M. Stefan Strozier — In New York, there are a lot of plays and musicals being produced at any given time, and comedy shows, movies, etc. “Seeing a show” of some sort is a must in New York. I have produced many shows off-off Broadway (up to 99-seat theaters) and Off-Broadway (100 to 499-seat theaters) too, including Honestly Abe the Musical that is now in its 8th successful month Off-Broadway in New York at Actors Temple Theatre (339 West 47th Street, between 8th and 9th avenues, closer to 9th) every Friday at 2pm and Sundays at 11am.
I put an advert for “producer’s assistant” and received a deluge of applicants. The practical definition of a producer is someone who sells tickets. If you do that job well, the rest becomes extremely easy; but if you can’t sell tickets then big problems suddenly appear. The applicants asked me what kind of work they would be doing and I therefore said that they would be selling tickets. Every single one of the applicants said that they did not want to “be involved with sales work” and that they were much more “interested in doing producer-type of work”. I didn’t want to work with any of the applicants because asking a question like that indicates a lack of willingness to do real work; however, my $35 advert did net several interns who stayed for a few weeks just to claim the title of “producer’s assistant”; so it was worth it. And if I ever require a couple weeks work of heavy lifting, I know how to find 5 or 10 people fast. (The adverts are now free for me.)
I wondered what the applicants meant by “producer-type of work”. Were they saying that producers should wear 3-piece suits and walk around the theater, not saying anything important but looking the part—and occasionally telling this or that person that “they’re fired”? I wear slacks and dress shirts; but sometimes I get lazy and show in a T-shirt. I am the one in charge.
Were the applicants referring to interacting with the actors? That can indeed be glamorous. Actors I’ve worked with have gone on to fame and one or two will one day become household names. But for now, they are just starting on their careers and working as part-time waitresses or bartenders in New York. I must make extra effort to de-conflict actors’ schedules. Alas, even that work was not fashionable enough for my producer applicants.
The producer gets a lot of blame and headache from every quarter so that learning how to avoid trouble is really part of the job description (have you ever noticed how inaccessible—seemingly mysterious—theater producers are?).
Many people, including actors, come and go with any production. The people who leave typically claim to have “outgrown” things and that it’s high time he or she “move on to better things”. What I want to say in reply is, “So you no longer want to be an actor?” And then, if that’s true, “Did you have fun wasting my precious time, you pathetic amateur and quitter?” But I’ve learned to smile and say nothing other than “good luck”, because they’ll never work with me again, and depending on how they exit, my associates. And there are just so many theater producers out there in New York; so perhaps this person will be engaging in targeted bridge demolition until all access to Manhattan for him or her is destroyed (and it won’t take long). But something indistinguishable happens to the rest who do not leave: it is instantly made clear what it means to quit.
After a weekend with a very nice house, I decided to have a beer at an Irish pub, and there was my former lead-actor as the bus boy. I invited him back because he is talented. I knew he would say no; but I wanted to get a further sense of his thinking. He said he was happy there wiping tables and that he had worked on a “Web video” with a friend recently. We chatted and I got the feeling that, despite both of our changed circumstances, he still clung to a sense of superiority. He was cool and smart; and I “just didn’t get it”.
Theater is a ruthless business. Not even the movies or TV can compare to the peculiar nature of show business. Theater is a very small business, centered in just a few blocks of Central Manhattan. It is cloistered from the outside world, and even the TV show Smash, with all its name-dropping and cliché about producing a musical in New York, is a far cry from reality. Regional Theater (anything outside of New York) has become a very-funded thing of late, and it lays claim to much gravitas; but New York will always be The City and nothing can hold a candle to it. There will always be thousands of talented actors, and many deluded applicants wanting to be a theater producer. The same thing cannot be said of Cincinnati or Houston or even LA. The players who win in this business are those who survive. The losers “move on to something better”. The winners wake up and face reality and then defeat it. Theater is like the Mob; I call it the Mafioso of Misfits. One misstep and you’re out the door, wiping tables, smiling about how your life is good—and perhaps it is, but it no longer has anything to do with the business of theater, nor will it ever again, and that can always be stated as unequivocal fact. You’re lucky if you get one, single break, and to get that break never, ever involves the quitters or the losers.
Honestly Abe the Musical has been enjoying much success lately, and right now it’s the dog days of summer—not a time for theater-goers, so the future is bright, indeed. On a recent Friday afternoon, I stepped over to the box office and looked inside the house just before the show went on and nearly every seat was full. I took a deep breath and said nothing. I looked at the people, all seated, speaking quietly or reading carefully my detailed program as if they were in church waiting for the preacher. The air conditioning was on full blast and the house felt pleasant. The house music was playing at just the right level and the music was an enjoyable melody. The set, newly refurbished, was impressive. In another moment, the actors would “take it away”, and after the show the same audience would all linger for some time, talking about the show at length (another sure sign of success). I waited there for about 30 seconds, watching the people. There had been many of them now, for years, whose lives I had shaped for a few hours. I was changing things, ways of thinking. And Honestly Abe the Musical is, at present, going national. People will tell you very fast if they are not impressed, and forget you in an instant, and for all time. But if you connect with them, that is something quite different, and how deeply you connect matters as well. Perhaps that was what those applicants had wanted, when they had applied to be a theater producer?
About the Author
M. Stefan Strozier is a playwright who founded La Muse Venale Acting Troupe (www.lamusevenale.org). He works as a publisher at the press he founded, World Audience Publishers. His work can be found at his website www.mstefanstrozier.org.