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Monday, December 16, 2013

"We Just Want to Have a Little Chat about the Play, Go Home, and Die in Our Sleep": Introducing Whizz-Bang!

Posted by Alison Hallett on Mon, Dec 16, 2013 at 12:29 PM

Lucky_Ladies_Drop-4.jpeg
Portland actor Chris Murray—you've seen him onstage at Third Rail, PCS, Artists Rep... etc—is starting a new theater company called Whizz-Bang, and tonight, to gin up some excitement for the new company, he's producing a free staged reading of Dominic Finnochiaro's The Lucky Ladies at Artists Rep (1515 SW Morrison, 7:30 pm), in partnership with Artist Rep's FlashReads series.

The Lucky Ladies is a dark comedy about female contestants on a reality TV dating show. The cast is excellent—Val Landrum, Christy Bigelow, and Amy Newman—and it's directed by the tremendous Gretchen Corbett, who, holy shit, have you read this woman's Wikipedia page? If these names are meaningless to you, trust me when I tell you that they're all top-notch. (Amy Newman is Noises Off at Third Rail right now, and she's great in it.) So... interesting script, A+ cast and director. Interest successfully ginned!

I asked Murray via email about why he's starting a new company and what he thinks is missing from the local scene. I got back a fairly amazing tirade about the busted state of contemporary theater and the artistic paucity of a business model that relies on keeping rich old people happy. (Coff.) I can't believe he wrote it on his phone. It's definitely starry-eyed—as he notes, he's a few years out from producing his first full production, so the reality of keeping the lights on and the heating bill paid is still hypothetical—but I'm gonna post it in full here because he brings up some great points.

Take it away, Murray:

"Whizz-Bang is my answer to the current, tired, subscriber based theatre model that is choking the life out of this country. Portland theatres are really innovating, compared to the national average, but I still want to change the model.

Theatre seems produced largely through fear. Fear of the subscriber, the donor, the audience, the squeaky wheels. In most performance houses in America, it's an old crowd that patronizes theatre. Portland has a ton of hip seniors who love theatre (thank fucking god), but there can nevertheless be a lack of excitement and funding for live entertainment that doesn't fall into the standard category of theatre.

During a talkback of A Bright New Boise, an audience member asked what the ending of the play meant, and what happened to the characters. Tim True responded, 'We're not sure because the playwright didn't write the show with the talkback in mind.'

We all got a good chuckle out of it, but he was absolutely right. People do not want to be challenged by an ambiguous ending, by magic, by unexplained phenomenons. They want a 'well-made play' with a beginning, middle, and end.

We all SAY we want [to be challenged], but when push comes to shove, sometimes we get cranky. We get cranky because we just want to have a little chat about the play, go home, and die in our sleep.

So the problem is we have this huge national theatre machine that exists with no way of paying for itself. You've read the numbers. Donors and grants and individual donations account for roughly 70% of a theatre's take.

So obviously we care what these people think. They are our backbone. If someone is a doctor for 38 years and now gives to a theatre, why would her input be requested? Why would we grin through clenched teeth nodding away at her ideas for programming next season? Because we need her.

Fuck me if that's not the rub. And I am going to have to deal with this at some point, so I am not saying I can transcend the model.

We exist in this place over here. On the 'grown up' side of the line. We toil and work our asses off making some really great theatre, and we're so desperate that people "get it" that we forget that art is made to change people, not reinforce their beliefs.

On the other side [of the line], there are people silently selling 100% of their house. There are comedy producers and musical producers and even event programmers that laugh in the face of our 30% ticket intake.

They don't have the luxury of grants and donors. They sell ad space, they hustle logos on posters. And they wouldn't do business if the margins were that bad.

The 'theatre' public largely poopoos these producers, calling their offerings less than artistic. The community shuns them, citing their low pay for actors and their drastically reduced rehearsal time.

And yet the audiences keep coming. Young people. Twentysomethings that nobody knows. A house full of strangers. The fucking dream of a theatre company.

My plan is to meld these two extremes. I want to be fun, irreverent, not taking my company too seriously, and occasionally producing comedy, sketch, movie adaptations, and musical serials. But I want to attack the work with amazing teams of artists, talent running all the way through, from the director to the design team, to the actors. I want pros. And I want to pay them a living wage.

Finally, I want to keep the ticket cost down. I want to actually compete with movies and live music. I want people to feel like they can take a chance on a new work without getting fucked in the wallet.

Lofty goals, no? Well that's where this starts. I am years away from my first production. I need to fundraise, I need to make a lot of friends, and I need to take the temperature on what this city actually wants to see.

That is why I am so excited about the reading of The Lucky Ladies tonight. Because I now get to share what I love with everyone else.

My relationship with playwrights is what started this company idea. Playwrights get the fucking shaft in this country, which makes no sense, because without them, we have no play to toil over.

I want to be their champion. I want their weird little plays that the other producing companies in America have soundly passed on. I want those. I don't want them to kill their darlings, I want them to send them to me. I want to nurture them, feed them, and give them an amazing production.

I won't be able to pay a playwright what the other guys can, but I will make sure them, and their plays get the kind of attention they deserve.

You asked me what companies inspired this kind of theatre. The answer is all of them. Third Rail, Artists Rep, Portland Center Stage, CoHo, Vertigo, PETE, Anon it Moves, PSP, Fuse, Bag and Baggage, Third Floor, all of them.

The biggest influence though has to be JAW. JAW throws Portland center stages doors wide and says, this is going to be a little weird, very new, and totally free."

He closes with this:

"Comedy is fun, don't be a fucking square.

Plays are fascinating, don't be a baby.

Whizz-Bang means a sudden and unexpected success.

Playwrights need love too. I don't want their hits. Send your hits to the big boys. I want your troubled, weird little four handers. We will take care of them."

~fin~

The Lucky Ladies, Artist Rep, 1515 SW Morrison, Mon Dec 16, 7:30 pm, FREE

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