The Projects and Proposals Poker Game

Heather Woodbury (left) proposing her environmental piece As The Globe Warms. Photo by Christopher Arnott

The Projects and Proposals session of the Radar L.A. conference Thursday morning was like watching a friendly game of cards, except some of the friends had jobs and dreams at stake.

Eight large ornate round tables were set up in a Biltmore hotel ballroom, tournament style. Folks sat at each table, expectantly shuffling papers they’d been handed. The croupiers were artists aiming to deal the perfect hand. They were looking to get their works-in-progress picked up by the theater producers and programmers who lined the tables. Then maybe the theater dealers  could work that hand into a bolder bid, one which could involve workshops, longterm development and tours.

These were short games. The project-proposers would have ten minutes to lay their artistic cards on the table before moderator Malcolm Darrell sounded a warning. Then the dealers had to pack up their laptops and fliers and add Musical Chairs to their game repertoire.

At one table, Aaron Jafferis was pitching Stuck Elevator, the one-man hip-hop musical he wrote with composer Byron Au Yong. I know Aaron. He interned at the New Haven Advocate back when I was that paper’s arts editor and he was barely out of high school. Over the past 20 years or so I’ve written about his pursuits as playwright, performer and teacher. I’m even quoted in the press materials Aaron was dealing out at the tables. This was a new side of him for me: Aaron’s pitchman persona. He shifted easily from explaining the multi-styled musical mix of hip show to abruptly launching into a few raps from it.

If Aaron was the passionate, unpredictable player, then Stacy Klein, was the methodical, even-tempered one, one who knows the playing field well. Stacy is someone I’ve known Stacy since the late 1970s, when she was a student of my father’s. For the last several decades she’s been the artistic director of Double Edge Theatre, which gestates grand, globally touring shows at their farm in Ashland, Mass. In the ballroom, Stacy was proposing The Grand Parade, a new multi-pronged project inspired by the works of Marc Chagall. Anyone playing her for a farm hick would lose big.

Heather Woodbury is a woman of many faces. I wrote a cover story years ago on her breakthrough piece What Ever: An American Odyssey, a 10-hour, multi-night, one-woman show which had Woodbury juggling around 100 distinct characters. Today, she was in cheery sales mode, pushing an environmentally themed piece in which she’ll play humans and animals. She was straight to the point, ready to play, several steps ahead of you at all times.

Richard Montoya dealing Dopplegangers. Photo by Christopher Arnott.

Richard Montoya, the esteemed Culture Clash co-founder who has a bunch of other collaborations and solo projects on deck, asked everyone at each table their name before beginning his soft-key spiel for an urban realism show he’s co-developing called Dopplegangers.

Joan Schirle, adorned in a crown of plastic marijuana leaves to promote her Mary Jane—The Musical. played the “Who are you?” card as well, and when I identified myself as “I’m with the press,” she chided “That doesn’t exempt you from being a person. What’s your name?” The hippie warmth fit her pot show pitch.

There were other drama dealers circling the tables, but those I’ve mentioned were the cardsharps whose styles I knew best, whose faces I could study, whose hands I tried to guess.

I suspect the other folks at the tables were making similar judgements. Should they show excitement? Play close to the vest? Bet big and early on a prestige project?

The last bell rang and the tournament wound down. Today it was all poker faces and card shuffling. The big winners, and the full houses, may not be revealed for years.