Putting a theatrical production together is like trying to cook a twenty-course meal — with every dish timed to come out of the oven at the same moment.
On opening night, theater audiences witness the culmination of a process that began months before, that combined the skills of numerous, often unacknowledged participants, and that — in the case of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s current production of The Elephant Man — is the result of more than 3000 hours of collective effort.
They are hours of both magic and mundanity, filled with decisions and choices, questions and answers. The San Diego Repertory Theatre began selecting this year’s season of shows in July of 1980. Artistic directors Sam Woodhouse and Doug Jacobs decided that, as a fitting conclusion to the season, the Rep would stage The Elephant Man, the award-winning drama by Bernard Pomerance.
The play was still running on Broadway at the time, however, and this presented serious problems. At present the Rep is a “Class C’* theater, that is, it is not a member of Artist’s Equity Association, the union of actors and stage managers. And Equity, as it’s known, acknowledges only two types of theaters: “Class A” (full union houses) and “Class B“ (theaters that combine union and nonunion performers). Thus when Roberta Bentz, general manager of the Rep, wrote to McCann and Nugent, producers of the show on Broadway, for the rights to the play, she received a curt reply. In effect it read: you’re not Class A. Thank you for your interest, but no.
Bentz wrote back. She argued that the Rep, though nonunion, is in the process of setting up a letter of agreement with Equity. It intends, in 1982, to become reclassified as a “Class B“ theater and plans to combine union and nonunion performers. Bentz included a sheaf of local reviews and letters of recommendation from institutions such as the California Theatre Council, which praised the successes of the theater.
The next reply was curious, and a bit staggering. McCann said the Rep could have the rights if they would pay either $150 per performance or twenty percent of the gross ticket sales for the entire run of the show.
The price, to say the least, was off the graph. Bentz wrote back again. She calculated the number of seats in the theater, the prices charged for a seat, and submitted an estimated maximum attendance of twenty shows. Her figures showed that the McCann proposal was too high. McCann wrote back and lowered its numbers to $125 per night against fifteen percent of the gross. Still too much.
In the meantime, Nora Jane Slattery had a problem. Slattery, director of public relations for the theater, was busy on this season’s ticket-subscription campaign, which claimed that the final play of the season might be The Elephant Man — a current hit and, she admits candidly, a boost for season subscribers since it was the only widely recognized drama offered by the Rep. “Every two weeks for almost six months,’’ says Slattery, “I would ask if I should keep or drop the show from the brochure I was preparing for the upcoming season’’ (it was listed then as a “possible” production). Throughout this period, McCann was still replying with figures that made the show financially impossible to stage. “A lot of people subscribed to our season because we were going to do The Elephant Man," recalls Slattery, “and for a while there, we had a PR crisis on our hands.’’
In late November, Bentz wrote to Arden Heide, an agent for the Samuel French Agency, a veritable monopoly for theatrical rights and royalties in this country. This approach was, in effect, an end-run, since negotiations with McCann had stalled. “Heide said he would help us, and he did. He was able to get us the rights for either one hundred dollars a night or ten percent of the gross ticket sales,” Bentz says. Which was welcome news. Only there was a catch. Heide warned Bentz that if the agreement were enacted, the Samuel French Agency would never again grant the Rep “amateur rights” (roughly twenty-five dollars a night for plays within the public domain). Thus, securing the rights for The Elephant Man had lasting implications for the theater. It meant the Rep would become a “preferred client” with the agency. It meant, however, that the costs for all future rights would go up as a result.
This was last December. Sam Woodhouse, Doug Jacobs, and Roberta Bentz met many times that month, weighing the long-term effects of the proposed change, not only with Samuel French but also with Artist’s Equity. It was something they had discussed often in the previous year. The possible arrangements with the French Agency, and the new relationship that would be established, gave an urgency to the decision. In late December, they decided to make the move.
But there was another catch. The McCann company approved the contract but added what is called a “Broadway rider.’’ If the show were still playing on Broadway when the Rep produced it, Jack Hofsiss, the original director, would have two options: he could come to San Diego and direct the Rep’s production for a minimum fee of $1000 plus expenses, or he could choose not to, in which case he would receive one hundred dollars in royalties for every week the show ran.
By February the Rep still had not signed the contracts, and The Elephant Man was still playing to full houses on Broadway. Bentz got on the phone again. She called several contacts in New York to get their sense of how long the play would run. The replies were encouraging. She also called the Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for theaters in this country. They said, confidentially, that the show would not last the summer. In early March, confident that a “Broadway rider’’ would not come with the package, the Rep signed the contract with French and sent them a guarantee check of $2400 for twenty-four shows. The Elephant Man closed on Broadway in July.