Drama Dept. spins 'Cartells' saga

NEW YORK — Even Drama Dept. brass admit their latest fund-raiser is a gamble. After all, a four-part soap satire is not exactly high-toned dramatic fare.

But the Off Broadway company is soldiering on with “The Cartells” anyway. Written by Drama Dept. artistic director Douglas Carter Beane, whose play “The Little Dog Laughed” bows on Broadway Nov. 16, the show is a serialized comedy, premiering a new episode on four Mondays through Nov. 6.

It’s the type of project usually reserved for small Off Broadway troupes. But Beane and company are raising the profile on their low-polish outing, adding Broadway-pedigree stars — including Joanna Gleason, Peter Frechette, Brian D’Arcy James and Elizabeth Berkley — a plush location and a $35 ticket.

Why draw so much attention to a series of plays written on the fly, staged with little rehearsal and requiring cue cards to help actors remember their lines? For one thing, Drama Dept. exec director Michael S. Rosenberg is hoping auds will be open to the show’s campy, low-rent spirit. Filled with hammy acting and bad puns, the shows follow the “Dynasty”/”Dallas”-style intrigues of a sleazy Texas family. Characters have names like Craven Cartell, Dank Sellars and Karma Smugg Cartell, not to mention a majordomo named Hubris, and they all seem primed for tawdry affairs and tacky outfits.

But even though “Cartells” episodes run about 45 minutes — just like network dramas, minus the commercial breaks — they’re not actually on TV. And serial plays are notoriously challenging. They require the creation of a new play every week, which means scheduling nightmares, sleep deprivation and intense deadlines. As part one of “The Cartells” premiered Oct. 16, for instance, Beane had not finished writing part three and hadn’t even started part four.

Plus, there are audiences to woo. It’s hard enough getting people to see one piece of theater, let alone a multipart arc. That type of commitment could scare away ticket buyers reluctant to sacrifice a month of Mondays.

Rosenberg cops to the challenges. “It’s an experiment,” he concedes. “We’re interested to see what kind of theatrical appetite there is for this type of work.”

Stakes are lowered since “The Cartells” is a benefit for Drama Dept. A special arrangement with various unions lets all creatives work for free, and comedy nightclub Comix, a new venue in the hip Meatpacking District, has donated its swanky performance space. This keeps each installment’s budget below $3,000, most of which is spent on marketing.

If the show works, it could generate as much as $41,000 in profit for Drama Dept., a sizable chunk of the company’s $250,000 annual budget. It also allows sponsors and subscribers to bring friends to a one-time event, many of them new additions to the list of potential donors.

“These new friends get a great first impression of Drama Dept. and I spend the next week after the event encouraging them to become supporters,” explains Rosenberg. “These meetings typically result in another $30,000-$40,000 in donations.”

As for attracting auds, Rosenberg says performing in a nightclub (cocktails and dinner are served before the show starts) is crucial. He explains, “We’re going after the traditional theater audience, and also the comedy audience. With comedy clubs, there is this tradition of performing on a regular basis. Audiences for standup and groups like Upright Citizens Brigade go back week after week.”

Each “Cartells” seg also begins with exposition to help patrons who may have missed previous segments.

The first-night aud seemed game. However, many in the full house were Drama Dept. supporters and actors’ friends, along with scattered press. It will be later installments that prove the show’s drawing power, as those who took a first nibble decide whether to come back for seconds. Rosenberg remains optimistic, reporting several groups have bought tickets for the entire run.

It’s that repeat-customer situation that has bolstered episodic drama “Hospital,” whose eighth incarnation runs at Gotham’s Axis Theater through Nov. 11. Begun in 1999 in a cramped downtown venue with almost no press, the show now sells out its annual seven-week run in the group’s 99-seat house.

Axis a.d. Randy Sharp says “Hospital” has become the defining force of her company. Every year, the show tracks the inner life of a different man in a coma — this year, he accidentally shot himself –using surreal images, comedy and a short film that gives background on the character’s hospitalization and recaps previous events. By now, eight years of momentum have created a rabid fan base.

“There are ‘Hospital’ freaks, people who feel like they’re a part of it,” Sharp laughs.

At $10 a ticket, the play’s 30-minute segs will never make the company wealthy, and it always requires an enormous amount of effort. “But ‘Hospital’ is kind of our identity,” Sharp says. “I don’t see it ever stopping.”

Will there be a similar future for “The Cartells”? Rosenberg admits he’s hopeful, and he even muses, however fancifully, that this stage soap opera could someday become a television series.

But with two more plays to write, rehearse and stage in the next two weeks, “The Cartells” team has its work cut out for it just getting through phase one.

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