Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
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This week's question comes from Courtney T. of Piedmont, CA.
Question: What is a workshop? Why are some actors involved in workshops but don't end up being in the show when it opens? Answer: We'll begin this week's answer with another question: What do the Broadway musicals Titanic, The Color Purple, and Grand Hotel have in common? They all started out as workshops. Workshops, like readings, are a low-pressure way for producers, authors and actors to tinker with a script and flesh out characters away from the scrutiny of critics and the demands of a paying audience.
Workshops are divided up into "sessions," rehearsal periods that last from four to eight weeks. A workshop typically only has one session, but if another is needed, it can be added after a two-week hiatus. During the session, all the actors involved are paid the same weekly wage, no matter their role or star power. The culmination is usually a presentation for industry professionals, potential investors and sometimes board members or major donors (if the workshop is regional), but charging admission is prohibited — hence why the general public is often not invited.
When casting a workshop, "the idea is that you are casting the actors who will play the roles on Broadway," says Sara Schatz of Binder Casting. Schatz, who in her career has helped cast such Broadway shows as The Producers, Brooklyn, and the upcoming Vanities, also points out that over the course of the workshop, things can change drastically.
"Sometimes the whole concept can change," she says. "Characters can change. Their part can really be altered in the process of the workshop. So you'll cast someone who was what you thought you wanted…but you might find out that the requirements have changed and the person who did the workshop is not ultimately the right person to play the role in the final production."
While songs are being added or dropped, and whole chunks of the script rewritten, sometimes it becomes obvious to the creative team that a character is extraneous altogether. Spring Awakening, for example, went through many phases that included a character called the Masked Man (played first by Roger Bart and later by Michael Cerveris). Even though the Masked Man appeared in the original Wedekind play, his presence and purpose in the musical began to feel redundant to the creative team, and the character was eventually scrapped.
"That's actually less painful to an actor than being replaced by someone else afterwards," says Sue Frost, co-founder of New York-based theatrical production company Junkyard Dog Productions. As a producer, Frost has witnessed the evolution of many new musicals, and she explains that Equity provides for all actors involved with a workshop, whether they continue with the production or not.
"In order to do a workshop, they (actors) work for considerably less than what they'd be working for if they had a Broadway contract," Frost says. "Equity kind of legitimizes that by saying, 'Okay, you're going to work for a lot less money, but should this show actually go on and be a big success, you will share in some of that success.'"
The Equity Workshop Agreement states that the actors — "for their contribution to the development of the show" — receive a group share in the show's gross box-office receipts (typically 1%). A portion of the show's subsidiary rights and royalties (around 1.5% of net receipts) is also supplied.
Another reason an actor might not appear in the final production is availability. "There's always the possibility that the person you used in the workshop, depending on how much time elapses between the workshop and the production, is no longer available," says Schatz. "Maybe they've gotten an offer to do another Broadway show that was coming in sooner, and they chose to do that."
The big caveat with workshops, according to Frost, is that it's only too easy to get trapped in the developmental cycle and never emerge with a fully realized production. To really figure out where a show stands, it takes the public's fresh perspectives.
"You know, we look at things in the studio and think, 'Oh, this is working beautifully!'" says Frost. "And then we get it up in front of an audience and we [say], 'They don't get that at all!' That's the difference between having show-biz people look at your show and people who know nothing about your show. Workshops are seductive because you end up with a lot of people telling you what you want to hear." She laughs before continuing, "but they are useful, certainly. It's part of the process."
Lindsey Wilson, who is temporarily filling in for Zachary Pincus-Roth, is a theatre writer whose work has also been seen in The Syracuse Post-Standard. She can be reached by emailing LindseyAnnWilson@gmail.com.