Steve Martin's 'Meteor Shower' Coming to New Haven: An Interview with Actress Sophina Brown

Noah Golden

  • Connecticut Columnist

On September 28th, Long Wharf Theatre will launch its 2016-2017 season with “Meteor Shower,” a brand new play by Steve Martin (which is co-produced with the Old Globe). Directed by Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of Long Wharf, “Meteor Shower” is a comedy about two couples whose dinner party takes a turn for the surreal while they watch the titular astronomic event. Starring in the show are Arden Myrin, Patrick Breen, Tony-nominee Craig Bierko and Sophina Brown.

To learn more about this world premiere play, I spoke to Sophina Brown on the telephone about how the rehearsal process is going (after our conversation, she was on her way to the first day of tech), what attracted her to “Meteor Shower” and what it’s like working with Steve Martin. Brown, who is making her Long Wharf debut, has a long resume of television roles including “NUMB3RS,” “Shark,” “The Good Wife” and the upcoming “Cruel Intentions.” She has also been seen on Broadway in “The Lion King” and regionally with shows like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Good People.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How are rehearsals going so far?

Rehearsals have been going great! It's definitely a truncated rehearsal process. So it was kind of like being shot out of a cannon. There was a little bit of panic initially when we were like, "Oh my god, we only have two and a half a weeks of rehearsals?” It's not a linear play and there are elements that, if you overthink them, can trip you up a little bit. But once we figured out the pocket and got into the groove of what we were doing, things fell into place beautifully.

  • Is this your first time at Long Wharf and in New Haven?

It is! You know, I've always heard about Long Wharf and the wonderful productions they've done and I think out of all the LORT [League of Resident Theatres] theaters in the country, they’ve taken the most shows to New York. So, they definitely set a precedent, that's for sure. I've been having a great time. It's a lovely, lovely place to work. I haven't been able to really explore New Haven yet because of the rehearsal schedule and then, on my days off I had to go into New York City to throw a wedding shower for my best friend. But I’m looking forward to doing just that.

What attracted you to "Meteor Shower"?

The biggest draw initially was Steve Martin. He is iconic. He does so much. He's so talented, so smart, so funny. I knew anything that he wrote was going to not only be challenging and humorous but it was also going to be deeply profound and that's exactly what this play is. I think it strikes such a great balance because, when I first read it and I would imagine as an audience member, you go on this wonderful journey that's just absolutely hilarious but then, when all the laughs are done, you're left with these golden nuggets of wisdom that you think about for days and days after. It's made me actually think about marriage a bit differently and think about even my humanity in a different way. 

Has Steve Martin been involved in this process?

Yeah, he's been in the room. He's been in rehearsals. It's just wonderful when he's there because, first of all, being able to do a play where the playwright is sitting right there next to the director is something I've never experienced before. So that in and of itself is a joy and treat. He's not an overbearing person. He doesn't dominate the room in any way. He really lets Gordon [Edelstein] be the director and run the rehearsal. But when he does have something to say, it's highly impactful and we get so much out of it. This is his baby and he really helps give us a way in when we're stuck. Just simple things that he says really crack things wide open. This is also the first time that I’ve actually gotten to help originate a piece, which is a completely different ballgame. It's a completely different feel to come up and create things in the room and have Steve Martin writing a line for you based on something you did. That is huge to me. It's been very meaningful in that way to be part of that creative process. 

What is it like working with and getting to know this cast?

It's been wonderful. I always say that it's a happy surprise when you not only have a great professional relationship with people but you end up walking away with a new friend. And I feel like that's what happening. Arden [Myrin] and myself are both from LA and, while I’ve only known her for three weeks, I know for sure we'll definitely keep our relationship going because we have that instant chemistry. What's been really great for me, not having as much of a comedy background as the other three, is being able to learn a lot by watching their process and watching how they can make something funny. It's challenged me and made me elevate my craft in that way because it's given me a new perspective. Arden is a stand-up comedian; Craig Bierko is just insanely funny in general and Patrick [Breen] is as well. They're all really good actors to boot. So it's been wonderful being able to collaborate with them and being able to sit back and watch their process. It's promoted growth in me. 

Is there an adjustment for you going from on-camera acting back to stage work?

That's a good question. There is always an adjustment. There's a physicality to this play that's been a challenge for me. I have to really use my entire body as an instrument. Whereas when I'm doing on-camera stuff, a lot of things are conveyed through eyes and very economical movements. One of the things I had to realize is that, because this is an absurdist comedy, I was kind of going more towards naturalistic and realistic [styles]. Even though you always want things to be truthful, there's a heightened quality to this play that I really had to accept and step into. 

What are you most looking forward to over the run of the show?

I'm really looking forward to, first of all, having an audience. That's always the missing element at this point. We're just ready to get in front of an audience and to really share what we've done. The other thing I’m looking forward to is something that I've only dreamt about and didn't even know it was a model at Long Wharf, which is doing talk-backs after every single show and I'm going to try to make as many as I possibly can. I think that it's so important to open up after a performance and have a dialogue with the community. Because ultimately that's what theater is all about. Art in all forms is about is service to the community. 

How would you pitch "Meteor Shower" to a reader who doesn't know anything about it?
There are so many surprises in "Meteor Shower" that it's one of those things where I don't want to say too much. What I will say is that it is an unpredictable evening of non-stop laughs. It is so funny and so witty that I would defy anyone to come and not enjoy this show. It's a roller coaster ride form beginning to end. I don't want to give away too much of the plot. You just have to come and see it!

You Never Know

Jack Rushen

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

I’m a real theater person.  Have been since I was in high school.  I studied, paid my dues, and even got professional work.  When I got to act in Equity theaters, I was under the impression that everything would be smooth and professional at all times.  Not so.  Things happen. 
In 1982, I was performing at Long Wharf, one of my first union gigs.  The play was “The Doctor’s Dilemma” by Shaw. 

This particular Sunday matinee started off well, until the end of the first act, where smoke was suddenly wafting out of the heating vents.  As it got more and more dense, the house manager stopped the show and had the audience evacuate the building. 

Long story even longer, it turned out that the heating system was off kilter and emitting steam.  Lots of steam.  An incredible amount of steam. I was expecting people to change into towels.  

The problem was fixed and the confused audience was herded back into the theater and the house manager explained what happened.

Actors entered, lights went up, and the play resumed.  All was well…or was it?  It seemed that one of the audience members called the fire department without telling anyone, and in the silence of drama inside the theater, a fire truck pulled up, sans the siren and lights. 

As the play went on, a fireman (with axe, oxygen, helmet, and jacket)…was walking in the lobby.  He heard loud dramatic voices, and flung open the door that lead to the stage.  Maybe this was his chance to be a hero, so he rushed down and stopped at the edge of the stage where five actors in 19th century costumes stared him down.  The fireman looked uncomfortably to the audience, muttered “shit,” and tip-toed away sheepishly. 

The adventure was over and the rest of the play went well, but I was trying to figure out a way to have this guy come out for the curtain call.

The program really should have read like this: 

  • Mr. Danby – Lewis Casson 
  • Sir Patrick Cullen – William Farren 
  • Louis Dubedat – Harley Granville-Barker 
  • Dr. Blenkinsop – Edmund Gurney 
  • Nervous Fireman—Joey Santoro

Last I heard, Joey quit the fire department and is now studying at the Strasberg Institute in New York City.   

 

Why Broadway Needs More Non-Musicals

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccione

On September 4th, Broadway will undergo a brief period of time, in which there will be only one non-musical that is still running on Broadway. Following the closings of An Act of God and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Humans – the recent winner of the Tony Award for Best Play – will be the only show left on Broadway that is not a musical.

It should be noted that this period will be very brief, as the closings that I refer to will be followed by quite a few other shows opening that same month. So this isn’t to say that this is something we can expect to last for a lengthy amount of time.

Nonetheless, I still believe that this is worth bringing up, due to the fact that it has come to this point at all. I believe it is reflective of an issue that I’ve often talked about in past columns: The ratio of musicals vs. non-musicals that are being produced on Broadway, and the lack of great plays that are given the chance to be seen and appreciated as much as shows such as Hamilton or Phantom or The Lion King or The Book of Mormon.

The only way issues such as this get resolved is if there are people out there who keep discussing it and thinking about it over and over again. So, in light of recent events, I feel that it’s important for me to speak out again, and to provide an explanation over why this should be viewed as such an important issue for Broadway theatre.

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed in the play “The Humans.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed in the play “The Humans.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

There are many talented playwrights out there that are writing great plays that deserve to be seen by a wider audience. One could argue that there might be more of them that are actively seeking to be produced on Broadway, if only there wasn’t a perception out there that Broadway tends to lean more toward musicals, with non-musical plays rarely getting the chance to be seen on Broadway, compared to the amount of musicals that are on Broadway. I could be wrong, but I would think that if more Broadway theaters took a chance on non-musicals, there would be more playwrights out there that would be willing to try and put their work out there for such consideration. That’s what I would argue, based on what I’ve personally heard during past conversations with playwrights.

Even when you put aside the people that are actually writing these plays, let’s just take a look at some of the variety of plays that often are sent to producers, some of which may contain stories that aren’t often seen on Broadway enough. It’s true, many of the plays that are sent out to producers or literary managers for consideration may be horrible. Still, quite a few of them may be great, innovative works that – while they might be commonly seen off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway – are not commonly produced on Broadway. So if there’s even a chance that some of these non-musicals might have some degree of commercial appeal, why not take a chance on more of them?

Furthermore, some of these stories that I’m referring to could potentially be more suited for a non-musical script, as opposed to a script that incorporates music and dance into it. Sure, it may be fun to see some stories we are familiar with be adapted into a musical production. However, I have a hard time believing that EVERY story that has ever been written is best told through musical theatre. Indeed, for every Phantom or Les Miserables or The Lion King there has been, there have also been many more musical adaptations of great plays, films, etc. – which ultimately went on to be embarrassing flops – that seem to prove my point.

Finally, there is something that producers might especially be willing to consider, I would think: Musicals aren’t necessarily for everyone. I think we need to be honest about the fact that there are some potential theatergoers out there who we might not be reaching, simply on the basis that they aren’t huge fans of musical theatre, and that they perceive Broadway – and rightly so – to largely be geared toward musicals. If we want to reach more potential theatergoers who might not otherwise be interested, why not put on more shows that they might actually be interested in seeing?

Don’t get me wrong: I love musicals, and I most certainly am not saying they should cease to be produced on Broadway. That would, of course, be just as ridiculous as what we have now. Having said that, I also would personally like to see more of a variety of shows to choose from on the larger stages in New York, and – although film and music and many other artistic mediums seem to show more variety, even on the commercial side – I don’t necessarily know if the same can be said for Broadway theatre. I wish I could say otherwise, but if I didn’t think this was an issue worth discussing, I wouldn’t have been inspired to write this column.

I hope that this is something that people will think about, and I welcome any further discussion or opinions that people may have on this topic. However, I think my views on this topic are clear, and I don’t intend to stop talking about this until I feel more progress is being made on this issue. I hope that day will come soon, and I do have reasons to believe that MAYBE it will. (I may or may not address those in a future column.) But for now, I hope more attention can be drawn to this issue, so that the likelihood of that day coming grows even more…

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).

 

Chasing Windmills and Broadway

Susan Cinoman

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

I saw my first Broadway show when I was nine and it was, “Man of La Mancha.” Not sure why I identified with Aldonza so much but hey, maybe it had to do with Ronnie Weinberg, my fourth grade boyfriend and the diabolical nature of the war between the sexes in general, that I was becoming aware of at a tender age. No matter, when Don Quixote died, I thought I’d  have to be hospitalized, such was my transcendent grief. A critic was there that night, and asked me my opinion of the show. Through my sobs I answered, “It…was…the…best show…ever!!”
   
Turns out I was on the money, because “Man of La Mancha” was a mammoth hit, which ran forever and won a zillion Tonys. I’m reminded of it now, because the hit song from the show about the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, and the slayer of windmills, “The Impossible Dream” is all around us, all the time, and I think we should keep reaching for it. 

Summer Lyric Theatre(Photos by Michael Palumbo)

Summer Lyric Theatre(Photos by Michael Palumbo)

The nature of theatre has become an almost impossible dream. It’s almost impossible for an average middle class family to go see theatre in New York City together, because it costs them as much as a month’s mortgage payment. It’s nearly impossible for new shows to go to Broadway, unless they are musical versions of already known entities like movies, or jukebox musicals about someone super famous from the music industry. It’s practically impossible for a playwright to create something solely from their imagination for the purpose of entertainment, and get it on Broadway, unless they happen to hit on the topic of the day, or it stars someone from a superhero movie. Sometimes a puppet or horse will make it to the Broadway stage through impossible odds, and that’s great, but usually it’s pretty impossible. 
   
Though it’s true that when Man of La Mancha ran on Broadway, so did probably 20 other shows and even more plays, because they could. The producers were there, taking chances, and the audience was willing to sit down for a full evening of watching something they hadn’t heard of before. (They even had enough money left over to have supper afterward) It could be argued that we want what we are familiar with, we feel secure with whom we know, and have seen the most of on television or online. (We could argue that a psychology like that proves out to be true in all sorts of different arenas of society) Reaching for impossible dreams so often go nowhere, make us broke, keep us down, and make us cry the tears of frustration, not transcendence. It’s easier to hope that the producers will deliver something that will work, that an outside force will bring us something that will make us feel safe. 

But everyday new audiences are coming to Broadway, getting caught up in shows like “Hamilton,” “Fun Home” and “The Curious Incident.”” Kinky Boots” is from a movie, but a little independent one, that was under the radar. Yes, it took stars to bring it to Broadway, but once it got there, audiences were thrilled to see something they hadn’t seen before, something that might have been predicted to be impossible. Producers like Kari Lynn Hearn brought political satire to the theatre, against all odds and people loved it. Kids are going to their theatre classes in high school and being awakened to  Durang, Ives, Churchill, Vogel, Nottage and others. The impossible is still happening every second of the day in theatres all over. 

Thirty years after I saw my first show, I’m still inspired enough to write another play, coach another actor, attend a new writer’s work. The theatre’s immediacy and it’s fleeting quality are what make it an impossible dream, but one that is as sustaining as the best dream that you wake up from feeling alive and filled with possibilities. 

Save the Bijou, Save Bridgeport

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Editor-in-Chief
  • Twitter: @onstageblog

Trivia note: The first piece I wrote on this blog was about The Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, CT. I picked the Bjiou for a couple of reasons. The first was that I was incredibly impressed with the bold show selections, intimate space and potential it had for local theatre. Another, admittedly, was because I wanted to work there myself. 

In the two years since I wrote that piece, things were certainly on the rise for this theatre. With a strong leadership group and philosophy of inclusion, The Bijou quickly started producing some of the best local theatre in the state. 

But beyond the quality was the types of shows they were choosing. While neighboring theatres would pick standard fare, The Bijou was performing works that hardly ever get local productions such as The Pillowman, Murder Ballad and Take Me Out. 

And the work was fantastic as well. Over the past three years The Bijou earned 25 OnStage Critics Awards nominations and Geoffrey Gilbert won this year's Best Actor in a Play for their production of One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest. 

But as the quality of productions were rising, apparently so was the cost. And now, because of financial issues and a rising rent, The Bijou Theatre will close next week. 

Which is really unfortunate because I count The Bijou as one of the bright spots of Bridgeport. For a city that, let's be honest, has seen better days and is only about an hour from Broadway, the theatre presents a wonderful opportunity for creatively staged performances and giving Bridgeport residents, especially the youth, a place to explore their passions. 

Bridgeport has the opportunity to become the arts epicenter for the Fairfield County of CT. A strong theatre, music, performance scene will not only bring interest into the city but it can help stimulate local business and restaurants. I'm not the first to think that. 

The Bijou's production of In the Heights

The Bijou's production of In the Heights

But there is some good news in all of this, we have a chance to save The Bijou from becoming another closed theatre turned into God knows what. Organizers and staff are hoping to raise $100,000 before the end of this week. 

They have set up a Gofundme page to try to raise the funds. I think it would be amazing if you helped out. 

Now I'm not asking you to donate your disposable income. I'm asking you for the change in your seat cushions or in the cup holders of your car. Right now our Facebook pages has over 73,000 likes. If every single one of your donated just $1, that would help The Bijou get to their goal, if you donated $2, they would surpass it. 

The page can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/2h69bt6k

I only ask that you donate a small amount in hopes it goes along way in preventing another closed theatre. This is a time were creative exploration is needed and Bridgeport needs The Bijou. 

5 Tech Week Tips & Tricks

Sarah Ferguson 

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

We all love and dread it. Tech week. When the rehearsals are long, the tensions high, the excitement palpable, and the show nearly finished. It is undoubtedly the toughest week of any show season. Though I cannot promise to make your tech weeks perfect, I have sought the advice of many of my friends in theatre and have tried many of their tricks to making tech week bearable. Here is a list of a few that I found most helpful:

1. Drink a lot of water!

This one may seem like it would be obvious, but it is worth repeating nevertheless. Stage lights are hot and the rehearsals are long! You need to keep your body well hydrated and in the best physical condition during this time!

2. Stay loose and active!

Especially if you are doing a show with a lot of movement or dancing, this is essential! It may be tempting to sit on a couch backstage in between scenes, but it might not be the best choice for you. Staying loose includes not only stretching thoroughly before the rehearsal, but also continuing to stretch and keep your muscles warm throughout the entire time. If you go from sitting still and not moving to going out on stage for a large dance number, you are increasing the chance of you getting hurt. A quick breather is perfectly okay but try to keep yourself warmed up at all times.

3. Everyone has a job to do- be understanding and flexible!

If you are needed on stage for a mic check, you should go there rather than finishing up running lines or dances with your friends. Tech week is a stressful time and it’s only made more stressful when people cannot complete their jobs because of someone else. It all comes down to respecting your peers and everyone working on the show. Remember, you’re all on the same team and you all want the show to be a success!

4. Avoid caffeine when possible!

It hurts me to say this as I have a strong affection for coffee, but it’s important nevertheless! Caffeine can dry out your mouth and dehydrate you leaving you in less-than-tip-top shape for performances! A cup won’t hurt but make sure to drink even more water afterwards to keep your body hydrated!

5. Sleep!

A well-rested body is also very important during Tech Week rehearsals. You need to be in peak physical condition for all the hard work you’re going to be doing throughout rehearsals. In addition, Tech Week can be a tense, stressful time, and if you’re well-rested, you’re less likely to be cranky and your interactions with fellow cast mates will be smoother and less likely to lead to ill-feelings.

'The Bikinis' Return to the Long Wharf - An Interview with Ray Roderick

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

After two years, the Long Wharf Theater welcomes back “The Bikinis” on July 13-31, a fun, coming-of-age musical story of four young women growing up on the Jersey shore. Overnight, they become a singing girl group sensation of the 1960s and then a one-hit-wonder looking to fit in a country with growing pains of its own. One of the show’s creators, Ray Roderick, was nice enough to take time out to talk with OnStage about their show, “The Bikinis,” his upcoming shows, jukebox musicals, and his many hats.

OnStage:  So I know that the show’s plot is based on a real life story.  Can you tell our readers a little bit about that story?

Roderick:  Yes. It’s based on this story during the building boom.  There was a trailer park that was on a beach front in Florida.  All of a sudden, people were wanting to buy beach front property.  So this developer -- there was no other land developed of that size -- that was -- you could develop on the beach.  Everything [in the surrounding area] had been developed already.  So this one little trailer park was left called “Briny Breezes.”  They offered everybody in this trailer park, $1 million per trailer, if they would sell [to the developer]. It created this complete uproar in the community because people had been here for generations.  People were like, “I’m in paradise!  Where am I going, a condo?  I don’t think so.  I can walk out my door and be on the beach -- I’m staying!” So, we took this backdrop, set it at the [New] Jersey Shore, and created our story. 

OnStage: So, what is your story?

It’s about four women who were best friends: two sisters, a cousin, and a friend who won first place in a [talent] contest in 1964 at the Jersey shore singing, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” People asked, “What do you call yourselves?” and they said, “We’re the Bikinis.”

Then they said, “You know what? We should be a girl group!”  So the story is their story coming of age – from age 14 to heading close to 50. And their story follows [along with the story of America] coming of age.

OnStage: Through the songs that everyone remembers from the 1960s. 

Roderick: We see rock and roll and pop music change with the times via the lens of these four best friends coming of age.  [The United States] as a country that is coming of age at a time when things were changing so much! There was turmoil that we were dealing with for the first time in this new kind of way, and the music reflects that. These women’s lives reflect that. But the songs play a large role in the show: they are the emotional part of the show; they're the fun of the show; they're the nostalgic part of the show.  It’s really about this journey of music and these women coming of the age at a time when the country is coming of age.  

OnStage:  So that explains the range of the songs that are part of the show.

Roderick:  Yeah, it’s literally 20 years’ worth of music.  Most of the ride is those songs you heard on your transistor radio growing up. It’s sort of a soundtrack of the lives at that time when there was three or four [radio] stations to choose from. Nowadays, we have our iPhones and Bluetooth hook ups: everyone is listening to whatever they want to listen to at any time.  But that wasn’t the case in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  For the most part, everybody had their radios tuned to the same station.  If you would go to the beach, you would see people dancing to the same music at different spots on the beach because they're all listening to the same station on their transistor radio.  So, we do have a soundtrack of our lives at that time that we don’t have any more in the same way: we literally are experiencing the same thing at the same time.

OnStage:  There’s an amazing amount of music that this story requires: all these different songs to tell all these different points of view in terms of what was going on during this time.  The story is really from the perspective of the Baby Boomers and their growing up and how the country was changing from the ‘50s that’s post- World War II and going into the ‘70s, early ‘80s.

Roderick:  We use all this music to reflect nostalgic moments in the ‘60s. And their lives, they grow up and we watch the four girls grow up as the music and the country grows up.  This is a really big musical journey and that’s what I’m so excited about.  It’s how these girls grew at that time and the music reflected all of that.  And they chose to sing songs for particular reasons.

For instance, there’s a whole Woodstock story through the eyes of one of the girls who fell in love with Melanie [Safka, best known for her song “Brand New Key”] and her music.  And then we transition into the women’s voice with the Equal Rights Amendment, so they do some of that material through their eyes and then ultimately land in the disco era. 

OnStage: And there are original songs in the show as well?

Roderick: Yes, so there's original songs along with this grouping of pop songs we know and love. For example, “In My Bikini” and “Sandy Shores” and some parody songs that we do in the “beach movie style” [a la Frankie and Annette] that’s like Elvis and the Rockabilly of the ’50s - ‘60s.  So we have songs like that that are ours for a reason.  For example, there’s one song that deals with divorce. It’s a country tune written by the gal who never liked country music until she went through a divorce.  But since she was a lawyer, so wrote the country tune in “legal-ese.” 

OnStage:  That’s great!

Roderick:  Yeah.  And also the bikini as the title of the show is a little loaded intentionally. Because the bikini – for women – is empowering and, at the same time, [voyeuristic]. Those beach movies at the time reflected that, and it seems so innocent now.  But at the time, that generation liked pushing the envelope, and the bikini represented that.  Also, for many, the bikini was like, “What? A woman can wear that on the beach?”  For a woman, it was empowering. They’re like, “Yeah, I can!  Why can't I?  What's there to be ashamed of here, folks?  And guess what, you're looking at me now, aren’t you?” [And then there’s the other side:] “Should I be wearing it?  Maybe I should be in a one piece.” There was that whole dynamic for women, as we know.  

It’s also a wonderful metaphor for us growing up and the conflict that we all deal with in life -- it’s not always black and white.  And I think the bikini, in a fun way, reminds us of that women couldn’t show up on the beach that way, and now it’s a whole new kind of freedom.  And that’s part of the coming of age with our country [at the time] is there was a whole another kind of freedom that we were coming out of World War II and entered this fun era.  But there was a lot that was coming to the surface of the same time and those issues would come through in these songs. These songs were not about nothing; they were saying something here.  They reflect a moment in time and that’s what we’re interested in conveying with this show.

OnStage:  One thing that is different about this show is that there is an interactive part: the audience gets to vote. What is the audience voting on and how do the votes determine how the ending changes? I mean you don’t want to necessarily give away what endings *could* happen…

Roderick:  Well, there’s some stuff that floats up about the sisters, so little hidden secrets, some hidden baggage that they never revealed to each other -- that they had hidden from each other that bubbles to the surface through this concert that the audience is a part of.  I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but the stakes are not just with our four gals on stage. There are stakes with the audience as well. How do you want to live your life?  What matters in life?  We get to ponder that ourselves.  These secrets bubble to the surface as these gals have to make a decision that we’ve been talking about through this musical journey.  And as that comes to a head, [the audience] ends up realizing that we’re on one side of this or the other.  So, the show is breaking the fourth wall as the story unfolds with the audience as a part of it.  So it’s a little immersive.  

OnStage:  So a lot of the works that you have created like “The Bikinis” and “I Love a Piano” are mostly made up of songs that have already been written by someone else.  Have you thought about doing work where you're creating completely original songs?

Roderick:  Well, I’m excited you mentioned that because I’ve just finished in a show with new music where I wrote both lyrics and the book with my collaborator, Joseph Baker, who has written all the music for the show.  And we just finished. We’re very proud of it.  Hopefully that will be unveiled soon. 

OnStage:  No hints?

Roderick:  It’s about a powerful woman.  It’s based on a true story.  A very powerful woman that everybody should know about. But it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on: it’s a completely original story, including its music and lyrics, but it’s not based on a movie and it’s not jukebox.  It has its own vocabulary.

OnStage:  Something to look forward to! So, that’s cool to know that that’s coming.

Roderick:  And then Jim Hindman and I [and two others] have written a new play with music called “Love Land.”  It’s a whacky, fun, series of love stories that all take place in a place called the Love Land Ski Lodge. There’s a real place in Colorado called Love Land, north of Denver, and that's a ski area, so we decided to have our story take place there. It’s a series of love stories that take place in this ski lodge that’s only open on February 14 every year.  Anyway, we’re really proud of it and it’s going to be unveiled very soon.  So that was written by Jim and I and it’s been a really fun collaboration. 

Also, Jim and I have a company [Miracle or 2] that focuses on new authors and licensing properties by new authors. That’s sort of what our group is all about, but in a way in that we hope acts as a pipeline to the commercial world.  

OnStage:  Yeah.  I mean if you don’t have a commercial element to [your show], who’s going to see it, right?  So you need to.

Roderick:  Yeah, it’s not going to collect dust on a shelf if it’s a play that’s worth doing.  And [theaters] are always looking for new things, but it’s like, “Well, where are those new things?”  So, we’re trying to create a company that is always delivering new things that can be successful in -- generally speaking -- smaller theaters.

OnStage: Like Long Wharf. 

Roderick:  Yes, like Long Wharf. Actually, this is our second time back at Long Wharf [with “The Bikinis”]. We were there two years ago.  So we’re thrilled to be back.  It was a very successful run two summers ago.  And we had a great time in New Haven. Last time, by the end of the run, people were coming with their coolers and were having little beach parties, little tailgating parties in the parking lot.  They were ready to go, ready to have a good time! The little show -- they seemed to love it in Connecticut and we’re thrilled about it.

OnStage:  I noticed when I was reading your bio that you wear a lot of hats.  You’ve been a performer; you’ve been in directing, you’ve been a writer, and a choreographer.  So, what's your favorite hat and why? 

Roderick:  That’s a tough one.  As my career kind of evolved from the early days, I started as a singer/dancer.  It’s what I wanted to do on Broadway and I was fortunate enough to do it.  For about 18 years straight, I was very lucky, very fortunate.  

After that, I started a theater in upstate New York.  I had been running that, directing and choreographing up there and people were starting to ask me to do that in New York so I started [directing and choreographing in New York City] at that point.  Like I’m thinking I’ll probably go back and perform again. But I didn’t. I exclusively directed and choreographed. 

And I was always writing a little bit.  And then I started to segue more to the writing side of things and started this company [Miracle or 2 Productions] with my business partner, Jim Hindman, which has been a wonderful thing. So it’s been an evolution.  I think that’s what's great about being an artist is that there’s always a -- there’s always something that’s challenging me that you haven’t done that you're -- that you want to do.

OnStage:  That’s exactly it. It was a progression, an evolution from actor to director to writer. You just continued to challenge yourself.  

Roderick:  Right.  I want to do something that I haven’t done because that’s the exciting part.  And we could keep writing jukebox musicals, which is awfully fun and I’m sure I will continue to because I do love them.  

OnStage:  It’s funny that you mentioned jukebox musicals. When I think of a jukebox musical, I think it’s where they take an artist’s catalog and create a story around the songs. Like “Mama Mia.” Yours doesn’t really fit that model where you had the songs and needed to form a story around them. Because that to me seems very artificial. You don’t have that. You have a story that’s completely separate from the music and the two have kind of formed the story together. It’s a different process.

Roderick:  It is a different process and you're very right.  They're literally different.  I mean that’s the thing with labels.  When you call something a jukebox musical, really all that means is -- the songs that existed somewhere, you can hear that song on a jukebox.  Like you could say that about “I Love a Piano.” This is the first show I ever wrote with Michael Berkley and toured for 3 years around the country.

That’s the first show I ever wrote, but it’s something the people responded to, and it could be called a jukebox musical.  I don’t really think of it that way – it tells the life story of a piano.  The piano weaves its way through its life and lands at these different times and places in America showing how the world was changing around this piano told through song and dance. And for me, the piano represented early [Irving] Berlin; a creative guy who touched and inspired our lives at times when we needed it most. 

So, you're absolutely right.  You could call it a jukebox musical and these works all could be -- because you could hear these songs on a jukebox.  But it isn’t what you’d call a typical jukebox musical.

OnStage:  I guess that’s kind of the thing where writers are creating a story – trying to fit the square peg in the round hole where the songs don’t create a smooth story line. That is what makes me have a derogatory view of the jukebox musical as a genre where the pieces just don’t fit.   

Roderick:  No, that’s not our process.  We are interested in the story first and the music can help us tell that story.  What's interesting to me about “The Bikinis” is it starts off being about the music.  And little by little, the balance shifts to being about the women and you don’t even realize it [because] you’re falling in love with these women and what matters to them matters to you.

I think the jukebox musical -- it’s the easiest way to say it, but I don’t think it tells us much when we do say it.  But then would you call a Jersey Boys a jukebox musical? Initially, I hadn’t bothered seeing Jersey Boys because I was like -- the jukebox musical -- and I’m a guy who loves the genre.  I like it if it’s done well, I like the genre, but not just anything.  And when I went to see Jersey Boys and I’m like. “I love this show!” because it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not and it gets the job done using some of the best stage craft, best staging, and the best use of that vernacular. That story rolls along and I’m engaged.  I loved it.

So it’s telling the story of someone we know, but we learn a little bit more about them -- the things that we don’t know that we learn along the way about the Jersey Boys.  But with “The Bikinis,” one of the reasons I wanted to write this show is because it’s about someone who we don’t know: a fictitious girl group that wanted to make it big.

And they did have one moment when they were a hit. They thought that they were on their way and then life changed. Instead, you have a different sort of life that becomes more important.  And yet you always will have that moment in that sun – and that reflects most people’s lives. Everybody can relate to that.  And that’s the Bikinis to me as a group.  

OnStage:  They got their 15 minutes of fame.

Roderick:  You’ve got it.  They had their 15 minutes -- it happen to be one summer.  But it’s fleeting. It doesn’t last.  That’s most people’s story. But that’s the story I wanted to actually write -- what happens to real people that still love to sing, love the songs, and love being together, [lack of fame] doesn’t change that.  But what happened after that moment in the sun, that’s an interesting thing.  And how do they deal with it and -- how does that inform them what life is about.

OnStage:  If you could borrow a musical theater icon’s persona – you could be them - for 24 hours, who would you choose and why?

Roderick:  Oscar Hammerstein, period.

OnStage:  Yeah! Most bang for your buck! 

Roderick:  Oh yeah!  Are you kidding me? I mean, really?  I don’t think there’s a question.  I mean to me he – he’s just got on every one.  And that’s why those musicals actually still work really well.  So it’s all about the work.

OnStage:  All of the things you’ve been and all the things you’ve done, I was curious to see where you would pick from. Which part of the musical theater genre you would choose. 

Roderick:  [Hammerstein] wrote book of lyrics and changed the way the theater works completely and continued to for his entire career.  I think sometimes we forget whose shoulders we’re standing on.  I think Sondheim certainly stood on Oscar Hammerstein’s shoulders.  But I think in essence anybody who does what we do now, I’m sure Lin-Manuel Miranda would say the same thing.

No matter what it is we’re doing -- you know, it is all about the words in the story and the ability to marry that and create the opportunity at the same time for this beautiful music to move in emotional ways that we could ever imagine.

OnStage:  It’s an amazing genre.  I think musical theater is one of those amazing genres that can -- using all these different elements -- they all come together to create something amazing.

Roderick:  Yeah, I agree.  And I think it’s the hardest art form, but it is the most powerful.  And thank goodness for “Hamilton” that lets people focus in a new place in what we do.  I think every musical should be – [the audiences] should be looking for what they’re finding in “Hamilton” on a stage -- something fresh and new which gives them something they didn’t know that they were going to get and something that they can believe in along the way.

That’s what we -- as much as it -- people wanted me to -- it’s a business and we need to fill a title and maybe things that people know and there’s a movie, it’s been done, so we’ll -- I think at the end of the day what we’re looking for is -- are those new experiences.  Like that’s why the Bikinis is not about something people know in some respects.  And that’s comparing us like, any stretch, we’re a stroppy fun -- not very dangerous show.  It’s not like anybody is going to leave shocked by any stretch.

But it’s going to -- our little itty bitty -- getting our little messages out there in ways that people might not expect.  But I do thank God for this pendulum. I feel like I swung into a new world.  And I think it’s very exciting for all of us.

OnStage:  It really is. Listen, thank you so much for chatting with me taking time out of your day. I’m sure a very busy schedule.

Roderick:  My pleasure.  Thanks, this was a wonderful conversation.

'The Bikinis' runs thru July 31st at the Long Wharf Theatre. For tickets and info visit, www.longwharf.org/bikinis

What is Your Anthem?

Susan Hilerio

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

Your anthem is that one song… it hits you like a punch in a gut.   The music begins… you feel your eyes begin to well up, butterflies start flying around in your stomach, your skin starts tingling and feeling alive.  This… this is the song that KNOWS what you need.  This is the only source in your life that gets what is going on in that head of yours.  And you then come to that tricky decision before the vocals come in and devour you… do I listen this time around?  Or, do I just let myself wail alongside of this beautiful masterpiece which is living inside my head.  And, as I’m sure we all know that it is a VERY difficult decision to make.  Once that songs comes on and we don’t make the right decision to listen or sing, the experience is dulled a little bit for that time around…. Until you rewind and play again.   
 
My girlfriends and I would have these "in car concerts".   We would go thru all of our musical CD's we had (yes…CD's) and pick out the perfect song for our heartbreak or anger we were feeling at the moment.  We would drive down to the beach with a cup of coffee, the windows down and sing our little hearts out.  By the end of the night we felt better… because Lea Salonga KNEW what we were going thru.  She had to have…. She sung that song with ALMOST as much passion as we just did, right? 
 
OR even better, getting the opportunity to play a role in current time that resembles your current saga in your life.  The performance you give every night is worthy of a Tony…  I remember being to play against my now husband in "Fiddler on the Roof” I was Chava and he was Fyedka.  I loved him dearly in real life and on stage.  But, I wasn't sure how my parents would react to us being an interracial couple, and on stage, Chava and Fyedka shared deep religious differences.   The fear was there in every word I said, the love, the hope, the hate… was all true in every breath that left my body.  
  
My point is this…. Look back at your life based on your anthems.  There are multiple.  When you revisit, notice that with each intro….  Your heart swells the same way that it did back when.   You begin to envision who you were at that stage in your life… where you were… familiar scents waft their way back into your memory, old feelings stir, goose bumps arise, the tears start to prick your eyes… and then the song ends.  
 
Where did it leave you once the song ended?  What do you miss?  What are you glad you left behind?   

These aren’t just songs… they are your story.  They are representatives of your life’s happiness, pain, and, confusions.  Look at these words gifted to you thru song… that were RIGHT there when you needed them.  Right there, when times were tough.  Look to them now… to see how far you’ve come, or maybe what you need to revisit.  

It's a wonderful world we have being in the theatre… not only do we get to play different people all the time, but we also get to tap into different hidden corners of ourselves.  Without this music, would we be able to be so lucky to do that?
 
What is your current anthem?  How does it define you?  

10 Good Marketing Techniques for Community Theaters

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccione

For as long as I’ve been involved in theatre, I’ve known the importance of great marketing, and how it can make or break the success of a show, if not an entire theatre company. I’ve seen some theaters that have been able to sell out nearly every show because they were so successful at getting out the word, and I’ve seen others that have gone under because they barely could. This is a big reason why many of my past columns have touched on the theme of making theatre more relevant and popular among a larger audience.

In response to my previous columns, many readers have asked me what I think community theaters should be doing to boost publicity for their theaters. I’m not going to pretend that I’m the go-to expert, when it comes to professional marketing techniques for theatre companies, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who could do a better job at offering such suggestions than I can. However, as someone who has been on both ends – as both an audience member and someone who has worked on several productions – I think I know enough to ponder some ideas that might work, and what certain theaters could be doing a bit more of, in the hopes that maybe some theaters – especially some newer ones that might need some assistance with such things – can improve their methods, when it comes to filling up seats.

So without further ado, here are just a few things that I think theaters can do (if they aren’t already doing it) to try and boost awareness of their organizations…

•    Please tell me you’re already on social media, and if so, utilize it more – Most theatre companies I know already have at least a Facebook and Twitter page, but I still know quite a few that either don’t have one or don’t use it as much as they should to promote their upcoming shows. If you aren’t already aware of the age that we live it, get online now and get online frequently, so you aggressively promote your show to as many people as you can. Pour at least a bit of money into advertising, if necessary. Encourage your followers to share/retweet everything you post. Post as often as you can, to make sure you get the word out to as many people as possible.  

•    If possible, make a video – Beyond Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat (or whatever new thing comes after that), one platform that seems especially unlikely to go away at any time in the near future is YouTube. So with this in mind, try getting out a camera – or even an iPhone or something – and making a trailer/promotional video for your show to upload to the Internet. Then do everything you can to make sure that it reaches as many people, as possible. Videos are always a good way to promote a product of any kind, and it especially can’t hurt when putting on a show.

•    Reach out to other local organizations who may be interested – Depending on what kind of show you are doing, there may be other non-profit organizations out there that might be interested in what you are producing. For example, let’s say you’re doing a show that revolves around a certain social theme – such as the environment, civil rights, etc. – then maybe you could find a group that specializes in such issues, and reach out to members of such a group to see if any of them might be interested in attending your show. There are also even more obvious suggestions, such as doing more to reach out to students – if you haven’t already – who may be interested in attending a youth theatre production. In any case, don’t be afraid to step outside of the theatre community in this way – if you haven’t already – to find new patrons. If you do, there’s a chance that they might be willing to help promote your show to a wider audience.

•    And that includes other theaters – When you go to a movie theater, one of the things that you always get used to is seeing trailers for other movies (from other movie studios, I should add) before the feature presentation. So why can’t we have a situation where you look in the program of a show and see titles of other upcoming shows from other theatre companies? Theatre should not be seen as a competition for audience members, as far as I’m concerned. If multiple theaters are putting on great shows that people are interested in, it shouldn’t be a controversial idea to perhaps start an exchange between two or more local theaters, where they all agree to promote each other’s shows, so that they could all potentially benefit.

•    Lure them in with a smaller public performance – One thing that always gets my attention, as an audience member, is when I’m walking down the street and I happen to see some kind of short performance that I was not expecting to see. Even in New York – much less, for example, a city such as Hartford – I don’t see enough examples of theaters going out of their way to promote their full productions by offering a live sneak peak for potential theatergoers to witness, which might spark enough interest for them to check out the real thing. So if you can get access to such a place in public where you can perform, and if your performers are willing, this is something that I would seriously love to see more of from theatre groups, if possible.

•    Promise something extra, besides just a show – If you ever go on websites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you’ll see how projects seeking funding offer some sort of reward for whoever decides to fund it, depending on how much money they choose to give. For potential theatergoers who might initially be skeptical of whether it’s worth going to see a show at their local community theater, it might not be such a bad idea to similarly offer something extra for them, in addition to a live show. I’ve seen plenty of children’s theatre productions that offer meet and greets with the characters after the show, just to give an example. So whether it’s something like this – or something as small as free food and drinks, for a more adult show – it’s worth taking into consideration, as people are often easily lured by the prospect of getting extra stuff for free. 

•    Offer discounts on certain dates, or for certain people – Ahh, ticket prices. If there is any one thing beyond bad marketing that holds people back from coming to see shows, it is complaints about the high costs of tickets. Now keep in mind that this column is primarily referring to community theatre, for which tickets are relatively cheap, compared to Broadway or even most Off-Broadway shows. However, many potential theatergoers still might balk at paying even as little as $20 just to go see a local community theatre production. So if you can afford it, perhaps consider reaching out to certain groups of people (students or senior citizens, for starters?) that might be interested – depending on the show – and offer them a nice discount that might potentially get them to buy a ticket. By doing this, maybe it’ll pay off in the form of an overall boost in ticket sales.

•    Don’t be afraid to be controversial – It goes without saying that this might be one of the riskier methods of promotion that I’ve put on this list. Having said that, there is something to be said about the attention that being provocative and controversial can bring, and the benefits that it can provide in the modern era. When doing any sort of marketing for the show – whether it be in print or online – it might not hurt to point out that your show may tackles certain themes or issues that are just as polarizing as they are relevant, or that it may include some plot details that may be considered to be “edgy” or “risqué”. It also might not hurt to possibly include an attention-grabbing slogan that highlights this, for example. Is there a risk that you could be turning some people off to your show, by doing this? Sure. But if you’re already doing a show that some audiences may view as controversial, then you might as well embrace that by maximizing the potential publicity that could come with it.

•    Or to be proud of what you’ve done – Do you know how many people I’ve known as a teenager and young adult who were too embarrassed to talk much about the fact that they do theatre, and thus, do little to promote it beyond maybe a brief Facebook post or two? I can’t help but think that this is one of the biggest reasons why not as many people go to see their local shows as one would think is possible. If more people told their friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, etc. about the shows they were involved in, I imagine that there’s a chance that at least one or two of those people – if not more – would be persuaded to go see it. So if you’re not already doing this, don’t be afraid to promote yourself and what you do to virtually every person you know, if you don’t already.

•    Posters, posters and MORE POSTERS! – How much detail do I really need to go into here? In addition to all of these techniques, it doesn’t hurt to go around posting as many signs or posters for the show, wherever and whenever you can. Hang them up on as many town bulletin boards as you can. Beg stores, if necessary, if you can hang them up at their buildings. Anywhere and everywhere you can, always make sure that people all across town are aware of your upcoming show.

What do you think? Any suggestions that you’d like to add to this list? Anyone out there want to share past experiences they’ve had with these marketing techniques? Please be sure to let us know in the comments section.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet and essayist currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).

Photo: L-R: Amber Smith as Gabriella, Brian J. Gill as Bernard. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's "Boeing Boeing" Photo by Paul Ruffolo. 

Haym Solomon, Who Knew? A Sequel to Hamilton?

Susan Cinoman

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

Oh wow, it’s almost here—Tony, I mean Hamilton time. Since there is such a mania sweeping the nation regarding all things A. Ham, I thought I’d share this old letter I found, while combing through Revolutionary War documents and linens. It’s from Haym Solomon, the Jewish, lesser known Founding Father, to his wife.  I think there might be some rich source material here for a Hamilton sequel or prequel or fan fiction musical, or something. So feel free to start rapping any section of this. How lucky we are to be alive right now, and able to read the following:

My Darling Lena,

So, I have just returned home after dining at the home of George and Martha Washington. The meal was lovely, very filling appetizer but the main course was only meh, and cannot hold a candle to your brisket. Martha is a doll, you would like her. She reminds me a little of your cousin, Gittel, except she does not draw, and she is much better about keeping gossip to a minimum. I still believe that Gittel was responsible for Lenord Balkman’s nervous breakdown that summer, though I know you will try to defend her, one of the many reasons I love you.

Try your best to keep calm, Lena-- you were right in that the discussion did eventually turn to money, and how I could procure more for the troops who are in need of butter, blankets, bandages and Scotch. The Scotch, who knows why, and I am not judging, but maybe the Generals are needing it for medicinal purposes. (I hope). BUT it is not the only reason that the Sons of Liberty count me in as one of them, I assure you. They do not care that I am Jewish, and they genuinely like my company. Many times they remarked that my ascot was gorgeous, and almost perfectly matched the hazel color of my eyes. Perhaps you will still doubt their motives for enlisting me in the cause, thinking that they are not truly as devoted to my equality as they are to their own, as you have mentioned on occasion. (By the way, next time we talk about it, let us wait until my mother departs, as the issue will only be amplified, and picked apart by the rest of the Solomons, like so many scales on fish.) 

Lena, rest assured that I will be at your side at the end of this noble war that is really about equality, and not at all about the other Founding Fathers wanting to build up their estates like you enjoy hocking me about all the time. I know what I am doing. My dear friend, Alexander Hamilton, says we Jews are the chosen people, so be good to us, or it will be bad for you. You know how well that usually works out. Just saying.

I love you forever, darling, Lena. See you in Philadelphia. They’re thinking of naming one of the sections of it Solomon’s mall. So you see? I have no doubt that will come true.

                                                  Equally yours.
                                                Haym Solomon