WILMINGTON — A local theater company is strengthening its connections to Off-Broadway and creating a direct pipeline for one-of-a-kind works to go before Wilmington audiences, before even heading to the Great White Way.
Big Dawg Productions — in operation for 29 years — has signed an exclusive partnership with MarMaxMedia to be associate producers on “Windows” and “Pay the Writer,” both written by New York Times bestselling author Tawni O’Dell.
The two shows will be part of Big Dawg’s 2024 season — a few and far between occurrence, according to Steve Vernon, Big Dawg’s executive director.
“With shows like these, the odds are pretty good that they can either move to Broadway from Off Broadway — or go on a national tour,” Vernon said. “So for community theaters, amateur companies, to get the rights is extremely rare.”
Securing first rights from an Off-Broadway show has happened a few other times in Big Dawg’s history, such as with “Black Superhero Magic Mama,” by Inda Craig-Galván in 2020. However, the pandemic quashed its run.
Last year, Vernon reached out to producer Mitchell Maxwell about bringing “Two Jews, Talking” from Off-Broadway — which starred Hal Linden and Bernie Kopell — to Wilmington. Big Dawg secured the rights, did nine sold-out shows, and built a relationship with Maxwell, which has furthered its access to other productions.
Maxwell is part of MarMaxMedia — also founded by Alexander “Sandy” Marshall and Giles Cole. Together, they bring 100 years of cumulative experience producing works for Off-Broadway, Broadway and London’s West End or Off-West End. Credits include “Stomp,” “Dinner With Friends,” “Marvin’s Room,” “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” and “Network,” among others. Many productions they’ve been a part of are Drama Desk, Pulitzer Prize, Olivier and Tony awards winners.
MarMaxMedia launched in March and included a licensing division. This will drive content directly to third parties to be presented in regional venues. Wilmington’s Big Dawg is one. Vernon said it will benefit audiences who don’t have to travel to the Big Apple to see first-run shows, but it also is a perk for talent and crew in local theater.
“It gives actors in Wilmington a chance to work on brand new material,” he said. “Usually, when we do a show, the play was written anywhere from three to 300 years ago, right? It’s very rare that we’re getting scripts, quote, unquote, hot off the press, and to only be the second entity to be producing these scripts. … [E]verybody thinks of ‘The King and I’ and think of Yul Brynner, so the 8,000 dudes that have played the king have been trying to fight the image of Yul Brynner. So for local actors here to be able to participate in those types of shows, and local audiences to be able to witness that, it’s a prestige thing.”
It also has the capability to further shine a spotlight on Wilmington as a bonafide theater community. The local scene is rife with talent and multiple companies, in part driven by an active film industry — not to mention venues like historic Thalian Hall and Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center, the latter bringing in Broadway-touring shows. With first-rights to Off-Broadway plays, the possibilities are endless to appeal to arts supporters in nearby Raleigh, Charlotte or even out-of-state regional visitors from Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
“So, there’s an opportunity to bring in more cultural tourism,” Vernon said.
To gain rights to “Windows” and “Pay the Writer,” Big Dawg had to pay $15,000 for each. Yet, the investment has long-term return appeal. Big Dawg will hold the distribution rights in North Carolina on both shows, should any other statewide amateur theater company — universities and community organizations, for instance — want to produce them.
“What that means is nobody else in North Carolina can do the plays unless they pay us royalties — the two shows and any iteration of them, from now in perpetuity,” Vernon said. “So if they go to Broadway, if they go on tour, if they move to London’s West End, if it gets a shot for a streaming service, we will continue to receive royalties on those two shows. So this is pretty significant.”
“They’re essentially subsidiary rights,” Maxwell told Port City Daily.
Maxwell has been in the business for more than three decades and has had 17 plays commissioned for films, seven of which he was tapped to produce.
He said subsidiary rights are more valuable today than ever — especially in the new model of streaming for TV and film.
“Streamers are always looking for content,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said he reached out to author O’Dell during the pandemic about “doing a bunch of vignettes of what we’re feeling” to try and capture the historic moment and its impact worldwide.
Maxwell and O’Dell have been friends for decades, the producer said. O’Dell’s popularity began 23 years ago upon the release of her debut novel “Back Roads,” selected for Oprah’s Book Club. It was adapted to the screen in 2019.
She also wrote her theatrical memoir, “When It Happens to You,” and premiered it Off-Broadway in October 2019.
“Windows” comprises a series of monologues following actors during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic’s lockdown. It was adapted from the podcast “Closing the Distance,” read by Jason Alexander, Tony Danza, William Hurt, and Kathleen Turner, among others. It will debut Off-Broadway at the end of this month.
Maxwell said he seeks out content that has relevance and is indicative of issues society faces.
“Art is about appreciating how important our relationships are and what impact it has on society, and what impact each of us has,” Maxwell said. “That’s also what makes theater so important.”
He first got into the business when producing a play at age 19 — Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.” The story was about a gay man striving to live a happy life “and not kill himself because he was gay,” Maxwell said.
In the ‘90s, Maxwell helped launch “Oleanna” by David Mamet, which centers on sexual harassment, and “Jeffrey” by Paul Rudnick — about a love affair between two men in the midst of the AIDS crisis. He credits the work for paving the way to popular TV series like “Will and Grace” or “Modern Family” — “and gay characters being accepted by the mainstream.”
“A lot of my plays have something to do with missteps and cracks in the armor of a decent society,” Maxwell said. “‘Pay the Writer’ and ‘Windows’ are also very relevant at the moment.’”
“Pay the Writer” premiered Aug.12, at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater at the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York. It stars Golden Globe-winning actress Marcia Cross, as well as Bryan Batt and Ron Canada, and follows the story of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Black author who begins a relationship with his white, gay literary agent.
“It deals with a unique friendship of a marginalized man, who grows up to be the greatest living Black author in the country, and a marginalized gay man,” he explained. “Their friendship is able to grow and prosper, despite being from different walks of life.”
Vernon said having the rights to produce “Pay the Writer” and “Windows” aligns with Big Dawg’s goal to seek out modern-day, fresh content, to draw in new, diverse audiences to the lure of live theater.
“Times change and material that was relevant, or even funny, 10 years ago may not be as relevant or funny now, or as dramatic now,” he said. “So, you know, the only way to keep theater going is to constantly create new theater.”
Maxwell said he was impressed by the passion and taste level of Big Dawg’s curators and has similar deals with investors and small community theaters throughout the country. Partnerships include members of the League of Resident Theatres‚ the largest association in the U.S. market, crossing 29 states and D.C. He said he’s done six shows at post-regional theaters that have moved to Broadway from Off-Broadway.
“So these relationships work,” Maxwell said.
By becoming an associate producer of “Pay the Writer” and “Windows,” Big Dawg’s bottom line will be boosted with long-term dividends, in turn helping them continue their dedication to the live artform.
Rights to any play vary in price, not to mention the costs to stage the plays, with building sets, paying crew and talent, and renting the venue, which in Big Dawg’s case is Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre. Vernon said Big Dawg pays roughly $7,000 to mount a play, with six to eight hosted each season.
“So that’s $48,000 a year right there,” he said.
The company also pays $3,000 monthly in rent and utilities for their office, which also act as rehearsal space. It all adds up and most times shows only break even. Ticket prices can only be increased so much to keep pace and compel audiences to fill up the seats.
“And everything has increased in price since Covid, whether you’re talking about lumber to build sets or with props, materials to make costumes, utilities — I mean, everything has gone up, just like every household is experiencing, due to inflation,” Vernon said. “So to have an opportunity like this, where our investment can give us a short-term return and a possible long-term return, it’s much more about the business side of theater.”
If the investment into “Pay the Writers” and “Windows” pans out, Vernon has already begun to assess how the money can be put back into the community. Aside from helping the theater company pay its bills, it will be able to branch out into main stage shows at Thalian Hall — 500 seats compared to the second-floor theater’s 100. It also could mean commissioning local writers to pen scripts for the company, paying more to talent and technicians, and developing a youth wing of Big Dawg.
“It also opens up the possibility for us to start offering scholarships for high school kids going into college,” Vernon said. “And it affects our ability to avoid this continual rise in ticket prices — a lot of people in Wilmington that go to the theater are noticing it’s getting more expensive.”
Big Dawg has increased prices from $25 to $28 in the last few years to keep up with inflation.
“But we don’t want to spend any money until we start getting money back,” Vernon clarified.
The theater company is hosting a fundraiser Aug. 29 called “All Aboard — First Stop, Wilmington: The Off-Broadway Express” to launch its new partnership. The funds raised will support its First Stop series, including “Pay the Writer” and “Windows.” There will be scenes acted by local talent from the productions to give theater-goers a sneak peek, as well as hors d’oeuvres, a champagne toast, and silent and live auctions (including the opportunity for attendees to bid on roles). At 8 p.m., a reprisal of the production “Two Jews, Talking” will take place. Tickets are $112 per person for the event.
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