Interview with John Chatterton
by Nancy Rosati
Nancy Rosati: What can you tell me about oobr?
John Chatterton: I started it seven seasons ago when I came to the New York area and I wanted to get involved in theater here, being a practitioner in Boston.
NR: What did you do there?
JC: Some of the same stuff - what they call "fringe theater" which is equivalent to Off-Off Broadway in a smaller way, although it's grown a lot since I left. I also did community theater and I'm a playwright. I went to a seminar where they suggested that one good way to get a group to read your plays is to offer to paint their bathroom. It worked for one playwright. I figured this was a way that I could paint everybody's bathroom and give producers a reason to call me back. So I started oobr - the "off-off-broadway review." It's been very beneficial in a lot of ways. It's taken on a life of its own. In fact, I don't have time to write plays anymore.
NR: Do you enjoy being a producer?
JC: Yes I do.
NR: What is involved with that?
JC: It's basically playing God. But you also find that even God has limitations, more than most, because you can't pay people what they're worth. You have to beg and plead and cajole, and con people into doing what has to be done.
NR: Why is that?
JC: Theater is not about money. Theater is about the project, so the project and the people are the focus.
NR: What is the difference between Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway?
JC: Off-Off Broadway is professionals working for nothing, typically through the Equity showcase code.
NR: What's the difference between that and a workshop?
JC: It depends on how elaborate you're going to get - how many weeks you're going to book in a theater, if you're going to sell tickets - it's a matter of scale.
NR: Tell me about the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
JC: In February of last year, the FringeNYC went on record as saying that they had blown it as far as their financing went. They were saying that their landlord would charge them serious penalties for late rent payments and unless the people of New York came up with $100,000 they would have to put the festival to sleep. I was so incensed by this because I didn't feel it was our place to pick up the slack for their mismanagement of their arrangement with their landlord. I decided to start my own "fringe festival" and do it in midtown, and distinguish it from the Lower East Side. (laughs) I found out what's involved. It was a rude awakening - let's put it that way. We pretty much accomplished our goal but it got to be a lot more expensive than I expected it to be.
NR: Since this is now the second year of the festival, what did you learn last year that you corrected for this year?
JC: Last year we had four theaters doing 19 shows. Some of the one-person shows sold zero tickets. We attempted to work an arrangement whereby everyone would work on a percentage of the gross - the landlords, the theater companies and me. That didn't entirely work out. We had a problem with one of the theaters and there's a lawsuit pending. We ended up renting space for cash. I found that actually worked better than a percentage. Now I'm renting the theaters and instead of working on a percentage, I'm taking the first 200 tickets worth of revenue and repaying my cost. I'm splitting the remainder 50/50 with the groups that are putting on a full program. We now have two spaces instead of four, and one building instead of three. All of our programs are now at 348 West 42nd Street. We're doing 12 productions instead of 19. We have some one-person shows but they're scaled back. They're not doing a full run and they're in a small cabaret space instead of a large theater. I think this will work out. Everybody will get a full house, or at least they'll sell more tickets.
NR: How are you advertising this?
JC: We're doing a lot of handing out of flyers, mailing postcards, and working with the concierges in hotels and local restaurants. We're also sending out press releases and every show will have an ad in the NY Times Theater Directory. I think we'll get the visibility out there.
NR: Tell me about the awards ceremony you held on June 25th.
JC: When I started oobr, our press agent was Howard Atlee, who's been around forever and he was very gung-ho about the project. He suggested that we should have an awards ceremony and that we should have it immediately. We had only put out seven issues, but we had an awards ceremony, and we've had one ever since. Awards ceremonies typically are marred by committees and disputes and endless discussions about who should be in and who shouldn't, and what the rules should be. The nature of our beast is that each show is seen by one person who reviews it. Nobody else gets to it, so the concept of a committee or a consensus doesn't make sense. Instead we have each reviewer give an award to his or her favorite show. If someone reviews a large number of shows, such as 50, they can give out two or three awards. You have to have reviewed at least six shows in order to give an award, but if you review 20, you get to give another award, and so on for each 20.
NR: How many eligible shows are there generally in a year?
JC: We've got ten reviewers and I'd say we probably review about 250 shows a year.
NR: How many awards did you give out?
JC: This year we gave out 14 awards and one lifetime achievement.
NR: That's pretty stiff competition when you compare it to the number of Broadway shows that can be nominated for the Tonys.
JC: Well, we're dealing with tremendous constraints. There isn't any box office really. You're lucky if you recover your rental costs. The enthusiasm and artistic taste of the producers are more important than costumes or props. We zero in on the heart.
NR: If someone has a show that they'd like to produce for next year's festival, how can they contact you?
JC: They just send in a package and a $15 fee to us. We have a committee that reviews all of the applications in February. The festival is our effort to showcase what we consider to be the very best of Off-Off Broadway. If you have a review in oobr and the reviewer really loved your work, that goes a long way towards getting you in the festival. Also the oobr awards recognize the very best work. We're attempting to raise the level and to bring these works to audiences beyond friends and family members of the participants. Face it - friends and families are captive audiences. They've got to buy a ticket! But we're also giving the theatre-going public, perhaps the more adventurous people, an alternative. They know that if they come to the festival or if they patronize a company that regularly wins oobr awards, like the John Montgomery Theatre Company, they will get a good show. We're doing our bit to open the doors of Off-Off Broadway to the general theater-going public, that might not know it exists, or who might not dare go to it.
NR: Have you ever had a production move up to Off Broadway?
JC: Not me personally, but we discovered Urinetown. We gave it an oobr award last year for a production at the New York Fringe Festival.
NR: And now they're moving to Broadway, which is pretty amazing.
JC: That's happened with other plays that we didn't review like Rent, The Donkey Show, R & J, and The Countess. There have been other plays that have gone from Off-Off to Off or to Broadway. With Urinetown, we got right on it and we realized how good it was.
At the festival we're interested in good scripts by people who have the ability to produce them because they have to physically do the production. We're only renting the room and doing the publicity. They have to have some idea as to how they're going to market it and bring in an audience. We feel that there are plays in this year's festival which have commercial possibilities.
NR: That sounds terrific. Thanks, John, and good luck with the festival.
JC: Thank you.
The 7th Annual oobr Awards
by Matthew Murray
The off-off-broadway review (oobr) Awards were held on June 25 at the Union Square Theatre, the current home of the unique musical Bat Boy. The event, started by oobr editor and publisher John Chatterton seven years ago to promote the magazine, was well attended this year; though Chatterton estimated there would be a hundred people in attendance, the crowd's energy and enthusiasm frequently made the crowd seem all the larger.
The ten oobr critics themselves presented awards to their choices for the best shows of the year. The shows honored were diverse, ranging from Shakespearean classics like Hamlet (presented by the American Globe Theatre) and Julius Caesar (by the Genesis Repertory Ensemble), to newer, familiar works like Noises Off (produced by the Gallery Players), new original drama such as Edwin Sanchez's Icarus (The Fourth Unity The Bank Street Theatre), and more experimental fare, such as HERE's Shirley Chickenpants. Lou Rodgers, of Golden Fleece, was also presented with the Sustained Achievement Award for her decades of service to the Off-Off-Broadway community.
There was entertainment as well. This included two numbers from The Grove Street Wannabes, including an audience-pleasing rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." Vital Children's Theatre's presented a song from their musical adaptation of Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. There were also two dramatic presentations. Would any of these productions meet with the same success that one of last year's productions, Urinetown, did? Only time will tell.
As reiterated a number of times throughout the ceremony, though the economics of Off-Off-Broadway are different from those of their more commercial counterparts, their love of the art and the craft of the theatre is at least as strong. It is this commitment that will keep Off-Off-Broadway and the oobr Awards going strong for years to come.
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