What's New on the Rialto
An Interview with Lawrence Paone and Matthew Aibel
by By Warren Hoffman
Warren Hoffman: Whose brainchild was this piece? How did this work come about?
Lawrence Paone: I had written a play called Next in Line that had multiple characters and a big set. I was also toying with the idea of trying some stand-up comedy and a friend of mine suggested I should perform my own work. So I ended up combining the multi-character play with me just telling the story by myself. Matt and I met working on the production of Life (x) 3. I was the head treasurer and he was the company manager.
Matthew Aibel: We had traded scripts that we had written. When he said he wanted to do this, I said let's work together. I always went into the box office to watch Lawrence, observing him work with the customers, which was sort of like watching him do stand-up.
WH: If you had to sum up what the heart of this piece is about, what would you say?
LP: Matt and I have said that it is equal parts celebration and complaint. I don't want people to think it's just me kvetching. Quite often I do take the customer's side. I think it's a celebration of the theater and finding your path in life.
WH: What's the structure of play? Do you play yourself and tell stories or do you impersonate the people who come to the box office?
MA: There's a natural association to Fully Committed, but this is much more like a cheerier Spalding Gray or Eric Bogosian piece. It's more storytelling.
LP: We have several segments in the show, which we call the "Odd Questions." We toss out three or four odd questions and that sort of weaves through the piece.
WH: Can you give an example?
LP: Sure. Here's one from the top of play. "Hugh Jackman is in The Boy from Oz. He's also in Van Helsing. How does he do both?"
WH: If you had to pick the strangest question you've ever been asked, what would it be?
MA: Well, I'm not on the front lines, but I get calls from people asking if we can announce people's birthdays and anniversaries from the stage. But, right before the curtain to Into the Woods went up, we weren't going to start with "Happy Birthday, Charlie"!
LP: I remember working the Rent box office when we had the rush tickets and some guy calls up and asks us to hold two tickets for his mother's birthday. I explained to him that there were only 34 rush seats available. "But it's her birthday!," the man says. There are thousands of people out there each with their own reasons about why we should hold tickets for them. One of the things we get to in this piece is that people feel like they do have a sense of entitlement.
MA: But when you're paying $200 bucks for tickets plus a facility charge, you have an entitlement.
WH: Who comes off as trying to claim the most entitlement? New Yorkers, tourists, celebrities?
LP: I would probably say New Yorkers because this is their city and they support the theater. But with tourists we often get, "But this is my first Broadway show!"
MA: Our theory is that theater, though it is a business, is unlike any other business because it's about pretending, make-believe and dreams coming true, and people think that the whole experience is make-believe.
LP: People don't treat ticket buying as a real transaction.
WH: When you're dealing with people, you must get frustrated. What's the worst thing you've said to someone?
LP: Well, this one woman really had an attitude and she kept on spelling her last name for me, O, apostrophe, N-E-A-L, and wouldn't answer any of my questions about her tickets and when I finally got the information from her, it turned out she was at the wrong theater. I was working at Rent and she wanted Beauty and the Beast. I said "Ma'am, Beauty and the Beast is on West 46th Street. This is Rent. R-E-N-T." I just gave back the same attitude.
I have my own self-imposed limits though. I try to diffuse the situation with a bit of humor. What I usually say is, with a smile, "Did my ex-wife send you here?" Now there is no ex-wife, and they usually laugh at that and they realize that maybe they're being a little unreasonable and take it down a notch.
MA: That's why I wanted to work with Lawrence, because I watched these encounters for months and I was always impressed with how he handled people. Whereas my instinct would have been to be harsher or to give them back what they deserved.
WH: One thing I've always wanted to know is, how do you deal with working in what has to be one of the smallest offices in any job around? Does it ever add to the pressure?
LP: Oh definitely! One of the things we say in the play is that the offices are small, claustrophobic, and have bad fluorescent lighting.
WH: And sometimes it's not just you. It's two or three people.
LP: Exactly. I remember working at Rent, which was a busy show with a small box office and sometimes there were four guys in there. Your nerves can get shot a little faster from the confined space. We're hoping that this show will appeal to anybody who deals with the public, works in customer service, or works in a confined space.
WH: So miners and . . . ?
Matt, what were some of the challenges in directing this particular show?
MA: Finding a theatrical shape and pace to it. The stories carry most of it. Some of the challenges have been production values, movement, and changes in tone. How much should be theatrical vs. just straight-forward. On the other hand, we didn't want it to be stand-up. You could do it as a cabaret piece, but the question to me is, what makes it a theater piece?
WH: Is there a narrative thread to the work?
MA: Yes. The narrative spine is really a search for accepting the hand you're dealt.
From the patrons' viewpoint, it's about accepting the locations you get. For Lawrence and for myself, the issue is, what happens if your day job and career don't match up with your aspirations of where you hoped you'd be in life? Do you get bitter? Do you get frustrated and cry and rail? Or do you grapple with it and try to find what there is to appreciate about the hand you've been dealt.
WH: How have you been publicizing the show and is it true that some performances are already sold out?
MA: Three are sold out and we've been asked to add a seventh. I think it's striking a chord with people who like the theater. One of the group ticketing agencies bought 10 or 20 tickets the other day. There are probably 200 Telecharge operators - hopefully they'll come! We both bring cards to all the box offices. We think it will appeal to anyone who's gone to theater a lot. We've all been on line. It's sort of a valentine to the theater addiction.
WH: Have you thought about a life for this show after the festival?
MA: Yes, we had a reading in March to test the material and to show it to some industry people. We have hopes that this could get some commercial run.
WH: Like "I Am My Own Ticket Seller"? Lawrence, does being a ticket seller require you to be in any sort of union?
LP: Yes, ticket sellers and treasurers are part of a union. I'm a member of Local 751. It covers Broadway, Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, and Radio City Music Hall.
WH: How hard is it to get in?
LP: There is a lot of nepotism in the box office. People are dealing with money and credit cards and you want people you can trust so family members are often brought in. I'm one of a small minority who isn't related to anybody.
WH: So as a final question, if there's one question at the box office that you never want to hear again, what would it be?
LP: "Are E9 and E11 together?" I mean sometimes people buy tickets and step away from the window and then they come back and before they can even open their mouths I say, "They're together!"
Midtown International Theatre Festival
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