Matt Salinger on East 91st Street
Matt Salinger on East 91st Street
You're reading this article because Matt Salinger, the producer of playwright-actress Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree, can't stop himself from promoting his baby--not even after getting the one big break he always believed he needed to make his enterprise a commercial hit.

The big break? Getting Gien onto Rosie O'Donnell's talk show. O'Donnell, of course, is to theater what Oprah Winfrey is to books. The morning after O'Donnell saw The Syringa Tree, a one-woman look-back at a South African childhood, she had Gien on her show as her lead-off guest. Indeed, she had called to book Gien only hours before, at midnight.

It was no easy task getting Rosie's bum onto a Playhouse 91 seat. An O'Donnell representative had come to see the acclaimed piece and went out sobbing joyfully, as so many audience members have done since the show bowed in the fall. Passing Salinger, she said, "This is why I hate my job." When Salinger pressed her to explain the remark, she replied, "Because Rosie won't come."

But Salinger wasn't taking no for an answer. A New York and Hollywood actor before he began producing in 1982, he knew some other people who knew O'Donnell; so did Gien's director and longtime acting coach, Larry Moss. Another of Moss's champions is Helen Hunt, who along with Matthew Broderick filled a slot on Rosie's show and raved about Gien. So Rosie relented, came, and added her name to the long list of weeping attendees--for which Salinger is grateful because, yes, the box office felt the kick. On the other hand, after some very discouraging opening weeks, the B.O. take had already begun to grow significantly.

"When we saw that excellent reviews weren't helping us at first, we thought we'd be justified in closing," Salinger recalls. Yet they didn't, and thereby hangs a fascinating moral and business lesson for would-be and even long-established Off-Broadway producers. "I was naïve," Salinger says about his foray into the Manhattan theater world and whirl. "I thought we would get great reviews and the audiences would come." He got the first part right: Critics praised Gien and her hard-hitting yet poignant tale of growing up in an environment where apartheid took its toll in various ways. Salinger was happy with the notices but, at the same time, realized that comments like "punches you in the gut" were not necessarily helping. ("People don't like being punched," he points out.) He was also well aware that New York theatergoers tend to resist one-person shows and are also reluctant to attend shows about South Africa, figuring they've seen the same ground covered before by, say, Athol Fugard.

So Salinger went back to square one and began handing out fliers on Upper East side streets near the theater. That's right--he handed out fliers himself, with his two young sons by his side. "I had to do that," he declares, "because my budget wouldn't allow otherwise." He got promo material into the local stores, figuring that merchants would chime in. He also invited some groups to see the show--maitre d's, personal trainers. "That's where a lot of talking takes place," he comments.

He also created what he calls "The Syringa E-mail Tree," a direct mailing with a request for forwarding, on the assumption that exponential growth would take place. He rates this part of his campaign as extremely successful, because it reached "maybe not hundreds of thousands, but thousands and thousands." Incidentally, at the time of our interview, he hadn't run any print ads for the show in about two months: "We don't need them right now," he says.

Pamela Gien in The Syringa Tree(Photo: Michael Lamont)
Pamela Gien in The Syringa Tree
(Photo: Michael Lamont)
With all of that elbow grease applied, Salinger began to see results. And it's a good thing: He'd used up 80 percent of his $500,000 capitalization just getting the play to opening night. As the weeks passed and the word-of-mouth and direct mailing he terms "crucial" kicked in, he began to see weekends selling out. Then, after discounting tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday night performances, he saw those nights go clean. Now, he says, if he isn't doing turn-away business at any given performance, he's within 20 seats of SRO in a 291-seat house. And the production is turning a nice profit, since its weekly nut is about $35,000 and it's taking in anywhere from $55,000 to $65,000.

Still, Salinger presses on; for instance, he personally sent an e-mail to this reporter's editor, suggesting that a piece on The Syringa Tree might be in order. Well, more power to the guy, if he's showing people how to put that power to use. Evidently, Salinger's enthusiasm has to do with the lessons he learned from Gien; he describes her piece as "a work of love and passion." It has become a "touchstone" for him, and he sees it as a reminder of "how important it is to have total belief in something.

"I wasn't looking to produce a play," Salinger says of the night in 1996 when he followed an associate's advice and went to see a workshop presentation of Gien's work-in-progress. He was there because he'd read her screenplay version of the same events; he thought he'd score some points for enthusiasm by showing up in person, and thereby tie down the film rights. "I had no idea what I was in for," he reports. "I was totally rocked." He decided to mount a production "that day." Gien was working on the solo piece in Moss' acting class but, from then on, it was the actress, the coach, and the producer developing it in tandem--although Salinger amends that to "romancing it rather than developing it."

With crowds continuing to gather, Salinger expects to keep his hot little entry running in Manhattan through June. He plans to give Gien a break during July before going on to Edinburgh and the festival there in August, then to London in September. He may keep The Syringa Tree running in New York if he can find someone else to do it. "Pam is an extraordinary actress," he says, "and we would need to find another extraordinary actress to replace her."

An independent film producer with nine releases already notched on his belt, Salinger definitely intends to film Gien's screenplay of The Syringa Tree, as well as another screenplay of hers called The Lily Field.. Right now, he's putting the finishing touches on a Diane Keaton movie, Plan B. What he won't be doing are any celluloid adaptations of his father's short stories; for those who don't know, his dad is J. D. Salinger. "He doesn't want it, and so I don't ask," the younger Salinger states succinctly on this subject. Considering his parentage, it's not surprising that he describes himself as "extremely quiet, reticent." But, obviously, that description is not fully accurate.