See Theater Beyond the Fringe...at Home!
Gary Cole of StageDirect bravely traffics in videos of obscure plays.
How well I remember what Ben Bagley wrote in the liner notes of one of his "Revisited" albums of yesteryear: that "9,000 of you buy my albums within the first month of their release." Years later, when I met Bagley, I asked him about this--and he admitted that it was just one more fabrication that he put in his notes. "About 2,000 people buy them," he confessed dolefully.
Those were the good ol' days. A buddy of mine who made a CD of a heretofore unrecorded '60s musical got together most of the original cast and wound up selling fewer than 700 copies. Bagley and my buddy were at least putting out titles by well-known composers and lyricists, but Gary Cole, president and founder of StageDirect, is really going out on a limb: He believes there are enough theater enthusiasts out there who will plunk down $19.95 for a videotaped version of a play that they probably never heard of.
Or am I not giving you enough credit? Maybe you are a big fan of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious or Mass Murder. Maybe you bought a ticket to The Haint and then, after seeing it, went back two or three times. Perhaps you've said to a pal, "Yes, The Goat was very good; but if only Poona the Fuckdog and Other Plays for Children had opened on Broadway this year, it would have wiped the floor with The Goat--even more than Mercedes Ruehl wiped the floor with the goat."
None of these titles have appeared on Broadway or even in what we call major regional theaters. Poona played Theatre Vertigo in Portland, Oregon. Jokes was mounted by a group called The Neo-Futurists in Chicago. Three Seattle theaters were home to the others: The Haint was at the Union Garage, Mass Murder at the Northwest Actor's Studio, and another StageDirect tape, The Magnificent Welles, originated under the title Lost Eden...An Evening with Orson Welles at the Odd Duck Theatre.
But the real odd duck has to be Gary Cole. He staunchly told me that his mission is to capture outstanding fringe, Off-Off Broadway-like theater on digital video for sale on tape and, soon, DVD. Quite a career change for a guy who set out to be an attorney when he attended Williams College in Massachusetts. But his rabid appreciation for George Bernard Shaw got him to try out for a school production of Major Barbara, in which he was cast as Peter Shirley. Similarly, when Cole went to Stanford Law School, he took time out to appear as Polonius--not in Hamlet, but in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. "It was fitting," he says, "because I'm always dispensing advice and not sure it's always good."
After he graduated, Cole wound up working with the CIA (and I don't mean the Culinary Institute of America), but he again managed to infiltrate various semi-pro and community theaters as an actor. After he left the agency, he went into private practice--and playwriting and producing. The last two activities centered on a play called Body Hold, in which a British expatriate in an unnamed third-world country copes with a revolution while his daughter feels quite at home with the rebels.
Thus was born CoHo Production, named for both Cole and his partner, Robert Holden. Their nomadic troupe went from storefront to art gallery to church, where they often enjoyed full houses--though 99 ticket buyers were enough to raise the SRO sign. Still, Cole felt frustrated that more people weren't seeing exciting, experimental fare, so he started StageDirect in an effort to preserve these off-the-wall, hole-in-the-wall productions. "I have a lot of friends who'd like to go to the theater," he says, "but they have kids, so that's the end of their going out and seeing something."
My reaction to Poona and Jokes? I think you hadda be there in the theater to appreciate them. The Magnificent Welles, The Haint, and Mass Murders work better because each asks the camera to focus in on one actor; thus, we get intense close-ups that display what even a theatergoer in Row AAA couldn't hope to see.
Marcus Wolland both wrote and plays The Magnificent Welles--but not the wunderkind who scared a radio nation with The War of the Worlds or dazzled Hollywood with Citizen Kane. Now it's a few years later and he's hardly the cocksure, much-proclaimed genius. He's just finished his masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, and has learned that it will be edited--nay, amputated--by inferior studio heads and film editors. Wolland has a yes-he-does, no-he-doesn't resemblance to the master, but what he does have is the power, energy, and determination that we all saw in Welles' dynamic performance in Kane.
The Haint has an actor named Troy Mink portraying 13 residents of Midway, Tennessee--which is only 1,589 shy of the town's total population. Needless to say, this Midway is far less a tourist attraction than the one where the Battle of Midway was fought. But then a local woman shot her lover and then herself, and, according to many town residents, she returned as a ghost. True? False? Louann Wooten has her opinions and Mayor Corbin Husker has his, and so do the other 11 townsfolk that Mink enacts. (Suffice to say that many Midway residents are as anxious to keep this all-of-a-sudden tourist attraction alive and well as Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper, Chief of Police Magruder, and Comptroller Schub want their water-spouting rock to continue flowing in Anyone Can Whistle.) Mink co-wrote the play with Tom Fitzmacken and Jeff Pozarski in a very unusual way; the latter two "interviewed" Mink as he portrayed each of the characters and then mixed-and-matched their material into a nifty "documentary." It's quite a show.
Mass Murder has five characters, but we only meet them one at a time--serially, if you will. That's a fitting image for, after a few minutes of watching an actor tell us what he's been up to, we realize he's playing serial killer Ted Bundy, that charming guy who just happened to have a hobby of killing women. Following him is Genene Jones, a nurse for newborns, though 47 of them did not survive her care. Then there's Andrei Chikatilo, who suffered from impotence (so instead of making love, he made 56 die), and Aileen Wuornos--better known as "America's First Female Serial Killer." She could fit into "Cell-Block Tango" tomorrow, for she claims that she killed all seven of her victims in self-defense. The tape's 11 o'clock number is Richard Ramirez, who wasn't at all sorry for his sins--and hearing him say just that in a no-apologies voice is pretty harrowing.
By the way, Mass Murder was written by Jeff Meyers, who functions as StageDirect's artistic director. Each week, he searches through more than three dozen alternative weeklies from around the country--the Village Voice, the Boston Phoenix, and points beyond--in hopes of finding some little company with a big project. If he and Cole are sufficiently intrigued, they'll come see it. If they like it enough, they'll do it. StageDirect pays both the actors and the participating theaters a flat fee but gives the playwright an advance against future royalties. The StageDirect people come in with multiple cameras and they do a first-class job.
Both Cole and Meyers are working hard to get the product out there. While they admit no success whatever with Blockbuster, they have been accepted by Facets, that adventurous video company out of Chicago. Don't be surprised if you get the chance to see one of these tapes the next time you're in a hotel room, because StageDirect has made a few inroads there, too.
Better still, Poona will soon play a New York film festival, and The Haint will visit one in Georgia. "And," says Cole, "Straight, our next release, was just accepted into the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. It's a one-man show by Seattle writer David Schmader about his going undercover into The Exodus Movement, which is intent on 'converting' gay people into straight ones."
So, all you little theaters out there, get to know Meyers and Cole--before they find out what my buddy and Ben Bagley did.