Sunday, July 14, 2024

Guerrilla P.R.

The other night I was at the Dark Room, and before the event began some of us were chatting about that eternal question, who do I have to fuck to get people to see my show?

Default promotion, in the old days, required purchasing advertisements in the paper. The quiet part was that if the theater didn’t pay, the paper wouldn’t review your play, and it was always the reviews which drove ticket sales, not the ads themselves.

Today, with the absence of print journalism, theaters pay for ads on Facebook or Instagram. Direct mail is also still a thing, and it is important, because at the very least you need to let people who have already shown an interest in your company about what is coming soon.

But, and this is the case for every single theater, from LORT A down to that immersive storefront production with ten folding chairs, to have a successful production you must go beyond. You need to appeal to non-regular theater goers, because there are never enough of those. There certainly aren’t enough theater artists to fill the seats at any house, and they shouldn’t be expected to, anyway, because they are busy doing theater.

So, how do you get the word out? How do you, as they say, let ‘em know?

As I have recounted before, I have always loved marketing, products and swag. In high school we started an improv troupe and I was much more interested in selling the buttons we had made for the troupe (buttons were big in the 80s) than rehearsing improvisation.

And who designed these buttons? I did, of course, using my brother’s brand new Macintosh computer. They did not go very well, however, not as well as the Guerrilla Theater Company pins we made years later, those sold very well though I still have a couple hundred of them in my attic.

At college, a graduate student who was put in charge of marketing for the school of theater approved of the comic strip I drew for the daily university paper, and especially liked when I would include references to current productions. He’d made an arrangement with a local pizza place to include flyers for the upcoming production of On the Verge by Eric Overmyer, but he wanted something original, that would engage someone who had just ordered a pizza.

I created a “chutes-and-ladders” style board game with paper cut-outs of the three main characters and you would roll a die and move your piece around a cartoon globe, traveling through time and space to opening night of the show!

Guerrilla Theater Company had a regular advertising deal with the Free Times, we’d buy the smallest advertisement we could, but we’d buy them pretty much every week. Not just to keep folks aware of the show, and not just to announce the theme of the weekend, but to continually flog the Guerrilla Connection.

The idea for the Connection came from Dial-A-Song, a service provided by They Might Be Giants since the mid-1980s, a phone number you can call to this day and hear an original song. We had a designated line which would have a different message every week, letting folks know the theme of the week, hear a short play, or important announcements.

It occurs to me only right now that we didn’t need a separate line to do this. The office line as xxx-9002, the Connection was xxx-9003. The message could have been the regular office line, why did we pay for two lines? I guess we thought it was to separate “business” from “the show.” Whatever.

But the advertisements weren’t enough to fill the house. That happened occasionally when we had a review, or when we were interviewed for the radio. We had a gorilla costume, and sometimes one of us, usually Torque, would don the suit and we would hand out small flyers for the show. On college campuses. At rallies.

Once, we mocked up fake parking tickets. They looked just like real City of Cleveland parking tickets, with VIOLATION in big letters at one end, and amusing fine print which promoted the show (and the Guerrilla Connection). Torque wore the gorilla suit and went around downtown, ticketing every single car we came across. No idea whether we attracted a single audience member through this gambit, but we did get one message to our office line threatening legal action, which we found hilarious.

When it came time to promote Bad Epitaph Theater Company’s first free, outdoor production, Kirk Wood Bromley’s The American Revolution, we returned to buttons. Only this time, we weren’t selling them. Company members were asked to wear large buttons featuring the first American President and the legend “ASK ME” in large letters.

The plan was that, when someone did, in fact, ask, said company member would not only fill in the inquirer about the details of the upcoming production, but would also take the opportunity to ask for a dollar to support the production – a Washington for Washington, as it were. Mind, this was in 2004, over ten years before the Hamilton $10 ticket lottery, known as Ham4Ham.

Yes, Bad Epitaph must have pulled in over fifty dollars through this gambit, but that wasn’t the point, it was to open a conversation about the show, with a random selection of people who may or may not otherwise have had any interest in seeing a play, this play, any play. And that’s what it’s all about, to move past impersonal modes of advertising, be they print advertisements, online invitations or email blasts, to get to the point where people, lots of people, are actually talking to each other about a show.

Note: The title of this post comes from the book Guerrilla P.R.: How You Can Wage an Effective Publicity Campaign...Without Going Broke (Harper Collins, 1993) which I unironically purchased after the disillusion of Guerrilla Theater Company, when I went to work as Director of Public Relations at Dobama Theatre. It was a handy primer on the basics of marketing though this edition is now almost entirely obsolete as it was written just before the rise of the Internet. Levine also produced a revision called Guerrilla P.R. 2.0, released in 2008.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Our Alaskan Honeymoon (1999)

Can you see Denali?
This has been a season of celebration. Since we dropped our youngest at college last fall and became “open nesters” (that’s the hip, new term for it) my wife and I have been spending a lot of time on each other. More time talking, more time lingering. More time viewing, too, movies and TV, as well as plays.

We have taken journeys, to the Southwest, to NYC. And to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we took a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, and spent a few nights in London. We took in some shows there (see: Three Very English Plays) and last week held an open house to celebrate with friends.

We took our first cruise, together and as individuals, for our Honeymoon, in July 1999. When deciding what to and where to go she had first suggested the Caribbean. I said sheepishly that I would prefer not to go somewhere tropical. I had been married once before, visiting Hawaii, and I wanted to avoid any possible reminders. It was stupid, I know, but God bless her, she was disappointed for one moment, and then began conducting a web search Alaskan vacations.

The ship was the Holland America MS Ryndam (now the Celestyal Journey) departing from Vancouver, where we spent a day before boarding. At that time in my life I was manic about seeing shows, especially when I was someplace new. And they had to be unusual, not professional. It was all “research” for my work as the producer of the newly formed Bad Epitaph Theater Company.

That first night, we attended a performance of Moo by Sally Clark at the Vancouver Little Theatre in Heritage Hall. Quotes are from my journal: 
“One of those why-is-life-so-fucked plays. A dysfunctional couple, madly in love, and too proud to actually love.”
I was actually more interested in the space, always looking at spaces, because Bad Epitaph didn’t have one.
“Wild, rough space. Cheap. 60 seats on three sides, very low ceiling … canvas floor over wooden plans which creaked throughout the show.”

MS Ryndam
In my last post, I described the time capsule we had created twenty-five years ago, for which we both wrote letters to our future selves. We read the letters we had made for each other, and then those we ourselves had written. I was surprised at just how much anxiety I held at that time, but this is also reflected in my journal. I kept making random notes about the company. I couldn’t stop thinking about the work. For example:
Our sea voyage was along the “Inside Passage” with stops at Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Valdez (where I would return in 2016), Seward, before disembarkation in Anchorage. We’d spend one day in that city, before getting on a train, first to Denali, and finally, to Fairbanks.

What can I say about the cruise. My own notes from that time are shocking, but I wasn’t as mellow as I am today. We were appalled, if not surprised, by the countless attempts to get extract additional cash from us, selling us inscribed things we couldn’t use or didn’t need and so many opportunities to pose with characters like the Wacky Fisherman or to Wacky Prospector.

We found many of our fellow passengers on this journey to be rude. And loud. We chose to spend as much as time as possible together on the bow of the ship, watching for whales, otters, seals and icebergs.

After seven days on board a ship where we were among the youngest passengers (yes, even at the age of thirty) we were thrilled to be on our own for a while and the very first thing we did was to pick up a copy of the free Anchorage Press to see what live theater might be available!

Hiking Taku Glacier
At the turn of this century, Anchorage had a population of about a quarter million people. While they did and do have a thriving arts scene, it is not as large as even Greater Cleveland. We chose to see Libby, a one-woman show adapted from Betty John’s book about her grandmother, Libby Beaman, the first European American woman to live on the Aleutian Islands.

Adapted for the stage by David Edgecombe and featuring Elizabeth Ware as Mrs. Beaman, the piece had toured several states before a performance at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference (now the Valdez Theatre Conference) and a month-long stand at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse in Anchorage, which is where we attended. Several years later I would attend Last Frontier, where a large percentage of artists had experience at Cyrano’s, which is still a thriving endeavor.

“Cyrano’s bookstore was very quirky and I wondered what we were getting into when we stepped into the theater.”
Whitewater rafting in Valdez
Again, anxiety. At that time, I felt every performance I attended was some kind of gamble. If it wasn’t a transformative experience, then it was a wasted opportunity. And a two-act solo performance? That's a commitment. As it turned out I was tremendously moved, Ware’s performance stays with me to this day, and even informed my own monodramatic work.
“A very nice selection of local interest books. At one end a small movie theater – that night ('Libby' playwright & director) Edgecombe … was working on his new one-man show, ‘Syd’ in that theater.

“There was also a functioning coffee bar … A business plan … go in with Red Hen, get a space, Toni manages the bookstore, we share space. Starkweather space?”
Still, thinking about the company, the work, about space. Space was such a big deal for me at that time. We knew where we were to produce Sin, and were in talks about The SantaLand Diaries. But my journal indicates that the idea of producing Lysistrata was still only in the theoretical stages and I cannot remember how many different venues we visited to find a suitable location, before entering into a relationship with Cleveland Public Theater.

"Alaska or Bust"
At Cyrano’s, I bought a copy of Anne Higonnet’s biography of Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, and that became my reading for the rest of the trip.
“Any shrinking of the will is a bit of substance lost. How wasteful, then, is hesitation! And only consider how immense the final effort necessary to repair so many losses!” - B. Morisot, February 23, 1862

“Amazing how similar our neuroses can be.” - D. Hansen, July 13, 1999
We, as well as a small number of our fellow former shipmates, departed Anchorage by train, headed for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali, as you probably know, is the highest mountain on the North American continent. You need special permission (and equipment, of course) to journey too close, as it is part of a protected wildlife reserve. Tourists can take a multiple hour bus trip to get as close as possible and hopefully take in some incredible views, which we did and were treated to remarkable sights on the drive there and back, and the mountain itself. We were fortunate about that last because most days of the year the peak can be obscured by a variety of weather conditions.

After the day-long journey I was delighted that my bride suggested we attend the Alaskan Cabin Night Dinner Theater! All-you-can-eat salmon, ribs, taters and corn, biscuits and berry cobbler while an ensemble of performers told tales of Gold Rush era Alaska and sang standards.

As I wrote in my journal, “My interests were purely anthropological, trust me.” Following the performance we got into a conversation with some of the performers, I was intensely curious as to how someone gets a job like this one. I was currently unemployed. One of the actors heard we were from Cleveland and excitedly told me he was from Akron, and I had no idea how to respond to that.

At last, onto Fairbanks.
“Thursday night we checked into the hotel and, while everyone else was scurrying around, trying to find their luggage or stretching their legs, we swiftly got a hotel shuttle to take us to a movie theater.”
What we had asked was "how close is the nearest movie theater," and the concierge responded, “You mean the movie theater.” 

Offering the shuttle to get there was a kindness, the Goldstream Theatre was a mile and a half away. The photo of Toni in front of the sign at midnight (right) is a reminder not only of how close we were to the Arctic Circle, but also what an outrageous year 1999 was for movies.

We chose South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. My opinion at the time? “It’s very funny and about a half-hour too long.”

Thursday, June 27, 2024

David & Toni's 25th Anniversary Open House

Last night my wife Toni and I held an open house to commemorate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. After some day-before jitters as to whether or not to postpone due to rain, we were rewarded (after a one-hour start delay) with a beautiful evening outdoors, surrounded by family and friends both old and new.

As I reflected to the crowd, so many of those in attendance were folks we have met along the way, since we were wed in 1999. There were three present who had attended the wedding or reception (many others had sent their regards) other guests we had met over the past quarter-century though work, theater, the local schools, and of course, own children.

The big event was the unsealing of the time capsule, which we had packed with items commemorating the year of our marriage, and our place in it. The capsule (a can, really) itself was a wedding gift, and we filled and closed it on our first anniversary on June 26, 2000. As I had taken it down from a high shelf in our bedroom, I was surprised at how heavy it was. That is because it was filled mostly with paper.

Newspapers, magazines and photocopies. An entire Plain Dealer from our wedding day, front pages from the first day of the new century, a paper copy of The Onion, LIFE Magazine’s Year in Pictures edition, SPIN’s 90 Best Albums of the 90’s. Also, programs from Bad Epitaph plays I had directed, and articles from the Free Times she had written.

Whatever happened to my script from The Drew Carey Show? I put it in the capsule.

Then there were letters, from absent friends, family, some we’ve lost along the way. And yes, the compact disc 1. For which we do have a player and 2. That actually played. Guests were invited to listen in to voices from December 1999, at a dinner party and again at the huge 20th Century Revival Party we held for NYE Y2K. There were surprises, and even a few tears.

It was a beautiful evening. Since our youngest went away to school, my wife and I have been doing more than our usual share of traveling, and most recently celebrating this milestone in our life together. But it was a significant and moving experience to be able to share this love with so many whom we call friends.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Toothpaste Millionaire (references)

One of the first questions I was asked when preparing to adapt Jean Merrill's The Toothpaste Millionaire into a play script was whether or not I would update the story to 2024. It hadn't even crossed my mind, and I think that was the right call. You could do it, but then it would be an entirely different story.

Instead, I treated this book from 1972 as a period piece, and not only that, a city-specific piece, the events that occur centered in the very real suburb of East Cleveland.

The kids from ZOOM
My adaptation includes allusions to people, places and things from that time, and before we entered rehearsal, I created this brief list of references, many of which are edited from Wikipedia entries.

Zoom (stylized as ZOOM) is a half-hour educational television program, created almost entirely by children, which aired on PBS originally from January 9, 1972, to February 10, 1978, with reruns being shown until September 12, 1980. It was originated and produced by WGBH-TV in Boston.

David Cassidy (April 12, 1950 – November 21, 2017) was an American actor and musician. He was best known for his role as Keith Partridge in the 1970s musical-sitcom The Partridge Family. This role catapulted Cassidy to teen idol status as a superstar pop singer of the 1970s.

Teen Beat was an American magazine geared towards teenaged readers, published 1967–c. 2007.

The Whole Earth Catalog was an American counterculture magazine and product catalog published several times a year between 1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. The editorial focus was on self-sufficiency, ecology, alternative education, "do it yourself" (DIY), and holism, and featured the slogan "access to tools".

The Morning Exchange is an American morning television program that aired on WEWS-TV (channel 5) in Cleveland, Ohio from 1972 to 1999. A highly rated and influential program, it was commonplace that on a typical day in the 1970s, over two-thirds of all television sets in the Cleveland market were tuned to The Morning Exchange.

Quincy Brame & Kierstan Conway
as Rufus & Kate
"The Toothpaste Millionaire"
(Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2024)
is a multiplayer economics-themed board game. In the game, players roll two dice to move around the game board, buying and trading properties and developing them with houses and hotels. Players collect rent from their opponents and aim to drive them into bankruptcy.

WIXY 1260. On December 12, 1965, this AM station changed its call sign to WIXY, branding itself as WIXY 1260 (pronounced "Wicksy Twelve-Sixty"). WIXY soon began to dominate Top-40 radio in Cleveland, despite having a weaker signal than either WKYC (formerly KYW) or WHK. What an AM radio announcer sounded like in 1970.

"O-o-h Child" is a 1970 single, written by Stan Vincent, recorded by Chicago soul family group the Five Stairsteps and released on the Buddah label.

“It’s the Real Thing!” (Coca-Cola)
“Try It! You’ll Like It!” (Alka Seltzer)
“You Deserve a Break Today!” (McDonald’s)

Super 8mm (millimeter) film is a motion-picture film format released in 1965 by Eastman Kodak as an improvement over the older "Double" or "Regular" 8 mm home movie format.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution, and was signed into law by President Nixon.

1969 Cuyahoga River Fire. A June 22, 1969 river fire triggered by a spark from a passing rail car igniting an oil slick. It was not considered a major news story in the Cleveland media. However, the incident did soon garner the attention of Time magazine in an article on the pollution of America's waterways.

Right: Cuyahoga River in 1967

Walter Cronkite (November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009) was an American broadcast journalist who served as anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years, from 1962 to 1981. He was often cited as "the most trusted man in America."

The Lunar Roving Vehicle was a battery-powered four-wheeled rover used on the Moon during the last three missions of the American Apollo program (15, 16, and 17) during 1971 and 1972.

"Hot Fun in the Summertime" is a 1969 song recorded by Sly and the Family Stone.

Stouffer's Inn on the Square (now Hotel Cleveland) is an historic hotel at the intersection of Superior Ave. at Public Square.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Three Very English Plays

“This is great! The last time you took me to a musical, it was Always.”

That’s what my brother said as we reentered the hall at the Gillian Lynne Theatre for act two of Standing at the Sky’s Edge. And it’s true. Way back in 1997, when my wife and I were first visiting England together, I chose the first show, and it remains the worst British musical I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen Diana.)

This is why I let my wife choose the shows. That way I can say I told you so, but I never have to say I told you so. She choose a lot of things because her track record is unimpeachable.

We saw three shows over four days during our brief stay in the UK. We had arrived via the Queen Mary 2, a transatlantic crossing to celebrate our silver anniversary, and spent some time in a canal boat Airbnb before flying home. The shows we saw were each uniquely British, and all exceeded expectations.

"People, Places & Things"
(Trafalgar Theatre, 2024)
Friday we took the train to Maidstone, near Kent, to see the Russett Players production of A Bunch of Amateurs by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop. An “am dram” production, directed by my sister-in-law Brenda and featuring my brother Henrik, it was opening night for a two-day run (two shows on Saturday) and I was delighted how absolutely packed the hall was.

The play is about an arrogant Hollywood actor whose career is on the downslide who decides to brush up his resume with a classic credit, not realizing he has been roped into a production of King Lear at community theater in Stratford – but not that Stratford, England has a lot of Stratfords. It was a celebration of the form and high hilarity ensued.

Saturday, back in London, we attended a revival of People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan at Trafalgar Theatre, starring Denise Gough, Sinéad Cusack, Malachi Kirby and a strong ensemble of performers. A tale of addiction and recovery, it’s loud (and sometimes very loud) and frenetic, with swoops and turns and tricks which are disorienting for the audience as well as the protagonist, and a marathon for the lead performer, who was aggressive, vulnerable and deceptive.

"Standing at the Sky's Edge"
Gillian Lynne Theatre, 2024
But oh my, we loved Standing at the Sky’s Edge (book by Chris Bush, songs by Richard Hawley) at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. A musical which chronicles three generations at Park Hill, a brutalist housing estate in Sheffield, North Yorkshire. Taking place from 1960 to 2020, with each timeline thoughtfully threaded, we experience the decline of empire told from the vantage point of its most vulnerable subjects. It’s about class and race and gender and family and hope and despair and so much love. So so so much love.

The piece won the Olivier for Best Musical, 2023. It's a vast ensemble, impossible to point to one standout performance, the songs are gorgeous, the choreography is mesmerizing, but there’s no chance it will transfer to America. Its so entirely about England. Laughter in the crowd clued this Anglophile in on the many references I could not catch. But we bought the cast recording on CD and when was the last time we bought a CD?

Saturday, June 1, 2024

I Love the Bones of You: My Father and The Making of Me (book)

Aboard the Cunard Queen Mary 2, at the ship’s fore, there is a library. It is well stocked, a cozy room with many chairs and couches and plentiful views of the ocean. We spent much time there, and so did many others, the place was often full of people, reading.

The first book to catch my eye was Christopher Eccleston’s I Love the Bones of You: My Father and the Making of Me (2019). It is hard for the eye not to be caught by the sight of Eccleston’s face, or his name. Most Americans, if they know him, know him as an actor who often plays villains or other complicated people, or as the Ninth Doctor.

Of course, I had no idea he’d written a memoir, so I didn’t think twice, this would be my library loan for the week. And it’s like the opposite of a traditional memoir – his parents are loving and supportive. He’s a strong-minded actor, and one who plays intense characters, which has given him a reputation, but he’s so positive, about everything.

One thing I really enjoyed was how Eccleston really respects writers. Often, when involved in the production of a film or television series, he will base his performance on the writer. I love that.

The through line of his story is the love he holds for his father, and what it was like to lose him over a decade-long struggle with dementia. I lost my mother in two months. I do not know which is worse. I have wished to have had the chance to say good-bye better. Eccleston reassures me that just may not have been possible.

It’s quite a book. I had a fantasy about running into him in London, just so I could say thank you for this book you’ve written. That, and you’re my Doctor.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Dark Room (workshop)

Self w/Katherine Nash (Jan 2024)
So, the thing is, right … I’m kind of between writer’s groups right now? It’s not that I’m afraid of commitment, I just haven’t found the right ensemble of people to be with yet.

One great advantage of being a member of a writers’ group is that it creates for you a deadline. If you are on your own, you set your own timeline for creation. If you meet with colleagues – once a week, once every two weeks, once a month – you may be expected to produce a certain number of pages. And so you have a responsibility outside of yourself, you have homework.

Twenty or so years ago, my wife invited me to join her writers’ group. They met at the Case Campus Arabica (now The Coffee House at University Circle) and it was with this ensemble that I began work on what became I Hate This (a play without the baby). Sharing individual scenes from a larger work, as I was composing it, this was a new experience to me. It was a supportive ensemble and extremely rewarding.

Some years later, after this team had amicably parted ways, I tried starting a writers’ group on my own, which lasted two weeks. We had infant children and I wasn’t in the right place to be managing anything that would take up so much time outside of work. I didn’t want to run a writers’ group, you know? I wanted to be in one. I’d just ended a theater company, I still wanted to create things, I was done with running them.

By 2008, I had been invited to join the (former) Playwrights’ Unit at the Cleveland Play House, and that was when my work started to take off. We were required to bring ten pages every two weeks, and that’s when I really started writing them plays. I developed well over a dozen full length plays and several more short works before the Unit folded nine years later.

Since that time I have been a much more consistent writer, continuing to write plays on my own time. When a draft is complete, I will host a private reading to hear how it sounds and to receive comments. What I do miss, however, is receiving feedback as the work progresses.

So I have been going to the Dark Room.

The Dark Room is like an “open mic” for playwrights, to hear their work read aloud. It started about twenty years ago, a program of the (former) Cleveland Theater Collective, an organization created to foster and support collaboration between all area theaters.

Management and maintenance of the Dark Room was turned over to Mindy Childress Herman in 2007, John Busser signed on to co-manage two years later, and they have shepherded the program ever since, in various sites on the campus of Cleveland Public Theatre. It’s a free event, the second Tuesday of the month folks gather to have their work read, to read the works of others, or just to witness.

Paul Manganello (Feb 2017)
I’ve had the Dark Room as a repeating date on my Google calendar for years without ever attending. I mean, I had attended a couple of times. I can even remember them. I read a piece from And Then You Die (How I Ran a Marathon in 26.2 Years) in 2008. In 2017, I brought an actor from Michigan I was working with and he read a new work. But I didn’t make it a habit. I live in Cleveland Heights, it’s a Tuesday, I have kids, and so on. And I already had a writers group.

You know that list of things you say you’ll get to, but never do? Since our youngest headed off to school, I have found myself actually doing those things. And one of those things is the Dark Room.

There’s this thing I’ve been working on, I won’t go too far into it, it’s inspired by a lot of recent discoveries I’ve made, about my family, about my life. I got an idea for a structure, a family story told in reverse chronology. So I’ve been bringing pieces to the Dark Room since November, to read them in actual chronological order, to hear how folks respond to them, and the response has been pretty positive.

Better than that, however, has been listening to the other works. It's a good time! And the community, this Cleveland theater community, folks I see sporadically — or every fucking day on Facebook but that’s not the same, you know? I’ve grown accustomed to, or made myself accustomed to the familial solitude mandated by the quarantine, and I’ve always had a degree of social anxiety, anyway.

But sweet are the uses of community. I am glad for such company.

Special thanks to Mindy and John for their contributions to this post.