The Big Break
by Eric Grode
For decades, theater insiders have referred to Broadway as the “Fabulous Invalid,” an eternally moribund entity teetering on the edge of the grave.
Even as far back as 1938, characters in a Hart/Kaufman play by that name lamented the talk of Broadway’s impending demise. Never mind that the production opened a few months after the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Our Town” and a few months before “Mother Courage and Her Children,” one of the great 20th-century plays.
Fortunately, despite those who see theater’s heyday only in their rearview mirror, generation after generation of theater lovers still try to make it on Broadway and other professional stages.
Among them are these four Brandeis alumni. Though in different professions — and at different stages of their career — they are all continually adapting to a shifting theater landscape. One is a longtime operative in the nonprofit theater world, now striking out on a commercial venture. Two are actors, struggling to carve out unique niches. And one is a promising writer who has traded in playwriting for the life of the novelist.
Together, they offer an intriguing snapshot of theater’s unquenchable vitality — which doesn’t always mask its unavoidable pitfalls.
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The Nonprofit Dividend
Most Broadway plays get their start off-Broadway, where producers can gauge a production’s critical and popular success on a relatively small scale before making the sizable investment to move it.
As a result, the commercial and nonprofit worlds are, by necessity, paying much closer attention to each other.
For example, all four of this year’s Tony Award nominees for Best Play were born off-Broadway. One of them, “Venus in Fur,” David Ives’ freewheeling riff on an 1870 tale of sexual jealousy, came to fruition in 2010 under the tutelage of Jessica R. Jenen ’90, who at the time was executive director of off-Broadway’s well-regarded Classic Stage Company (CSC).
Jenen’s path to the nonprofit arena was predictably circuitous. While pursuing her M.F.A. in theater management at Columbia, she cut her teeth as an assistant to Alexander Cohen, one of the last old-school Broadway impresarios.
“He was like my grandfather,” says Jenen. “We were very close.” Indeed, one of the most prized possessions in her airy Times Square office is a vintage postcard from Cohen of a massive billboard touting all the shows he had running in 1963. On the back, he scrawled: “This is what it used to be … and you are what it will be tomorrow. Love, Alex.”
After earning her master’s, Jenen moved to a leading theatrical management house, Richard Frankel Productions, where she worked on various commercial projects in such pivotal but unglamorous supervisory roles as company manager and general manager.
But her time with Cohen had given her the itch to be more hands-on in assembling projects. In 2004, she jumped at the opportunity to become CSC’s executive director, even if it meant going through six job interviews and having her salary cut in half.
She believes the subject of her Brandeis thesis (a feminist reading of “Othello,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Winter’s Tale”) and the name of her older son (Beckett) helped her standing with the CSC board of directors, who were initially concerned about the preponderance of commercial theater on her résumé. Ultimately, she says, “they wanted someone ambitious and experienced who would professionalize the theater and really take the reins. And that’s what I did.”
The years she spent at Richard Frankel had given Jenen a sense of the wonkier aspects of her role. “The first season at CSC was about stabilizing the theater and breaking even,” she says. “I had no idea what I was doing in this new nonprofit universe, but I had more than a decade of commercial theater experience under my belt and had worked with some real mentors.”
Before long, thanks in no small part to Jenen, CSC had retired its cumulative debt while tripling its operating budget. It had also developed a reputation for staging insightful productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov, along with works by new authors. One of them was David Ives. In 2008, CSC produced an Ives play about the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Two years later came Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” which turned an unknown actress named Nina Arianda into the talk of New York and became one of CSC’s biggest hits.
In September 2011, after seven successful years at CSC, Jenen returned to the commercial theater, forming a partnership with Broadway mega-producer Jon B. Platt (“Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon”). Jenen had transferred the commercial rights to “Venus” to Platt, along with a few other producers. (Even two-character plays with one set typically require the opening of multiple checkbooks.) As they spent more and more time together, they realized that their goals and aesthetics dovetailed beyond this one project.
Today, Jenen and Platt are among the producers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park,” the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” and the rejiggered Gershwin musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
And — in addition to what Jenen calls “the ‘Venus in Fur’ franchise,” with productions planned all over the world, including a London mounting next year — she and Platt have collaborated on a staged Broadway concert starring Patti LuPone and CSC veteran Mandy Patinkin.
“There is less of a difference between nonprofit and commercial theater than there used to be,” Jenen says. “But I’m much more relaxed now because I don’t have this nonprofit on my shoulders.”
The role of a Broadway producer has been described as “the three F’s” — find the play, fund it, fill the seats. Jenen’s blend of entrepreneurial savvy and empathy suits her particularly well with the first and third of these roles. “I’m the one on the front lines, keeping everything moving,” she says. “Jon has the final say, but he listens to what I have to say.”
Alexander Cohen’s postcard prediction appears to have come true. “I’ve probably always been a commercial girl at heart,” Jenen says. “I looooooove selling tickets.”
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“Way Too Serious to Be Serious”
Two years ago, while Jenen was still juggling “Venus” and her other CSC responsibilities, she went to an Apple Store to buy an iPhone. As it happened, the guy who sold it to her was a fellow Brandeisian — and he knew her name, because he was about to make his own move into commercial theater.
Like Jenen a few years earlier, Dave Klasko ’07 was getting an M.F.A. at Columbia. But his was in acting, a common next step for young performers looking to hone their craft in a more conservatory-like atmosphere. His three-year program, which he completed this spring, culminated in a showcase that each graduating class performs for industry audiences in New York and Los Angeles.
Cup of coffee in one hand and résumé-stuffed portfolio in the other, the genial Klasko took a break from follow-up meetings with casting directors and agents to discuss the freedom-slash-anxiety of re-entering the working world.
Both of his two showcase scenes came from contemporary comedies with a bittersweet undercurrent, an idiom he clearly feels comfortable with. “I tend to come in and look for the funny way to go,” he says. This was true even when Klasko played the villainous Don John in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that was performed (at CSC, a few months after Jenen’s departure) for young audiences. “My take is that it’s way too serious to be serious.”
Klasko came to New York with a group of fellow Brandeis graduates he had met through the satirical campus magazine Blowfish, which he co-founded, and the Undergraduate Theatre Collective. He wound up turning down a California-based job at Google to perform sketch comedy anywhere that would have him.
When Klasko enrolled at Columbia two years later, he relished the intensive approach to his craft but missed the opportunity to put together his own projects. “It’s a weird time because, when you go to grad school, you really kind of have to tuck yourself away,” he says. “It’s important to be always making something, because actors are so often waiting for something to happen to them.”
And so, in between landing the occasional acting gig (notably, three roles at the distinguished Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival) and doing what he labels the “various nerd jobs that get the rent paid,” including photographing other actors for their head shots and fixing computers, Klasko and some Brandeis cronies are assembling a Web comedy series.
“Couched” takes the singles-in-New York trope from innumerable sitcoms and scales it down to a more plausible tax bracket: The title refers to the couch upon which no fewer than three guys find themselves crashing after a series of romantic complications. Thanks to what Klasko calls “Target rentals” — items bought at the store and then returned after the shoot — he and Joshua Louis Simon ’07 and Jeff Arak ’07 shot the first 8-to-12-minute episode and are now editing it while they write material for future episodes.
Klasko believes his undergrad experience has a lot to do with his determination to work on “Couched.” “That’s the thing about Brandeis,” he says. “If you wanted to make something, you could do it. And while it’s harder to do it in New York, you get used to wanting to do it.
“You don’t have to just wait.”
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From “Soul Samurai” to “Sucker Punch”
Not every young performer pursues a graduate degree — some dive right into the auditioning pool. For Sheldon Best ’08, that process began before he had graduated from Brandeis. And it hasn’t stopped.
“I have friends who will be all stressed out about ‘I don’t have a job,’” Best says. “And I never know what to say because I’m constantly in that mode. In a lot of fields, there’s a sense of stability once you get a job, whereas my jobs are always a few weeks long.”
But they do add up. Through connections he made with Brandeis-affiliated directors, Best was cast in Boston productions of “The History Boys” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” during his senior year. A new play called “The Oil Thief” followed at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre not long afterward. He still uses a monologue from it at auditions, he says.
“The Oil Thief” also won Best his Equity card, which led to his working with one of off-Broadway’s more adventurous troupes, the self-described “geek theater” company Vampire Cowboys. The group draws heavily from comic books, kung fu movies and other lessthan- reputable genres.
Best got his first Vampire Cowboys gig just a couple of months after college through Equity principal auditions, a union-mandated series of cattle call-style tryouts. (The odds of this happening are incrementally greater than being spotted at the lunch counter of Hollywood’s celebrated Schwab’s Pharmacy.)
The play was a title-says-it-all mashup of blaxploitation and martial arts called “Soul Samurai.” Set in a dystopian post-World War III New York City, it threw everything from undead bad guys and training montages to “Matrix”-style slow motion onto the stage.
Best went on to perform in “Alice in Slasherland,” which was billed as the group’s “bloodiest show yet”(no mean feat), and he often participates in VampireCowboys monthly readings and one-off performancesm at places like the annual New York Comic Con, an emporium of geekdom.
“It’s been really great to have a sense of community in a world that can be a bit shaky,” he says. He’s met other peers through his rent-paying gig as a teaching artist, which involves going into schools and integrating theater workshops into the curriculum.
Vampire Cowboys’ rough-and-tumble aesthetic presumably helped Best land his most recent role, in the boxing drama “Sucker Punch,” which in April completed its well-received run at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. After that, though, his calendar looked empty. “Sometimes when it rains, it pours, and sometimes there’s a drought,” he says philosophically.
“I used to get a bit anxious if I didn’t have the next show booked,” Best confides. “I finally realized that I don’t have to know. Not because I’m guaranteed another job — obviously, I’m not — but because I know that if I focus on the positives and work hard, the work will come.
“Still, it’s a constant hustle, a constant grind.”
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Creativity in Conflict
Waiting by the phone for a call from your agent is stressful enough. It’s worse when you don’t even have an agent — and worse still when the phone rests in your pocket, deafening in its silence.
Jesse Kellerman, M.F.A.’03, isn’t an actor. He’s a playwright, making him no less dependent on the largesse of others but far less flexible: Writing a play takes a lot longer than appearing in one.
Or, rather, Kellerman was a playwright. His website includes a lengthy explanation of why he has officially shifted his attention away from playwriting. It reads, in part: “These days it’s not feasible to make a living only writing plays. (I don’t know if it was ever possible, but certainly not today.) … I have too many plays in limbo to feel right casting a single additional page down the gaping well of underbudgeted futility.”
And so, like so many conflicted young men and women with a degree in a creative arts field, Kellerman has reluctantly moved over to a more stable line of work. His new occupation? Writing fiction.
“I know, it’s a really half-baked backup plan,” Kellerman says with a laugh. Having two successful novelists (Faye and Jonathan Kellerman) as parents may have skewed his notion of job security among novelists somewhat. But the rightness of his decision has, to a degree, been borne out: He has written four novels since 2006, each acclaimed for deft plotting and psychological complexity.
“I focused on theater from the ages of 14 to about 23, mostly because I didn’t feel I had the stamina to write a book-length piece,” Kellerman says. “The nice thing about plays is that they’re short.
“However, they’re designed to be performed,” he continues. “I appreciate the idea of ‘impossible theater’ like Artaud’s for theater’s sake and form’s sake, but I view any play as a prelude to performance. The goal is always to get the thing on its feet, and that just happens so rarely these days. There’s nothing more frustrating than going through workshop after workshop.”
In 2003, the same year he graduated from Brandeis as, in his words, “a fresh-faced M.F.A. playwright,” one of his plays won the prestigious Princess Grace Award. Kellerman says he used the prize money to subsidize the writing of his first novel, “Sunstroke.”
What would need to change in theater to lure him back? “Guaranteed productions, I guess,” he says. “Which would mean a complete overhaul of the theater superstructure.”
Eric Grode is a freelance writer living in New York.