It is Done came to me as a fever dream. My then-fiancée and now-wife, Catia Ojeda, is an actress and was in the midst of a nine-month tour. I’d visit her every three weeks. One night in Miami, I had a horribly vivid dream about a child and a violent crime. Upon waking, the seed was planted. That night, when Catia left for the theater to do her show, I sat down and wrote the first 27 pages of the script. It is easily my most prolific four-hour writing session to date. A few weeks later, the first draft was finished, incorporating two other terrifying dreams from my past””as well as the music of Hank Williams, which I started enjoying after my wife’s previous tour stop in Nashville.
As I wrote the play I knew it would be down, dirty and presumably easy to produce: three actors, 85 minutes of continuous action, one set consisting of a rural bar in the middle of nowhere. Others noticed the potential. It moved quickly from revision phase to workshop phase at Astoria Performing Arts Center in New York, directed by a frequent collaborator of mine, Tom Wojtunik. The actors were people I knew, and in fact I had written all three parts with them in mind. One staged reading led to another at The Dramatists Guild. Following that reading at a real bar, a friend asked a revelatory question:
“Why not do it in a real bar?”
Why not indeed? It was like a shot to the liver (there were shots consumed that night, to be sure). The realistic nature of the location would be easily served in a pre-existing venue, rather than spending more money booking a theater and then building a set. The audience witnessing the action while completely confined in the set, with actors moving around them, would be a unique and powerful experience.
My wife and I, in between other projects, quickly assembled a fundraising plan and started scouting locations. We knew the most important element of the venue was privacy. This couldn’t be an open space but one where we could control the environment. Lighting, sound, entrances, exits””all had to appear organic. But to do that involved as much design and planning as is needed in a traditional venue. And, of most importance, if your characters repeatedly comment on how alone and in the middle of nowhere they are, you can’t have people wandering through, looking for the bathroom or thinking it’s just another party to crash.
During the planning process, we met 22Q Entertainment, a New York”“based production company focusing solely on site-specific projects. They were excited about the prospects, and we joined forces and quickly secured a location. The Mean Fiddler Bar and Grill was the perfect combination: a great location (half a block from Times Square, in the heart of the theater district) and a wonderful performance space (a generic-looking basement bar, completely sealed off from the main bar upstairs). We signed a deal, secured our funding and launched into rehearsals with the same cast and director.
Our site-specific show had many obstacles, some unexpected. The ceilings were low, making hanging lights difficult. A giant mirrored support beam obstructed 25 percent of the room from viewing the bar, limiting our seating potential. The actors were wary of blocking that left them within inches of audience members. Dressing rooms were nonexistent, and the actors had to hole up in the supply room preshow. Plus, the venue management was unsure of us and what we were doing. We weren’t karaoke, we weren’t improv or standup, and we weren’t a St. Patrick’s Day party, so how were we going to make them money? Plus, the bus boys were slow to figure out that they couldn’t come in at any time and restock the ice bin.
But the benefits far outweighed the challenges. We advertised the show as an experience. When the house opened an hour prior to “curtain,” Hank Williams music blared, drinks and food were consumed, and the audience barely noticed when the real bartender left and our show began. Audiences were unprepared not only for the twists and thrills of the story, but also how the space innocuously morphed into a very real and very dangerous room, as the actors moved amongst them effortlessly on their journeys.
The gamble worked. Reviews were extraordinarily positive for all involved, treating the environment as an element equally as important as the cast, direction and script. Our bourbon-soaked vibe brought our friends back for repeat performances, and we started to see the golden goose of DIY theater: audiences we did not know personally at all, coming in based on the reviews and buzz. The venue was happy with us and allowed us to extend. They even enjoyed some of our design elements so much that, at our strike, they requested we leave some light fixtures in place as permanent additions to the bar.
Of most importance, the space made the show a completely different organism. Actors deftly moved from proscenium (the bar) to the round (a table in the middle of the audience), while audience members watched like ghosts, aware of each other and the action, but never interacting.
It was a no-brainer to take the show to Los Angeles. My wife and I were moving here, and our co-producers are originally from Southern California. The search for the venue began almost immediately after we completed our cross-country adventure. A number of bars had private spaces, but we eventually settled on the back room at the historic Pig ’n Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, not far from Hank Williams’ star on the Walk of Fame. We hired a wonderful established L.A. theater veteran director, Michael Michetti, and two talented actors, Andre Tenerelli and Michael McCartney, to complete the cast.
It’s an entirely different production, with actors and directors making new and exciting choices. Yet, as we gear up to open, one thing is startlingly the same: the room is starting to become organic, a living but not breathing character in the play. I am excited to see how the room alters the viewing experience of our new audience.
It is Done opens tonight. Pig ’N Whistle, 6714 Hollywood Blvd. Sun 7 pm, Mon-Tue 8:30 pm through June 12. Tickets: $25. www.itisdonetheplay.com.
***All It Is Done production photos by Michael James Trimble
Alex Goldberg is a two-time O’Neill Conference semifinalist whose plays have been produced in New York City; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago, Taiwan; and at Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro.