Posts tagged: Villa Thrilla

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #14 Getting to Opening Night…

#14.  Getting to Opening Night or overcoming obstacles so you can have one

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

Getting a play ready for an audience can be exciting, hard work, torturous, expensive and maybe even fun. But I don’t think it’s the producers who experience much of that last one. Understanding ticketing (the subject of the previous post) and all its 21st century permutations will likely be the least of your concerns. Filling seats may be critical to your show’s financial viability. But being ready for that audience trumps all in terms of the show’s critical success and your play’s future viability. If it’s not you might find yourself returning money when you delay opening or close early because you never should have opened.

Villa Thrilla needed more time to be ready for an audience but we forged ahead anyway, despite encountering more than our share of obstacles. We had 5 ½ weeks for rehearsal, which should have been enough, but one week in we lost a key actor in our 10-character show and it took another 10 days to find a replacement. Several actors were sick, or otherwise didn’t make it to rehearsal a lot. They had auditions, sick parents and/or needed to leave the state to attend religious holidays, which had somehow appeared on the calendar after they turned in their conflict sheets. Grrr…

It was a brand new play that could have benefited from workshopping, a luxury we didn’t have. Rewrites were needed for any number of reasons—bits didn’t work, actors had trouble with lines, our set would not accommodate the actions I’d written or—here’s a good reason to rewrite—I found ways to say things more concisely. All these rewrites meant new pages daily until Gary (our director) said “Stop!” I didn’t want to kill multiple trees in this process so I’d bring in new pages to insert into existing scripts. Well, this was a failure with most actors having the “old page 6–A-2” or whatever it was. This reached a devastating conclusion at what must have been among the worst designer stumble-throughs in the history of theatre. It brought new meaning to the phrase “not on the same page.” Our well-mannered lighting designer wore an expression of embarrassed dread. I was feeling both too.

Then there were the stage and set preparations that went awry. The scrim was measured wrong or so said the construction crew. Or was it that the construction crew cut the scrim wrong, thereby screwing up the designer’s measurements? We had to buy more expensive scrim. Critical personnel were rarely there at the same time so communication broke down. We had plenty of time to build the set before opening (though it was an elaborate one) but we had delay after delay with causation and responsibility difficult to ascertain. Promises made, broken, remade and broken again. And if you’ve been reading these posts, you might remember the “couch” issue, where I drove all over LA wasting gas and checking out couches that would meet the expectations of the set designer, Gary and my wallet. I painted the floor myself, because it had to be done on a certain day and there was no one else to do it. And there were lots of other challenges with getting the set ready in time, though once it was up and functioning we were all very happy and it received its own share of good reviews.

Failure is not an option as one is negotiating all the obstacles one is faced with in getting a show up. It’s just a question of how you will compromise on your vision with the materials you have to work with, keeping in mind that vanishing time horizon as opening night draws near.

Then you get to tech week, which can be so torturous Anne Washburn wrote a play about it called 10 of 12, which just had a run at Soho Rep. Our first day of tech represented the first time all the actors were present for rehearsal since the first read-through, so for me it was less torturous than most other rehearsals. During tech, actors run through the bits of the show when light and sound cues occur. All that gets put into a computer for the Stage Manager. Fortunately for Villa Thrilla, we had an incredible stage manager in Josephine Austin. Throughout the entire process and despite all the turbulence, Josie remained unflappable and held us all together. Now, with tech over, Josie took control and we were ready for our two previews. No obstacles to overcome appeared on either night. Costumes, the set, make up, the board—everything worked. People came to watch and both previews went well. We made a tweak or two to sound/light cues but nothing major. There were also still quite a few bungled or forgotten lines but with ten actors onstage, someone usually knew where they were and could get the play back on track. All of us felt pretty good about the show we’d made and were looking forward to opening.

Finally, the Saturday morning of opening night dawned. Everything was ready to go. Our associate producer, Jerusha Aimee Liu had arrangements for the after party in hand. Wine, beer and concessions to sell at intermission had been purchased. A few critics would be in attendance though none from the top newspapers or blogs, despite our publicist’s best efforts. I knew what I was going to wear and there was nothing more to be done. So I rose early and went on a hike. About halfway in, my brother called throwing down the last obstacle I would need to surmount. His call was to tell me our father had died. Though it wasn’t a big surprise it was still devastating. Not only because I loved my father, but I had planned to see him two days later as soon as the show opened. I sat down on a rock and cried, questioning the timing of it all. I might have spent several hours on that rock but I had to get on with it. As things went, opening night went by in a blur. I was too blue to be worried about the show and being at the theatre kept me from wallowing in grief. I didn’t watch the show that night but from the audience response, I knew it went well. We’d gotten over that last hurdle.

Next up: Reviews and Keeping it Going

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #12 Rehearsal…

#12. Rehearsals – Or… Making it to Opening Night

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

In the theater, things don’t always happen in a nice, sequential and unstressful order. And in Equity-waiver theatre—read low-budget—things not going as planned is the order of the day. Meaning a playwright doesn’t often have the luxury of a wonderful theatre to work in, fabulous designers to bring her vision to life, a positive casting period during which actors ideal for the roles you’ve written show up to audition and a smooth but exciting rehearsal period where each rehearsal builds upon the last; until finally your show peaks on opening night in front of an appreciative audience with top critics in attendance loving your play. Oh, would that it were so easy! In fact, getting a play up is more a case of overcoming obstacles—whether those obstacles be physical or mental. And with Villa Thrilla, we had our share of both.

Once we had our cast—a challenge in itself—rehearsal began with just four weeks until opening night. (For more on the challenges of casting, see this post in the series: http://lafpi.com/2015/03/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-9-finding-your-actors/) Four weeks is not much time when you’re mounting a new play with a cast of ten; particularly when it seemed impossible to get all the actors to the same rehearsals, even though the play required that their characters be on stage at the same time.

You do your best to get peoples’ schedules ahead of time in order to plan rehearsals but a few people in our cast apparently hadn’t heard about looking at a calendar to verify their availability before committing to doing a play. Did they not know about Yom Kippur or their Mother’s birthday when they signed on? Add losing a cast member one week into rehearsals, losing another cast member for 10 days when a parent became sick out of town and a third cast member who was so difficult to work with we wanted to lose him but replacing him would have meant losing another cast member we liked and there just wasn’t time to get new people up to speed.

The only advantage I can see to 99-seat theatre going away—and I truly hope it does not—is an advantage only to Producers. I guess they should get something for having to pay actors more. The advantage I see is that actors will need to make a greater commitment to the play they have agreed to do, adhering to rehearsal schedules for the privilege of earning minimum wage. Currently actors can pretty much not show up if they feel a little sick, have an audition the next day or realize there were important events they forgot—including their dog’s graduation from obedience school.

The fact that we didn’t have all the actors to rehearse when we needed them made a lot more work for Gary Lee Reed (Director), Josephine Austin (Stage Manager) and me. At the time, if felt as if it took years off our lives. Gary couldn’t tell what he was looking at with the stage missing up to 5 people at any given rehearsal, which resulted in having to block scenes multiple times; Josie was constantly changing blocking in her master script and having to phone errant actors who were late or hadn’t shown up; And I was not able to watch and rewrite during rehearsals, something I’d been counting on, because I had to stand-in for missing cast members—often two or three of them in the same scene. I was dashing around the stage speaking with multiple dialects and vocal timbres providing a real person for the actors who had actually shown up to rehearse. Some nights, we wanted to strangle someone—usually someone who was missing—and yet, we had to try to remain upbeat for the actors who bothered to come to rehearsal. What would be gained by screaming? I don’t know; we didn’t try it. But I doubt it would have improved the rehearsal experience, which I’d hoped would be a gloriously fruitful period when my play would change and grow in leaps and bounds. But alas, I didn’t get to have that on this one.

Being an AEA actor as well as a playwright, I like to think I understand actors but when I put my producer hat on for Villa Thrilla, I was shocked by the behavior of some of my fellow thespians. Emergencies are one thing but it would never occur to me to commit to doing a show, commence rehearsals and then spring a few “unavailable” dates on the producers.

In retrospect, I would have helped myself by choosing a play with a smaller cast but I’ve already explained why I chose this play in the post on Selecting the Work: http://lafpi.com/2014/12/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-3-selecting-the-work/

Shockingly, we did not have our entire cast onstage at the same time until 5 days before opening. And the only thing I can say by way of comfort if you’re considering producing your play, is that once we got to tech, the actors were mostly great. They showed up for the remainder of rehearsals, then performances and, for the most part, knew their lines. So you may get a few more gray hairs, but if you hire professionals, they will be there.

Next up: Ticketing, pre-sales and making some money back

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: # 9 Finding Your Actors…

# 9. Finding Your Actors… or Do you Need a Casting Director?

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas 

When you’re preparing the perfect meal, you need quality ingredients to make it turn out the way you want, right? A play is not much different. Without actors who can bring your words to life, you’re going to get a soufflé that won’t rise or gnocchi that won’t gnock anyone’s socks off.

So, in a word, yes, you need a casting director; although there are several exceptions: If you’ve written a one-woman show for your best friend who says she’ll do it no matter where or when, you’re set; if you must use the member actors of the theatre company you’re partnering with, ditto; if you are intimately familiar with the theatre scene where you live and know all the actors by their work, and (often more importantly) their work ethic, you may also not need one. But a casting director can open up the range of choices in so many ways; especially if you have to find specific types of actors (e.g., little people with perfect French accents and the ability to juggle fire) whom you have limited knowledge of. A good casting director will organize your open call (should you have one), post a breakdown, as well as organize auditions, call-backs, deal with agents—should there be any—determine an actor’s availability AND he or she will often know whether a given actor is a team player or a diva who could make getting your play up and running—a process that should be fun—an ordeal.

Initially, I had hoped to partner with a theatre company. Our deal was to be that five of the ten actors required for Villa Thrilla would be company members, which seemed a fair trade-off for what the company would be bringing to the production—reputation and cash. We agreed we’d network among our contacts to find the other five. But as mentioned in an earlier post, “artistic differences” put a kibosh on the co-production and so when we parted, I was in a time crunch and needed help.

Even though I knew a lot of actors and considered myself knowledgeable about the casting process—I’d auditioned and been hired (and rejected) enough to pick up a few things—it was not so simple. I figured I’d just call my friends, Facebook friends and acquaintances, ask them to do it and adhere to the 99-Seat plan!(which could be going away. See #8 in this series). But three things soon became apparent: (1) I knew far fewer people who were right for the play than I thought, (2) most of the people I thought could do it were unavailable and (3) casting the play was a big job that I was ill-equipped to do alone. So I took a look at several playbills I’d saved and there were a few casting directors whose names appeared over and over. One of them was Raul Staggs. Raul had cast me in a new play a couple of years earlier and I liked him. He was personable, professional and I knew he knew the Equity Waiver scene in Los Angeles as well as anyone. So I called him up, we talked, settled on a fee (CDs can charge anywhere from a few hundred to $3000 for an Equity Waiver show, depending…) and that was that.

Raul was wonderful to work with, well organized and he did all the heavy lifting. The director and I only had to show up for auditions and make choices, which was hard enough. He provided a buffer between us—Producer and Director—and the many actors we saw, keeping things moving and on schedule. Having Raul on board also increased our credibility factor. Actors and agents know him and his reputation. Having his name on the project made it appear more legitimate, which made actors and agents more open to submitting. This was vital, especially with respect to those actors who were hard-to-find. We needed to cast a wide net beyond our circles, to find them.

One pretty cool thing happened during casting, which requires a little backstory: Early in my TV career (or late given what didn’t occur after), I worked with Doris Roberts in the waning days of Remington Steele. On that show, we had a fight over an urn. “Back off Blondie,” she told me. “That’s MY urn!” Doris got her urn and I went to jail. But when I first began writing Villa Thrilla and created the role of Camilla, the toilet bowl heiress, whose voice is heard in the play, it was Doris’ voice I heard in my head. Other actresses had read the role but I couldn’t move forward with casting anyone else until Doris had said “No.” Through our publicist, Lucy Pollak, I contacted Doris’ managers. Then I wrote Doris a letter and was floored when she said she would be the voice of Camilla. She’s a fan of small theatre and wanted to help. Raul was the one who encouraged me to ask her, proving you never know.

And this has some bearing on celebrities generally and trying to get at least one of them in your show. We’ve all heard about how TV networks, web series, video game producers are all vying for “eyeballs.” Theatre in LA is no different, though we use “butts in seats” as our goal. There is a lot happening and it’s tough to put BIS and pull the eyeballs away from all the other options. On Villa Thrilla’s opening weekend, as many as 10 other shows opened, which means we struggled to get one of the more influential critics to see the show and hopefully give it a good review so we could use it for promotion. Well, we never got that influential critic, not over the entire run. Having a known entitiy—read celebrity—in your show elevates your chances of getting not only critics to see your show, but paying audience members in those seats. So, note to self: Next time, should there be a next time, get someone in the cast who people will come out for. As Tim Wright, Artistic Director of Circle X Theatre and Producer of the current hit, Trevor told me, “Get Laurie Metcalf and everything else pretty much falls into place.”

Next Post: Choosing Your Design Team

The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: #3 Selecting the Work…

#3 The Play’s the Thing – Selecting the Work

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

In the wild, lions rule and don’t care if others like the way they take down big game. But in the small, equity-waiver theatre world most of us frequent, once you decide to self-produce, you need other people. It’s one of the best things about doing it—the collaboration. But putting on a play is expensive so at the onset the artist part of you needs to have a conversation with the practical side (yes, you have one). The play really is “the thing.” If you are not in a theatre company that has a built in support network, you need to choose a show that will attract a good director, actors, co-producers, and designers, which will also ideally find an enthusiastic audience. I’m not in the school of artists who say the work is enough. We write/act/create to connect with others and if we can’t get people to see our art, then we’ve failed in that little piece of why we make it. The main reason we make art—because we are compelled to—in this, we’ll never fail.

Whether you’re an actor, director or playwright with a couple of scripts to choose from—you need to select the play that is most likely to achieve your desired end. Is it to get an agent? Is it to get good reviews or to develop a Google presence? Actress/Producer/Director Deidra Edwards was smart when she decided to self-produce, casting herself in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig. She was right for the role and she selected a play/playwright with a big following.

My goal was to restart my career after early success, which I’d abandoned to raise my son. I also wanted to have fun. In retrospect, these goals were not enough and were motivated too much by emotion rather than any sort of business sense.

Of the two plays I thought were ready, one was a four-character dramedy about an Apollo astronaut with Alzheimer’s and the other, a ten-character murder mystery farce called Villa Thrilla—very different shows that would speak to very different audiences. To help me decide, I consulted friends, fellow playwrights and others in the industry and it was generally agreed that without a known actor starring as the astronaut, the astronaut play would be the harder sell. It would be difficult to put an uplifting positive spin on the story so that people would come see an unknown, in a play by an unknown. So I went with the farce, which was beset with its own set of hurdles: a cast of ten and more expensive set, which would require a larger theatre. Looking back, with the issues we faced, I might as well have tossed a coin. And speaking of coin, the next post will be about getting the money together.

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