How To Organize a Late-Night Play Competition: Interview With the #serials@TheFlea Co-Producers

04/08/2011 8:57 AM |

Stock photo models are divided over the last round of #serials@TheFlea.
  • Stock photo models are divided over the last round of #serials@TheFlea.

#serials@TheFlea, the Flea Theater‘s hugely successful serialized short play competition, has over the course of this past cycle given audiences very popular genre parodies, experimental works of abstract and post-modern comedy, takes on politics and corporate culture, and the surprise downfall of a five-year-old playwriting titan. The L has been covering the cycle, and upon its completion we look back with Stephen Stout and Dominic Spillane, the program’s two co-producers, to discuss the show’s evolution, unique challenges, and what we can expect from its third cycle, which could return in an expanded form in June.

The L: Where did the idea for #serials originate?
SS: We had a giant Bat (the Flea’s resident company) meeting at the beginning of the year and artistic director Jim Simpson encouraged us to pitch him ideas or plays for the theatre. Without a beat, Dom just raised his hand and said he wanted to do something late night. 
DS: I had lived in Los Angeles for 4 years before coming to New York, and had seen some late night serialized shows before. These were some of the most fun shows I’ve ever seen. The content wasn’t always strong, but the “event” was always incredible. When I got to New York I was disappointed there was nothing like that going on.
SS: A couple weeks later he pitched this idea to me, and I figured I should do it because it would either be a lot of fun or a huge flaming train wreck that would leave us shattered and broken. And immediately I had a panic attack because we suddenly had 45 actors, five directors and around 20 playwrights at our disposal and we had to do something with them that was entertaining and worth staying up for.

The L: How has the program changed since its inception?
SS: The structure is pretty much the same, though there have been some tiny [changes]. Originally we were thinking of only voting one show off, but part of the fun is the amount of turnaround week to week. Two ENTIRELY new plays, with entirely different tonalities. I think it’s what helps people decide to come back each weekend, and it means we have more emotionally vulnerable actors with an axe to grind. I like when the competitive streak comes out in the groups, like when we were all gunning to take down The Escape by any means necessary.
DS: Most serialized shows are entirely writer-based. This is to say that a writer would submit a play, the producers choose the plays they want and the actors and directors come last. Usually the actors and directors are part of a creative team associated with the writer. This would have been impossible to accomplish with the Flea’s set ensemble, especially since when this show started none of the actors in this company knew each other at all, or the directors, and certainly none of the writers. We reversed the concept. We divided the actors into five separate ensembles. Those ensembles were in charge of coming up with the stories they wanted to tell. At which point they were allowed to script it themselves or ask Steve and I to find them a writer outside the company to write a script for the story they came up with.
The obstacles turned out to be fairly obvious: Actors are better at acting, and writers are better at writing.

More specifically: the ensembles had a hard time coming up with their back up story ideas in case they were voted off because it was difficult to get all of the ensemble members to agree on an idea—storytelling by democracy isn’t easy. Once the production began, the actors and directors were all racing so hard and so fast to get their show for that weekend ready, there was no time for discussion of other ideas. We solved this in cycle two by asking the writers we had on board for story pitches. We compiled these in a document that we gave to all the ensembles, and each ensemble could make one of four choices: self script, give Steve and I an idea and we’d find a writer, pick an idea a writer had submitted, or ask for a writer and they would perform whatever the writer wanted. This worked beautifully. The ensemble’s were still “in charge” of their groups choices, but not responsible for generating content necessarily.

The L: Did you have any models for the program?
DS: Jim Simpson has mentioned that serialized theater was a big deal in the 80s, but that there was no audience voting. That seems to be fairly new concept—and is likely derived from reality shows?—but something I’ve seen at other serialized shows before.
SS: I quickly became obsessed with late-night TV show formats to help inform how the show would come together. It’s weird but I like how the format allows them to keep churning out material on a weekly/nightly basis even if they’ve clearly run low on ideas. Also, that each piece being perfect isn’t as important as each piece being different.

The L: Define a “serial” for us.
SS: Similar to a weekly TV show. I think a serial needs to introduce something that piques our curiosity in the most basic sense and then something twists at the end and hopefully people vote for it. I really like when something is left open ended or can only be appreciated having seen previous “episodes.” Or it can just be funny and fast and enjoyable and completely nonsensical. That actually seems to be the best way of getting voted back.
DS: So as long as a later episode has the same title, I’m ok with it, but obviously the basic understanding is that the story isn’t finished when the lights go out. And that the following story will exist in the same “world” as the first. Besides this, I’m not sure if I know exactly what a serialized show “is”: the interpretations are endless. Fundamentally, because the majority of your audience is new and doesn’t necessarily know or care about the story that’s been told thus far, the story has to include certain elements or story threads from before but also exist completely on its own.

The L: How do the audiences change from week to week and performance to performance? (Shows are Friday night at midnight, Saturday night at 11pm and 1am)
DS: Each performance has its own energy, but not just because of the audience, mostly because we’re dealing with such different things each night. Friday’s performance is sometimes the only time a play has had an entire run through with all its cast, and everyone’s still learning their lines downstairs.
SS: Friday at midnight the votes tend to go to the groups with the most polish or most commitment. If you’re doing a more thoughtful or difficult play you’ll tend to get the majority of your votes on Saturday at 11 pm. 1am is chaos.

The L: Let’s talk about some of the playwrights featured. Why those? Any you’d like to have in the third cycle?
SS: We both know a lot of playwrights just through being around the orbit of The Flea, Ars Nova, Naked Angels, Williamstown, The Old Vic, etc. We just sent out masses of emails asking if people were interested and actually got a pretty amazing response. At this point we’re pretty shameless about just asking any playwright we meet to send us ideas. We need ‘em.
DS: Ultimately it’s not that difficult to find good writers for this show, because we are probably the only show that guarantees to stage whatever you’ve written. Most writers are used to months of readings and workshops, and notes, and all kinds of business before they actually get to see their work performed before an audience. This is the only place where we can promise that we will stage and produce whatever craziness you might have in mind.

The L: Are there any shows you were disappointed to see voted off? Any that surprised you with their longevity?
DS: Sea God, in The Escape (in fact all of The Escape) was the most fun I have ever had on stage. So I was sad to see that go. O’Hare by Alena Smith was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.
SS: My shortlist: Sexy Jay Jay by Charlotte Miller, about a girl in Texas profanely struggling with faith; Oliver Eats Cake by Christopher Oscar Peña, a bisexual, darkly comic soap opera about one young man’s decision to start being kinda evil; Bea Arthur and the Knight’s of the Round Table, Joe Tracz’s supremely silly play combining live action role playing and the Golden Girls. As for surprises, I absolutely did not understand The Connectors at first but now I love that they’ve created this world where they can do anything.

The L: Are there any genres or styles you’d like to see staged as part of #serials?
SS: We’ve got two full on musicals ready to go if a group picks them—they are awesome and they are weird and need to be seen right now. I’d love something gritty and violent and legitimately frightening like Derek Ahonen‘s or Adam Rapp‘s plays.
DS: I’d love to see people pervert the #serials more. I’d love to see someone get voted off and still do the next episode anyway, “honoring” the #serials by making it look like they’re following the rules while breaking them. I’d also like to see what else stands for entertainment; right now we’re pretty locked into comedy.

The L: The success of the comedies suggests the companies are choosing stories for the sake of the voting. Is there a creative or artistic downside to adding a competitive element?
DS: Yes. But I think it mirrors mainstream media in this way. When someone has a successful show or movie, everyone tries to copy the success of that story, without necessarily investigating what made it unique and amazing. I anticipate that we won’t see anything truly different at the #serials until someone gets a ton of votes for it. If someone gets a ton of votes for something suspenseful and scary, then more groups will be willing to try that.
SS: I actually really like the competitive element. It’s brutal and unexpected and stings every time. It stresses that our primary job is to entertain or engage the audience with whatever our story is and hope for the best.

The L: Given the popularity of comic shows, do you feel that nuance or subtlety are qualities that could work under such conditions as limited time and drunk crowds?
SS: I think anything can be done if it’s pulled off with enough conviction and polish. If a group really pulls together and kicks ass at a certain performance that is always reflected in the amount of votes they get. That said, I think nuance and subtlety are difficult to achieve on a hugely abbreviated schedule because they rely on control and precision. 
DS: I think the biggest obstacle to this kind of work is actually the rehearsal time frame that we have, as opposed to audience reaction. In our creative time frame, there isn’t always enough room to get all the actors, the writer, and the director, all together for enough time to create this unity of vision. Each creative element is sort of taking their best stab at it, and hoping everyone agrees.

The L: What kind of changes can we expect for the third cycle?
DS: Nothing major in terms of the basic architecture, though we’d both like to find ways of making the #serials even more unpredictable, in terms of performances in the street or lobby or stairwell, etc. The more we can use this show as a theatrical experiment, of all kinds, the better.
SS: There’s some exciting other developments that we can’t tease just yet, but other than that, 3am performances! Celebrity cameos! Not really (unless you happen to be a celebrity interested in making a cameo, in which case please e-mail [email protected]). I think we’re just aiming for bigger playwrights, bigger bands, and potentially challenges like inviting an outside company to do a serial one week or doing a theme week around a certain holiday. This whole process has been a huge experiment and we’re excited to see where it all leads.

The third cycle of #serials@TheFlea is tentatively scheduled for June.