LESSON #1: DO WHAT YOU LOVE
I have always been happy with my career as a lighting designer. I have a great network of theatres I work with up and down the I-5 corridor, and have a fantastic home base as a Professor at UC Santa Cruz. As a West Coast designer, I had taken my sights off Broadway a long time ago. Sure, every once in a while, a show would come along, and the producer would swear up and down that the show had legs, and we would be on Broadway in just a few months. But I learned not to get my hopes up and just concentrate on doing a good job with that current production.
It wasn't a huge surprise then, a few years ago when the La Jolla Playhouse called and asked me to design a benefit evening with Billy Crystal that Des McAnuff was directing. They were hoping to keep costs down and were looking to use a local design team, but the payoff was that Des and Billy were hoping the show would move on, and we would be given the opportunity to prove ourselves. I just smiled and signed on the dotted line. I was happy to have the gig, worked my butt off, and thought nothing more of it.
Early this year, the phone rang again; it was the Playhouse, they hadn't forgotten about me even though I had moved out of the area. They wanted to bring back the Billy Crystal show, now titled 700 Sundays. They were still trying to keep costs down, but the “It may have a future!” carrot was waved once more, and I was happy to work with the team again. The show was really beginning to take off, Billy was fantastic, the audiences were loving it; our biggest problem was keeping them from giving it a standing ovation before it was over.
#2: DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE A PEST
I was hoping to get one more show out of the Playhouse that season, and was making a pest of myself, calling and emailing the associate artistic director, Shirley Fishman. I left Shirley a message, saying that I could only hold that last slot free for a few more days. I got a blunt message from her saying that they would love to use me, but Des wanted me available in that slot because that was when it looked likely that 700 Sundays would be going to Broadway.
#3: IT CAN ACTUALLY HAPPEN
The carrot loomed huge in my sights. Holy crud. Could this be the one? I was in the middle of tech for a show at the Old Globe that my wife, Kirsten Brandt was directing, so I tried to concentrate on tech. But every once in a while the thought snuck to the surface — Broadway. I didn't dare tell anyone except Kirsten because I didn't want to have to go back around explaining why it hadn't happened. Sympathy I did not need.
#4: MAKE SURE THEY HAVE YOUR NUMBER
Then on Friday morning while I was doing focus notes, I got a message from Kirsten. Des' assistant had called her, the New York producers of 700 Sundays wanted to talk to me, but no one had my number. It was already after 2 pm in San Diego by the time I got the message; New York was closed for the weekend. It was going to be a long few days.
#5: BARS CAN BE A GREAT SOURCE OF INFORMATION
Sunday night, after a long but successful 10 out of 12, some of the cast and Kirsten and I went to our favorite dive bar, Nunu's. There I ran into David Weiner, a fantastic local designer who did the scenery for the previous two productions. I pulled him aside; had he gotten the phone call? Yep, there were still details to work out, but an offer had been made. I went back to the table and started telling people. I was about to be offered a Broadway show. One of the actor's asked about my agent. Hmm, what were the odds that I could find an agent first thing Monday morning?
#6: THERE'S NEVER AN AGENT AROUND WHEN YOU NEED ONE
Monday morning and I was in the design studio at the Old Globe. I assumed that the call will come after 10 am. I've noticed that East Coasters properly assume that West Coasters are not morning people, and wait until after lunch to call us. At 10:00 on the dot my cell phone went off. The area code was 212. This was it. I still didn't have an agent, and an offer was about to be made. I let it ring through to voice mail. I managed to contain myself for two whole minutes before checking voice mail. It was them, they wanted to talk to me, call back as soon as possible. I needed advice in a big hurry.
#7: ASK EXPERIENCED PEOPLE FOR ADVICE
Kirsten suggested that I call Jim Ingalls, a designer whom I've always looked up to. Jim and I had been friends since I had assisted him on Slavs! at the Playhouse in ‘95. He always had constructive criticism and was very supportive, not to mention brutally honest. The problem is he spends most of his time on the road, much of it overseas. I sent him an email asking his advice, knowing full well it would not likely come in time, but it would be invaluable anyway.
#8: A MAN WHO TRIES TO BE HIS OWN AGENT HAS A FOOL FOR A CLIENT
I bit the bullet and called the producer. I quickly checked the USA website for the Broadway minimums, made up my mind how much more I would ask for, and dialed. The man I spoke with was happy to hear from me, and wanted to go over the offer immediately. He first asked if I am USA. When I responded in the affirmative he sounded surprised. I didn't know whether to be amused or insulted.
I flashed back to a younger me trying to get into grad school, and going to the URTA auditions. I remember being amazed at the number of schools that sent burned-out teachers to represent them. One in particular scoffed at me for considering going to UCSD. “All the LORT theatres recruit on the East Coast,” he snorted. “Even if you want to work on the West Coast, you have to be in New York to get the offers.” I went to UCSD. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have assisted at the Playhouse, Des McAnuff would never have gotten to know me, and I would never have gotten this show.
The man on the phone wanted to know if I had an agent. “No,” I replied, “you can talk to me.” In the back of my mind, the numbers I want were flashing in giant red neon. The offer was good, but less then I wanted. My brain was only slightly aware as my mouth said, “Sounds great, lets do it!” Damn.
#9: KEEP IN TOUCH
I was in my studio in Santa Cruz, and the phone rang. “David, it's Bink,” said the cheerful voice on the other end. Howell Binkley and I had been playing phone tag for days. He has a larger-than-life presence and seems to be in a perpetual good mood. He congratulated me on the gig, then fired off a dozen questions: who is my electrician, my assistant, what gear am I using, why, etc., etc.? We talked for about 20 minutes, as he dispensed advice and loaded me up with questions. Jim Ingalls responded to my email a few days after I sent it. He put me in touch with his agents who were happy to talk and offer advice. I was reminded for the hundredth time that the best designers are great people as well as great artists. I promised myself that I will be the friendly, helpful designer, not the rude burnout I met at URTA.
#10: IT'S OK TO BE EXCITED
A few weeks later and I was in New York. The producers wanted to get everyone together to look at the theatre. We would be in the Broadhurst. David Weiner, my ALD Patricia Nichols, and I arrived at the same time. Des and the producers showed up, then Billy Crystal and his wife Janice, who is co-producing, walked in. After some pleasant chatter and nervous laughs, Billy walked downstage and looked out at the house, which from that angle looks massive. I walked over and asked, “Is this your Broadway debut?” “Yeah,” he replied, “can you believe it? I've been waiting my whole life for this.” We stood there for a moment looking out at the house. “Me too.”