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Scribe drives urban sprawl

Talbert lures black auds to pics, plays

He’s written 11 plays. His latest production has broken attendance records at venues across the country. He has a popular DVD line of filmed plays that do brisk biz at Target and Wal-Mart.

And yet if you’re a Broadway-centric legiter, you’ve probably never heard of David E. Talbert.

The writer-director is a major name on the African-American theater circuit, an established market that draws big auds to sizeable concert venues but still flies under the radar of mainstream theater coverage.

“The Color Purple” has proved that the Great White Way can attract black theatergoers. But Broadway — with its closed system of union regulations, costly advertising and higher ticket prices — isn’t necessarily the next logical step for shows such as Talbert’s latest offering, “Love in the Nick of Tyme,” about a salon owner torn between an unfaithful old flame and a charming UPS deliveryman.

Like Tyler Perry, the circuit veteran whose hit pic “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” got Hollywood’s attention in 2005, Talbert has built a bankable career on touring theater events that flourish outside the firm business structures of Broadway and the traditional road network.

Popular on Variety

It used to be called the “chitlin’ circuit,” when black entertainers made the rounds of theaters such as Gotham’s Apollo and Detroit’s Fox. The current market, now more often labeled the urban or African-American theater circuit, began its most recent boom in the mid-1980s with the success of Thomas Meloncon’s “The Diary of Black Men” and Shelly Garrett’s “Beauty Shop.”

Talbert — inspired by “Beauty Shop” to write plays that were “more romantic, comedic and, because of my church upbringing, more inspirational” — got his first play, “Tellin’ It Like It ‘Tiz” produced in Berkeley, Calif., in 1990. The promoter of “Beauty Shop” saw the show, picked it up and toured it.

Since then, Talbert has written 10 more plays (including “The Fabric of a Man” and “He Say, She Say, But What Does God Say?”) and two novels. He wrote and produced Jamie Foxx’s 2006 TV special “Unpredictable: A Musical Journey,” and later this year will go into production on a feature, “First Sunday,” starring Ice Cube.

Also in the works is “Blackstage,” a reality show for cable channel TV One in which hopeful thesps compete for roles in a new Talbert production.

Despite his expansion into other media, Talbert’s fan base is rooted in his theater auds — but they aren’t the usual suspects who turn out for Broadway shows.

“My audience is really a first-generation theater audience,” he says. “And the Broadway model isn’t the model that speaks to them.”

He characterizes Rialto tickets as generally too pricey for his demo, the majority of whom are African-American females aged 25-50. While “Purple” seats top out at $115, tickets to “Tyme,” currently in the midst of a five-month, 18-city tour, sell for $35 to $65.

“Tyme” sold around 15,000 tickets over six perfs at the Houston Hobby Center, and sold about that many for six more perfs at Miami’s James L. Knight Center. Both were venue records.

For a Broadway comparison, 15,000 is a bit more than the attendance for a full eight-perf week of capacity crowds at “Wicked.” (When “Tyme” hit Gotham last month, it played eight times at the Beacon, the 2,800-seat Upper West Side theater more often used for concerts.)

Those who believe legit advertising is predicated on print ads in the New York Times may wonder how these shows draw those crowds.

“We promote, we don’t advertise,” Talbert says. “It’s shaking hands and kissing babies.”

Street teams hand out flyers at churches, nightclubs and subway stations, and Talbert, who travels with his productions, talks up his shows on local urban radio stations.

At every performance, he appears onstage at the curtain call to introduce himself and his cast, which helps build his name recognition and his brand.

And then there are those DVDs, which, according to Brett Dismuke, exec director of distributor UrbanWorks Entertainment, cost about $100,000 each to produce and tend to “surpass the six-figure mark” in terms of units sold (at prices of less than $20).

“David’s plays only tour in a max of about 18 markets,” Dismuke says. “We can reach other markets with the DVDs.”

Talbert adds, “The DVDs didn’t kill my sales for the live version. You can almost say the tour is nothing more than a promotion for the afterlife on DVD.”

All of his shows operate outside the strictly regulated Broadway structure, which makes things considerably cheaper on the production side.

Talbert — who rehearses productions for just two weeks before getting them out on the road — puts the usual capitalization of one of his plays at $500,000, a figure that would likely quadruple on Broadway.

And any Rialto regulars attending a perf of a Talbert play might be surprised at the way his audiences react so vocally to the onstage characters and action.

“Our theater is really interactive theater,” Talbert says. “It grows out of our experience with the black church. There’s always two shows going on, the one onstage and the one in the audience.”

Scored like films and punctuated with original R&B tunes, Talbert’s shows tell uplifting, romantic stories of black life set, for instance, in a beauty shop (“Tyme”), in a dressmaker’s boutique (“Fabric”) or on a troubled city block in Detroit (“He Say”).

“As a black audience, we don’t get the kind of range of images that white audiences get,” Talbert says. “We’ve never seen a black man come in with a glass slipper to give to a black woman.”

Talbert believes that most urban theater auds aren’t in the market for the same thing peddled on the Rialto.

“Broadway sells a lot of wonder,” he says. “We sell reality.”

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