What's New on the Rialto
Bess Eckstein and Glass Slipper Theatricals
The very busy Bess Eckstein finds time to talk with us about what it takes to create and run a new Off-Off Broadway theatre company.
Talkin' Broadway: Bess, you've founded a new Off-Off Broadway theatre company, Glass Slipper Theatricals. What do you envision Glass Slipper doing that other Off-Off Broadway companies aren't doing? What is Glass Slipper's special niche?
Bess: My partner, Deborah Rosen, and I founded Glass Slipper Theatricals to provide quality entertainment at affordable ticket prices. Off-Off Broadway is home to a lot of wonderful, intelligent thought-provoking work. However, in spite of recent successes, the perception by the general public is still that Off-Off Broadway is too experimental. We hope to be a part of changing that opinion.
People tend to look toward the familiar in their lives. By presenting musicals and revivals of traditional straight plays, we are providing them with a form of entertainment that they already know and appreciate, albeit in a venue that may be unfamiliar to them.
T.B.: What does it take to establish a new theatre company? Where do you find the people that want to work with you to make it happen?
Bess: We incorporated in December of 1999, so the company itself is fairly new. However, Deborah and I have been working Off-Off Broadway for several years and have, during that time, met a lot of people with whom we've developed solid professional relationships. Many of those people worked with us on our recent production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
As to establishing the producing organization in the sense of making a name for ourselves - that's a bit more difficult. However, I feel that Sleepy Hollow put us on the right path. Since we were looking to develop an audience that traditionally attends Off-Broadway or Broadway, we needed to make certain that everything we presented to the public was on a par with productions that have higher ticket prices. This included developing a full-scale marketing plan, high production values, and good customer relations. Our ticket prices and our budgets may be low, but that doesn't mean we can't provide our audiences with an experience that would normally cost twice as much.
T.B.: Glass Slipper has already produced two shows, right?
Bess: Our first production was a one-act play entitled Nicetown, by Alex Ladd. Set in a midtown bar, it tells the story of three Canadian tourists who wander in and ultimately discover that nothing in New York City, including each other, is what it seems to be. The show was first produced in 1998 as part of a one-act play festival (in which Deborah and I were involved).
When I first saw the show two years ago, I kept thinking of what it would be like if I were sitting in a bar, having a drink, and all of this happened around me. So, for our production, Nicetown was staged in three different bars in Greenwich Village as an environmental "experience."
Our most recent production, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was a musical version of Washington Irving's classic tale (with book and lyrics by Meg Belviso and music by Eric Baum). The piece essentially follows the storyline of the original novella, with a bit more emphasis on the love triangle between Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones.
We are extremely pleased with the response. Both audience members and other theatre professionals had extremely positive things to say about the show, and we are looking forward to continuing with it.
T.B.: What sort of projects will Glass Slipper tackle in the future? What have you got in development?
Bess: Our current project is a co-production of Spike Heels (with Edge Productions and Joria Productions), by Theresa Rebeck. It's a contemporary straight play running January 23 through January 28 at The New 42nd Street Theater, and deals with Georgie, a tough-talking waitress, and the two men who must learn to love her for what she is before either will win her.
We have also already begun work on another production scheduled for late May/early June. While I can't be specific at this time about which piece we will be presenting, I can tell you that it, like Spike Heels, will be in keeping with our goal of mounting work with high entertainment value at the Off-Off Broadway level.
We are also looking even further ahead to next year, when we are hoping to mount other musicals along with a straight play or two. We are also considering presenting a children's show within the next two years.
T.B.: Did you always want to run your own theatre company, or is this something that just sort of happened on the way to somewhere else?
Bess: Actually, I realized I wanted to produce about ten years ago. Before I went to college, I was supposed to be an entertainment lawyer. However, on my third day of classes, the professor said something very wise to us. He said, "If you're not passionate about something, don't do it." My father's heart is still broken.
It was at the end of my freshman year at school that I produced my first show. For several years after that I was a producer or a production stage manager, and began executive producing exclusively about four years ago with other theatre companies.
Essentially, running my own theatre company grew out of a need to produce plays. It became clear to me several years ago that, if I actually wanted to make something out of it, I was going to have to do it myself. Also, Deborah and I realized long before we went into business together that we were perfectly suited. In fact, for several years, I refused to do a show without her, so it seemed logical to join forces. She has extensive creative design experience (including an MFA in Scene Design from NYU) and technical knowledge, along with a shrewd business sense. My expertise is more on the business and marketing side. Between the two of us, there are very few challenges we can't handle.
T.B.: What's the most difficult part of running your own theatre company? What would you warn others about if they were thinking of starting their own theatre company?
Bess: There are actually two major issues that most people starting a theatrical production company realize in the intellectual sense but perhaps not in the practical sense. However, these challenges can be overcome with a little ingenuity and a lot of advance planning.
The first problem a new producer will encounter is that building an audience base, even if you have a spectacular product, is very difficult, since there is a great deal of competition for the public's time. In today's economy money is not as much of an issue for people as is how they choose to spend what little spare time they have. I, like most of the rest of the world these days, work an average of 12 hours a day, pretty much every day, and am extremely disappointed if I take time away from priority tasks for leisure activities and then don't enjoy myself.
When you choose which productions to mount, you're already in love with the show and believe that it has the potential to affect people in new and important ways. The trick is to look at it from a stranger's perspective, that of someone with very little time and even less patience, and then decide if this is a way in which they would truly want to spend two hours.
The second major challenge is that everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will. Everyone tells you this but it's really a lesson that can only be learned from experience. The best way to get beyond it is simply to plan ahead - leave yourself a fair amount of extra time in which to resolve these unexpected challenges and extra money in the budget to pay for them.
The other piece of advice I would give to anyone just starting out is: Get yourself a partner. When I first began doing this I thought that if I wasn't absolutely in charge, making all of the decisions and trusting nobody's instincts but my own, I would be perceived as ineffectual. I can't tell you how wrong this is. Having a partner with whom you can discuss things and bounce around ideas is an invaluable resource that should not be taken lightly. Also, it's always nice to have twice as many good ideas. If you truly feel that you would prefer to go it alone, at least make sure you have someone, such as a general manager, with whom you can talk about how the show is being presented to the public.
T.B.: Smart young actors in New York who are trying to break into the business quickly learn they need to get as much exposure as possible. Do you see Glass Slipper Theatricals as a company willing to give the "new kids" a chance? Or, do you prefer to put together projects with more experienced performers?
Bess: The most important thing to remember is that a talented actor is a talented actor and an actor who is right for the part is right for the part, whether that person has Broadway or West End credits or no credits at all. We would hate to be an organization who passed over a brilliant performer simply because he or she hadn't worked in "legitimate" theatre before.
T.B.: Is there any common talent or trait that most of the people you want to work with share? What do you look for when searching for a performer, designer, or technician for a project?
Bess: Of course, talent in their particular field is top priority. There's no substitute for it, and it's pretty obvious when it's missing. However, we are also looking for people who are easy to work with and who work well together. At the Off-Off Broadway level, the budgets are small and the staff is even smaller, so it's key to surround yourself with people who are willing to operate within those parameters.
T.B.: Is producing as a job anything like you thought it was going to be? What were the big surprises? What did you learn on the job that you don't think you could have learned any other way?
Bess: When I first realized that this was what I wanted, I knew so little about it that I really had no expectations as to what it was going to be like. I was aware of the job description as it exists at the college level, where they give you the money without expecting (or needing) it back and you can borrow just about everything you need. Still, some of the problems that exist in the professional arena (never having enough time or resources, personality conflicts, etc.) certainly also existed there, so I found it to be a positive learning experience.
It was really when I began working in New York, though, that the true challenges became evident. Finding money is a big one. Also, as I said before, getting people in to see your show when there's so much wonderful work being presented is another. Finally, good people skills are equally as important as business acumen. No one can "teach" you the art of diplomacy, and you will very often have to be the mediator should problems arise between members of the company.
T.B.: Has being a producer changed the way you look at a play or musical when you go to the theatre for your own enjoyment?
Bess: Yes, which I think is both a good thing and a bad thing. I'm always trying to guess how much something might have cost, examining the print campaign to determine which aspects I find particularly striking, or, instead of thinking that a certain actor is simply "good," figuring out why I think so. If you're a producer, this is a wonderful way to exercise your mind. However, it also means that I'm less likely to get lost in a production than an audience member not in the business.
Oddly enough, this "analysis" is why I like going to the theatre. If a production is so wonderful, whether it's mine or someone else's, that I can truly forget myself - well, that's just about the greatest thing there is.
T.B.: Everyone has their favorite horror story, something dreadful that happened during rehearsals or on opening night. What's yours?
Bess: I've been very fortunate to have not had too many "trauma-inducing incidents" (or I've successfully managed to forget the truly awful ones). During Sleepy Hollow, though, there was the night that Deborah called me from the theater at 3 a.m. because she couldn't lock up the building (she was given the wrong set of keys), or the cab that started to drive away on opening night with a cooler full of supplies in the trunk. This would have been only slightly less ridiculous had the trunk not still been open! So there I am, with my hands inside the trunk, walking along behind the cab, yelling....
These are all small things though, the kinds of things that don't make a bit of difference the first time you hear the audience applaud - although they're good fodder for when people ask me what I do for a living at parties!
T.B.: You've chosen to work Off-Off Broadway. Do you see yourself attempting Off Broadway or Broadway in the future?
Bess: Hopefully in the near future! One of the wonderful things for us about Off-Off Broadway is that it's very much like a family - the smaller size of the staff means that you spend a lot of time with a few people and you're able to get to know them very, very well. Off-Off Broadway also gives you more freedom to experiment, to try things out, which is essential when you're mounting new work. But I believe the goal of most producing organizations like ours is ultimately to move the work to the next level so that greater numbers of people can see what we're so proud of. Wish us luck!
January 23 through January 28
The New 42nd Street Theater, 348 West 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 563-3756 or online at Glass Slipper Theatricals
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