Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "The Real Truth"

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Tuesday, 12 September, 2000:
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THEATER IN BOSTON?

part one

FOOTNOTE(4:15 P M 20 October):
In a phone call, p/r head Regan Byrne just insisted it was she, and not Ann Sheehan, who was responsible for screwed-up brochures emanating from Broadway in Boston.
I regret my error.
Byrne also removed my name from the B in B press list because of unprofessional attacks.
Love,
===Anon.

I know the reason theater is dying in Boston:

Ann Sheehan.

She's not alone, of course.

Here, let me document that:
1) Last night Beverly Creasey handed me an envelope saying "I think this is an invitation to review "Tallulah" but look at the address!" It was from "BROADWAY IN BOSTON, sfx theatrical group" and it was addressed to:

Theatre Mirror
Mr. Larry Stark
164 Brayton Road
Brighton, MA 02135

What was inside was NOT an invitation to review, merely a cheap flyer announcing the show. (B in B never invites me to see anything.) But Ann Sheehan (or one of her mindless minions) sent it to me at Beverly's address.

2) An easy mistake to make, maybe, but I have twice handed Ann Sheehan a Theater Mirror business-card. Each time, I had been told by someone --- I still meet people who work for B in B --- that I should talk to Ann because she was new to Boston and new to her job. Each time I asked the same thing "Did you want to talk to me?" and each time I got the same answer:
"No."

The sfx theatrical group has decided to do their own public relations --- rather than using any of the three Boston p/r firms whose expertise goes back decades --- and Ann Sheehan is their, well, not quite so new publicist. I don't really know if I know anything she doesn't but might need to know. We might find out something about that if, as a publicist, she took a few minutes to talk with someone who has been reviewing plays in Boston for five years now.
"No."

3) Ann has decided not to give press comps to WERSfm "...because they're just a little college radio station."
You know WERS --- the station that broadcasts Four Hours of Broadway Show Music every Saturday from 10 to 2 on their Standing Room Only show? The only local station that does interviews and live performances with people in local productions (such as Mandy Patinkin when he's in town)? The station that beams that show to an under-thirty crowd of college kids, many of whom are theater majors and lots of whom can be found catching cig-breaks half a block from the very theatre where "Tallulah" will be playing? THAT "...little college radio station"!

4) You remember when "Art" at the Colonial and "Taller Than A Dwarf" at ye Wilbur both opened in the same week? (I told you Ann Sheehan is not alone.) Well, B in B circulated a promotional brochure about those two shows which included an interesting chart touting the savings you'd get if you were a "subscriber" or a "member" (what the difference is I couldn't decipher) at various levels of outlay. But, funny thing --- the Discount prices in the chart were HIGHER than the Regular prices.
Yes of course I realized that the columns were in the wrong places. I'm sure everyone who got a copy of that brochure realized that.
Why didn't Ann Sheehan realize that?
It only takes a day or so of rushed, overworked incompetence to allow an error that egregious to go to press, but once all that slick-paper money was wasted, only a p/r person with a death-wish would do a mass-mailing of it and heap so much egg on B in B's face.

The bottom line, though, is that Ann has never managed to put an error-free brochure into the mails since she started working here.
So much for on-the-job training.

But Ann Sheehan's not really the problem here. The problem is that no one at B in B or at sfx cares that she is a continual, incompetent screw-up.
I keep asking the people I know around ye Wilbur the same question the player-coach of the hockey team in "Slapshot" kept asking: "Who Owns You?" Who's calling the shots? Who makes decisions? Where's the muscle? And no one seems to know.
The one thing I do know is that, sadly, it's not Jon Platt. If Jon Platt were really running things here in Boston, Ann Sheehan would have been flipping burgers at a Wendy's two years ago.
But there is someone --- whether here in the B in B offices, or in New York or Peoria or wherever the sfx theatrical group headquarters, promoting World Wrestling and sending shows to Boston --- who has refused to fire her, either for not knowing how to do her job or for refusing to learn.

But of course Ann is only the tip of a huge iceberg of incompetence and indifference, only another nail in the coffin of Big, Expensive Theater here in Boston. I don't know if it's really true that Ann, despite her performance, keeps her job only because the company decided to starve the accredited p/r people here in Boston out of existence as a first step toward crushing the expensive power of the theatrical unions. Ann Sheehan is simply the most recent of a long series of decisions by which the company has pissed away the most intelligent, enthusiastic audience for theater outside New York --- and made tons of money while doing it.

I think it started when the costs of bringing a show here for try-outs began to inch up past a break-even point. And, yes, the theatrical unions had a real hand in that; however those trade unions made an offer decades ago that they would negotiate lower salaries if management would guarantee them fifty weeks of work a year. That, of course, would compel the producers to find plays that would, at the very least, pay the "nut" of staff salaries each week. Instead, they find it more economical to close the theatres between blockbusters, forcing the union members to live on unemployment until the next show. Personally, I think more plays in those Big Barns would be good for theater, on all levels, in Boston.
But what the hell do I know about theatrical economics?

The picture here began to change, I think, with the open-ended run of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" at ye Wilbur. No, I don't know the dates, but I think it was around 1970, and I've been told it's still the longest run in any of the Broadway Barns so far. JuJamCyn still owned the local theatres back then, and The Wang was a motion-picture house (or was it dark?). Anyway, the long run put a lot of short Equity actors to work, but it also cut the number of houses doing short-run tryouts here by a third.

Up until then, ye Wilbur was home for plays much too good or much too bad to draw audiences big enough to fill the Colonial. I think the nut is smaller there too --- they save the salaries for all the ushers in a non-existent mezzanine for instance. And shows came up here --- and then to New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington --- for two-week runs to test lines and bits and performers against real, theater-hungry audiences. And to find out what Elliot Norton had to say about them. But tryout-touring became more and more expensive, and gradually they gave way to preview-runs in New York itself, longer-run or open-ended runs of big shows after their Broadway runs slowed --- and longer and longer dark stretches in between them.

The elephantias accompanying Sir Andrew's sung-through sagas did something to skew the mix as well. A big-machine musical like "Miss Saigon" or "Beauty And The Beast" cost a bundle to put up, but once built they were part of the architecture ("Cats") or like "Phantom" popped up at the Wang for lucrative runs every six months or so. Their one major selling-point seems to be that they're much bigger than the goldfish-bowl of television.

Ah, television.
Pat Collins and now Joyce Kulhawik put theater reviews on the tube, but more and more television advertising began putting asses on seats. And the occasional appearance of a tele-star on the boards could hypo the sales figures. But I'm told the percentage of eager couch-potatoes who wanted to buy seats for "Frasier in 'Hamlet'" was depressingly large. But a full house is, after all, a full house and that means a full bank-account. If it's a big-name star or a long-run show, why worry that no one in the audience is under forty or living on social security? The Wang/Shubert and the Wilbur/Colonial are competing for the highest ticket-prices in the city, and who cares how good or bad the show really is so long as they buy a lot of mugs and T-shirts, right? How else will their grandchildren know they saw WhoEverItIs, live onstage?

But, of course, unless it has music, and dancing, and chandeliers and helicopters and a tilting deck, is it really worth sixty dollars a head? It looks just the way it did on the television ads, doesn't it, only bigger!

But the Emerson kids catching cig-breaks a few yards down the block aren't fighting each other for student-rush, are they? Actually, they're not fighting for any of the sixty seats at The Actors' Workshop either, even though the top price there is ten percent of the tariff at the Colonial. They aren't going to Any theater much anymore. Maybe they think once you've watched one helicopter rise or one chandelier fall, you've pretty much seen them all.

Theater in Boston suffers from dry-rot; it has been decaying from-the-top-down for the past thirty years. Those who can afford seats in the Big Barns will not shell out for a "Waiting in The Wings" or an "Art" or a "Wit" or a "Diary of Anne Frank" or a "Barrymore" because that big, intelligent, eagerly theater-hungry audience that would take a chance, sight-unseen, on a non-musical out-of-town-tryout has been systematically priced out of existence by big-buck bombs and tired road-shows and not a cent spent on audience-building, ever. Broadway in Boston has become a big, over-priced dodo ready for extinction.

WHAT ONE THING MIGHT CHANGE THINGS?

Well, nobody who would hire or refuse to fire an Ann Sheehan could possibly care, but that audience that used to sit with me in ye Wilbur might be built up again if anyone really wanted to.

1) Take the theater unions' offer seriously. Commit to running at least ye Wilbur as a kind of live-theater grind-house. Fill it with new, small, imaginative little shows that would never fill the house but would pay all expenses, and would get people, especially younger people, into the habit of seeing live stage shows again. Make sure that there's always Something going on in The Theatre District, so that the blockbuster-or-dark mentality disappears.

2) Cut prices, certainly for the top-balcony seats and obviously for students. Give discounts or twofers or even free tickets to anyone who has a college i.d. from a theater school. Bus people in from high-schools and colleges for special matinees and seminars with the actors in For Credit Classes.

3) Be willing to fail.
Some of the most exciting shows I used to see coming through Boston's Barns were acquired-taste experiences. But I acquired that taste, didn't I? So what if half the audience never comes back for the second act; the ones who do will catch the bug. And even talking about a turkey --- especially if the tariff was affordable --- sharpens taste and encourages a willingness to try again for a better one. I hated "Her First Roman" and "The Odyssey, a Musical" but I could have afforded to buy the seats, and when Hal Holbrook came here in "Death of A Salesman" I was ready to be impressed. If young minds can be cajoled into the habit of seeing even a lot of bad plays, they'll know when the good ones come along. They can't all be sell-out crowds paying big bucks for what, increasingly, seems to be less than the best.

But what a Joy it was last week to sit in a really big really full theatre watching a really huge cast on a really huge set doing a good, moving production that Wasn't A Musical!
At The Colonial? At the Wang?

At the Huntington.

I saw six shows in six days this past week, on all levels, and every one of them was a winner. The North Shore Music Theatre did a big Equity classic musical with a name star; the Huntington did a huge straight-play as old as I am; Theatrics did a new set of short plays by a local playwright on the same stage where Pet Brick is doing a Mamet play; Boston Playwrights' Theatre did a tight three-actor new play; The Lyric Stage of Boston opened a lovingly gritty biography-play; and Second Stage did a staged-reading of yet another new play. Only one of them was a musical. None of them were being flogged on the tube.
But there wasn't a bad show in the lot. And I'm going to see Rick Lombardo's "Lear" Friday night!

So I'm not much bothered by the fact that Ann Sheehan will never invite me to see a B in B show ever again. I've been to 115 shows here around Boston so far this year, and guess how many of the few Big Barn shows I've snuck in to see are in the running for Best Show of The Year so far?

Right......

Love,
===Anon.

RESPONSE

Subject: SFX
Date: Fri, 22 Sep 2000 20:51:24 GMT
From: [ NAME WITHHELD ]

DEAR LARRY:

In response to Anon's "letter" about SFX. I had the same experience, but as a potential job holder there. They kept me on the hook for 4-5 months, only to then tell me that they weren't interested. The people who interviewed me were extremely arrogant and wanted to immensely impress upon me that they worked for Don Law(I guess he used to own what has now become SFX). That and one of my interviewers had the nerve to suggest that I not tell the receptionist that I was there for interviews, because part of my job(if hired) would be to replace this poor woman. Very, very tacky!!!
I later spoke to a friend of mine who places people in Arts Administrative positions, she told me that SFX has a reputation(well-deserved) of being totally chaotic and totally arrogant. That they feel that they are God's gift to theatre, because they are in the "Professional" end of the Biz and handle people like Judd Hirsch.
A good friend of mine, later applied for the same job over there and was treated the same exact way. That, and he said, that they have no idea of how Boston operates as a Venue and they don't want to know either. -Which might explain why Anon. got that crappy flyer. They probably knew Beverly's name, but not much else! Boston deserves better show management people than this in our midst, period!
Personally, although it is my job to be a professional actor and to work, I look askance now at anything from SFX that comes across my path!
Signed, also Anon. 'cause I gotta work and eat!!!
P.S. I just LOVE THE MIRROR!!!


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