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Kvelling in Their Seats

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The C-joke is in the show; shv- is long gone. The first triumphed when actress Marilyn Sokol performed it in a rehearsal two weeks ago. When you hear Marilyn tell this joke, you will be convinced that the producers of Spider-Man could have avoided all their tsuris if they’d only included the cunt joke in their script. It’s that good.

I would like to say the last piece of OJTJ to fall in place was the cast. I guess if you’re building a show around TV or film stars—“Kirstie Alley. Sally Struthers.Godot”—you start the production process with actors. But because OJTJ calls for an ensemble (and because Sarah Silverman is too expensive and Myron Cohen is too dead), we decided to wait until we were near the start of rehearsals to fill out our cast. And there was no point in talking about rehearsals until we had secured the one thing you must have before you can do anything in the theater—namely, a theater.

I thought this was going to be the easy part. But when we brought up the idea of the Minetta Lane, the very appealing 399-seater near Washington Square, our partners reacted as if we had proposed staging our show in Buchenwald. And it wasn’t because they don’t like the theater. It was because, one of them cheerfully pointed out, the only show that has ever run longer than two years at the Minetta was Other People’s Money, which closed in 1991. At the Westside, where we eventually landed, productions that have run longer than two years include the recent Love, Loss and What I Wore, the appropriate Jewtopia, the less appropriate Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, and the more-appropriate-than-you-might-realize Vagina Monologues. Lesson learned: Shakespeare wasn’t the genius; it was the Globe.

Another lesson: If you want to do well in the theater, own one. The basic shape of a theater lease grants the owner a guarantee against roughly 5 percent of the gross, plus a weekly “service package.” In exchange, the producers get an auditorium and a box office. That’s it. “Service package” is another theatrical euphemism, in this case a nice way of saying that the producer pays for everything, from ushers to the nightly cleaning crew to the toilet paper in the restrooms. This summer, we’ll be giving the owner of the Westside $65 per performance for air-conditioning. And $100 a week for “sanitary supplies.” The box-office treasurer who works for the theater, counting the receipts each night while our company manager watches over him like a hawk? We pay his salary, too. And his benefits. And 30 cents for every ticket he prints.

Onstage, we also get bupkes. Even the lights are brought in, every flood, spot, or scoop rented from a lighting-supply house, loaded into the theater before the show opens, and trucked out the minute it closes. The owner also gets the celebrated “theater restoration” fee (at the Westside, it’s a buck a ticket). Gerald Schoenfeld, the penny-wise Yoda who presided over the Shubert empire for several centuries, once said the restoration fees “provide some means of doing these marvelous renovations, which are very expensive matters … [and] there is no reimbursement for that.” This sentiment seems to disregard the fact that the theater owner in fact owns the theater. It’s like expecting a condo-restoration fee when you put a new Sub-Zero in your kitchen.

I will now conclude my Memoirs of the Rialto with the people who are the most visible—and variable—elements of every show. If you want to know where actors stand in the conventional theatrical hierarchy, consider how the money gets divided. The producers get royalties, and they share profits with the investors. Writers, of course, get royalties. So does the director. The set designer gets royalties, the choreographer and the songwriter and the lyricist get royalties. The lighting designer, the costume designer, the sound designer all get royalties whether the show is a hit or not.

The actors do not get a royalty. This is not because they are well paid. For Off Broadway productions, the Actors’ Equity contract guarantees its members a minimum of $637 a week in a theater the size of ours (the Westside has 249 seats—which is very convenient, because at 251 the actors’ minimum jumps up by $99). And though we’re paying substantially more than the Off Broadway minimum, we haven’t breached Broadway’s weekly bottom of $1,703.

And that’s when things are going well for actors. Between jobs, they do readings. We held three for OJTJ, to check its progress and to see how it played in front of a handpicked audience. For each, the actors rehearsed for three days, leading up to a 90-minute performance in a hot, airless studio, in front of the producers’ aunts and cousins and doormen, as well as the admissions directors of the schools they’d like to get their kids into. For this we paid our actors what Equity requires: $100 each. Plus carfare.


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