Monday, August 2, 2010

Theatre Droppings: It Sucks To Be A Puppet

Avenue Q has come through town a couple of times since its Broadway premiere, but I have always missed it for one reason or another. Well, I know at least one reason I have managed to miss the show: its major characters are puppets. I am not neurotic enough to be afraid of those handheld bits of felt and bug eyes, but I have written before about they make me. But everyone agrees that Avenue Q is one of the best musicals of the last decade, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that the current national tour would be sitting down in DC for a month.

I had an absolute ball at the show, though my discounted ticket placed me in a corner where a bit of the action was obscured. But the cast did a bang-up job, with the two leading players really standing out. Jacqueline Grabois was our leading lady, handling her puppetry duties very well while belting out number after number. Her costar was actually an understudy, Zach Trimmer, and he was wonderful as well. Everybody did a great job, and I could not have asked for a stronger cast. In fact, the cast was so good, that I spent more time watching the puppeteers than the puppets themselves, as the actors were displaying every emotion ascribed to their dummies. With the possible exception of the puppet sex number (that just ain't right), Avenue Q can stand on its own without those pesky hand towels with arms.

But I do have a problem with this particular production, which has nothing to do with the talents of its company.

I was disconcerted to discover that the tour's tickets would be top-dollar: $96 for a Saturday night seat. Avenue Q is playing at the Landsburg Theatre, one of the homes of The Shakespeare Theatre Company, and because I am on their email list, they offered a bit of a discount for certain performances, so I gulped, and bought my ticket for yesterday's matinee for $66, which I guessed was a bargain. Except that it wasn't.

This particular touring production of Avenue Q is completely non-union, a fact of which I was unaware when I bought my ticket. There is nothing wrong with non-union shows, though as an Equity actor myself, I hate to see jobs taken away from union members, but this is not my point. I have no problem with non-union work per se; you can't live in DC very long without recognizing that there are many, many terrific non-union actors here, just as there are many, many lousy union ones. My problem here is this:

See how this production is being called "The Broadway Musical"? Well, in the strictest sense, it is, as the show spent many years on Broadway. But the inference in the above poster is that this particular touring production of Avenue Q is a duplicate of the original production. And it isn't. None of the actors, talented as they are, have stepped foot on a Broadway stage. They are at the beginning of their careers, and bless 'em, they are getting great experience touring the country in this show. But they are not receiving any of the protections which union membership offers, no health insurance nor retirement benefits for their stellar work. Hey, that's OK too, they get to decide whether or not that is important to them individually.

But I feel bad for the audience, who was being cheated without really knowing it. I am certain that the full house at the Landsburg Theatre yesterday had no idea that the actors they were watching were not being paid on a similar scale as, say, the actors appearing across town at the Kennedy Center, where the First National Tour of Mary Poppins is spending the summer. Those actors in Poppins are members of Actors Equity Association, and are receiving all the benefits due them. Here's the real kicker, and the point of this diatribe: the top price at the non-union Avenue Q is MORE EXPENSIVE than the top price at the Kennedy Center's Mary Poppins. Where do you think all that profit is going? Over on Avenue Q, it isn't going to the actors.

I'll reiterate that I have no problem with non-union actors gaining experience in non-union shows. But audiences in DC, and across the country, are being hoodwinked by producers who are charging the same price (or in this case, more) to see very differently produced productions, using very differently experienced actors receiving very different compensation.

I'm not naive enough to expect producers to announce that their tour of a Broadway production stars an ensemble which has never been on Broadway, but here's what I DON'T expect: I don't expect to pay the same admission price (or more) to see a non-union bus-and-truck tour as I pay to see an actual recreation of the Broadway experience.