by Gordon Cox
Market grows for digital rehearsal, staging tools
There’s an app for that, as the saying goes. But an increasing number of entrepreneurial theater folk have noticed that for a lot of day-to-day legit work, there isn’t an app for that — and they’ve set about remedying the situation.
Take Jeff Whiting, the latest legiter to add the unlikely words “software developer” to his resume. As a director-choreographer who often works as Susan Stroman’s associate, he found himself slaving over exhaustive “show bibles” — detailed accounts of stage arrangements and actor movements, often totaling thousands of pages per show — so that a production can be reproduced on tour and in other incarnations.
“I’d been dreaming about ways I could make my life easier,” Whiting says. “I kept thinking, ‘This should be simple.’ It’s just there was no existing way to do it.”
Looking for a digital tool that could streamline the process, all Whiting could come up with was a jury-rigged combo of Power Point and Excel. What he really needed, he decided, was an iPad app — and so StageWrite, launching March 1, was born.
Whiting joins a handful of industry denizens in creating rehearsal-tool apps they’d use themselves. Two of the best-known apps for helping actors memorize lines, for instance, come from actors themselves — David H. Lawrence XVII (“Heroes”), who spearheaded the creation of Rehearsal, and J. Kevin Smith, the man behind Scene Partner.
“The dirty little secret is, if nobody ever bought the app and it was just me using it in my day-to-day life as an actor, I’d still be a happy dude,” Lawrence says.
As Whiting discovered, it ain’t easy creating and selling an app. He knew what he wanted, but guided by a friend in the tech industry, he had to seek out the Arizona-based team of programmers that he ended up hiring to do the coding.
There’s also a not-insignificant amount of money involved. Whiting, who capitalized StageWrite himself, says he had to pony up “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to bring the app to market.
The final product is a tool for creating, duplicating and editing the floorplan charts that, in a show bible, give a moment-to-moment, top-down view of where and when actors and set pieces move during a show. In beta tests during his day job, he’s already found it invaluable, talking up the potential, for instance, to email jpegs of the charts to swing performers, or to a regional lighting designer in advance of a touring production’s arrival.
But creation of an app isn’t the only hurdle; creators have to market it as well.
Different apps go after different demographics: StageWrite, for example, isn’t targeted to the masses. With a pricetag of around $200, the app is pitched as a professional tool to be used by those involved with sizable productions.
So far, Whiting has found that the relatively small size of the legit community has proven a plus, tubthumping for his new product among pros he knows. Whiting says he’s also gotten early interest from Sea World, Cirque du Soleil and the Olympic Committee.
Meanwhile, Scene Partner, priced at $4.99, is aimed at a different market. Creator Smith, who pairs his community-theater acting experience with a career as a direct marketer of tech products, targets amateur and pro thesps alike, saying he’s had a lot of luck hawking the app at young-thespian conferences around the country. The $20 Rehearsal, on the other hand, is optimized for working TV and film actors, as well as for legiters.
Among Scene Partner’s several features are a text-to-speech component that allows audio playback of cue lines for actors memorizing a part. With different tools but a similar goal, Rehearsal enables the highlighting of dialogue in digital scripts and the ability to record an actor’s own lines or fellow thesps’ cues, among other functions.
The rehearsal room’s shift into the digital realm jives with a trend that has seen playscript publishing houses also making recent moves into the marketplace. Late last year, Samuel French launched an e-book service, and barely a month later, Dramatists Play Service struck a deal with Scene Partner to make e-scripts available for use with the app (available at around $10 per play).
Both Whiting and Smith have plans for a suite of tools that will help actors, directors and designers do their work. And Smith anticipates further partnerships among legiters brave enough to step into the marketplace. “I think there’s going to be a lot of room for a lot of collaboration,” he says. “We’re all trying to make a viable business out of it.”
GordonCox writes for Variety.