Barrier-Breaking GM Steve Asher Knows What’s Ridiculous

Rob Minutoli, David Harrell, Alyssa H. Chase, Anthony Michael Lopez and Anita Hollander in Charles Ludlam's The Artificial Jungle. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Steve Asher is general manager of Off-Broadway’s Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB). But as he readily admits, he’s also had a “long-ass career behind him and in front of him.” Widely known for his candor mixed with diplomacy (“what is probably best to think and not say”), he served as managing director of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company more than 25 years ago, following the 1987 death of its founder, the legendary playwright and genre- and gender-bending theatrical pioneer Charles Ludlam.

The intervening years were, to say the least, remarkable for Asher: working backward chronologically, he was executive director of Alumni and Friends of NYC’s LaGuardia High School; executive director of Labyrinth Theater Company (co-founded by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman); director of special events at the National Hemophilia Foundation, a five-year stint as a purely commercial producer; and, in his immediate post-Ridiculous period, director of special event at Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

So when you ask Asher about his career — and now, about TBTB’s current revival of The Artificial Jungle, Ludlam’s last completed play, running June 8-25 at the Clurman Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.) — his answer reads like the definition of a transferable skill:

I managed to stay calm when the ‘male actresses’ were in a tizzy. Actually, I stay calm a lot. I’m not big on drama that’s not on the stage. I produced high-profile fundraising events at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway with superstars and managed to get some good stories out of it. A bit of a bookworm as well. All around nice guy. Hard worker. That’s about it.

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TBTB’s revival is in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ridiculous; its director is the equally legendary Everett Quinton, who was Ludlam’s personal and professional muse and partner. On Mondays throughout the run, TBTB will also present free staged readings of such Ludlam classics as Turds in Hell, Der Ring Gott Farblonjet and Galas. For tickets and more information, click here.

And now, 5 questions Steve Asher has never been asked:

The one and only Steve Asher.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

“You’ve worked with a lot of noted performers. Are some of them as nice as they seem and some as evil as they seem?”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Do you get to meet the performers?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Can you get me free tickets?” If you work in a supermarket, do I ask for free cabbage?

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What are the three most important differences between running a show today (as a business), as opposed to 25 or more years ago?

New York Times advertising isn’t as important as it used to be for small shows. We used to struggle to advertise in the Times because it was imperative to at least be in the ABC’s or have an ad presence. There are many outlets to advertise and market a show now, particularly Web-based; at the same time, the amount of press coverage a smaller show can get is shrinking and shrinking.

The original 1986 cast of The Artificial Jungle: Philip Campanaro, Charles Ludlam, Black-Eyed Susan, Everett Quinton, Ethyl Eichelberger. Photo: Anita and Steve Shevett.

To elaborate on that last thought: the amount of theater coverage has dropped off dramatically. When I was at the Ridiculous in 1989, everyone reviewed plays: Women’s Wear Daily even reviewed plays. Now if you’re not on Broadway it’s very hard to get coverage. The Times will still send in a critic, but the Daily News, the Post, Newsday — it’s highly unlikely. Even The Village Voice and Time Out have cut back. Feature stories are even harder to get. When I produced The Mystery of Irma Vep at [Off-Broadway’s] Westside Theater in 1998, we got four different pieces in the Times: two reviews and two features. We were even a clue in the Times crossword puzzle. Now the fight for space is dramatic. Something I’ve experienced over and over: when there are a lot of movie stars or Broadway divas in a season, the amount of coverage for other shows sinks to unfortunate levels.

As costs go up, so do ticket prices. Everything costs a lot more than it did 25 years ago. At the Ridiculous we could produce a show on our National Endowment for the Arts grant alone. (My last year there, the grant was $80,000.) Now at TBTB, an equally small theater with a very specific mission, we can’t produce a five-week run for even double that amount. And with this increase in costs, ticket prices rise, which for me is a very bad thing. I wanted to see a show at The Public Theater recently and the bottom price was $100! At the Public Theater! As a theater worker, I can’t afford that very often.

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You were managing director of the Ridiculous in its final years (1989-93). As TBTB’s general manager, are there business and/or artistic challenges in reviving The Artificial Jungle? What are your expectations of the play and the audience?

The one and only Everett Quinton.

The costs as described above are always an issue. TBTB is a relatively small organization and does a lot of hustling to get to produce on the level it does. Aside from that is the mission of the organization. As the only Off-Broadway company designed specifically to work with disabled actors (though it is a mixed company), TBTB strives to show that disability isn’t a barrier to making great art. The Artificial Jungle comes from the canon of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose unofficial motto was “Faster, louder, funnier.” This is not what people expect from TBTB productions. But it’s what we’re giving them! This cast can do whatever Everett throws at them. It’s the audience expectation that needs to be addressed, certainly not the company.

“Bonus” question:

A 19-year-old NYU student enters your office with a sheaf of comedies that pay homage, he says, to Ludlam’s work. You read them — and maybe it’s true. What career advice do you offer him? Should anyone ever aim to be the “next” anybody?

It’s great to have idols, but one should learn from them and not copy them. Charles Ludlam developed his own form of theater as a playwright, director and actor as a young man. A devotee should use what he’s learned from the person they look up to and then make it their own. Everett, of course, learned from Charles, but now has his own style of acting, writing and directing. Charles Busch was a big fan of Ludlam, but developed something related, but not the same as, the Ridiculous. Bring your own experiences and passions to the work.