Part III: The Search for Deep PocketsThis article is the last of our three-part series. In Part I we examined plays which have made the leap from Off-Off-Broadway to Off, and last week, we explored the art of producing yourself.By Roger Armbrust
"Finding a producer is almost like getting married," observes Mary Murfitt, creator and star of the acclaimed Off-Broadway musical "Cowgirls." "You have to find somebody who has the same values. But it's always the creative and the business; there's always this weird balance you have to find. So you need to find people you can trust, which almost seems like an oxymoron. And to find a producer for a play that hasn't been from the page to the stage is really hard. Like 'Cowgirls.' It's hard to see it in the writing. You have to see it on stage."
So how does a playwright, never before produced, get from the page to the stage? Back Stage spoke to three brave souls who have been dedicated to the producer search, and who discuss their efforts toward seeing their plays take flight. Kevin Rehac has just rolled onto the runway. Ronald Rand, through several rewrites and 11 staged readings, talks about his attempts at a bumpy, slow liftoff. And Murfitt recalls the struggles before and during high flight.
Rehac's "Chasing Monsters"
On Mon., Oct. 20, Rehac will see his first play as a staged reading for producers at The Directors Company. And although he's a novice playwright, he's found himself in the fine company of veteran actors Michael Learned (TV's "The Waltons" and Broadway's "The Loves of Anatol"), Phillip LeStrange ("The Last Night of Ballyhoo"), Victor Slezak ("Jackie"), and a fresh talent from Off-Off-Broadway, Jenna Stern ("Skyscraper").
All three interviewed playwrights emphasize the necessity of networking. And no one knows that better than Rehac, who works with Broadway publicist Keith Sherman. But, like the other two stage scribes, Rehac knows the play begins on the page; and he spent over a year honing in workshops what began as a 14-page embryo, then grew to a first act, then a two-act comic drama.
When did he know the play was ready to show producers? "That's the half-million dollar question," he muses. "I don't understand how anyone can have a play produced, how you can say that it's done. That's the hardest part. I'm very proud of this play; and I know it works and can be produced. I know there still will be rewrites. But I had to finally decide it was done; and I did that when I heard it read in the workshop.
"Once I heard it coming from the mouths of actors, I knew it was on the right track," he continues. "It did what I wanted it to do.
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People were moved by it. People laughed. That external thing does have a kind of pollination."
According to Rehac, "Chasing Monsters" concerns a woman who flees her life with a stolen painting in tow, and arrives at the doorstep of her mother's lakeside home. The mother, who has recently sold the family business and retired to the cottage, is obsessed with monsters in the lake who she is convinced have killed her husband.
Being "in the business," Rehac had made some contact with producers and a literary consultant who read the play and "had nice things to say." After that, he had to decide what direction to go.
"If you're a first-time playwright and don't have an agent, you can either send the thing out blind into the wind; or, I figured that, rather than have it sit on a desk in a stack of 100 other plays and never get read, I could put together a reading, which would be a better representation of the play."
Dreams Coming True
Writers in touch with the creative spirit know it's important to pay attention to dreams. And Rehac did just that. "My dream actor for the role of the mother was Michael Learned," he explains. "I was recently going through my room and found an old notebook from over a year ago. I opened it, and found I had copied a newsclipping about the TV show of the Waltons' reunion."
Through his job, Rehac knew Learned's manager. For a playwright who wants to contact an actor's manager, but doesn't know how, Rehac suggests two sources: 1) Actors' Equity Association will provide names and phone numbers of its members' managers; call (212) 869-8530 and ask for the membership department. 2) The Hollywood Reporter BluBook includes contact numbers for actors' managers; call (213) 525-2184 or 2185.
Rehac spoke to Learned's manager about his play and his dream. "He said, 'Yeah, send me two copies," Rehac relates. The manager forwarded one script to Learned in Los Angeles. "A few days later, she called me personally," Rehac recalls. "She was very warm and complementary."
Now the engine began to hum. Learned suggested that Rehac contact "a fantastic man, Michael Parva, the Directors Company's artistic producing director," Rehac says. "Their mission is to bring new work and new directors together, and they also produce plays. I called, and just based on Michael Learned, on their respect for her, they basically went on her recommendation and said, 'We'll do this under our auspices.' She's really opened up doors for me."
Rehac emphasizes, "I was very lucky" that the Directors Company agreed to provide the space free. New playwrights who want to stage their own readings can find many theatres which will rent space for a night, he says. "With a minimum outlay, you could do the same thing for a few hundred dollars. Rent the space for one evening and invite producers."
The particular evening to stage the reading is also important, Rehac notes. "Michael Learned said she'd fly in from L.A., but I knew she would be in New York the week of Oct. 20. And I wanted a Monday night, because most theatres are dark and most people are free then. If you want to use Broadway actors, you have to go with a Monday night, or otherwise they're not available."
The aura of actors performing on Broadway drew rather than intimidated Rehac. "Actors are always looking for good material," he reasons. "Actors like Cherry Jones and Julie Harris do readings now because they know it's the first test." He contacted LeStrange and Slezak who, hearing Learned was involved, read the material and agreed to read for free.
Rehac believes in the legendary Broadway stage doorman, and says that if a new playwright hands him a note or a script, the doorman really will deliver it to an actor. "Whether the actor reads it is another thing," he adds.
Does a playwright need a director just for a staged reading? "It's very important to have a director," Rehac explains. "I didn't think it was. I thought, at first, I wouldn't use a director, because I didn't want any potential producers to think the play was more of a production than it was, at its earliest stages.
"But a director not only makes a better reading, but gives a certain legitimacy that it's a professionally done reading," he adds. He chose Chris Smith, who was directing "Not Waving" at Primary Stages last season. "He's a real up-and-comer," notes Rehac.
The theatre company mailed out the staged reading notices on its own stationery; Rehac paid "a couple hundred dollars" for the stamps.
While Rehac knew a few producers through his job, he realized there were a plethora who he didn't know. "A new playwright can check the Theatrical Index at any book store," Rehac suggests. "It lists all the plays and all the theatre companies currently working; and it has a list of producers. I used guesswork and judgement to determine the people who might be interested in this kind of play. There are producers of big musicals. And there are some that do human plays; I tried to pick those off the list, and it's available to anybody."
And while Rehac knows some producers through his job, "I don't really know any agents. But the Drama Bookshop [723 Seventh Ave., (212) 944-0595] sells labels already addressed, which a company updates, for about $6." He sent out notices of the staged reading by using those agents' labels.
The actors gathered for just one run-through before the actual reading. "Chris Smith said one reason to rehearse is to get actors to trust each other, so when the reading comes, they can push each other over the edge and take risks," Rehac says. "Also, this way they know what the journey is, and can say let's have fun. They call it a 'play' for a reason."
Rand Recalls The Group
About the only thing Ronald Rand hasn't done for his play "The Group" is become its "angel." He has written multiple drafts about the famed Group Theatre of the 1930s, often considered America's greatest acting ensemble; he has also produced and directed its 11 staged readings, and even performs the role of Harold Clurman.
While in high school in Florida, Rand already knew he wanted to study with Stella Adler, and matriculated to New York University to do just that. While there, he began researching The Group, of which Adler was a member along with a cadre of other theatre legends, including the company's creators--Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford--Elia Kazan, Luther Adler, and Sandy Meisner.
"I broached the idea with Stella about a one-man play about Harold Clurman; but I had no idea then of writing a full-length play," Rand recalls. He continued his research, then began writing, which seemed to move into a type of seance. "Lee and the others started talking to me, and I started writing down what they were saying. From there came the idea about writing the play."
Rand worked on the play for four years, then, two years ago, organized the first run-through, at the Stella Adler Theatre. "It ran four hours and we used 28 actors," he says. "At that time, I didn't think anything about it. I wanted to use as many actors as I could. I figured, if you use 70 for a musical, why can't I use 30? But after a while " and he lets out a small laugh. Why? Because large casts give producers angina. Small casts are much more financially amenable.
Over the last 24 months, as the staged readings have moved around to small-but-packed houses at other theatres--including the Harold Clurman Theatre, and the Lee Strasburg Theatre at The Actors Studio--Rand's surgery has whittled the play down to 2 hours and 15 minutes, and 18 actors.
He has pitched the play to an industry list which reads like a hall of fame gallery: Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, Robert Whitehead, Arthur Laurents, Arthur Penn, Kim Hunter, Sheldon Harnick. And producers have swam in and seen, but have yet to bite.
In this age of musicals and comedies, a large-cast drama is a hard pill for producers. "Several producers said, 'You have to be realistic. I don't know what you're thinking.' I said, 'Well, maybe we need to change the way people think!' " Money people have told him he can't do anything on Broadway with over nine or 10 actors, and that nobody's interested in "these ideas today. But that's ridiculous. It's a story about a journey of people who believe in something bigger than themselves."
Rand, too, continues to believe, and remains admirably undeterred. He has just sent the script to two Broadway producers. And he's now preparing to find the "right" director, and to approach respected regional theatres.
Also, if you run into Rand, be ready to be collared and educated as to why America needs a national theatre center. As you listen to his passion and determination, there's a sense that, from his play to his vision of America's theatre, he just might get his way.
How "Cowgirls" Rode in to N.Y.
Mary Murfitt got her big break, she says, in 1987 with "Oil City Symphony," a musical she co-authored and which originally went up at the Caldwell Theatre Company in Florida. She began writing "Cowgirls," her first solo project, in 1990 while directing "Oil City" around the country.
When she had finished "Cowgirls"--a musical comedy about three classical musicians and their country music counterparts--the Kansas native was wise enough to use the network woven by her work on the earlier production. She took the new musical to the Caldwell.
"I told them, 'I'd really like you to read this new one.' They had been brave enough to do 'Oil City,' and I felt good about giving 'Cowgirls' to them. They read it, and wanted me to come back for a six-week run in season. That was in 1994, and we did real well."
Then things soured. Murfitt relates, "Caldwell wanted to get rid of the director and also wanted a bigger piece of the show. I said, 'A, no. And B, no.' "
It was a year before she saw the show go up again, at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. She believes that it is not only difficult for new playwrights to get a show produced now, but "even with a calling card, it's difficult just to get people to read it. I had sent 'Cowgirls' to the Old Globe Theatre [San Diego], and they didn't even respond. But John Rando, who was directing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival [Stockbridge, Mass.] saw it in the Berkshires and loved it. He called Jack O'Brien at the Old Globe."
The production that went up in San Diego was the one that came to the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village in March 1996. But finding a producer to bring the musical to Manhattan wasn't that easy. It took reliance on the network formed earlier with "Oil City." Denise Cooper, who had been the company manager on "Oil City" came to see "Cowgirls" at the Old Globe; she liked it so much, she agreed to help Murfitt find producers for New York.
They organized a New York reading, renting space at the Directors Company, and invited producers.
"The reading didn't do it," Murfitt admits. "We didn't get anybody. So I talked to Denise some more and I said, 'Why don't you produce it? It's time we call in all our markers."
They decided to stage a reading in the Berkshires because "you need to get people with money and connections. Susan Gallin saw the show there, and became one of our producers." Later two more producers came on. "I thought they had been lead producers, but they hadn't been," Murfitt says. The Theatrical Index listed the other two producers as Rodger Hess and Suki Sandler.
"Cowgirls" played in New York for 10 months, and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award against then-Off-Broadway competition like "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk."
Murfitt, very pleased to have played in New York, wasn't that pleased, however, with what she considered a lack of marketing for "Cowgirls."
"You hear stories about producers, and how sometimes they didn't do this or that it's hard," she says. "There always seems to be some resentment, that somebody didn't do their job, or somebody didn't know how. That happened even with 'Cowgirls.' My producers had all the tryouts, and producers were brought in to finish the piece. They didn't have to risk that much. Well, it was about $600,000 up front, and you do have to give them credit for getting the money, and we got rave reviews. But keeping it going is another matter: finding people who can keep it running.
"I think they thought that, with the great reviews and word-of-mouth, it would run itself; but sometimes they do and sometimes they don't," Murfitt observes. "You need marketing. You know, you need a plan. In an earlier career, I had marketed magazines for five years. So I got frustrated because I thought there wasn't a plan.
"But, you know, everyone did the best they could at the time. It's very expensive to do theatre in New York. It's scary, how much it costs."
Silence and Moving On
Murfitt confesses she hasn't spoken to Cooper since the show closed. "It's hard to remain friends," she admits. "It's not the kind of thing you do with your friends. It's a business. And you just hope to find people who love the same thing you love. If I do another show, I'm not going to be in it. I'm going to be one of the producers."
Meanwhile, Murfitt has returned to the blank page, scribbling the beginnings for two shows. Why do she and the others keep at it? Hear Kevin Rehac:
"We know how many people want to write plays, and how difficult it is to produce plays," he concludes. "I guess it's a matter of doing the work. If the work stems from a true place, hopefully that will speak to other people. The rest is not really up to me. The rest is hoping that someone connects with what I've expressed enough that they want to produce it for other people to con