How do you market a new play?
In a world where most people think theatre consists of nothing but Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, or splashy musicals, how does one create an audience for a new story?
Well, if you’re a big-time Broadway theater mounting a new work by a famous playwright like Edward Albee or David Mamet, you start by making sure the writer’s name is at least as big as the title. (“Who needs to know what it’s about?” the poster screams. “It’s Mamet! Buy a ticket already!”) How many new plays by established playwrights like these have opened in recent years, only to get harpooned by critics and pulled from the stage much, much sooner than expected? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s almost all that happens these days. Ever heard of a Mamet piece called Romance? Thought not.) So, if new plays by the lions of the American theatrical establishment are hard to sell, what chance does a new play by a (more or less) unknown playwright have find an audience?
Full disclosure: Stephen Karam (pictured, left) is not exactly unknown. He is the author of half a dozen plays, including two works that tackled the oh-so-relevant subject of bullying — columbinus and Speech & Debate — way back in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Still, most people have probably never heard of him. That’s a pity, because this guy’s for real. His plays are witty and current, and he uses humor and a sharp ear for dialogue to throw light at serious topics.
Stephen Karam’s most recent play, Sons of the Prophet, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play. New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company commissioned the play, calling it “a refreshingly honest take on how we cope with wounds that just won’t heal.”
The press release most often associated with this play states: “If to live is to suffer, then Joseph Douaihy is more alive than most. With unexplained chronic pain and the fate of his reeling family on his shoulders, Joseph’s health, sanity, and insurance premium are on the line. In an age when modern medicine has a cure for just about everything, Sons of the Prophet is the funniest play about human suffering you’re likely to see.”
Let’s recap for a second…. It’s a comedy about suffering. By a playwright you’ve probably never heard of. How do you sell that?
It’s a problem, but it’s one that the Station Theatre in Urbana is used to. In fact, the Station seems to revel in just this kind of challenge. New plays, obscure plays, unknown writers, difficult subject matter … This is where the Station lives.
It also doesn’t hurt, when getting the word out about a play, to mention that it’s being directed by Gary Ambler. Ambler is one of the original members of the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre, a veteran of countless productions all over this area and far beyond. He is as well-regarded and talented an actor as one could hope to find in Champaign-Urbana, and he has dedicated a significant portion of his life and talent to cultivating the talents of other artists as a director. I have had the extreme privilege of working with Mr. Ambler a few times, and he never disappoints. So it was with great enthusiasm that I approached this new production and his thoughts and feelings about it. When I contacted him about Sons of the Prophet (which opens Thursday, February 21), here’s what he had to say.
Smile Politely: So, I know you read a lot of plays. Of all the scripts out there, what drew you to Sons of the Prophet?
Gary Ambler: It made me laugh, which is not always the best indicator; my sense of humor tends toward the silly. But Stephen Karam (the playwright) is a genuinely funny man with a finely-tuned ear to the ways human beings communicate and fail to communicate.
The characters are heartbreakingly human, and fragile, and damaged in odd and surprising ways.
When I read the play, I knew just a few pages into the first scene that I was in good hands, that I could trust Karam to tell me a great story.
I understand that the play tells us something about Karam’s own family growing up in eastern Pennsylvania (where they use words like “panked”), as Maronite Christians from Lebanon, who are distantly related to Khalil Gibran, the author of The Prophet. All this information was wonderfully exotic to me, and allowed us old hippies to dust off our copies of The Prophet. “All is well.”
SP: Speaking of old hippies … You’ve had a long history with the Station, and you’ve been involved with countless productions there. Truth be told, you’ve played a big hand in shaping the Station’s style. Looking at plays past and present, is there any particular thing that makes a play a “Station show?”
Ambler: There are a few particular things that come to mind. First, it has to be surprising. This is why the Station has had such success presenting new voices over the years. I count Karam’s among them (the Station also produced his early play Speech & Debate). We’ve also produced the classics, but we rarely produce the “chestnuts.”
Second, it has to be daring. The Station’s best shows challenge us with the poetry, or the content, or the intellectual argument, or the emotional complexity, or all of the above.
Third, it has to live with elegance in the space. The performance space has amazing limitations, and how a production design deals with those challenges often determines the show’s success. This all goes back to the Station’s beginnings as a poor theatre, and it remains true today: what is simplest and what is essential is often all that is needed. I think of A Steady Rain (in my opinion, a great example of a Station show), which we worked on together. Just two chairs and a table on a raised floor.
SP: That show was such a great experience. And yes, a very ‘Station’ show. Just a simple set and actors doing work. You have described yourself, in the past, as ‘an actor who also directs.’ How does thinking as an actor first inform your work as a director?
Ambler: It helps to know that actors are a bit insane; they are doing very selfish work in a very public way. Because I count myself among them, when I direct, I try to stay out of the way of the actors’ individual processes, and trust they’ll prepare characters who will tell the truth and live openly on stage. I find it helpful to ask a lot of questions, so that the process of creating character is an ongoing conversation through the rehearsal.
The most important thing I can do as a director is respond and react to what I see and hear on stage. This is something the actors can’t do reliably because their vision is necessarily tunneled.
SP: That’s a really good way of putting it. I’ve often wondered why I think differently when I direct as opposed to when I’m acting. ‘Necessarily tunneled’ is perfect.
Ambler: I’m fascinated by directing, and I love to be in the audience of a show where the director’s hand is assured. But I’m happier as an actor; seems to suit me better. Plus, there are fewer voices in the night when I’m acting.
SP: Have there been any particular challenges to this show?
Ambler: A couple. I had some concern about being able to cast it because I couldn’t think of men in our current company who weren’t already booked, who could play the age of the leads. Luckily, they walked in the door at auditions. In fact, in our cast of eight, all five of the men are new to the company, and the three women have lots of Station experience between them.
Another challenge: Karam’s script is not always easy; he includes a lot of overlap and simultaneous dialogue, which he has orchestrated into small moments of chaos. Great fun when it works; not easy to learn.
Also, like many contemporary plays, Sons of the Prophet is scenic; and, though the playwright asks for simplicity, we still have to suggest several distinct locales. This is always a challenge at the Station. We’re fortunate to have an excellent design and production staff who (fingers crossed) will make it all look easy.
Sons of the Prophet, directed by Gary Ambler, opens tonight, Thursday, February 21 with the following cast:
- Joseph – Joel Higgins
- Charles – David Mor
- Bill – Matt Hester
- Gloria – Chris Taber
- Timothy – David Kierski
- Vin – Gregory Stewart
- Physician’s Assistant, Doctor Manor, Board Member – Deb Richardson
- Ticket Agent, Board Member, Mrs. McAndrew – Barbara Evans
The play continues through March 9. All shows are at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and $15 on Fridays and Saturdays. To make a reservation, call (217) 384-4000 or visit the Station’s website.
Photos of Gary Ambler and Station Theatre by Jesse Folks. Sons of the Prophet poster by Barbara Evans.