At this performance, the role of Ken will be played by . . .

Thanks to the flu and the lack of a power converter at the Belgium International Airport, I missed a couple of blog posts recently.

After those missed “performances”, I starting thinking about one of the huge problems we face in the live theater: absenteeism and the dreaded white slip of paper found in most Playbills known affectionately as The Stuffer.

I’m not here to debate whether or not today’s performers have the work ethic of the Ethel Mermans of the past.

I’m here to talk about what we can do about it, because it’s here, and it’s the equivalent of a branding and an expense termite, eating away at us slowly from the inside, without us even realizing it.

How many of you have seen a show recently and had one of those stuffers fall out of your playbill?  How did you feel about plunking down your $100+ then?  The value dropped tremendously, didn’t it?

Now, here’s the problem . . . when was the last time you went to see a movie, and the star called out?  Can you imagine going to see There Will Be Blood and hearing an announcement saying that the role usually played by Daniel Day Lewis was now going to be played by James O’Connor in his film debut?

Or what about going to see Bon Jovi at the Meadowlands, and hearing that Johnny Bonny was being replaced by Joey Veneziano from Hoboken.

Going to the theater has become even riskier than ever because of absenteeism.  Not only could you not like the show, but odds are that you’re not even going to see the primary cast!

So what can we do to limit this problem?

Let’s look at the rulebook and the requirements for replacements:

If a Broadway performer playing an identifiable role (either a principal or a featured ensemble role, as defined by Actors’ Equity) misses a performance, the Producers are required to notify the audience in 2 out of 3 ways:

  1. A sign in the lobby
  2. An announcement right before the curtain goes up.
  3. The aforementioned S-word.

#1 is a no brainer.  Very simple.  Gets the word out. Not too expensive.

#2 is a problem.  Breaks the mood and disappoints an audience right before the show, kind of like getting to a theme park and being told the big roller coaster is broken right when you get in the gate.  Have fun, kids!  (Oh, and there’s also this annoying Local 802 (musicians) rule that arbitrarily states that anytime you do an live announcement, whether it’s about a cast change, or about cell phones, you are required to announce who is conducting the orchestra.  Huh?  Come on, guys.  Really?  Ego check anyone?  I call this rule the Magnificent Maestro Rule, and it’s just plain annoying.  They’ve already got their own sign in the lobby.)

Then there’s #3, which you’re all very familiar with.

To accomplish the 2 out of 3 required by the rulebook, Producers normally opt for the sign and the stuffer, because they are the least intrusive from a branding point of view, although still damaging.

Here’s the huge problem for Producers with stuffers:  they aren’t free.

Thousands of dollars a week can be spent making those slips of paper and paying the required usher fees to stuff them.  Thousand of dollars that usually aren’t budgeted for specifically.  Hear the termites in the walls?

But forget about the money.  The worst part about the stuffers that affects everyone, no matter what side of the footlights you are on?

They eat away at the environment.

Lets say an average of 1 stuffer a night for the 40,000 plus seats on Broadway.  8 stuffers on 1 page.  That’s 5000 sheets of paper a night or 2,080,000 a year.  2 million plus.  Holy trees, Batman.

So what’s the compromise?

Actors’ Equity isn’t going to give up the stuffers without getting something back, even though they should, considering the impact on the environment.  They’ll just say “announce” (but we know that’s a bigger branding problem).

My idea?  Producers, you’re paying out ridiculous amounts of cash in stuffer after stuffer, not to mention the hours it takes to order and manage those stuffers.  Stop putting your money in paper.  Put it in people.

Raise the salary increment required for understudies in exchange for a reduction of the requirement to 1 out of 3 instead of 2 out of 3.  I bet that an ensemble member would rather have a few extra dollars every week than a stuffer for when they go on for a bit part anyway (the program does list that they understudy the role, so it’s not like they aren’t represented).

Actors make more money.  Producers save money.

We all save trees.

  • Brian McMahon says:

    I saw Legally Blonde last Thursday and instead of a Stuffer telling me 1 person who was out and their replacement, I got a whole cast list telling me who I was going to see tonight. It may seem minor, but the producers took a negative and turned it into a positive. Instead of saying what you aren’t, you are telling the audience what you are. So when you get there and see Kevin Pariseau’s name by Professor Callahan’s instead of Michael Rupert, it’s not nearly as bad as – Tonight the role of Professor Callahan will be played by…
    Besides, it ended up turning into a game as we tried to figure out who was from the original cast.

  • BT says:

    Can the stuffers contain advertising? Or coupons from local restaurants? Or can the back be blank but labeled “for stage door autographs” (kids might like this)
    What if “tonight’s cast” was projected up onto the curtain prior to the show? (rule change required, I’m sure). This would (ahem) “help save the environment” and also inform the audience.

  • Cedric Yau says:

    Ken Davenport is offering to pay actors more money? Okay…what happened in Belgium to the real Ken?

  • Dear Colleagues,
    The solution is simple: distribute the unused Playbill’s to high school drama clubs or theatre departments and libraries nationwide to increase the size of and interest in the theatre nation wide.
    Several colleagues have expressed invitations for a Book Signing program at their Library, Church etc for my 2 books in 2009.
    The Literary program would include my interview appearance on National Public Radio for “organized labor” (2004) with host Bonnie Grice. Ms. Grice loved my book, and her probing interview lasts about 10 minutes.
    Also video excerpts of my productions from HAPPY END, SACCO & VANZETTI, John Maguire’s l877 Irish-American melodrama HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY which won the Irish Institute Award. Also part of my Edward Bond cycle of plays from THE FOOL to the U.S. Premiere of his plays STONE and DEREK. In a forum on Easter or PASSION PLAY(s), this would include my news appearances on the Today Show, CBS, NBC ABC w.the Black Jesus controversy.
    The video portion could be about 10-20 minutes depending on the audience and your particular needs at the book signing presentation. Please contact me to arrange a date for your institution.
    With kind regards,
    Daniel P Quinn,

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