2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival winners


“Claudio Quest,” about a super-hero on a mission to overcome killer eggplants; “Single Wide,” about a single mother living in a trailer park with her own single mother who wants to avoid all men to break the cycle for her son;  and the Cobalteans, about a group of friends who gather together in a lake house a year after their friend Gabriel’s death, were among the big winners of the NYMF Awards for Excellence, chosen by a jury selected by the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

The full list of awards:

from The Cobaleans

from The Cobaleans

Outstanding Music
Ben Chavez, The Cobalteans

Outstanding Lyrics
Yianni Papadimos, The Cobalteans

Outstanding Book
Yianni Papadimos, The Cobalteans

Outstanding Direction
John Tartaglia, Claudio Quest

Outstanding Choreography
Justin Boccitto, What Do Critics Know?

Outstanding Overall Design
Claudio Quest – Timothy R. Mackabee (Scenic), Jennifer Schriever (Lighting), Leon Dobkowski (Costume), Matt Kraus (Sound)

nymusicaltheatrefestivalOutstanding Musical Direction
Evan Feist, Acappella

Outstanding Orchestrations/Arrangements
Evan Feist, Acappella

Outstanding Lead Actor
Sam Bolen, Pope! An Epic Musical

Outstanding Lead Actress
Sheridan Harbridge, Songs for the Fallen

Outstanding Featured Actor
Andre Ward, Claudio Quest

Outstanding Featured Actress
Liz McCartney, Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera

Outstanding Ensemble Performance
Acappella – Miche Braden, Darilyn Castillo, Anthony Chatmon II, Katrina Rose Deideriksen, Cheryl Freeman, Rachel Gavaletz, Emily Goglia, Tyler Hardwick, Alex Koceja, Janelle McDermoth, Gavyn Pickens, Garett Turner, Darryl Jovan Williams, Virginia Ann Woodruff

Manuel vs. ROUND 1

Shakeena Nayfack, Manuel vs. Statue of Liberty

Outstanding Individual Performance
Derek Carley, Single Wide
Lindsey Brett Carothers, Claudio Quest
Mark Coffin, Wearing Black
Jason Edward Cook, Pope! An Epic Musical
Stacia Fernandez, Single Wide
Matthew Miner, Single Wide
Mary Mossberg, What Do Critics Know?
Shakina Nayfack, Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty
Jacqueline Petroccia, Single Wide
Ethan Slater, Claudio Quest

Special Citations
Social Relevance and Impact – Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty
Puppetry and Puppet Design – Michael Schupbach and The Puppet Kitchen, Claudio Quest

Best of Fest Audience Prize
The Calico Buffalo

The 2015 NYMF Award for Best Musical Sponsored by Play-by-Play
Songs for the Fallen

Claudio Quest: 6
Single Wide: 4
The Cobalteans: 3
What Do Critics Know?: 2
Acapella: 2
Pope! An Epic Musical: 2
Manuel vs The Statue of Liberty: 2
Songs For The Fallen: 2
Tonya & Nancy: A Rock Opera: 1
The Calico Buffalo: 1
Wearing Black: 1

Historic Videos: Marilyn Monroe Weds; Dies. Celebrities Debut on Broadway.

The Associated Press film and video archives, put up last week on YouTube, means 1.7 million stories to choose from, including these involving Marilyn Monroe; a demonstration by Broadway performers carrying “Don’t Kill Broadway” signs, and featuring Theodore Bikel; as well as videos showing a variety of celebrities debuting on Broadway: Paul Simon, Elton John, Dolly Parton.

Marilyn Monroe Weds Joe DiMaggio 1954

Marilyn Monroe Dies Tragically (plus a news item about Eisenhower weirdly tacked on)

Broadway Performers Demonstrate – featuring Theodore Bikel

Paul Simon on Broadway

Elton John to write a musical

Dolly Parton announces Nine to Five Musical


The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey Review: A Gay Boy, and the Town He Touched


A 14-year-old boy is reported missing, and eventualy found dead. Chuck DeSantis, who worked the case as a tough-talking detective “in a half-ass town down the Jersey shore,” begins to tell us the story as if it’s a murder mystery, a film noir on stage (“The dark side is my beat.”)

But “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” which has opened at the Westside Theater, is not really a murder mystery, and that’s part of its appeal. It is, above all, a showcase for the impressive theatrical talents of James Lecesne, who portrays the detective and eight other characters, male and female, young and old. He does this without props or a change of costumes — just precise, spot-on gestures; a shift in accent and manner of speech.

“Leonard Pelkey” is also a play written by Lecesne to promote a cause, one with which he has been associated for decades.

In 1994, Lecesne wrote a short movie entitled “Trevor”, which told the story of a 13-year-old gay boy who tries to commit suicide because his friends reject him. The movie won an Academy Award, and spawned The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth.

“Leonard Pelkey” is also about a gay teenager, one who wore Capri pants, nail polish and mascara, and turned his sneakers into rainbow platform shoes. Yes, as it turns out, he is the victim of a hate crime. But the primary purpose of Lecesne’s play is less about Leonard’s death and more about his life – the way this obvious oddball touched so many people.

While the detective investigates Leonard’s disappearance and then his death, we learn:

Leonard knew more about beauty products than his adoptive aunt Ellen, the owner of a beauty salon

he played leads in the community theater productions put on by Buddy, the British-born proprietor of Buddy Howard’s School of Drama and Dance (“I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands.”)

the local watch repairman Otto recalls how Leonard would visit him every afternoon after school; “To see a boy like that, in this world, in my shop with no apology, this was to me a miracle” – in part because he didn’t treat his own gay son so well

Leonard’s cousin Phoebe gives a eulogy:

“Before Leonard came to live with us, he had a pretty rotten life, and even after, it wasn’t all that great. But I never met anyone more determined to make the best of every situation. When I tell you that he could make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, I mean that literally. He gave it to me for my last birthday. It was totally gross, but also kind of amazing.”

What the townspeople say about Leonard Pelkey is sweet and often funny – and the picture that emerges is of a misfit who was really something of a saint. Yes, this is sentimental and unrealistic (although not apparently to everybody; Lecesne felt compelled to tell us in a program note that Leonard is not based on an actual person.) “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” is no more believable a portrait than that of the saintly Jimmy Stewart character in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Keep in mind, that’s a movie with a similar simple, sentimental message – everybody’s life has meaning and worth – that people watch every year.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street)

Written and performed by James Lecesne

Directed by Tony Speciale

Scenic design by Jo Winiarski, lighting design by Matt Richards, sound design by Christian Frederickson, projection design by Aaron Rhyne, original animation and photography by Matthew Sandager, costumes by Paul Marlow

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Ticket prices: $85

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is scheduled to run through October 4, 2015.

King Liz Review: Like Jerry Maguire, But Black and Female

King LIz 1 Karen Pittman and Jeremie Harris. photo by Carol RoseggJerry Maguire, hang up your cell phone; Ari Gold, park your Ferrari. Make room for the super sports agent of “King Liz,” portrayed vibrantly by Karen Pittman in a new play by Fernanda Coppel at Second Stage Theater. Liz Rico starts her day lip-synching to Notorious B.I.G.’s Juicy:

Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner…

Like many a rapper, and some of her star athlete clients, Liz grew up in the projects, “on mayonnaise sandwiches and sugar water.” She pushed her way to Yale and is now the rich, hard-charging head of the “NBA division of the top sports agency in the country,” as her boss Mr. Candy puts it. Mr. Candy is retiring and he’d like Liz to run the whole agency, but the board has a problem with her “people skills” (possible translation: that she’s a woman), so he persuades her to try to sign a new client that Mr. Candy thinks will become a huge star, thus quieting the naysayers. The client is 19-year-old Freddie, a high school basketball star from the projects of Red Hook. Freddie has amazing athletic skills. He also has a criminal record.

At their first meeting, Liz doesn’t so much woo him as warn him: “This business is a graveyard of talented promising players.” But she also makes him a promise: “I will fight for you to be successful the way I fought for myself to make it in this world that doesn’t want people like us to succeed.”

Where “King Liz” goes from there is not completely predictable, but it does more or less follow one of the two conventional paths of sports dramas. This is not the convention that ends in a tense-filled but ultimately triumphant game. (It doesn’t even try to depict the game on stage — unlike, say, “Magic/Bird” which projected video footage of actual basketball games. The closest we get to the game of basketball in “King Liz” is watching Liz’s reaction to an unseen game that’s on TV.)

This is the other conventional sports narrative – the cautionary tale. Freddie is, as his new coach initially predicted, too emotionally immature to handle the pressure and attention of a pro ball career. Freddie’s first outbursts are dramatic, and exciting, but there reaches a point where we start to question Liz’s much-vaunted judgment and savvy – and eventually we start to question the playwright’s choices.

But if the ending isn’t satisfying and the resulting moral somewhat muddled, there are two aspects of “King Liz” that make it worthwhile theater. The play offers insight into the ways that race, gender, class and age complicate ambition, power and success in our culture. This is done subtly and effectively through Liz’s interactions, not just with Freddie but also in her condescending behavior towards her long-frustrated and super-efficient Latina assistant Gabby (Irene Sofia Lucio), her often-toadying behavior towards her well-meaning powerful white boss Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen), and her love-hate-power-shifting duet with Coach Jones.

And those relationships are rendered credible, amusing, and moving by a uniformly terrific cast. Jeremie Harris does wonders with Freddie, the swaggering athlete who is far closer to child than man — when he’s nervous, he drinks chocolate milk and asks for Liz to sing to him in Spanish the way his now-deported Venezuelan mother used to (Liz gets her assistant Gabby to do so.) Russell G. Jones as the coach of the Knicks is so good that he sometimes feels like the emotional center of the play – and when he reveals something deeper than friendship for Liz, you not only believe it, you hope that Liz will reciprocate. Even Caroline Lagerfelt manages to pull off a completely believable TV host clearly modeled on Barbara Walters, resisting what must have been an overwhelming urge towards skit-like parody.

The greatest glory in “King Liz” is reserved for the title character, and Karen Pittman does her full justice. Pittman portrayed a reserved, somewhat snooty lawyer in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play “Disgraced.” That was a far more high-profile drama than “King Liz” will probably wind up being, but the newer play affords the actress a chance to be foul-mouthed, hyperkinetic and harshly in-your-face just like every sports agent you’ve ever seen depicted (are they really all like that?) and also earthy, vulnerable, lonely and full of regrets – simultaneously a colorful character, and a shaded one.

King Liz

Second Stage Theatre Uptown

2162 Broadway (76th Street)

By Fernanda Coppel

Directed by Lisa Peterson

Dane Laffrey (scenic design)
Jessica Pabst (costume design)
Tyler Micoleau (lighting design)
Darron L. West (sound design)


Michael Cullen (Mr. Candy), Jeremie Harris (Freddie)
Russell G. Jones (Coach Jones)
Caroline Lagerfelt (Barbara Flowers)
Irene Sofia Lucio (Gabby)
Karen Pittman (Liz)

“King Liz” is scheduled to run through August 8.

Hamilton Makes History…and Ham. RIP Bikel, Doctorow. The Week in New York Theater.


Although it doesn’t open until August 6, Hamilton couldn’t be doing better at the box office, with more than 100 percent attendance, and 110 percent of “gross potential.” Securing an affordable ticket to the show is a challenge, despite the daily lottery, which they’re calling #Ham4Ham.


That’s hip speak for ten dollar tickets to the show, but it has a second meaning too –  the cast has been hamming it up each day for the lottery hopefuls.


This swells the number of people drawn to the lottery, which was already 704 for the very first lottery (that’s for maybe 20 seats.) The result is of course to reduce everybody’s chances of actually winning a ticket. But everybody who shows up does wind up getting entertained, no matter how briefly.

Hamilton’s promotion involves showing how ignorant American actors are about American history –

Even the President of the United States is in on the act

My own promotion of the show is a quiz: Which Hamilton Character Are You?


Day jobs? Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller

Day jobs?
Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller

All this will surely mean big bucks for the creators of the musical. But what of theater artists who don’t make a living at their art? Can you still call them professional? That’s what we explored in:

Who’s an amateur?

The evolution in the meaning of “professional.” A dozen theater artists weigh in, e.g.:
‘Professional’, to me, connotes a level of commitment, training, focus, & possibly but not always compensation.”

The Week in New York Theater Reviews


My review of Amazing Grace

To see President Obama break into “Amazing Grace” at the June funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was to witness the continuing force of a hymn written more than two and a half centuries ago. This would lead us to expect a show entitled Amazing Grace about its songwriter John Newton to move us emotionally and spiritually.

Amazing Grace, which has opened  at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater, tells the story of John Newton, an 18th century English slave trader who underwent a religious conversion and became a popular preacher, writer, and (eventually) an influential abolitionist. It is an amazing story, but it is told on stage mostly in less than an amazing way. The new musical combines a coming-of-age tale, love story, slave narrative, costume drama, and Saturday morning adventure serial. It tries to do many things at once, in other words, in what winds up being the theatrical equivalent of an unstable alloy.

Manuel vs. ROUND 1

My review of Manuel vs. the Statue of Liberty

Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, we are told, is inspired by the true story of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an undocumented and once-homeless immigrant from the Dominican Republic who got a full scholarship to study the Classics at Princeton University,  and was named salutatorian of his class, delivering his address in Latin, then earning a PhD in classics from Stanford University. His is an engaging story, and an enraging one, because of the obstacles that the U.S. immigration service put in his way. His memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, is being published this week.

Is a musical comedy a good way to tell his story?

….as it turns out, this is in some ways a wonderful musical. It dramatizes an important issue using humor and passion and rhythm. The score is a tuneful mix of hip-hop, Latin, glitter-rock, Broadway ballads, sweet lullabies, even some patriotic anthems. The eight-member cast, under the energetic direction of Jose Zayas, has more than its share of standouts.

The Week in New York Theater News

Theodore Bikel  (May 2, 1924 – July 21, 2105)

“I prefer to make common cause with those whose weapons are guitars and words~

Bikel, 91, was the original Capt von Trapp in Bway’s The Sound of Music, a frequent Tevye in Fiddler

Roger Rees Memorial Set for September 21 at The New Amsterdam Theatre


Taye Diggs begins in Hedwig

Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin is joining the cast of the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway.

Changing My Major to Joan from Fun Home will be performed Late Night with Seth Meyers on 7/29. The song celebrates Alison Bechdel’s first love

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,

Star Alexander Sharp is leaving the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on September 13 (He’s going to a movie.) The play plans to play on.

Long-running shows on Broadway tend to be musicals. The last straight play to last more than 1,000 performances was Torch Song Trilogy – in 1982
Recent Tony-winning best plays and number of performances
2014 All the Way 131
2013 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike 189
2012 Clybourne Park 157
2011 War Horse 718

Long-delayed Performing Arts Center for World Trade Center site dealt another blow – budget cut in half


Benjamin Walker will star in American Psycho, based on Brett Easton Ellis’ controversial novel, opening on Broadway March 21, 2016


Cast joining Andrea Martin for Noises Off includes Megan Hilty, Rob McClure, Tracee Chimo and Jeremy Shamos. Opens January 14


Jose Llana returns to the musical where he made his Broadway debut 19 years ago, The King jose-llana-in King and I 19 years agoand I, this time as king
He is of those “overnight success stories,” a smash as Marcos in Here Lies Love, but actually a SEVEN-time Broadway veteran.)

The Flea’s 2015-2016 Season: From Hollywood Royalty to New-Generation Avant-Garde

“It’s time to educate, rather than scold, a growing audience that’s used to interactivity & not steeped in theater etiquette”


Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s novel, to open April 17 at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatr

Mamie Gummer to star in Broadway’s Ugly Lies the Bone about a pained veteran treated w/ virtual reality video game therapy Sept 10-Nov 22

Marlo Thomas to star in Clever Little Lies, a comedy about marriage, set to open October 14 at West Side Theatre

Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel join Laura Benanti and Josh Radnor in Roundabout’s She Loves Me – a show that changed my life.


Act Of God makes its mammon back (i.e. recoups)

Cameron Mackintosh has announced that Miss Saigon revival will also play Broadway within “the next two years,”

The Week in New York Videos

Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty: Documenting the Undocumented In Song

Manuel vs. ROUND 1Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, we are told, is inspired by the true story of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an undocumented and once-homeless immigrant from the Dominican Republic who got a full scholarship to study the Classics at Princeton University,  and was named salutatorian of his class, delivering his address in Latin, then earning a PhD in classics from Stanford University. His is an engaging story, and an enraging one, because of the obstacles that the U.S. immigration service put in his way. His memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, is being published this week.

Is a musical comedy a good way to tell his story?

Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty, one of the 50 musicals at this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival, is only “inspired” by Padilla Peralta. The team of Noem de La Puente and David Davila take just the bare outlines of his story, changing his name (to Manuel), altering biographical details, and adding a fanciful conceit – that Manuel is going rounds in the boxing ring with the Statue of Liberty herself.

That heavy-handed metaphor might have been enough to sink this show for me.

But as it turns out, this is in some ways a wonderful musical. It dramatizes an important issue using humor and passion and rhythm. The score is a tuneful mix of hip-hop, Latin, glitter-rock, Broadway ballads, sweet lullabies, even some patriotic anthems. The eight-member cast, under the energetic direction of Jose Zayas, has more than its share of standouts.

Shakina Nayfack as the Statue of Liberty is a powerhouse performer with fine comic timing – and something of a towering figure herself, a trans actress whose own story seems a good fit for the stage (and in fact, her autobiographical solo show has been on several.) Her performance does much to make the ringside shtick more tolerable, and she is also used quite cleverly to portray (as the Statue) various types arrayed against immigrants – from a sleazy immigration attorney to the assistant dean of Princeton arguing with the dean against Manuel’s admission because of his immigration status, until the dean ends the argument: “I’m certainly not going to let Harvard get their hands on him.”

Tami Dahbura portrays a character who could not be more different from campy Liberty, Manuel’s mother Mami, but her performance also helps avoid the pitfalls of what could have been an easy stereotype, and her golden-voiced delivery of some of the sweeter melodies in the musical makes the actress feel like a discovery.

Gil Perez-Abraham could be less cute in portraying Manuel in high school, but once the character enters college, he is the persuasive center of the show, a credible leading man.

The scenes basically alternate between the largely realistic story of Manuel and family, and the boxing. Through both we get a glimpse of the life of an undocumented family, and a cursory examination of the issue. In one song, Immigration 101, we are offered a musical rendition of the bureaucratic run-around, with each of the cast representing a different bureaucrat with a different song and dance.  In another song, Foreign Is Foreign, the ensemble sings:

Foreign is Foreign

Don’t let any more in

The country’s been worn thin, but they keep on pouring in

But then the individual Americans – from cowboy to doctor to “tea party governor” – are just as likely to make an argument for immigration as against it

Contractor: I’m building houses, I need labor

Hire guys on the corner; not my neighbor

The boxing never quite worked for me; it seemed an inadequate substitute for more fully developing a plot that makes us become immersed in the world of Manuel and his family. But it was put to better use than I had expected. And by the end of Manuel versus the Statue of Liberby, there is a pay-off – clever, funny, surreal – that almost redeems it.

Gil Perez-Abraham as Manuel. Photos by Shira Friedman

The Flea’s 2015-2016 Season: From Hollywood Royalty to New-Generation Avant-Garde

TheFleasnewseasonIn the first season under the new artistic director Niegel Smith, the Flea is offering new works by in-your-face playwright Thomas Bradshaw (whose previous play include the sex-explicit Intimacy, and the bloody Job);  the first major playwright of the digital age Jennifer Haley (who made a splash in the Spring with The Nether), and a work involving audience participation co-authored by Smith himself and his long-time collaborator Todd Shalom . There will also be big-time Hollywood director Joel Schumacher, as well as some zombies.

September 11 – October 19
FULFILLMENT by Thomas Bradshaw, directed by Ethan McSweeny

Michael has a new girlfriend and has just bought the apartment of his dreams. It seems that his life should be perfect. Little does he know that his hell is just beginning.  What makes us happy?
Cast: Otoja Abit, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Jeff Biehl, Christian Conn, Denny Dillon, and Susannah Flood.
Tickets are $15 – $105 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. T”he production includes violence, nudity and sexual situations.”
October 1 – November 8
STUDENT BODY by Frank Winters, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum

Ten students meet as a winter storm approaches. One of them knows what happened, and no one’s leaving until they all figure out what to do about it. By the end of the night, friendships are tested, allegiances change, and choices are made. The right thing to do is hard to figure out.

The cast will be made up of The Bats, the resident acting company at The Flea.

Tickets are $15 – $35 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. “The production includes graphic discussion of sexual violence.” T

November 9 – December 21
NEIGHBORHOOD 3: REQUISITION OF DOOM by Jennifer Haley, directed by Joel Schumacher (Flatliners, The Lost Boys)

In a quiet cul-de-sac where the Neighborhood Association regulates everything from lawn height to garden gnomes, no one can control the growing addiction to a new online game. Using a GPS map, the game allows teenagers to battle zombies in their own neighborhood. But as the line between the game and reality blurs, everyone must ask themselves: which team are you on?
In conjunction with the play, The Flea will partner with State of Play to present a live action game around the city, entitled Humans vs. Zombies: Neighborhood 3 Edition.
Tickets are $15 – $105 with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. “The production includes violent situations”.

December 1 – January 25
TAKE CARE written by Todd Shalom & Niegel Smith, directed by artistic director Niegel Smith

TAKE CARE is a participatory performance that investigates the ways we respond to present and imminent danger. This evening-length performance gathers and re-configures our personal language around emergency preparedness, abandonment, and consolation.

Niegel Smith and long-time collaborator Todd Shalom (Elastic City) create a performance that explores The Bats’ most urgent personal and global concerns, finding a provocative intersection between our nation’s inadequate response to the systemic racism that devalues brown bodies and the ongoing climate change crisis.

The cast will feature the Bats — and the audience, although individual audience members can determine their level of participation.

July 9 – December 19
#SERIALS@TheFlea produced by Cleo Gray and Crystal Arnette

This is the long-running late night play competition featuring new plays, with tickets costing $12  — and that includes a free beer.

Who’s an Amateur?!


Vinny from Jersey Shore, Bill Gate, Patti LuPone in Shows for Days, the Bats in The Mysteries at the Flea.

When he was in the cast of “Jersey Shore” (and making $100,000 an episode) Vinny Guadagnino described himself on his Twitter profile in six words: “I get paid to be me.” He  was proud to call himself an amateur actor. Few people in the theater embrace the word “amateur” so straightforwardly (nor earn a living wage from their profession, much less what Vinny made.)

A changing economy and a shifting culture, spurred in part by new technology, especially the rise of the Internet, has blurred the very definition of such seemingly concrete concepts as work and expertise in a whole host of fields, and confused the distinction between professional and amateur.

In an article I wrote on HowlRound about the evolving definition of professional, I point out that the recalibration of amateur and professional is playing out in the theater in at least three ways:

Day jobs? Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller

Day jobs?
Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller

1. Would Shakespeare even have understood the concept of a “day job”? He wrote plays to make a living. In the last century, theatre artists worked day jobs until they were able to make a living with their art—Tennessee Williams worked in a shoe warehouse; Arthur Miller was a ship fitter’s helper in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But in an interview four years ago, Tony Kushner, who is surely the heir to such great American playwrights, said: “I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.” The day job has become such a necessity for theatre artists that some have turned it into an advantage: Having a day job, actor and playwright Melissa Bergstrom wrote in HowlRound recently, helps her not just to gain financial stability “but on a deeper artistic level, having a day job has thrown me headfirst in the world in which I live.”

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, author of A Bright New Boise and The Whale, and a recipient of a generous MacArthur Fellowship, said in response to my question to him in a recent weekly HowlRound Twitter chat: “When I started out I never expected [playwriting] to make me any money. When it started to it was a complete surprise. I’m actually glad that I made that assumption. It allowed me to not resent it when it didn’t make money.”

Given the economic reality, don’t we have to come up with a definition of “theater professional” that doesn’t exclude people who make their living in other ways?

George Sanders as critic Addison Dewitt in All About Eve

George Sanders as critic Addison Dewitt in All About Eve

2. Whether or not theatre criticism is dying, or actually expanding, it is certainly changing. As I’ve pointed out, when at a recent conference, the chairman of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the only national organization of American theatre critics, asked the members how many made their living entirely as a critic, only three out of the fifty present raised their hands. Are the ones who kept their hands in their laps no longer professional critics? How will publicists determine who gets free press tickets?

Christopher Fitzgerald (with guitar) in  Lear deBessonet's The Winter's Tale

Christopher Fitzgerald (with guitar) in Lear deBessonet’s The Winter’s Tale

3. The Public Theater’s new season will begin in September with an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, conceived and directed by Public Works Director Lear deBessonet, which they’re calling a “community event”—it will include performers from community theaters across the city. Last year Public Works staged something similar with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, featuring “over 200 actors and community members.”

So, it seems “community theater” is being incorporated into “professional theater.” Involving the community is the lauded aim of many professional theatres, or at least a generally accepted buzzword. So, what distinguishes the two?

It’s not apparently a salary, if “professional theater” can encompass such companies as the Bats, the actors who work without pay at The Flea Off-Off Broadway. Is it quality? Seriousness of purpose? Membership in “professional” organizations?

scene from Shows for Days, play by Douglas Carter Beane about his memory of a community theater

scene from Shows for Days, play by Douglas Carter Beane about his memory of a community theater

We followed up with a Twitter chat; Samuel French and I served as co-hosts.  Some excerpts (heavily edited/rearranged for clarity):

How do you define professional? And amateur?

Theatre Ontario: We use the Ontario Arts Council definition:

“Professional artists:

    • have completed basic training in their artistic discipline or field, either through formal study or by teaching themselves;
    • Are recognized as professional practicing artists by other artists working in the same field;
    • Have a history of public presentation or publication of their work;
    • Spend a significant amount of time practicing their art.”

Kate Powers: Professional’, to me, connotes a level of commitment, training, focus, and possibly but not always compensation.
Todd Backus: Generally (and I know people hate this) I define your profession as the thing you do that pays your bills. This is not to say one can’t comport themselves in a professional manner.
David J. Loehr: By that measure, there are and have been few professional playwrights.
Rachel Delmar: Being a barista is what paid my bills for years. I would never consider myself a professional barista. There are professional baristas. I wasn’t. I had no intention of putting time/passion into being great…If having a survival job means we aren’t professionals there isn’t a professional actor in Seattle theater.
Samuel French: Amy Herzog, Sarah Ruhl, Tina Howe, Paula Vogel, Annie Baker have all taught. Where would we classify them?
Todd Backus: If your income is coming from being a teacher (even a teacher of playwriting) I’d say you’re a professional teacher at that point

J Adrian Verkouteren A professional gets paid; an amateur does something for the love of it (and likely does not get paid)
Samuel French: Does “get paid” mean they have to make a full living?
J Adrian Verkouteren: No. Lots of people (particularly today) have multiple part-time jobs. They are still professionals.
Kathleen Moye: I would consider myself someone who has been both an amateur and a professional actor, depending on the gig.
J Adrian Verkouteren: I don’t think you can  bounce from professional to amateur day-to-day. A professional does not become an amateur because s/he volunteers.
J Adrian Verkouteren: Perhaps people want so much to equate professional with high-quality it clouds the definition.
Corinne Woods: The distinction often seems to be used as a short-hand for artistically worthwhile vs not.
J Adrian Verkouteren: Amateur neither signifies lack of skill nor lack of extensive education and experience.

How does education affect this debate. If you have a degree in your profession, does that make you a professional?

J Adrian Verkouteren: So Bill Gates was not a professional entrepreneur until he got an honorary degree? Too simple a definition.
Rachel Delmar: It is definitely setting you up on the path to being a professional. Still some ground to cover first.
Kelly Dwyer: There’s a difference between education and a degree. A professional must be educated, but can be self-educated for sure.

Do these labels matter? Do they have repercussions? Does it just boil down to a question of respect?

Heather Morrow: To be considered for some opportunities — such as grants — it matters VERY much how others define you.
Theatre Ontario: Definition matters most when it excludes someone —  from public funding, from opportunity, from recognition, etc.
Michelle Denise Norton: Money always matters, professional labels/walls are a way to keep the pool smaller
 David Loehr: Working conditions and value/focus are more important than semantic distinctions. (But)

Taye Diggs begins in Hedwig and the Angry Inch


Taye Diggs returned tonight to a New York stage after a ten-year absence to star as the title character in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the Tony winning best musical revival. The sixth Hedwig since the revival opened in April, 2014, Diggs is scheduled to perform the demanding role through October 11, 2015.

This is Diggs’ fifth Broadway production. He made his Broadway debut in 1994 at age 23 in Carousel, then made a splash in the original cast of Rent, followed by turns in Chicago and Wicked.

Diggs has become a familiar face on screen. TV: “Murder in the First” and “Private Practice.” Film:​ The Best Man, Rent,Chicago, Brown Sugar,​ and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

But he’s yearned to play Hedwig for a long time, he’s told interviewers.  “I want a chance to show everybody everything. I can dance and I can sing, and everybody knows I can act…But I didn’t think it would ever happen. I assumed that nobody would ever have the open-mindedness to cast this character black.”

 “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”began on Broadway with Neil Patrick Harris in the role, followed by Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, John Cameron Mitchell (who co-wrote the musical with Stephen Trask), and Darren Criss.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

Watch: Broadway Stands Up For Freedom 2015

BrandonUranowitzatNYCLU“The Broadway community is one that stands for freedom and civil rights, and human rights really,” Brandon Uranowitz, Tony nominee for An American in Paris, explains in the video below, about the fundraiser for the New York Civil Liberties Union, before he sang the female part in “Not Getting Married Tonight” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. (But, thanks in part to the efforts of the New York Civil Liberties Union, he could get married now if he wanted to.)

“I’ve been an advocate for the NYCLU for a long time,” says Michael Cerveris, Tony winer for Fun Home. “It’s a good time to be advocating for civil liberties. In so many ways, it feels like so much progress has been made, but the truth is so much progress needs to be made.”
Below that video, watch Ruthie Ann Miles sing “Bein’ Green,” originally sung by Kermit the Frog.

NYCLU Issues


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,577 other followers