Engage & Learn

Travels, Transfers, and Enhancements

Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

The article was originally written for the Goodman’s 2011-2012 production of The Trinity River Plays. While Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men may not feature a set of epic proportions, it shares the transfer show relationship that Trinity River Plays did. Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men was a co-commission between Goodman Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The show first opened at Berkeley Rep in May of 2011, at the end of their 11/12 season. All technical aspects of the show were built in California, then shipped to Chicago after the close of the show in June.

Dael Orlandersmith in Black n Blue Boys Broken Men, photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of Goodman Theatre

As a transfer show, the design for the set needed to planned for both Goodman’s Owen Theatre and Berkeley Rep’s theater, as well. Although similiar in size, Berkeley Rep’s stage is deeper than the Owen’s and also has two permanent walls on the sides. Thus, the set was built with a removable upstage section and two additional walls for the Goodman run. In addition, Goodman’s Owen Theatre has three levels which affected the sight lines of some scenic details, mainly the six practical lights hanging above the stage. For the Goodman run, the number of lights were cut down to five and were shifted into a different formation.

Other than some technical aspects, the performance of a transfer usually does not change much. However, for Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, Dael, as both the playwright and actor, and Chay Yew, the director, decided to rearrange the order of the monologues for the Goodman run from the Berkeley Rep run. Additional rehearsals were put into place along with a reordering of sound and light cues. Thus, in the case of Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men,an audience member would have a different experience seeing the show in California than in Illinois.

The Trinity River Plays is a script of epic proportions, lasting over 3 hours and filling over 185 pages. It makes sense, then, that the set must be similarly epic. In viewing The Trinity River Plays stage, you’ll notice the detail and thought which went into the set. The tree, for example, required tens of thousands of individual leaves (over 16,500)! The food you see on stage is real, meaning props crews collected hundreds of catfish fillets, eggs, boxes of cakes mix, and bottles of Dr.Pepper. Not only is the food real, but food is even cooked on stage, meaning crews not only attend to grocery shopping on a regular basis, but they built a set capable of live cooking! If that weren’t enough, there is rain on stage. In addition to the middle play, Rain, there is actual water raining down the Spears’ home!

Set designer Todd Rosenthal is known for these larger-than -ife stage creations. He has made a number of beautiful sets nationwide. The Goodman’s state of the art theatre center has the space, staff and resources for such productions, “Broadway sized” productions – but it is not the great white way. Indeed, a number of not-for-profit theatres in the US are similarly able to stage large-scale productions despite not being on Broadway – but how? The answer, increasingly, is “enhancement money.” Enhancement money is becoming more common in the funding of not- for-profit regional theatre productions nationwide. Journalist Campbell Roberston defines enhancement deals in his article, “Nonprofit Show, but Money’s Riding On It.”

“An enhancement deal, conventionally, is when a commercial producer pays money to a nonprofit theater to help subsidize a production. If a theater decides to stage a big musical, for example, a commercial producer may throw in a few hundred thousand dollars — or a couple million in some cases — to raise the show’s production values and get a sense of how it would look in a bigger theater.

For most participants the deal is a no-brainer. In exchange for the money (which can be tax deductible) the commercial producer gets a research and development lab for the show and the rights to transfer it elsewhere. The theater gets a bigger show and a better chance that it will transfer to a commercial run — and, if everyone is lucky and the show hits, a steady flow of royalties.”

The 2011 production of The Trinity River Plays at Goodman Theatre.

Enhancement deals have been common for decades, but are often kept hush-hush because the nature of a not-for-profit organization taking thousands of dollars from a commercial company just sounds strange. These deals are commonplace, perfectly normal, and perfectly legal, but still sound seedy when explained aloud. Furthermore, taking enhancement money means being attached to the commercial producers who gave it, whether for good or bad. The wildly popular musical Rent started as an off-off Broadway production at the New York City Theatre Workshop, supported by enhancement money. Following its commercial success, New York City Theatre Workshop received money in royalties, helping it create more works, some of which may loose money as they are not commercially viable. Without these royalties, a theatre may not have the funds to take risks on new works in the future. Despite the benefits these royalties provide, New York City Theatre Workshop Artistic Director James Nicola went on the record with the New York Times saying he regretted taking the enhancement money. “Enhancement,” he said, “causes the specter of a commercial transfer to hover over the artistic process. It just pollutes the atmosphere, distorts it.”

Transfer shows differ from commercial traveling shows in that they begin in a playhouse and may not have a promise to be moved, or only have a definite transfer to one other playhouse. The Trinity River Plays, for example, opened at the Dallas Theatre Center with knowledge they would be moved to Chicago, but they do not have a definite arrangement to move immediately to another theatre. A show like Wicked, by comparison, is considered a touring show because it is promised to travel the nation from a Broadway house – the tour is built into subsequent productions of this already successful musical. There are also productions like Jersey Boys, Chicago, and Next to Normal; these Broadway shows are handled differently in that two productions are built – one for the Broadway run and another (or several, depending on size of show) for the road tour.

Of course, the enhancement system is not all good or bad. As corporate and government funding for the arts has dropped drastically over the decades, enhancement money has become a staple in crafting productions. Some theatres have felt the pain of enhancement-heavy seasons since the late 2000s, when the recession economy led to a decrease in all available funds, including enhancement money. For those theatres dependent on enhancement cash, lack of it has equaled the end of the company itself. Many theatres, however, use enhancement money in conjunction with earned and donor driven funding. These theatres are able to survive without particularly large or frequent enhancement support, while potentially benefiting from the occasional enhancement deal. Some theatres avoid enhancement money altogether, preferring to keep the artistic integrity of the show completely in house.

While commercial funds may sound stickier, donor raised funds can come with strings attached as well – to assume a non-enhancement money play is any more “pure,” would be unfair. Regardless of how much enhancement money a theatre takes, having a strong willed, clear visioned, artistic director is key. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel explained it very well to the New York Times, “… there [is] no way around the system for most theaters, given the financial landscape. As long as artistic directors are vigilant about controlling the process… the presence of commercial money probably does little harm.”