Dan Bianchi Sounds Off
Esteemed Off-Off-Broadway sound designer and RadioTheatre pioneer Dan Bianchi answered some questions with the IT Awards recently. Below are some highlights of the interview:
ITA: As someone who has been working Off-Off-Broadway for some time now, how have you seen the community grow or change?
DB: I have worked Off-Off-Broadway for 40 years and while I don’t mean to give a history lesson on NYC Theatre, I have witnessed a lot of change. I formed a theatre company in 1971, took it to Paris, won a couple of Beckett Prizes, and got to work with Samuel Beckett at the Sorbonne. A few years later, I directed several movies in Britain with members of the RSC and then returned to NYC when it was still pretty much the Wild West. At the time, NYC was voted as the number one crime city in America and was considered to be the murder capital of the world. Every other day, my actors would tell stories about how they were robbed, beaten, tied up or had found dead junkies in their hallway. (I found a dead prostitute myself in the stairwell of our theatre!) You wouldn’t want to go to 42nd Street in the daytime… and as for East 4th Street, now the “Downtown Theatre Row” …it was littered with needles and criminals. The Police called it “crime alley.”
And yet… it was the greatest time for alternative theatre! Every day, there were theatre lovers lining up at 3:30 at Joe Papp’s Public Shakespeare to get $3 discounted tickets to see young actors like Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken in plays by Sam Shepard or David Rabe and other writers that changed American theatre. The queue wrapped around the lobby several times and ran down Lafayette Street. Theatre assistants would hand out little foldable stools for the early people. Then, we‘d buy our tickets and go to eat our $3 dinners at some 2nd Avenue Ukrainian place where we’d talk, talk, talk about THEATRE until show time.
It was still the age of bohemianism. Some artists slept on my floor or camped out in theatres for weeks. It was a time when a lot of NYC theatre people lived six to eight people in an apartment. No one had a “day job.” At most, actors were waiters and that’s it. They were always available to rehearse or tour. The $200 rent was split six ways, so, we lived for Theatre, nothing else. There was still the air of 60s radicalism and anti-establishment feelings in the air. Midtown theatre belonged to the “capitalistic enemies” of course; it wasn’t “our” theatre. Broadway was still pretty much Neil Simon and Bye, Bye Birdie… although some tough, political plays were starting to break into that arena. Two main magazines, as well as the Voice and the Soho News, were dedicated to NYC alternative stage works (one mag published by NYU) and everyone died to be in them. There were a dozen or more daily reviewers covering the scene. I ran the VanDam Theatre for a short while. We ran AEA Showcases in a 200-seat house with no problem. OOB tickets were only $2.50. No one got paid, of course. This wasn’t a “job.” So, we were all on the same page.
OOB started to grow so large we formed an umbrella group… OOBA…The Off-Off-Broadway Association led by the originators of Playwrights Horizon, LaMama, Classic Stage Company, Circle In The Square, The Negro Ensemble, The Performing Garage, Circle Rep, The Performance Group, The Living Theatre, Bread and Puppet, etc. We had our own glossy OOBA programs in each theatre much like the uptown Playbills. And, for a moment, we began to feel united. They’d all meet at my theatre each month to flesh out a new plan for American Theatre.
There was only one main problem facing all of us if we were going to survive: AEA. But it certainly didn’t have as stringent a hold on us as it does today. Back then, it actually seemed to try its best to promote alternative theatre which could only benefit its members. At the same time, almost all theatre companies were non-profit with esteemed board member, some quite famous. Why non-profit? Because during the Carter years, arts grants were handed out left and right. I got $150,000 six months after I simply applied. And tax laws and benefits were more lenient for donors. So theatre was really thriving.
But then came the 1980s. (Cue the doom music) Even though the Junk Bond/Wall Street criminals profited greatly, Reaganomics nearly shut down the grant giving to all the Arts…and to all but a few NYC theatre and dance companies. Tax laws changed for the worse. Government intervention in the arts became a nightmare. The more America turned conservative, censorship, the kind not seen since the early 50s, began to raise its ugly head again. On the home front, NYC rents sky-rocketed in a couple of years from $300 to $3000 a month. The real estate magnates started to buy up the Village, then Soho, then the Lower East Side. Gentrification occurred, turning artsy neighborhoods into high-rent districts for those who were quick to push out the artists. Police and fire departments shut down galleries and theatres in the “new” East Village bohemia. Legendary companies began to drop like flies. Some, like Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons, had to adapt to more commercial works and moved uptown and catered to the Broadway crowd. Plays became much smaller …like, two people on a bench talking for two hours… which might work for Albee, but, eventually, either one or both of those two actors had to be celebs of some sort to sell tickets which began to rise 500% in a few years. Even Off-Off tickets quickly rose from $2.50, to $5, $10, until $18, which hasn’t changed in a number of years – while the cost of living and producing in NYC has quadrupled.
So what happened next? We adapted. All of a sudden there was a new category in the theatre world: performance art! We had never heard of that before. Most of it was improv on stage or personal storytelling, whatever. Isn’t that what stand up comics and vaudeville acts and singers had been doing since time began? Well, this was a bit different. There were new solo stage artists, like Karen Finley, Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, suddenly getting all the limelight. Even a young Whoopi Goldberg made it big time performing her multiple characters on stage. John Leguizamo wasn’t far behind.
By the 90s, I went to Hollywood. I became a much sought after script doctor, but I also worked with the greatest of independent producer-directors, Roger Corman. I studied how the real indie makers of the 50s, 60s and 70s were able to operate outside of the traditional rules of producing. These were guys who were the real thing, mavericks who disdained the powerful system, yet managed to make 35mm feature films because, unlike today, they also had distribution networks and theatres that could play their works. By the 90s, that world had disappeared as well. But video had arrived!
I returned to NYC to paint and to create new works in the burgeoning digital art field. I exhibited in MOMA and around the world. Still, I wanted to create live works again but, I knew that the NYC theatre world had changed drastically. As with the so-called modern independent film world, many of the creators in that area weren’t really indie makers, they were just treading water until they could find a job with a big Hollywood/Broadway producer. It wasn’t as if their art couldn’t work anywhere else but in small venues. Most of them were now creating calculated works that might easily adapt to big time, commercial theatres with the right celebs. In fact, most writers, directors, actors were now creating plays that screamed for Hollywood recognition and screenplay adaptation. What once drove writers to become playwrights began to dim in favor of selling one’s work to Hollywood so that they could now become screenwriters.
By the 90s, the economy had changed so much that actors could no longer work part time in NYC. How could they? They needed 9-5 M-F jobs just to survive. So, precious rehearsal times during weekday hours were sacrificed. Theatre spaces were no longer available during the “dark” nights for rehearsals. They now had to rent to shows every possible hour they could to survive. Artists no longer lived the bohemian lifestyle. That wasn’t acceptable, or, even allowable by law. So, the “traditional” lifestyle became the chosen route in life. Many succumbed to their “other” jobs as their main pursuit as they became further engrossed in moving up the ladder, or they had to support families, etc. as theatre became more and more a distant memory. As was always the case throughout history, the true artists, those who regard this way of life as their vocation, not, their occupation always find a way to keep on doing what they must do.
Still, for a great deal of them, now, their goals had changed. I could see it in the resumes. No, theatre is often found on the bottom of the page after amateur video Films and non-speaking TV credits and voiceovers. And yet, for every show I do these days, I still receive over 500 resumes a day. But, the majority has little or no NYC Theatre credits. That includes AEA and non-AEA.
Why that change? Well, either there is such a small amount of NYC alternative theatres to work in these days, which limits an actor‘s experience on stage or, actors have just turned their main focus to other media in favor of the live stage. Again, Theatre is regarded as just a temporary “stepping stone” to other things. If money is one’s driving force, it’s obvious that they aren’t going to make much in Theatre compared to TV and Film. The thing is, to make money in those media, one has to move to LA.
ITA: You have taken a very unique form of theatre and have really helped develop some new technology around it. Can you enlighten us about some of those achievements?
DB: In 2003, I created the first and only digital video theatre in Manhattan dedicated to showing all kinds of international first run video films and tributes to true independent masters. Creating plays or musicals in the Off-Off world had become an exorbitant pipedream. In my observation, the cost of producing such works is bankrupting young theatre-makers every year. They come to NYC with the greatest intentions and plans, some fresh from colleges with Broadway sized stages and scenery departments and modern technology and theatre history programs filled with Chekhov and Shakespeare and Miller and Williams and what happens? They, too, want to produce such works for themselves, of course. Only, the NYC Off-Off scene is much, much different than college theatre production. And, living in NYC is prohibitively expensive. So, when faced with outrageous rents and costs, what do they do? They max their charge cards to produce the works they want to produce usually in old, tiny, ugly black box theatres with Salvation Army sets and homemade costumes and no money for proper publicity.
And then what? Well, if they produce AEA approved showcases, for the most part - NOTHING. Because, even if The New York Times says it’s the greatest work of the 21st Century and they‘ve sold out every performance, they’d only get 12-16 performances and then the work is killed, dead in the water, never to be produced again for another year, at least, under similar conditions. Unless, of course, the producer raises approx. $800,000 or so to bring it to the next AEA Off-Broadway tier. Anything less these days will pretty much ensure a short-lived run in a bigger house. Advertising will cost at least double the production costs. (And, if there’s live music involved, better figure on a million, minimum.)
Since AEA forbids any kind of recording of the production, that makes it even more difficult to sell the work to potential investors who had not seen it during its short run. And forget about asking to produce the work in even a slightly larger venue (we used to have no problem in our 200 seat house years ago) AEA will only give you the 99-seat rule. Few producers are willing to invest in a show in a small house. In the long run, there is just no way to turn a profit.
In 2005, a friend of mine produced his first play in a venue in which I now produce regularly. It cost him $25 grand. No audience came. Not even one reviewer. (The steady decline in the amount of full time serious critics in the print and TV media is a whole other ball of wax I won’t get into, but, it, too, has radically changed what shows must become in order to be covered by the press. There just isn‘t enough space in papers and magazines to cover most shows but the big commercial stuff.)
I began to look at the technology of making shows. While all the other bases were covered in the budget, sound was usually the most neglected category, relegated to the bottom of the priorities list. While the new generation demands great sound from iPods to cell phones to cars to home stereos and movie house, low budget theatres were, and still are, for the most part, ill-equipped to deliver great sound.
But why should they be? The sound effects in most plays are a few phone rings and door buzzers. A broken CD player and a few old speakers should suffice, no? Of course, there isn’t a whole load of works out there that require heavy duty sound, so, where should I look for inspiration? Or, do I have to make it all, myself?
ITA: I know that your company has had some pretty exciting achievements over the last couple of years, including installments of RadioTheatre productions at several venues throughout the tri-state area. Can you tell us a little about that?
DB: I created RadioTheatre in 2004 and since then, I’ve produced over 55 works in Manhattan and hundreds of performances, receiving two IT Awards, having been nominated 13 times, five times as Outstanding Performance Group, and in 2008, we were nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Sound and Music, up against big budget Broadway shows (Lincoln Center beat us.) And yet, we are still a low-budget, self-produced, mom-and-pop, truly independent live theatre group. As its writer, I am probably the most produced living playwright in NYC. I direct, compose, design the elaborate sound and minimal sets and lights, as well as, the posters, cards, web site and I’ve handled the PR. I don’t have a committee or staff. I do it all….except for when it comes to live production, when I have my actors and one or two crew members.
How can I afford exorbitant, sometimes, ridiculous, theatre rents? Well, at first, I had no choice, but, once I attained a rep for the group, I was able to work deals with certain theatre managers and owners that allowed the both of us to survive…and perhaps, profit a bit. But that only comes after one has created a “brand” name amongst all the other groups and a rep for producing quality, professional theatre. Presently, RadioTheatre co-produces with Erez Ziv at The Horse Trade Theatre, Group which enables us to create new works on a monthly basis. When we do non-AEA shows we can play any schedule, weekly, monthly, odd times, whenever. We’re always producing. As I mentioned, throughout history, artists find a way.
Creatively speaking, RadioTheatre utilizes sound as our main conduit for our artistry – sound like you’ve never heard before. Sure, there are and have been great sound FX shows on all levels of theatre but, when it comes to the music side of things, there is nothing like RadioTheatre on any level because I use a unique 21st century software that had been created exclusively for Hollywood motion pictures and it enables me to score our stories from beginning to end with all kinds of music, from lush orchestral to intimate jazz guitar to country music. And it’s all inexpensive and very easy to change, unlike the scoring of typical musicals or movies. When audiences leave our shows, many comment that it’s like listening to a movie. No one in America is using that technology – even its prize-winning inventors were dumbfounded to discover it could be used on the live stage, let alone by a low-budget company like RadioTheatre, which is why we were nominated alongside uptown, million-dollar shows.
I’m still perfecting it, but, I believe that such technology will revolutionize the theatre world…imagine your own play, or Hamlet, fully scored like a movie from beginning to end! Of course, things like a great sound system, mics, speakers, etc., and the right people to operate that stuff are needed as well, but we don’t need sets, costumes, props or elaborate lighting. Turn out the lights…turn on the sound…bring your imaginations.
I turned to genres I love but that rarely had the chance to work with in my stage career: horror, science fiction, action, suspense, types of works that are usually ignored in the theatre, and when groups do tackle such genres, it is usually in the form of comic farce or romantic musicals. in order to produce something that looks and sounds even semi-profession, I figured that I’d have to strip away all of the trimmings which not only bankrupt the savings account, but, also makes a low-budget show look all the more amateurish. As with the great change in 80s theatre when Performance Art came to the forefront…it was time to get back to basics. We don’t need a big budget or tons of lights and designs and costumes and props. And, it all works best in an intimate theatre space, asking people to use their personal minds’ eye to produce images only they can see. We did have that kind of theatre, in a sense, once before. The radio dramas of the 30s-40s kept audiences glued to their sets in their living rooms for 20 years or so before TV arrived. During that time, listeners were asked to participate in these works by using their imaginations to provide the visuals. TV and movies and plays don’t ask that from their viewers. They provide all that. But, audio drama doesn’t. We provide the sound and story… much like the campfire experience in the dark.
ITA: RadioTheatre has a very diverse and far flung audience base. How did you discover this audience, or help them discover you?
DB: Some audience members come to our shows expecting re-creations of old time radio programs complete with period commercials, and a live Foley sound man creating sounds from little props, and actors dressed in bow ties, etc. Some groups do that. In recent times, Garrison Keillor has made a fortune doing that for years. That doesn’t interest me for various reasons. I didn’t care to produce an exact replica of a 1939 radio show. That’s been done a million times and usually, poorly done.
No, I wanted to do something new, but, inspired by the experience that audience members had when listening to audio dramas which allowed them to participate using their mental creativity. If a writer says, “a beautiful girl walks into the room,” with traditional theatre, the director provides what he considers is a beautiful girl. In audio theatre, we have 100 versions of what a beautiful girl should be. So, with shows like “King Kong”…or “War of the Worlds,” who knows what my audience is “seeing?” If they’re excited when they leave the theatre…it must have been pretty good! Unfortunately, for those who don’t care to use their imaginations, I can’t help them.
Now, if people are going to choose us, we have to stand out on that long list of “what’s happening in NYC” tonight. Who is the largest audience attending all those popular shows? Tourists! No longer can producers rely on the NYC theatre going public. In the early 20th Century, even during the Great Depression, there were times when Broadway still averaged 20 new openings a week…yes, a week! Who came then? Mostly New Yorkers. But, nowadays, even with fewer shows, today’s economy dictates that commercial producers must reach out-of-towners and foreigners in order to sell tickets.
But the non-commercial, low-budget theatre world, especially with AEA-approved, limited run showcases, can’t appeal to the tourist trade because those runs are over in the blink of an eye. How can they sell to a tourist planning a trip to NYC in three months? The simplest solution is to go non-AEA and work out an ongoing schedule with a theatre space. Is that possible? Well, first, it helps to prove you have the stuff to do just that.
RadioTheatre has run repertory theatre, 4 shows at a time over 36 perfs, Tue-Sun, with weekend Mats, $25 tickets at a quality midtown theatre with various multiple show ticket options, just like the big guys do, and we cashed in pretty well and attracted major press. Due to sales and great reviews, our current show has been extended for another two months. Because of all that we are usually listed as Of-Broadway and tourists see that and say, “Hey, that’s been playing for months…it’s got great reviews and it’s cheap! Let’s go!”
And, because of all that…we are now able to tour. I knew I had created something that was never going to go to Broadway some day. It’s not meant for that. Even if, in a long shot, we persuaded a slew of celebs to participate, the best venue would be an Off-Broadway house. So, if we were to survive financially, we’d need to find something to make this feasible for both myself and my actors and crew. Well, since we appealed a great deal to out-of-towners, why not take it out of town?
Why are we a popular sell? We offer recognizable titles…which I adapt from the original films, or novels, or short stories, from “Frankenstein” to “King Kong” to “The Time Machine.” My unique scripts are hybrids closer to screenplays in format which makes them more experimental than traditional plays. In my opinion, my sources are as much classic, influential works upon modern society as anything by Shakespeare or Sophocles. In our own small way, while I’m no longer producing three-hour Brechtian, intellectual, political theatre works for a specific audience, I’m still making theatre for the people while developing a technology that might change the way we produce and create theatre, itself. At the same time, on paper, I’ve adapted over 150 unperformed works for this unique type of live performance. I’m constantly being asked by companies around the world for my scripts and sound and music cues so they can create their own shows.
ITA: What is in the future for RadioTheatre?
DB: I intend to publish and offer the entire packages online…along with better produced podcasts. We get a tremendous amount of hits and downloads for the few live recordings we have posted on our site. Again, those are non-AEA shows. With our few AEA productions, no matter how much our AEA actors beg for recordings of their work, their union refuses them so none of us benefit in that regard. To AEA, that particular showcase is over, done with, dead. All the investment of time and money, gone. Sure, their actors can add another show to their resumes, but, as for the producers of such shows, it’s almost always a financial loss. And so there is no money left for the next show and companies die quickly these days.
ITA: What advice would you give other OOB companies or the OOB community?
DB: We get many questions from young groups on how to succeed in this field. When I ask them what their mission is, I often hear, “We want to do good work.” As if that isn’t a requisite for any group? When I hear their planned roster of works, it covers everything from Shakespeare to new plays. Again, that’s the mission of a thousand other companies, come and gone. But if it’s something like, only works by African writers, or theatre for the blind or, all gay Shakespeare or, Moby Dick in pantomime…ok, I’m listening. Now, if you do such theatre, you’d better do “good work.”
Yes, that sounds like one is pigeon-holing a group into one kind of work. But, you’re in NYC…you can’t say “we want to do everything!” That might work in Oshkosh, but, not here. Here groups that do a particular kind of theatre, or, have developed a unique style, are more likely to get noticed. Critics want to strut their own stuff by writing about such groups and their historical inspirations. There is enough audience here to support specific theatre groups. We love variety. And, even more so…if you get a rep for such, you’ll attract grants and contributions and you might be asked to tour all over the planet. I’ll stress again, if you don’t excel in your field, the audiences will soon disappear. That’s not to say, all unique groups will be successful in their artistic and financial endeavors – there are some that should have been shot at birth.
On the business side of things, you must either find a way to adapt to the traditional rules, which is often a sure route to failure unless you find financial security through a variety of means or you must truly become an “alternative” entity playing outside the rules, or, even, deliberately breaking the rules in order to survive.
“Independent” theatre means just that: independent of whatever rules or ruling bodies govern in what you can or cannot do, according to their rules. The true “independent filmmakers” broke the rules. If they had worked for Paramount, or Universal, etc…they would have been busted and fired. So, then, they made their own rules. True mavericks wouldn’t be caught dead in those arenas. They’re too busy creating their own work than to be spending time trying to impress the industry buyers who, more than likely, will only reject their work, anyhow. The same goes for theatre. If you’re out to impress the Shubert Organization on a shoe string budget, you’re probably heading off a cliff. If they should accept your wonderful art…prepare for it to be transformed into something barely recognizable by your soul. That’s the way it works. Even for Julie Taymor.
In the distant past, when the producers ruled, unions were formed by the actors and workers to protect their interests. Eventually, one union ruled, and to this day sends shivers down producers’ spines when they start dictating rules and demands. Still, when a large group of stage workers was shut out of union membership and denied certain liberties, there were those who decided to make another union with a new set of rules. This is America, after all. We are allowed to do that.
But, I don’t see that happening any time soon in our present NYC theatre world where most groups and artists choose to play by the rules handed down to them and prefer not to rock the boat. Meanwhile, OOB theatres are shutting down every month and there are less shows now than ever before on the alternative scene. Yes, Broadway is thriving from the few mega shows, but, again, that’s another world.
Occasionally, a group of OOB producers will band together to pledge to change things, etc…but, in the end, as with OOBA years ago, there is only one problem facing all of us – AEA, especially, when its rules are much more lenient in cities other than here in NYC where it is ten times harder to produce a showcase. We OOB producers should be rewarded for that, not penalized. Not all low-budget producers are fat-cats smoking cigars, making a killing at the box office, while mistreating and exploiting poor actors who need protection…in fact, I don’t know anyone like that. That’s a crude image from way back…it’s time to enter the 21st Century. The union is not dealing with industry giants here…most of us are just artists trying to do our thing.
In a way, OOB is our community theatre, only here, the bills are ten times than what it costs than to do it out there. And, because the competition is ten times greater here, and life is so expensive here, it’s harder to ask people to volunteer or donate goods and money. Meanwhile, the places out there that used to be havens for summer stock don’t need us anymore. They’re making their own theatre…and, in some cases, far better in every way than what’s going on here. True, RadioTheatre is finding some acceptance out there at some big venues, but the experts tell me that those prospects are growing scarcer every year.
I’m a bit old now for active revolutionary measures. My motto has always been, “If I am not better than my fellow man, at least, I am different.” My little theatre company follows suit. It is successful not because it produces work that only four people in NYC understand but because it is able to reach those people who have been ignored by both uptown and downtown theatre in the past. Now, uptown theatre has learned its lesson. Should the alternative world – by the very nature of the word – produce something different? Of course. For me, producing RadioTheatre is different than anything I’ve seen in my 40 years of theatre making. So, while it succeeds on a commercial level, it is also experimental theatre. The non-theatre-going audience for the genres we produce is fifty times larger than the traditional theatre audience. If we can attract them to the live stage by presenting works familiar to them, great. In the best of our works, we hope to offer entertainment, as well as, moral questions. Meanwhile, we also deliver a new technology to be utilized by fellow theatre artists as we must adapt to the coming future.
But, if things don’t change radically soon, theatre here will go the way NYC has gone: very safe. No longer are people being murdered on 42nd Street among pimps and junkies and gangs. NYC is currently 38 on the list of dangerous cities. Tourist families clad in Bermuda shorts now roam Times Square at midnight. Disney is everywhere and the place is lit up like Las Vegas. And, I‘ll be the first to agree, it’s a far better place to live and work than back in the 70s. Everything is expensive, but, one must pay for one’s security.
As for the state of all the Arts…I am reminded of a famous Orson Welles quote in The Third Man:
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed…but, they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”