My response to the demise of the Oleanna Take-A-Side talkbacks.

Oleanna got people talking.

So one of our early marketing strategies was to try and whip up our audiences into an even greater frenzy so that they would talk even louder and longer.

One of the rev-up devices we used was the “Take-A-Side” talkback series that featured a moderator and celebrity panelists, from former Mayor Dinkins to Fox TV correspondents to Tovah Feldshuh to University Deans to harassment litigation experts, and so on, all discussing the issues of the play and allowing the audiences to ask questions and make comments.

Everyone who I spoke to felt like the talkbacks made the experience of going to the theater even better.

Unfortunately, Mr. Mamet disagreed.  As Michael Riedel reported back in November . . .

Alas, Mamet hated them [talkbacks]. He never attended one, but he’s against them on principle, believing that his play should stand on its own and not be picked apart by “experts” on the law, feminism and campus sexual harassment policies.

It’s always tough to hear that your author doesn’t like something you want to do, especially when that something is helping market your show.

The analogy I use when describing why Mamet or any author would be opposed to such an initiative is that some authors are like painters who don’t want a fancy frame around their piece of art.  They just want you to look at the picture and only the picture.

I get it, and I respect it.

Of course, you and I know that the right frame can actually draw eyeballs to look at that picture in even greater detail.  And that’s one of the producer’s jobs . . . to attract eyes to the art.

As hard as it was to hear that our author couldn’t stand one of our initiatives, we soldiered on . . . until, that is, we needed some help.  We had to make a compromise, and the talkbacks went the way of the public-health option on the current health plan bill.

Was I disappointed?  You betcha.

Let me be perfectly clear.  I have the utmost respect for Mr. Mamet, his artistic integrity, his resolve, and because he’s a brilliant f-ing writer.

But getting people to attend the theater is getting harder and harder (as the NEA keeps telling us), and since our producing hands are handcuffed by so many other things in this business, we need to have the freedom to exercise good ideas when we have them (it’s not like we had a guy in a Gorilla suit standing out front trying to get people to buy tickets).

The more restrictive we make it, the more those Authors may find Producers sitting out the next one.

I know I’ll be sitting out the next Mamet.

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Comments
  • annick says:

    Thanks for your candor, Ken. I found your post — and the Michael Riedel article very interesting. This caught my eye:
    “When the show opened to mixed reviews, the producers had to cut expenses and asked Mamet to waive his royalties.”
    I find it quite odd that producers would ask the playwright to waive his royalties. You wouldn’t ask the cast and crew to have their salaries, would you? I get that Mamet probably doesn’t need the money, but still…
    Can you clarify this?

  • annick says:

    Sorry, I meant you wouldn’t ask the cast and crew to WAIVE their salaries, not have them.

  • Annick,
    I can’t speak for Ken, but in my experience, when the writer is asked to waive royalties for a period, the director, designers and other creative staff are also asked the same. It is considered and investment in generating more royalties, longer term. Similarly, the producers are likely not earning management fees.
    Cast and crew are more often considered ‘hourly’ employees. The creative staff have already received fees. Royalties are additional weekly compensation.
    But that wasn’t MY comment. I was going to mourn the loss of the talkbacks and producers willingness to work with Mamet. Many, years ago I had the opportunity to work with david, as a prop person and assistant set designer. He can be difficult, but his work is brilliant. I think all artists need to recognize that we spend only a small amount of time creating art. The majority of my time is spent managing the process, marketing and self promoting.

  • Georgiana says:

    Dear Ken,
    You are right — the talkbacks allowed the audience to go beyond their experience and participate in something that they enjoyed — and that kind of personal connection is critical to generating great word of mouth and loyalty to the production.
    Really good presenters on the road have done this for years, because they know that they have to find multiple ways to connect with their audience. The difference being that on the road, the audience is loyal to the local presenter and the venue. — beyond the production. This bond of trust between audience and institution is a powerful thing that will carry a presenter through a season of great shows and those not so great.
    The talk backs were a great idea for the audience.
    Really a shame about Oleanna and a shame about David Mamet.

  • Paul Argentini says:

    Playwrights asked to waive one iota or deliberately pissed off should take back their words. Let the disrespectful, venal theatre world go dark.

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