Blame It On Beckett, opening Saturday at Burbank’s Colony Theatre, is about Heidi Bishop, a young woman who “just received an MFA in dramaturgy at some school like Yale and wants a job in her specialty,” according to playwright John Morogiello. During an internship at a literary office in a New England theater, Heidi discovers the problems of American resident theater companies and “decides to take on all these issues herself. Along the way she makes some mistakes, gets into trouble — and it’s a comedy!” Heidi, played by Blythe Auffarth, is no blithe spirit.
Filled with insider insights about what really goes on backstage, Blame It On Beckett is designed to elicit knowing winks, nods and smiles from theater aficionados, in front of and behind the footlights. As veteran resident theater hands, Blame’s director Andrew Barnicle, the Colony’s executive director Trent Steelman and Morogiello are well acquainted with the pitfalls, pratfalls and promise of mounting productions in these nonprofit theaters that serve as alternatives to the commercial productions found on Broadway and for-profit tours, yet still use Actors’ Equity contracts.Â The troika of talents is highly qualified to present a play about this subject near and dear to each of them, and to discuss it.
Before Steelman joined the Colony — a year-round mid-size organization that presents six shows per year — he was executive director of East West Players, the venerable Little Tokyo company that focuses on productions by and about Asian-Americans and Asians. “To my knowledge, I’m the only person who has worked [as executive director] at more than one mid-sized theater in LA,” says the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West alum. Steelman also served as executive artistic director for Essential Actions Theatre Company in Denver.
Barnicle, best known as the former artistic director of Laguna Playhouse,Â says “I didn’t have a literary manager — I was the literary manager at the Laguna Playhouse. My wife was the dramaturge. So I had the same experience and the same number of scripts in my office that one of the characters in this play has.” With a twinkle in his eye, Barnicle notes that those scripts that gathered dust on shelves in his inner sanctum “actually included a few John Morogiello plays that I rejected.”
“And they deserved it!” quips Morogiello. “Andy was right. And that’s kind of what this play is about. Lots of young playwrights will write plays about playwrights, and it’s always the “˜sensitive’ playwright. I started thinking, “˜Well, what about the poor sap who has to read my bad script?’ Because I went back to the scripts I submitted to Andy many years ago, and they were really like they were written by a 20-year-old, and well deserving of the scorn and derision he gave them. I got a lovely form letter, by the way! I realized that every theater, publisher, movie studio and TV studio is being deluged by writers whose work they have to slog through that they know they’ll never produce or publish. And I felt sorry for those people who had to read those scripts and who I called on a daily basis, going “˜Do my play! Do my play! Do my play!’ And I know how annoying I can be. That was part of the impetus, I suppose.”
Morogiello adds that Yale declined his applications to its playwriting program three times. Nevertheless, his bona fides include having been “a literary intern and dramaturge, [being] a playwright, and I used to be general manager of a small theater. So I have experience with all four characters in the play,” although, “none of them are my experiences specifically. But certainly, I’ve researched all four roles from the inside, as it were.” In addition to Heidi, those parts include the resident dramaturge Jim Foley (Louis Totorto), theater manager Mike Braschi (Brian Ibsen) and feminist playwright Tina Fike (Peggy Goss).
Barnicle points out that readers coping with the flood of often unsolicited manuscripts can always fall back on “the 10 page rule,” which is dealt with in Blame It On Beckett. “When I started I was more altruistic than I had the budget and time to be, and I used to try to read the entire plays, spending two hours reading a play. Then I realized I was never going to get those two hours of my life back. Eventually, as those scripts started to pile up, I realized I had to shorthand my evaluation of plays, and I got down to — I wouldn’t say exactly 10 pages. But the first scene — well, you can look at the cast list and tell whether it’s producible. That would be the first way through a process of attrition to lose it. I once got a script from a local writer in Orange County that had a cast of 38 and included the live sacrifice of a goat onstage!”
He adds, “It doesn’t necessarily have to be 10 pages, but you can tell how a playwright weaves exposition and characterization into the first few pages whether they’re going to know how to write a good play”¦ You get the information you need from the first scene of a play to understand the rest of the play without going, “˜oh wow, he’s hitting me over the head with exposition here.’ So when playwrights have to resort to telephone calls, full frontal speeches directly to the audience explaining everything that’s going on, I’m automatically skeptical.”
Barnicle says he didn’t turn down any scripts that went on to become acclaimed works produced elsewhere, and one manuscript that came over the transom at the Laguna Playhouse actually received its premiere there. Compounding the process of prospecting for gold in those daunting piles of texts, is that “the economics of the theater began to shift,” observes Barnicle. “The time and budget required to even read these plays became impossible to find. So they started stacking up unread. The audience and marketing demands of producing a new title and expecting it to sell enough tickets to even justify its existence made it more and more difficult to do an unknown play by an unknown author on the stage.”
“It’s a stretch for us to do anything more than five or six characters,” Steelman points out. “Fiscally it’s just impossible to sustain the organization, with paying not only actors’ salaries, but we pay pension, health and benefits”¦ plus for rehearsals”¦ because the Colony is full Equity,” unlike LA’s 99-Seat Theater Plan houses.
Due to current economic realities, Morogiello limits the number of sets and cast members in his works, admitting, “I know if I have a play with six characters, I won’t even be able to send it to about 50% of the country’s theaters.”
Barnicle adds, “In a LORT [League of Resident Theatres] B theater, the formula works roughly to each actor costing the theater approximately $10,000 for the eight-week experience”¦ So a season of plays that have 20 actors — do the math, times $10,000 or a season of plays that have 10 actors — you’re talking about a $100,000 budget difference. Since all other costs of running a theater are fixed — rent, utilities — the cost of lumber keeps going up”¦ the only place where you have flexibility is the size of the play you do onstage”¦ which is why you see so many one-person shows” and plays with small casts.
“That’s part of the theme of this play — it’s one of the reasons why this young intern is so frustrated,” Barnicle continues. “She believes that every possible avenue should be pursued to find out which of these mountains of plays is the next Sam Shepard, and get it to the stage, because that’s what we do. But Heidi is informed, “˜no; that’s not what we do. It’s never been part of our explicit mission. And we don’t have time or money to spend on it.’ So the mythology that these theaters are altruistic and what they really want to do is find a diamond in the rough — they don’t have the time to even go into the field.”
Economic imperatives make it difficult for freelance directors and playwrights to make ends meet. “Even Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, had to go to television and movies and become a professor. He’s a name everybody knows, but can’t make a living in the theater. So for me, I teach playwriting for the Maryland State Arts Council,” says Morogiello, who lives in Maryland, in the suburbs north of Washington DC.
“Lots of theaters’ grants require that they produce world premieres and brand new plays; that’s part of their mission,” Morogiello points out. “For a playwright, getting the second production proves impossible, because everybody wants the premiere. If you say, “˜This was done in Burbank; why don’t you do it in Chicago?’, they say: “˜Well, we can’t market that as a premiere’.”
In the realm of resident theater, Barnicle says, this is called “premiere-itis”¦ The focus for grant money and prestige is on new works, but a good new work then loses interest to people down the line, unless it’s a runaway hit and goes to a large center and has a huge commercial success. Then that same [theoretical] theater in Chicago would do it — once it has won a Tony Award,” but of course.
“Having said that, Colony is doing the second production of the play, and I’m tremendously grateful for it,” says Morogiello. This run, opening Aug. 11, is being billed as the “West Coast premiere” of Blame, which debuted off-off-Broadway at New York’s Abingdon Theatre in 2011.
The gossip-shy Steelman says “we don’t really have dishy stories at the Colony because we don’t hire people that cause problems. We check on actors before we hire them. Most people we cast we’ve worked with before, we have a history with. Those we don’t, we do call other theaters to find out what they’re like to work with.” However, the former East West Players exec director does say “it’s a crime the Tennessee Williams estate will not let them do one of his plays because they refuse to allow Asians to do any of those roles, which I think is just wrong.”
Because of their proximity to Hollywood, LA stages have a large talent pool to draw from, including some famous names. But at the Colony,Â “we don’t go out of our way” to hire the well-known, asserts Steelman. “It sometimes happens, but that is not the purpose of what we do. It’s rare. I can’t even imagine a world where we would choose a play just so we could have a star in it.”
Motion picture and TV divas clashing with resident theaters over their own private trailers and the like “doesn’t happen; it never gets that far. It’s one of the reasons they don’t do it,” maintains Barnicle. “At the Laguna Playhouse we’d get submissions of well-known name actors all the time, but the discussion never got to the point where I’d say, “˜Is this guy willing to come down here for $800 a week?’, because the agent certainly didn’t want that to happen. The actor may want it to happen, but the agent isn’t going to let him tie himself up contractually for two months. It was certainly very rare that celebrity actors would”¦ do a play for eight weeks. There’s no money in it.” Would-be Eve Harringtons need not apply.
Steelman notes that the skill sets, as well as pay grades, differ from medium to medium. “It’d also be rare that we’d hire a television or film person who doesn’t have any theater credentials. You can be a brilliant movie or TV actor; that doesn’t mean you’ll be brilliant on stage. And I don’t think we’d take that risk” of casting actors waiting for their close-ups.
Facility with language, too, is another major consideration, adds Morogiello. Not every thespian can convincingly recite Shakespearean or Shavian dialogue. One doubts that Snooki could perform Samuel Beckett — even if Waiting for Godot were reset at the Jersey Shore.
Blame It On Beckett, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank 91502. Opens Saturday. Thu-Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through Sept. 2. Tickets: $20- $42. 818-558-7000. www.ColonyTheatre.org.
** All photos by Michael Lamont