Tuesday, September 11, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Artist Descending a Staircase

For our 20th anniversary season, I and other company memories will be writing about all the shows that span those 20 years.  An overview of those productions is on our (newly revised) website.  

In August 1992, in a small art gallery called Emmaus Soho West, a theater company began.

It began for one reason.  I had just graduated from college, and I wanted to direct a play.  I was interning at New Dramatists in New York and living at my parent’s place in Westfield, NJ.  The internship was interesting at times, with occasional brushes with celebrity playwrights (and plain old celebrities).  And I found the New Dramatists library a very happy place to spend some time.  But I wanted to do a show.  It seemed simple enough.  I needed a venue, a script, and a few actors.

Our oldest family friends, the Jaffes, owned the perfect place: an art gallery located in Springfield, NJ.  New Dramatists offered free rehearsal space, and a space to hold auditions.  Since it was an art gallery, I decided to put on an obscure play about art, Artist Descending a Staircase, by one of my favorite playwrights, Tom Stoppard.  Sam French told me the rights were available. I placed an ad in Backstage.  The actors arrived.

I remember the first two actors who walked through the door very well.  The first was a talented actor named Henry Pincus.  The second was an even more talented actor name Peter Brown.

Things had started out well.

From there the auditions went downhill.  I remember a recent Japanese immigrant struggling to pronounce Stoppard’s dialogue, and the disappointment with which he heard the news that he would not be appropriate.  I remember meeting an actor who I literally thought would attack me in mid audition.

Ironically, I ran into him a year ago.  He has his Equity card now.  Perseverance.

I eventually had additional auditions in New Jersey.  The cast only needed four actors, and eventually, I gathered them.  Then Pincus dropped out.  More auditions.  A cast.

I should mention one other important member of the nascent theater company.  My friend, Mike Nuzzo. He helped run the auditions.  Eventually, he would record the sound cues, help build the set, sell the tickets—he himself was a filmmaker, and now I was cashing in all my chips from the help I had given him.

When sending info for listings in the Newark Star Ledger, I was asked what the company was called.  I didn’t know.  I called my friend Daniel Coble for suggestions.  Something related to being in an art gallery, I said.

“Untitled Theater Company?” he suggested.

Sounded good.  Untitled Theater Company #62, I told the newspaper.

In rehearsals, I tried to use acting exercises I had been taught in college.  Most of them seemed fairly ridiculous, but I was still trying to direct the right way, rather than the way that seemed natural to me.  But still, a good script, at least a couple good actors, maybe some clever ideas and decent blocking, some chairs, an ad in the Newark Star Ledger, and we had a show.  Simple.

It almost killed me.

I borrowed chairs for the audience from a nearby temple.  Mike and I built a light booth out of circuit breakers, and placed a chair next to it on a block build to display sculpture.  My stereo and his speakers were our sound system.  I gathered props and put them on display (My idea was that a prop from each scene would be on exhibit in the gallery, the most noteworthy of which was an authentic victrola I had borrowed from a friend.)

But the biggest challenge was the table.  There was a beautiful, handmade wood table that belonged to the gallery which I had made part of the set.  It looked wonderful.  But it was heavy.  And the actors who had to carry it on and offstage (offstage being a balcony/fire escape) felt that perhaps we should just rent a regular goddamn table.  One of the actors, Mr. Brown, spoke for the company.

“Also, we really shouldn’t charge on opening,” he said.  “Since we’ll be working with the table for the first time.”

I caved. I rented a new table.  I called the first show a preview and made the five-dollar entrance fee optional.  Harmony was restored.  But going home after that final rehearsal, I collapsed in despair.

“I never, never want to do this again,” I told Mike.

We opened the next day.  It was a great success—and not just with my grandmother, who declared she would attend every single performance (which she did).  Despite our preview night and low ticket price, I actually made money—about $80.  And the audience seemed genuinely enthusiastic.  Due to word of mouth, our final performance was sold out.

Well, maybe one more time, I thought…

While loading out of the gallery, I knocked over a display dummy.  It smashed a small window.  Replacement cost: $80.  So much for making money in the theater.


Mr. Brown said...

Did I actually say a "goddamn" table? I wouldn't put it past me, but my memory has softened the language somehow. At any rate, it serves as a good example of the free, say-anything environment Edward so effortlessly created for the actors in all his shows.

Theater of Ideas said...

Ah, I used the writerly contrivance of not using quote marks around goddamn, while (probably mis-) quoting you directly later. The goodamn indicated tone of frustration among the actors around the table issue, not something anyone actually said, as far as I can remember. And it was a damn heavy table (but so pretty...)