August 1, 2009

Stage vs Screen: Time to Swap Bodies?

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director, Atomic Tango LLC

freaky_fridayHollywood is experiencing a “Freaky Friday”: in the 1976 movie, a mother and daughter magically swap bodies. After a series of icky moments milked for laughs, they predictably come to understand each other. Now, unpredictably, the entire movie industry is experiencing a similar switcheroo…

A-list celebrities are failing to lure fans, while top movies are starring relative unknowns. Writes the L.A. Times:

The stars are not twinkling bright this summer. Hollywood’s movie studios, hopeful that marquee-name actors would push their summer box-office receipts to record levels, are finding that the heavyweights aren’t winning over audiences like they used to. With all but a couple of big-budget films already opened, the summer of 2009 is shaping up to be one of the worst on record for Hollywood’s A-list talent… The brightest stars of the lucrative popcorn season — which typically accounts for about 40% of annual ticket sales — instead have turned out to be mostly movies with no-name actors — or no actors at all on screen.

Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and Denzel Washington all bombed at the box office this summer. The biggest hits included the far less star-studded films “The Hangover,” “Up,” “Star Trek,” “Harry Potter” and “Transformers 2.” (OK, I’ll give credit to Megan Fox for drawing some fans to watch giant toys fight.)

Scene from Ionesco's "The Chairs," starring Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts, at City Garage Theatre.

Scene from Ionesco's "The Chairs," starring Cynthia Mance and Bo Roberts, at City Garage Theatre.

Then there’s the L.A. live theatre scene, the poor stepchild of the movies.

Most theatre actors here don’t get paid, and the budget for marketing an entire play is less than what one movie spends on a single day’s makeup. I know because I serve on the board of directors for City Garage, a small playhouse known for staging risky, experimental productions by such playwrights as Ionesco, Muller and Mee. The theatre contains 48 seats, and on a good night, we manage to fill half of them. Meanwhile, just a few steps away, Santa Monica’s thriving Third Street Promenade spills over with shoppers and moviegoers who wouldn’t attend a play if you paid them…

Unless there’s a celebrity involved.

French Stewart and Laurie Metcalf in "Voice Lessons"

French Stewart and Laurie Metcalf in "Voice Lessons"

Here in L.A., you can catch TV and film stars in theatres across town, even small houses. For example, I recently saw French Stewart (“3rd Rock from the Sun”) and Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”) in “Voice Lessons” at the small Zephyr Theatre. The show repeatedly sold out and was even extended, and the L.A. Times reviewer went gaga over it. I enjoyed it — the actors were hilarious — but the one-hour play felt like a live sitcom: funny but not provocative, and with very little blocking or stagecraft.

Annete Bening goes Greek

Annete Bening goes Greek

Elsewhere, you can find Chris Noth (“Sex and the City”) at the Geffen Playhouse, Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles in David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and later this year, Annette Bening as Medea at UCLA. You know Medea — the Greek woman who kills her child after her husband leaves her for a younger woman? Great date night show. But I suspect Bening will draw even young people to this Greek tragedy. Audiences want to see celebrities in person, and theatre gives them an opportunity to see stars performing live, often up close in intimate spaces.

And don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining about any of this. I also like to watch celebrities perform live. In fact, I’d like to make a proposal that would make financial sense for all involved:

Let the celebrities have all the stage roles, and give the movie parts to the unknown theatre actors.

Now, a movie might still need a celebrity to attract financing — these days, investors appear to care more about a movie’s cast than audiences do — but let the rest of the parts go to the theatre crowd. Why pay Shia LaBeouf $5 million to appear in “Transformers” when you can get a starving young theatre artist to fight robots for SAG minimum rate? Audiences wouldn’t care. Really. And should those former theatre actors become egomaniacal and expensive, send ’em back to the stage so they can “work on their craft.”

Now that’s a switcheroo I’d love to see. And by the way, Shia and Megan, when you’re done with robots and ready to hit the stage, I know this great little theatre in Santa Monica…

"This is way too hard! Can we do a play now?"

"This is way too hard! Can we do a play now?"

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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