At this performance, the role of Ken will be played by . . .

Thanks to the flu and the lack of a power converter at the Belgium International Airport, I missed a couple of blog posts recently.

After those missed “performances”, I starting thinking about one of the huge problems we face in the live theater: absenteeism and the dreaded white slip of paper found in most Playbills known affectionately as The Stuffer.

I’m not here to debate whether or not today’s performers have the work ethic of the Ethel Mermans of the past.

I’m here to talk about what we can do about it, because it’s here, and it’s the equivalent of a branding and an expense termite, eating away at us slowly from the inside, without us even realizing it.

How many of you have seen a show recently and had one of those stuffers fall out of your playbill?  How did you feel about plunking down your $100+ then?  The value dropped tremendously, didn’t it?

Now, here’s the problem . . . when was the last time you went to see a movie, and the star called out?  Can you imagine going to see There Will Be Blood and hearing an announcement saying that the role usually played by Daniel Day Lewis was now going to be played by James O’Connor in his film debut?

Or what about going to see Bon Jovi at the Meadowlands, and hearing that Johnny Bonny was being replaced by Joey Veneziano from Hoboken.

Going to the theater has become even riskier than ever because of absenteeism.  Not only could you not like the show, but odds are that you’re not even going to see the primary cast!

So what can we do to limit this problem?

Let’s look at the rulebook and the requirements for replacements:

If a Broadway performer playing an identifiable role (either a principal or a featured ensemble role, as defined by Actors’ Equity) misses a performance, the Producers are required to notify the audience in 2 out of 3 ways:

  1. A sign in the lobby
  2. An announcement right before the curtain goes up.
  3. The aforementioned S-word.

#1 is a no brainer.  Very simple.  Gets the word out. Not too expensive.

#2 is a problem.  Breaks the mood and disappoints an audience right before the show, kind of like getting to a theme park and being told the big roller coaster is broken right when you get in the gate.  Have fun, kids!  (Oh, and there’s also this annoying Local 802 (musicians) rule that arbitrarily states that anytime you do an live announcement, whether it’s about a cast change, or about cell phones, you are required to announce who is conducting the orchestra.  Huh?  Come on, guys.  Really?  Ego check anyone?  I call this rule the Magnificent Maestro Rule, and it’s just plain annoying.  They’ve already got their own sign in the lobby.)

Then there’s #3, which you’re all very familiar with.

To accomplish the 2 out of 3 required by the rulebook, Producers normally opt for the sign and the stuffer, because they are the least intrusive from a branding point of view, although still damaging.

Here’s the huge problem for Producers with stuffers:  they aren’t free.

Thousands of dollars a week can be spent making those slips of paper and paying the required usher fees to stuff them.  Thousand of dollars that usually aren’t budgeted for specifically.  Hear the termites in the walls?

But forget about the money.  The worst part about the stuffers that affects everyone, no matter what side of the footlights you are on?

They eat away at the environment.

Lets say an average of 1 stuffer a night for the 40,000 plus seats on Broadway.  8 stuffers on 1 page.  That’s 5000 sheets of paper a night or 2,080,000 a year.  2 million plus.  Holy trees, Batman.

So what’s the compromise?

Actors’ Equity isn’t going to give up the stuffers without getting something back, even though they should, considering the impact on the environment.  They’ll just say “announce” (but we know that’s a bigger branding problem).

My idea?  Producers, you’re paying out ridiculous amounts of cash in stuffer after stuffer, not to mention the hours it takes to order and manage those stuffers.  Stop putting your money in paper.  Put it in people.

Raise the salary increment required for understudies in exchange for a reduction of the requirement to 1 out of 3 instead of 2 out of 3.  I bet that an ensemble member would rather have a few extra dollars every week than a stuffer for when they go on for a bit part anyway (the program does list that they understudy the role, so it’s not like they aren’t represented).

Actors make more money.  Producers save money.

We all save trees.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.

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