Volume 79, Number 17 | Sept. 30 - Oct 6, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Notebook

Talking the talk: The play’s the thing… Or is it?

By Daniel Meltzer

A kiss may still be a kiss and a sigh just a sigh, but a play, to New York theater folk, isn’t a play at all. Disrespectful as it may sound, to those in the know, it’s a “piece.” Especially before it’s been staged, or “mounted.” 

“Jason has this incredible piece, you must read it.”

“Where’s he going to mount it?”

Like jazz musicians, F.B.I. agents, industry spies and other professionals and insiders, theater people have their own lexicon. So, if you want to sling the lingo like a pro where the cognoscenti congregate, you’d better know what’s what and, just as important, what isn’t.

First off, theater people aren’t the same as show or show business people. The former never set foot above 40th Street, and are generally recognizable as undernourished, poorly dressed (almost exclusively in black), having dark rings beneath their eyes, shiny ones through their ears and noses, and smoking too many cigarettes (legal and illegal). They make art.

Show people, on the other hand, work above 40th Street, in and around Times Square, are well fed, dress in better-fitting black, have rings on all their fingers and toes, smoke Havana cigars before breakfast, and make money, lots of it.


What’s what and what isn’t?

To those in the know, a theater isn’t ever, ever called a theater, Uptown or Downtown. Below 40th Street, it’s a space. Call it a theater and you might as well have corn silk sticking out of your collar.

“Have you read Jason’s new piece? It’s marvelous, he’s looking for a space to mount it.”

Or, “I saw Judy in that piece by the Algerian, it was in this incredible space in the back bedroom of a fifth-floor walkup in East Flatbush. Intimate, very intimate.”

A house may or may not be a home, but it is always what you call the place where a show is showing between 40th Street and 65th Street.

“Buddy and Carl just played me two tunes from their show about Leona Helmsley,” an Uptown entrepreneur will tell you over margaritas at The Palm. “Looks like a four mill. cap. What house can we get, can we get the Minskoff?” The cap by the way, is the capitalization, or what it costs to get a show from scratch to opening night (and hopefully not back again.) Four million is about ballpark for a new Broadway musical this month.

An over-large house is a barn. Especially if it has marginal or worse acoustics. The Minskoff, on Broadway at 44th Street, with 1,700 seats, is a barn. So is the Gershwin (1,900 plus).  Which is one reason these and other houses now use sound amplification. Another is that actors, trained in film and TV, aren’t learning to project their voices to the top balconies any more. A Downtown space rarely requires amplification. A small-scale Downtown piece wouldn’t have the budget for it anyway. The “barn” designation applies only to theaters within the city limits of New York. Out of town, in summer stock, for example, they call barns theaters. Go figure.

Location, location, location

Every playwright, honest or not, dreams of being produced on Broadway. If your show is transferred, or “moved” from the Downtown space northward to an Uptown house, it becomes, at the moment it crosses 40th Street, no longer a piece, but what Broadway producers call a property. If it becomes an Uptown hit (should the critic from The New York Times so anoint it in print), it grows what they call “legs” (meaning it can run) and the playwright can become, before very long, hot, an insider, a somebody, in other words, a millionaire.

Insiders, by the way, never call them Broadway houses, even though they are, despite the fact that they are not on Broadway (except for the Broadway Theatre itself and the Winter Garden), but around the corners on the side streets. They’re called legitimate houses, or just legit houses, as if to imply that all the others, the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway spaces (some of which are actually on Broadway), aren’t.

“Jason’s play is still at the Barrymore. What a house! It’s S.R.O. [standing room only] every night. Talk about legs. It’s a goddamn millipede!” 


Words never to use

Theater people are notoriously superstitious and there are words and phrases you must never, on pain of banishment, utter. As actors were branded heathens for all time centuries ago, “Good luck” or any such benediction is certain to bring its opposite, and that is why they prefer Break a leg as the traditional sendoff on opening nights, lest an 80-pound klieg light come hurtling off its pipe straight at your head in the middle of Act I.

The title of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (as well as the title character’s name) is similarly forbidden to be spoken ever in a theater other than during a performance before an audience.

“Guess what, mom, I’ve got the lead in ‘The Scottish Play,’” is the way you have to handle it. And the line “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day… .” also never gets recited before opening night. The actor has to hum over it in every rehearsal, or face unspeakable consequences. 


No whistling while you work

You may relax in your dressing room, but you must never whistle there, as this is also a sure invitation to catastrophe. The reasons for all this?  Theater has always been a highly risky business, dependent upon the successful convergence of talent, temperaments, timing and a certain amount of luck. Failure, deriving from any of a number of unpredictable occurrences and circumstances is ever a heartbeat away. And if it comes, it is always total and irreversible. 

“You can make a killing in the theater,” the saying goes, “but can’t make a living there.”

Stuff

Then of course there are all the technical nicknames for all the stage paraphernalia that cast and crew love to bandy about. Flats aren’t low-heeled shoes; they’re scenery, painted sheets or canvas used as backdrops on stage.

They’re also called drops, because they drop down from the flies (or fly space) over the stage, where they are “flying,” when not in use.  

Likewise, wing flats aren’t the shoes of the gods, they’re tall, standing, vertical flats that mask the wings, or backstage areas, from the audience’s view, so that actors “waiting in the wings” can pace or slouch or scratch or adjust their beards or their costumes without being seen. Wing flats are also called tormentors. Similar, horizontal flats suspended above the stage to hide the lights and the drops overhead in the flies are called teasers.  
 

Angels let you fly

“Angels in America” was an S.R.O. Broadway hit of seasons past, but it was the show-biz angels, or backers, who put it there. They don’t wear halos, but if they take to your little piece enough to reach into their deep pockets, you are truly blessed as they swoop down as if from heaven itself and lift you from that cellar on Lower Death Street up, up Uptown to a good-sized house like The Music Box, for example (1,000 seats, but actually considered smallish, despite its name, for a musical). Here, if your nut, or weekly operating expenses, is small, you’ll do boffo gross, or great box office. Musicals traditionally “carry a large nut,” so a 1,500-seat house or larger is generally advisable.
 

A house vs. the house

To further complicate matters, after your property has settled in for a run in a legit house, the audience is also called the house. When your nervous leading man, who has passed on a $19 million movie deal (plus points) with a four-week shooting schedule, to do a six-month run on Broadway in a property that he prays will have legs and not be a turkey, asks the stage manager, who has just peeked through the curtains from backstage, “How’s the house?” he is not concerned about the paint job, the carpets, upholstery, frescoes or chandeliers. What he wants to know is: “Is it full? Half? Does the cast outnumber the audience? Should I bother putting on my wig? Or should I call my agent and renegotiate?”

But it is now far too late for that. It’s time to get behind the tormentors, stroke the rabbit’s foot, knock on some wood, clear your throat, and pray you’ll remember that speech you weren’t allowed to speak before tonight, and that the Critic from the Times had a good dinner and hasn’t had a fight with his wife, or his girlfriend, or with his boyfriend (or all three), and hope you make it to payday, which isn’t called that either, it’s called the day the eagle _ _ _ _s. 

There’s no business like show business. If you can figure out what everyone is talking about, that is.


Meltzer is an award-winning columnist, playwright and fiction writer. His new piece, a romantic comedy, “A Cable From Gibraltar,” directed by Robert Kalfin, opens Nov. 14, for a limited premiere engagement through Nov. 30, at the Medicine Show Theatre (a great space), 549 W. 52nd St., off Times Square. Reservations: 212-262-4216. Last time at these prices, before it becomes a “property.”

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