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The Maybe Lost Art of Curtain-Raisers

08.20.10 | 2 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter

David J. Loehr’s recent post about warming up an audience with a trailer has put me in mind of another way to extend the theatrical experience that I’ve been thinking about for some time.

A few years ago, the Intentional Theatre Group commissioned me to write a short play for the Midtown International Theatre Festival.  The IT Group had decided to produce Daniel McIvor’s NEVER SWIM ALONE, but his (terrific) play wasn’t long enough to fill their festival slot.  Rather than abandon the extra minutes, they asked me to think about McIvor’s work, let it inspire me, and then write whatever came to my mind in response, with the caveat that I only had so many minutes to play with.  (I think it was 20.)

The resulting evening of theater was wildly successful.  The IT Group earned Best Production from the festival, and the woman who starred in my solo one-act – CRACKED – won Best Supporting Actress.  Critical plaudits aside, my impression is that audiences really enjoyed the contrasting stories.  It gave patrons more to think and talk about after the evening was over, and it also created a sense of surplus: having purchased a ticket to see only one show, they were nonetheless granted a chance to see two.

What the evening brought to my mind were the short subjects that used to accompany virtually every movie shown in every theater in the world, even as recently as my early childhood: newsreels, cartoons, or sometimes short features – and sometimes more than one of the above.  These were high-quality pieces of art, at least some of the time, and in some cases they were even more entertaining than the full-length features they preceded.  They were certainly worth getting to the movies early for – unlike the insipid advertisements and movie trivia we’re forced to sit through today.

What I’ve been wondering ever since that festival is why theaters don’t do the same thing.  How hard would it be to stage a short curtain raiser – ten minutes or so – before the show begins?  Let’s think first about what would make it difficult, and imagine a few ways around the problems.

Obstacles Become Opportunities

First, there’s the question of resources: producing a second play would tax a theater’s already stretched budget.  Rights, a set, salaries, and so on – as we all know, it adds up quickly.

But what if the rights question weren’t really that intimidating?  Personally, I’d settle for a small figure to have one of my short plays produced that way – I did, in fact, with the IT Group.  What young playwright wouldn’t think of the opportunity as a way to get her work out in front of an audience – a stepping stone toward production of a full-length?  In the months since the end of the Midtown International Theater Festival, furthermore, CRACKED has since gone on to two other productions, one in Chicago, another (forthcoming) in the Minneapolis area.  Opportunities abound.

Think of the possibilities with regard to scenic design, too.  Naturally, you wouldn’t want to make use – at least not always – of whatever set the full-length play would require… but what if curtain-raisers were written (again, as mine was) to require minimal-if-any sets?  Again, costs would be minimal… and the constraints might actually inspire great creativity.

As for salaries: is it that much of a stretch to imagine that the cast and crew for the full-length might just consider the curtain-raiser just, you know, an extra scene to memorize/block/direct/light/and so on?  And not ask for a bigger paycheck?  Okay, perhaps it is… but maybe the unions in question might be willing to be flexible, at least somewhat, if only to offer additional creative opportunities for their members.  I can imagine the curtain-raiser being cast, for example, from among the actors playing smaller roles in the evening’s full-length.

While I may be pipe-dreaming here, I do maintain that there are always inventive ways to overcome resource limitations.  And if I am pipe-dreaming… so what?  So we raise more money to cover the costs of the curtain-raiser.  If we give our audiences more, they’re likely to show up in larger numbers… so maybe increased ticket sales would help offset the costs.

(There’s a future post in there somewhere, BTW – I fear we have a culture of scarcity in the theater.  What if we inculcated a sense of abundance instead?  Sigh…)

So what do folks think?  Is this a serious possibility to be considered?  Are there obstacles I haven’t thought of?  Has anyone tried this recently?  If so, what was it like?

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  • I saw this done at POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA, an evening of 2 new plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The first play was only maybe 20 minutes, also a 1-woman show. No set was really used or necessary – it was just her, in a chair, with a teacup. While it didn’t relate obviously thematically to the second show, both shows were total mindfucks, and both dealt with obviously American issues (the first dealt with torture–this was in 2005–the second, with school shootings [see my upcoming NYIT Awards blog about the second play, it should get posted today]). It worked beautifully…the actress from the 1-woman show had a smaller role in the second play, and was phenomenal in both. There was a brief “pause” between shows, and after both shows were over, we had PLENTY of rich, juicy stuff to talk about.

    I’ve seen this done less successfully, too: the Atlantic Theater Co did an evening called “Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet.” The reason it was less successful was probably because both unrelated plays were dreadful. They opened with a play called “School,” which seemed like a deleted scene from “Duck Variations” but totally unfunny and with insinuations of pedophilia, and then went on to the also-unfunny-but-longer “Keep Your Pantheon.” Again, both actors from “School” were in the longer play, in smaller roles. I think the only way you get away with billing something as “two unrelated plays” is if they’re by a big name like David Mamet, as there was no reason for these plays to be presented together. Then again I had trouble discerning why these plays were being presented at all, so, maybe a bad example.

    Food for thought…

  • Dobama Theatre in Cleveland which produced Adam Bock’s “The Receptionist” paired it with a new short play by Eric Coble, which I believe was called HR. It also took place in an office and used the same cast. It generally got a very strong response. And it makes sense, given how many contemporary plays don’t even hit the 80-minute mark, to give audiences a bit more, another perspective on the same set of ideas.


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