

New theaters seem to spring up like wild flowers; some wither almost immediately, while others enjoy a very long and fruitful existence. So when word first got out early last year that a new Equity theater was planned for Ann Arbor, I greeted the news with an equal mix of skepticism, interest and curiosity.

On the plus side, Kickshaw Theatre seemed to be a promising addition to the community. Founders Lynn Lammers and Julia Glander (and their management team) seemed to be taking a careful and deliberate approach to building their company, and since the women involved all enjoyed sterling reputations and noteworthy track records, their likelihood of creating a successful endeavor seemed far greater than many others that came (and disappeared) before them.

Plus, their stated goal - wanting to be known for "uncommon stories and stylistic daring" - intrigued me. (Pleasant memories of innovative shows staged at the long-defunct Zeitgeist Theatre and the early days of Performance Network came flooding back to me.)

But then I asked myself, "Is Ann Arbor able and willing to support yet another theater?" Are there enough patrons, donors and funders to go around, I wondered, when the town is already home to Performance Network, Theatre Nova, Arbor Opera, The Penny Seats and the University Musical Society? And the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, The Brass Tacks Ensemble, and the various theater programs at the University of Michigan? And with the nearby Purple Rose Theatre and The Encore Musical Theatre soaking up dollars from the community?

Only time will tell, of course. But more on that later.

For its initial offering, Kickshaw chose "The Electric Baby," an odd-duck of a script that certainly meets the company's goal of telling unusual stories. Perfectly described in a press release as "a dark and fantastical comedy about sad endings, strange beginnings and the unlikely people that get you from one place to the next," playwright Stephanie Zadravec starts out by introducing the audience to what looks like a series of unrelated characters and random events. But the beauty of the script is how she weaves together a young, fourth-wall-breaking Romanian mother, a lottery ticket-loving Nigerian cab driver and two couples of differing ages and worldly experiences having a bad night into a powerful journey that questions the randomness of life and how the unexpected and unpredictable interactions of strangers can impact each other's lives and futures.

It's a unique script, to be sure, filled with folktales and legends and a baby that glows like the moon. It's also one that lesser directors could surely mess up in its transition to the stage - but not Lammers, who kept the show grounded and focused, tight and balanced. Right from the opening moments - which I'll discuss later - Lammers drew her audience into the story and never let them go.

And for good reason: Her eye for casting the appropriate actor for each role couldn't have been better.

This is a production in which every character was carefully drawn and fully realized, even when the playwright gave the artists little to work with. The result, then, were characters and situations we could relate to, even when the plot and specific circumstances might feel otherwise.

(How convincing were they, you might be wondering? The show opens with Natalia (the young Romanian immigrant and mother) talking to her baby. Played by the superb and always-delightful Vanessa Sawson, Natalia acknowledges our presence, asks us to turn off our cell phones, and strongly, but sweetly, in that all-knowing, motherly way, urges us to resist coughing during the play so that we don't irritate our neighbors. And guess what? Her request, recommendation, or perceived threat worked, as I don't recall a single cough throughout the entire performance. Even I stifled one out of fear of the repercussions...)

All-in-all, when you mix the fine performances by Sawson, Julia Glander, Peter Carey, William Bryson, Mary Dilworth and Michael Lopetrone (who plays three roles) with the excellent work of technical director Charlie Gaidica and his team of craftspeople, the result is one of the best opening productions by a new company I've ever seen.

So what does that mean long term?

If Kickshaw's opening production is any indication, the company has already accomplished two important things:
  1. It has quickly staked out its niche within Southeast Michigan's professional theater community; and
  2. It has already mastered the art of creating excellent, thought-provoking theater, something new companies often (if not usually) struggle with over the course of several shows.
With the recent demise of Performance Network, Kickshaw is now Ann Arbor's sole producer of Equity theater. (The CRLT Players at the University of Michigan also operates under an Equity contract, but it functions as an educational arm of the university for workshops and consultations.) And with Theatre Nova, the two are now the town's dominant non-profit, professional producers of live theater.

But there's still work to be done.

In this not-so-humble critic's opinion, what Kickshaw needs to do in order to become a permanent fixture in the community is to develop a broad and loyal group of patrons and donors that would enable the company to grow and prosper. But that won't happen without a permanent facility to call home.

As other theaters have learned the hard way over the past few decades, it's difficult to retain and build an audience when you move from one location to another for each show. People (and patrons) are creatures of habit; change is difficult - even for something as simple a concept as this. Although Kickshaw has been searching for a permanent facility for quite some time, that should be their primary focus before staging another show. Hoping and praying for a miracle - that your audience will follow you wherever you go - isn't the worth the risk when a great future looms before you.

 So welcome, Kickshaw, and congratulations on a great opening! I look forward to the exciting times ahead for you!

The Bottom Line: Although "The Electric Baby" is now closed, here are a handful of reviews for you to check out:

Jenn McKee's review:

Patty Nolan's review:

Daniel Skora's review: It's All Theatre

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Enticing young people into the theater: How Slipstream is doing it

One of many things many (if not most) producers are struggling with today is this: How do we get young people into our theaters? As traditional audiences disappear - whether because of age, infirmities, death, relocation or other reason - seats are not being filled in equal numbers by the next generation of patrons.

Why that's so has many theories:

  • The stories told by our theaters aren't of interest to a younger, more diverse audience;
  • Theaters are clinging to traditional modes of communication instead of embracing social media, which is where young people today get their information;
  • Young people in their 20s and 30s are busy with their lives - jobs, careers, marriage, children, etc. - and don't have time to attend theater; and
  • Tickets cost too much.

Each - or any combination thereof - is likely true, at least in part. But in my humble opinion, the problem is much deeper than any of them.

As I've said in prior posts, columns, interviews and personal discussions, the problem stretches back to the American educational system that - for the most part - no longer values the arts, particularly live theater. As such, children are not being exposed at an early age to the magic of this unique art form and the memories it creates. Therefore, they develop no taste for it, which further means they won't seek it out when they become adult consumers in charge of their own entertainment options.

It's been my experience that when you ask people ages 50 and above what drew them to either attend or work in the theater, most say it was their exposure to it while they were growing up. In my case, that's certainly true - and my story is similar to what countless others have told me.

Back when I was in grade school (we're talking about the early-to-mid 1960s here; yes, I'm a dinosaur), it was common for schools to take students on field trips to see plays that somehow tied into the curriculum. In Detroit, it was popular for teachers to take their students to the Detroit Institute of Arts or Greenfield Village for plays such as "Young Thomas Edison" or another on Abe Lincoln.

Later, as school budgets tightened, transportation became far too expensive and theaters stopped providing such opportunities, companies popped up to take shows into the schools. (I spent about 26 years in that business, from acting to producing to consulting.) But even that had its ups and downs, as budgets further tightened, show prices went up, and curriculum requirements left little time for "entertainment."

Even the opportunities to take kids to weekend performances disappeared, as parents and families changed their priorities, and fewer theaters, recreation centers and libraries offered family-friendly theater programs to their patrons.

In other words, young people have experienced the wonderment of live theater far less in recent decades than they used to in previous times. And that's having a serious impact on the industry.

Producers across the industry are struggling to respond, some more successfully than others. But so far, there's no magic formula that seems to work for everyone.

Meanwhile, longtime patrons continue to disappear. And the question remains: Who will producers get to replace them?

Into the mix comes Slipstream

Not every theater is struggling with an aging audience, of course. Improv and original comedies, for example, seem to attract a younger crowd. So do certain plays and musicals. ("Rent" - among the handful shows I avoid for various reasons - is especially popular.)

But one theater has particularly impressed me with its efforts to reach out to and draw in young audiences to its plays.

Ferndale-based Slipstream Theatre Initiative has a mission statement that clearly outlines its goal: to create original works and re-imagine classics for a current-minded audience. And since its launch in 2014, it has certainly accomplished what it set out to do.

It helps, of course, that the leadership of Slipstream is part of the generation they are trying to reach. But it's the brilliance of their work both on stage and behind the scenes that should have other producers sit up and take notice.

With an understanding that the attention span of its target market is short and their basic level of appreciation of classic works is likely small to non-existent, Slipstream will take a script by Shakespeare, for example, and strip it to its essentials. Gone, then, are various subplots and characters; what's left is tweaked and adjusted to help audiences comprehend the story. And then around the plot is wrapped an engaging concept designed to pull theatergoers into the action.

Add to that an aggressive campaign on social media, and what do you get? An intimate performance space that's more often than not filled with teenagers and young adults.

I observed that first hand last fall with Slipstream's 80-minute (or so) production of "Twelfth Night." There I was, likely the elder statesman in the audience. Next to me was likely the youngest, a young man around 16 years of age. Experiencing "Twelfth Night" with him was quite a treat, as his excitement was palpable and his enthusiasm was infectious. Like other young people around me, his focus on the action never wavered, and he bubbled with joy when the show was over.

So what made this particular production speak to its young audience? I suspect it was the judicious editing mixed with an innovative concept that was carried throughout the production by an energetic and youthful cast. Since the actors were having a blast, so too did the audience. (Read Martin F. Kohn's excellent review HERE.) And unlike some productions of Shakespeare I've seen foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, it was obvious everyone in the cast understood the meaning of their lines - which makes a major difference in whether or not an audience can follow the story.

Slipstream's approach works on other types of productions, as well. And depending on the subject matter, patrons may find themselves sitting among a wide range of theatergoers.

A prime example of this is its current production of "Hedda Gabler," also a trimmed down, 80-minute affair. With a unique approach to the title character, the production succeeds quite nicely thanks to a clear focus and tight execution by its actors and director. And who was sitting in the audience with me at this production? An interesting mix, I must say: primarily women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, several of whom were mothers with their daughters. (Since my thoughts about "Hedda" are in total agreement with critic Jenn McKee who reviewed it for, I won't say more about it - you can read her superb review HERE - but I strongly recommend it to those who love innovative interpretations of classic theater.)

Even a modern-day coming-of-age story can get the Slipstream treatment. In "BFs!" by critic Frank Anthony Polito, two teenage boys discover their sexuality in the 1980s - and guess what? Director (and co-founding artistic director) Bailey Boudreau hired two age-appropriate actors to play the roles, and then he allowed them the intimacy in which to present their story. My surprise on the night I attended? That the audience was a mix of gay and straight couples, young and not-so-young, and a 30-something couple who walked in not knowing a thing about the subject matter, but showed up because they'd heard such good things about the company. Based upon their reactions, I suspect they'll be back. (Here's what I wrote about the show last September.)

So what's the lesson?

While what works for one theater may not work for another - and there's a host of reasons why that is - Slipstream Theatre Initiative has excelled at developing shows that appeal to young people, and their efforts to reach them via social media have been quite successful. That their appeal also reaches into a much broader demographic of theatergoer is an added bonus, which gives them a solid customer base upon which to build a strong and long-term existence.

But times and tastes change. So the questions becomes these: Is Boudreau and his team nimble enough to respond to the ever-morphing fickleness of the marketplace? Will their quality remain high? Will they eventually run out of unique ideas upon which to build their shows?

The fact that Boudreau and company are willing to experiment and take risks - and are small enough to do so without jeopardizing vast sums of investment dollars - is refreshing. And that they've been rewarded with both glowing reviews and their desired customer base are signs Slipstream is on the right path.

Throughout my 40-plus years in and around the industry, I've seen the formation of many a new theater company that showed great promise. Some quickly failed and disappeared, while others took root and prospered. We're currently in an era in which several exciting new companies have appeared, all with different goals and philosophies. Several seem to have what it takes to run the long race.

With insightful planning, judicious budgeting and carefully managed growth, I suspect Slipstream Theatre Initiative will be among them.

The bottom line: There are only three performances of "Hedda Gabler" left. Click HERE for complete schedule information.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

He is woman - and the audience roared

"I knew it was him. But I didn't see him."

The "him" veteran actress Henrietta Hermelin was referring to was Joe Bailey, whose performance we were discussing last night after the closing performance of "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers" at the The Ringwald Theatre. And the major compliment she gave him was 100-percent correct.

Joe, you see - billed only as J. Bailey in the program to further the illusion - played Sue Mengers, Hollywood's most powerful agent during the late 1960s through the early '80s. The well-researched script by John Logan takes place in 1981 at a pivotal point in the downswing of her career, on the night she is expecting a call from her number one client, Barbra Streisand. Streisand, you see, has just left Sue for another agency, and the super-agent, a longtime friend, wants to know why.

And so the show opens with the caftan-clad Sue parked on her couch, conversing with friends (the audience) while anticipating a call she does and does not want to receive. There she remains for the next 80 minutes or so, regaling us with juicy tidbits of her long and successful career - with us hanging on to each and every delicious morsel she tosses our way.

The concept of Joe wearing a dress is nothing new, of course; many of The Ringwald's most popular shows over the past eight years have featured him thusly clad. But here's what's different: Previous appearances in feminine attire have been in spoofs and satires, or in gender-bending productions in which the winks and nods between actor and audience acknowledge we're all in on the joke.

But that's not the case with "I'll Eat You Last." Logan's one-woman script is just that: a script written for a woman to portray its protagonist. (Its original run on Broadway featured Bette Midler as Sue.) And so with director Jamie Richards guiding from behind the scenes, Joe's goal was to develop a fully realized and realistic woman, thereby creating a believable character that would do justice to both the role and the person upon whom it is based.

To say he achieved his goal would be a major understatement.

As someone who has followed Joe's career since we first met at an interview more than a dozen years ago, it's safe for me to say that Joe sits among the "A-List" of actors whose work appears on area stages, having earned 13 Wilde Awards nominations since 2007. (He's tied for fourth place in total nominations received over the course of the awards' history.)

But here's what made this performance stand out: If you didn't know J. Bailey was a man, you would have believed a woman lived underneath the wig and makeup. And since Sue's legendary size kept her mostly home bound later in life, Joe had to keep us totally engaged while never leaving the couch.

Which he did. (He had a similar Herculean task earlier this season in "The Whale," a co-production with the UDM Theatre Company, which I thought couldn't be topped - until now.)

From start to finish, Joe's superb storytelling skills and creative instincts kept us hanging on Sue's every word. Based on my research, he seems to have fully grasped her colorful, larger-than-life personality - which he brought to life with carefully executed gestures and facial expressions. Every movement, every line and every expression - no matter how small or seemingly insignificant - was thoughtfully planned, fitting the character like a tight glove. As a result, we felt Sue's every emotion  - and by show's end, we wished our visit would last longer. Much longer.

So, yes: Henrietta's comment was correct. We didn't see Joe in the role; we only saw Sue. And that's a testament to the excellent work of Joe Bailey.

The Bottom Line: Rumor has it that "I'll Eat You Last" might return for a short run sometime soon. Keep watching for details - and then catch it if you can for an amazing evening of live theater!