The Tom Holowach Interview: Ecstatically Miserable — Part One
|September 17, 2013||Posted by Dusty Behner under Interviews|
Dusty Behner graduated from UHM’s theatre department in 2005. Her credits include professional touring actor and professional costume designer.
This Friday, Palikū Theatre (PT) at Windward Community College is about to open their biggest theatrical undertaking yet, Les Miserables, and theatre manager Tom Holowach describes his…situation as “too bizarre for words.” For weeks now, he hasn’t been able to sell any tickets because the show has been sold out.
I sat down with him just outside of the doors to the PT house to talk about the process of putting on such a massive show, the method for dealing with a sold-out show still in high demand, and the waiting game of hoping to get approval from the state to extend the show’s run.
Dusty Behner: The main problem you are facing with Les Miserables—the one everyone is wondering about—is that the show is almost open and you can’t sell any more tickets. Have you gotten anywhere with that?
Tom Holowach: It’s just a waiting game. It’s one of the times when I’m literally, truly powerless. There have been three points along the line where I’ve had to find influential people who have been able to help in one way or another. Because we’re a state institution, we have to play by a whole different set of rules than all the other theatres. We have to get approval since it’s past a certain point because of how much money we are actually going to owe for the rights and the royalties.
D: Where does that money come from? The rights and putting on a show this size is very expensive. It can’t all come from ticket sales.
T: It does.
D: It does?
T: Actually, I joke with Dwight [Martin, Producer, Manoa Valley Theatre (MVT)] about this. I am in an enviable situation here, where I don’t have to pay a mortgage. Also, I am the only full-time person on the staff. Andrew [Doan, Technical Director, PT] is full time too, but his salary is only half funded by the state. The rest of it we make up by renting the space out to other groups and all of that. But when it comes time to do our productions, every show is budgeted like a film. It’s a zero-based budget. We start out with zero and we figure out who we need to hire, what we need to get, and how many shows we need to do at what price in order to make the budget, and we make that match. I technically don’t even need to figure in costs of the utilities or any other overhead. Typically, in any other theatre, ticket sales would only pay for about 40% of the cost of a production, but because of the situation we have here, we can basically put all of the money on the stage.
D: Do you think that by the time you open, you will get the permission to extend that you’ve been waiting for?
T: I do. We’ve been waiting two and a half weeks now for it, and somebody who’s in the know said, “Oh, that’s not long—that’s not long enough.” Of course, we open on the 20th, but we were completely sold out four weeks prior to that date.
D: When I looked for tickets, it was already sold out. I was thinking, “My goodness, how did this happen without me knowing?”
T: I didn’t hold anything back this time. Usually, theatre managers play a little game where we know how many shows we’ve budgeted for, but we don’t announce them all at the same time. You want to announce the first three weekends, and then extend to a fourth, and extend to a fifth. I learned during Miss Saigon (2008) that I was shooting myself in the foot. My ads were always wrong because of the lead time. Then, when we did Phantom of the Opera (2011), it was even crazier. I was selling a show every two days. We finally got to the point where we ran out of weekends and we ended up doing Wednesday night shows.
D: I think I actually went to a Wednesday performance.
T: People find that kind of odd. They say, “Why not Thursday?” and it’s because the night-school classes are so popular over here—[points to building next door to the theatre]—this is all of the humanities. It’s all music, art, and philosophy, and for whatever reason, Tuesday and Thursday night classes are very, very popular, so the parking lot is full until 8:30. But Wednesday night is the least popular for classes. We found that we could do a show and actually have parking for people.
We’re hoping that once we get the permission to do an extension, the sky’s the limit. Now we’re up against a threshold, but once the clearances go through to go above that threshold, then we can do as many shows as we want. Judging by the demand, we might not only just do Wednesday. Our biggest concern last time we did this was the orchestra because they had other gigs. So this time, right up front, we told everybody to plan on Wednesdays, but we didn’t say anything about other nights.
Our best case scenario right now is when this compliance finally goes through, we probably go to twenty-two shows. I don’t like adding in the Wednesday shows right after we open because everyone’s dead. After hell week everyone just needs to curl up and rest somewhere. We start the Wednesday shows on the second week of the run or after.
An even better scenario is if we sell out all of those and we still have room, we might go to four more shows on Tuesdays. Tickets have sold much faster than Phantom, and I had never seen anything like that before in my life. Nobody doesn’t like Les Mis. There’s some people who blow hot and cold about Phantom, but everyone loves Les Mis. I think the movie whetted people’s appetites. It was either their first experience with Les Mis and they said, “Oh, this is interesting. Maybe it would be good on stage,” or other people who already know the theatre version and said, “Oh, God, that was awful. I can’t wait to see it on stage again.” It’s one thing or the other and that was nine months ago. Whatever got people interested, people aren’t saying, “Oh, I just saw that,” they’re saying, “Oh, I could see that again, especially a live stage version.”
D: During Phantom, there was a lot of talk about how much money was being spent on the show. I haven’t really heard that about this show, but I just walked by the costumes—wow! The barricade is beautiful and the sets are gorgeous. Is this show in any way comparable in price?
T: It’s a little less expensive because it doesn’t have a lot of the crazy technology.
D: Well, there’s no chandelier.
T: Right, there’s no chandelier, there’s no boat that has to miraculously float around on stage, and, honestly, one of the hardest things about Phantom is that you’re doing a show that has three shows within it. You’re not only costuming the characters for the show that you’re doing, but you’re also creating costumes for those performances that they are doing. There are three separate operas and each opera has to have its own set of drops, sets, and props. It’s like you’re doing four shows.
This is much more straightforward. The costumes were much easier to produce, and frankly, peasant costumes—you would know [This interviewer was the costume designer at MVT for five years.]—you can pull peasant costumes, and Hannah Schauer [Costume Shop Manager] over at UH [University of Hawai'i at Manoa] has been very generous with us because they’ve got a lot of that stuff. We were able to keep our costume-rentals budget way, way down from what it was last time. We’re just renting [from the mainland] the uniforms and the ball gown stuff for the wedding at the end. So all in all, it’s less. It’s certainly high—it’s still scary high.
D: But then all of that gets paid back by ticket sales?
T: It really does, yeah. It’s one of the reasons the extensions are so important. We budget toward breaking even, so we have to do fifteen shows. Then, when we do the extension, we’re paying the royalties on the show, which are considerable. The royalties to do this show are in the range of $1,700 per show. We’re also paying the musicians, and this year, for the first time for us—Diamond Head Theatre does this a lot—we have an equity guest-artist contract with Cliffton Hall. There’s a much smaller nut for the extension run. Once you’ve paid for all of the other stuff, every extension gives you a good chunk of clear profit that you can turn around and invest back into the program. That’s the way we’ve stayed alive all these years. There is no budget that operates the theatre.
D: DHT did Les Mis in 2008. Are you using any of their costumes? I know that they tear their sets to pieces, so you wouldn’t have access to any of that.
[Music begins pouring into the interview area as rehearsal resumes for Act 2.]
D: Do you think anything in this production will make people say, “Ah, that’s what they did at DHT five years ago.”?
T: No. The disadvantage that DHT has until they build a new theatre [which is in the fundraising phase now] is that they are trying to do full-on stage shows in a place that was built to be a movie theatre. They’ve done valiantly, but they’ve got no flys, they’ve got almost no side-stage area—there’s a lot of things we can do that they can’t. The biggest difference is the orchestra. I went back and got the program out from when they did it, and Phil Hidalgo was the music director. They had only an orchestra of eight. To do a score like this with an orchestra that small is really hard and you can’t get the kind of sound that we’re getting. We’re getting a full sound.
When people came to Phantom, they were just blown away by how it sounded. Because we’ve got the pit under the stage, we’re able to bring in all of the people and the orchestra is all individually mic’ed and mixed. We can keep it down under the actors so it’s not this loud, blaring thing over in the corner, kind of annoying you or making you want to sit on the left side. That’s an advantage that we’ll always have over anybody else—even over at MVT.
We have a full-on orchestra pit and we’ve got a full mic system. It’s insane. Not only do we have an orchestra of sixteen [for Les Mis] but we’ve got a harp—a real harp—we’re not even synthing a harp this time! Then we’ve got thirty body mics out here because this show—it’s a strange show.
I remember when I first watched it. Typically, especially in the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, there’s three to five leads in these shows. Then there’s the ensemble that plays the other people, but they’re an ensemble, they’re a village, whatever. But in this show, every single person in the ensemble, at one point or another, gets a spotlight on them. They get this piece that they do which has to sound as good as everyone else. I remember when I saw DHT do it, I had a lot of friends in the cast, and I said, “My God, they’re just in the ensemble!” and these are people I had seen as leads in shows.
When we had auditions, we had 150 people show up. When we had callbacks, I could have sold tickets, so seldom do we get that many good voices in one room at the same time trying to beat each other. When we were done cutting it down to the cast of forty-six or so that we ended up with, it was the cream of the crop. Sadly, there were people who have been in the ensemble of other shows that we have done who are nice people, but they are not at the level that we are playing at. This had been a bucket-list show for many people. In fact, there are several people in this show who wanted to be in the DHT show but, for various circumstances, couldn’t.
Kip Wilborn, who is our Valjean, is typically touring this time of year in Vienna and he promised his wife that he would take a year off from touring. Valjean is one of his bucket-list shows. He was actually supposed to take over the part of Valjean in Toronto—this was years ago—and one thing or another happened. He really wanted to do this show.
We also got to bring Cliffton Hall back, a legitimate Broadway star who was just in Wicked [the one that toured to Honolulu in January] and who studied with Mr. Bright [retired drama teacher at Castle High School and director of Les Miserables]. This is like a Castle High School class reunion from nineteen or twenty years ago and they’re all getting to act together. There are so many fun little back stories and moments involved in this that when I go on Perry and Price [the KSSK morning radio show] or I talk to a reporter, I don’t know where to start or where to stop. There’s so many interesting things about this production.
D: How many seats are in the house?
T: Basically, 300. One of the things that we did as a safety valve for Phantom is I’ve got some places for temporary seats on either side of the orchestra pit. There’s pukas where I can put in some plastic seats: I can get twenty on either side. What I learned during Miss Saigon is that people would just randomly walk up to the box office during the night of a sold out show and say, “I’ll have two, please,” not even having a clue that the show might possibly be sold out. So, I started putting in these plastic chairs saying, “Okay, you can buy these. They’re a little cheaper than the others and they’re plastic; they’re not bad seats,” and they kinda go, “Ehh, okay.” In the meantime, I’m going, “Well, you should have reserved ahead!”
D: It always amazes me. I volunteer at Kumu Kahua Theatre in the box office and there’s always people who are flabbergasted that a show could be sold out.
T: Right, so two years ago for Phantom, I actually pre-sold some of those temporary seats. I shot myself in the foot because I didn’t have enough for the walkups. Last year, I made the rule that I would not sell any of those temporary seats so that I can honestly say that every night there will be forty seats available for people who want to come and stand in line at the box office window. At the beginning of the run, we’d have a few selling. After word got out, people were saying, “You’ve gotta go see this show,” and then we actually were sold out of all of our shows and all of the extensions by the end of opening weekend. At that point, people discovered that the only way to see the show was to come and buy those temporary seats. They started standing in line earlier, and earlier, and earlier, and by the end of the run people were camping out with coolers and chairs for three hours.
D: That’s amazing. Do you expect that same sort of thing for Les Mis?
D: I predict that it’s probably going to happen right from the beginning now that people know they can get in that way.
[to be continued...]