Tuesday, March 26, 2013

NYC Through the Eyes of LAByrinth Theatre Company

  " I was part of the first generation of my family to be born here in New York, and the theatre seemed like this far away foreign land where only certain types of people were allowed to live..."
-Mel Nieves
Actor, playwright, teaching artist and LAB member

On a Stormy white and wet Monday night last week, I got cozy at LAB's NYNY Festival along with a packed house of people excited to see a reading of Israel Horowitz' play "The Indian Wants the Bronx". Afterwards, Mel and I were talking about the festival and why New York Theater (and LAB) reins supreme. I'll let him take it from here (and if you have a New York Theater Story you'd like to share, let me know!)
-Micheline Auger

In the spring of 2010 I had the honor of working on a LAByrinth project titled “TENN99” which was a celebration of the life and work of Tennessee Williams. It was a series of stage readings of his plays, not just of his most famous works such as “The Rose Tattoo”, “A Streetcar named Desire”, “The Glass Menagerie” , but also long forgotten works like “Talk to me Like The rain”, “The long Goodbye”, “Auto De Fe” and “Spring Storm”, along with many essays and poetry,  which culminated in a 72 plus hour around-the-clock marathon reading of his canon.

I believe for me it was during the wee small hours between Saturday night and Sunday morning, sitting behind the curtain, my eyes closed and my ears wide open that I realized I was not only listening to one of the great voices of the theatre, but truly our American Shakespeare.

Flash forward to the current spring of 2013 and once again I find myself involved in another such project simply titled “NYNY”, a reading series (produced by LAB) celebrating plays about New York City by some of our finest writers such as John Patrick Shanley, Maria Irene Fornes, Amiri Baraka, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Miguel Pinero, Lanford Wilson, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Elmer Rice and many, many more,
The Indian Wants the Bronx 1967
again culminating in a blow-out weekend of forty-eight hours of round the clock theatre. The series kicked off with a play that is very, very dear to my heart, Israel Horovitz’s “The Indian Wants the Bronx”.

I grew up on the upper Westside housing projects of New York; mine was called The Frederick Douglas Projects. My family came to this city via Puerto Rico. I was part of the first generation of my family to be born here in New York, and the theatre seemed like this far away foreign land where only certain types of people were allowed to live. I was not well read or a very good student but I got a job as a teen during my freshman year of college as an assistant stage manager, aka “Gofer", on a production of “The Indian Wants The Bronx”. This experience would forever change the course of my life.

I knew the two street thugs, Joey and Murphy. I knew their walk. I knew their talk. I knew where their anger came from - heck they were me, so much so, that the director, who would be become my mentor,
Gus Fleming, asked me to take the actors along for a walk around my neighborhood to let them experience the world of the play through my eyes.

“The Indian Wants The Bronx”, tells the story of two lost boys, Joey and Murphy, who confront a stranger in a strange land - a middle eastern Indian named Gupta - and through a series of harassing street games that resemble two ally cats playing with a frightened and innocent mouse, ends in violence. The play, like many of the plays in the series, is a reflection of this great city in all its glory and yes, ugliness, as seen through the eyes of the theatre.

To quote the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler, “The word theatre comes from the Greeks – it means the seeing place”. Through the eyes of these many playwrights with the landscape of New York as their canvas, we see the history of this great metropolis from “Waiting for Lefty” and the working class cry of “Strike! Strike! Strike!", all the way up to the Giuliani era and the Guirgus' play “In Arabia We’d be Kings”. This is what “NYNY” presented by the LAByrinth theatre company from their home on Bank street is all about.

Mel Nieves participating in Theaterspeak's Write Out Front 2012

Mel Nieves is a actor/playwright/teaching-artist and long time member of the award winning LAByrinth Theatre Company

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Taxes - What You Need to Know and Other Sexy Stuff

"...a qualified performing artist is engaged in a business for profit if he or she
 constantly promotes and seeks employment within the industry."
-Raymond Nieves

 What are three things every theater artist should know about doing their taxes?

1.  Record keeping can’t be stressed enough.  Keep every receipt no matter how small.

2. Professional viewing is a deductible expense.  That means every time you pay to see a play or go see a movie that expense is deductible.

3. When in doubt, ask a tax professional.  The U.S. Tax Code is 4 times longer than Shakespeare’s complete works.  It’s impossible for a lay person to cover every deduction.  Relying on someone who studied that tax code and does this for a living just makes sense.

What are some common mistakes artists make in approaching their taxes?

They don’t consider making their quarterly estimated tax payments until it’s too late and they owe a ton of money on April 15.  If you get 1099’s instead of W-2’s where your taxes are withheld, you must pay your taxes on a quarterly basis.  The IRS expects taxpayer’s to have all their taxes paid by December 31 of the current tax year.  If you wait till April to pay your balance you may be subject to substantial interest & penalties.

I recommend doing a quarterly tax projection so that an artist pays their taxes as they go instead of in one lump sum.  I would also recommend that whenever they can they opt to be paid net of taxes.  I know it’s not always possible but it is the optimal way to pay your taxes, thru withholding. 

What are some common misconceptions about tax prep for artists (write-offs, independent contractors, home-office etc.)?

I had a couple come in a few weeks ago and they were professional artists, earning a living at a professional art studio.  At home, they had a studio and practiced their art with the intention of selling it, spending all kinds of money on supplies and rent for the studio.  Someone had told them that if they showed losses for their personal business expenses, the IRS would consider their art a HOBBY and not let them take it on their tax returns. WRONG WRONG WRONG!

The IRS states that you can deduct losses as long as you are engaged in a business to make a profit.  The Hobby Loss Rule states that if a profit is not made in at least 3 out of 5 years then the IRS can challenge the deduction of the losses.   The IRS has 9 factors they use to determine if a person’s losses should be subject to the hobby loss rules. They are stated in IRC Section 183, as follows:       

1. The manner in which taxpayer carries on the activity.

                             2. The expertise of taxpayer or advisers.

                             3. Time and effort spent by taxpayer in carrying on the activity.

                             4. The expectation that assets used may appreciate in value.

                             5. Taxpayer’s success in other similar or dissimilar activities.

                             6. Amount of occasional profits, if any.

                             7. Taxpayer’s history of income/loss with respect to activity.

                             8. Financial status of taxpayer.

                             9. Elements of personal pleasure or recreation.

An argument can be made that a qualified performing artist is engaged in a business for profit if he or she constantly promotes and seeks employment within the industry.  So please, keep care in recording your expenses because in lean years a loss can come in handy in saving needed tax money.

What should you look for when looking for a tax accountant? What questions should you ask? Why not turbo tax or H&R block?

I’m of the opinion if you don’t know even a little about taxes you shouldn’t prepare your own.  Turbo Tax is wonderful as long as you know something about your tax situation.  In regards to H&R Block, they are known for hiring lay people and training them to work with a Turbo-Tax like program.  Most of them don’t know the difference between a deduction and a credit.  A tax deduction reduces your taxable income, their value depends on the taxpayer’s marginal tax rate and they cannot reduce taxable income to below zero.

In contrast, tax credits directly reduce a person’s tax liability and some can even be refunded directly to the taxpayer.  These nuances are important in order to correctly access a taxpayers tax situation.  Most employees of H&R Block would fail an in-depth exam on the tax code. On the other hand if you hire a CPA or Enrolled IRS Agent, you know right away that person has a tested expertise in the subject of taxes.  It’s one of the main questions you should ask a tax person, is he or she licensed. Other questions are what kind of clients do they work with? Are they available year round?  How do you bill for services?  I’ve heard so many horror stories about people going back to a tax preparer’s office and finding it empty.  Trust no one until you find out what their credentials are. 

Anything new and exciting in the tax code this year?

The payroll holiday ended this year.  For the past 2 years, the Social Security tax withholding rate on a person’s salary was reduced to 4.2% from 6.2%.  Due to the Republican’s little fiscal cliff drama at the end of the year, that ended.  Also, rates on ordinary income for higher income taxpayers rose to 39.6% from 35%.  This is actually a rollback to President Clinton’s highest tax rate.

Furthermore, personal & dependent exemption deductions were again set to phase out as your income increases. The last time we saw a phase-out rule for personal and dependent exemption deductions was 2009. As a result, your personal and dependent exemption write-offs can be reduced or even completely eliminated. Phase-out starts at the following adjusted gross income (AGI) thresholds: $250,000 for single filers, $300,000 for married joint-filing couples, $275,000 for heads of households, and $150,000 for married individuals who file separate returns. 

What should you do if you get audited?

Contact a tax professional to help you.  Dealing with the IRS can be tricky and if you’re not sure what you are doing you can really step in it.  As an Enrolled Agent, I can represent a taxpayer in tax court.  Dealing with a tax professional assures a person that their situation will be treated in an intelligent and professional manner.  Plus, a tax professional may be able to mitigate a penalty if it’s found that you owe back taxes.

How did you get into this line of business?

It’s a funny story, I was studying to be an actor when I got a job in an accounting firm mail room.  After about a year, one of the tax managers found herself in a bind to amend a client’s tax return and the office was empty of professionals.  She had become friendly with me and asked me if I wanted to take a shot at doing the return.  I said yes, since I had always been good at math.  I did ok.  She asked me a few more times, each time the return was a little more complex.  Finally, one day she called me into her office and told me in all seriousness that acting is a wonderful but very hard profession.  As a back-up, she said, you should take some accounting classes maybe even get a degree.  I went home and thought about it and saw the logic to her suggestion.  I changed my major and before I knew it, my back-up became my profession.  I still love acting and the cinema so I keep up with both as a side hobby.

Nieves Tax LLC provides a wide range of services to individuals and businesses in a variety of industries.  Mr. Nieves is a member of the National Association of Enrolled Agents. THEATERSPEAKERS get 10% off of tax services when they mention Theaterspeak. Yowza!

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lindsay Joy Murphy on her new play Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyber Queen

"...we put an image out there of how we want to be perceived, but how close is that persona to who we really are?"
Playwright Lindsay Joy Murphy
 How did you come to  playwriting?

I was an acting major at my University and I had a terrific teacher that encouraged me to take a playwriting class. He said it would make me a well-rounded actor. Our first assignment was to construct a ten-minute play. I wrote a short piece called "Life, Love and a 7-11" and it went on to win an award at the Kennedy Center that year. From the first assignment on- I've been hooked. Acting is wonderful, immediate. Writing, for me, has turned out to be so much more rewarding and satisfying.

What was the inspiration for Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyber Queen?

I read this article in Rolling Stone:

The article revolves around a "scene queen" named Kiki Kannibal. At 14, she created short videos that went viral. I started wondering what that would do to a family unit- to have fast fame centering around a young girl. A girl that is just coming to understand her own sexuality. It also got me thinking about these personas that we put out into the world. Meaning- we put an image out there of how we want to be perceived, but how close is that persona to who we really are?

What has the development been?

Development has been a long and quite enjoyable road. I had two amazing sources to help me along the way. I had Padraic's Play Development group- a group of smart, astute writers that give great and supportive feedback to help guide me. And my company, The LabRats, has been there every step of the way. I was able to bring this piece up for our retreat at NACL and then workshop it until it was a part of our yearly reading series, RAW. The play has had many different openings/endings but I'm so very pleased that we have landed with this script.

What do you like about working with director Padraic Lillis?

Everything. Seriously. Dude is crazy smart. He has been a guiding hand through the development of the play- he knows it as well as I do, probably better. He's like a laser in the rehearsal room- so specific with his notes. But what I really love is that it still feels like a collaboration. The process was so fun to watch and- over the weeks of rehearsals- it helped me see the little things that needed tweaking. Once you see a great director shake down a scene to need and action, and there is still a line sticking out? Well, that's a line problem!

What is inspiring you right now?

The new play that I'm writing cuts pretty close to home. It revolves around a couple trying to have a baby- a situation my hubby and myself are in right now. I had no idea that trying to conceive would take...trying. So, fertility is fascinating to me at this very moment.

You can see the Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyber Queen at the Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street) now thru March 17th. Purchase tix here or call 800-838-3006. Rise and Fall is produced by LabRats Theater company. Tickets are $18 but you can get them for $15 bucks by entering or mentioning SceneQueen! Do it. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Director Padraic Lillis on Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyber Queen

"...It is about needing to know we are seen and loved for who we are in reality, and creating a fantasy to make that possible."
Director Padraic Lillis

How did you meet the playwright Lindsay Joy Murphy?

I met Lindsay about eight years ago when she was a student in the Labyrinth Theater's Master Class. She was part of a very special group, one that I am glad I have been able to stay in regular contact with. Over the eight years, Lindsay has become a very good friend and collaborator. I love working with her.

My first thought about our collaboration is that it is fun and an easy process. However, that is only because she works very hard on her script before we go into rehearsal, and she is a very good writer. I've directed a workshop of a play of hers, Severence, and this play, Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyberqueen. In both experiences what I appreciate is how open Lindsay is to what the story needs. She is very open to changes. And most of the focus is on, what information is required for the story when thinking dramaturgically.
Playwright Lindsay Joy Murphy
Regarding working with the actors, Lindsay is very involved in the process without saying a lot. She lets everyone do their jobs, appreciates their take on things, and allows the play to grow. And then steps it at the right moments to make sure her intent grounds the growth.

What is the play about?

Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyberqueen opens with a fourteen year old girl posting a video of herself lipsynching from her bedroom. And the rise is about her videos going viral and the fall is the challenges of this fame. Ultimately, what I find very exciting about this play is that it is exploring the phenomenom of public/private moments that social media allows teenagers coming of age today to have. The ability to share everything publicly is very empowering, and it is confusing. That is what this play is about. Coming of age. It is about children maturing too fast in the age of social media.  And it is about how technology allows adults to remain young, maybe too long. It is about needing to know we are seen and loved for who we are in reality, and creating a fantasy to make that possible. That last sentence is interesting because I think about it in context of the play and social media, but I'm not too sure it isn't also why we do theater.

How do you approach collaborating with playwrights on new plays ?

I love working with writers. My approach is to direct the play that the writer has written. And to do that, I have to ask the writer a lot of questions about their play, the characters and the world they've created. I want to understand the inspiration for the play, and what is the heart of the story for the writer. I know that as a director, I bring insight into the 'stakes' of a moment, and can help clarify the thru-line or intent for a character while working with the actors on a scene, but I always want to be in dialogue with the writer, and have them be in the process, to let us know if our discovery is valuable to them, on the right track, or taking us somewhere that is not valuable.

Padraic Lillis
Lindsay is wonderful to work with because she is open and clear about what is important and necessary to telling the story. I also love sharing the moments of discovering that the play is much smarter than I am. I will point out how the writer did something brilliant for a character or for the storytelling. Usually it is a discovery the writer and I are making at the same time. I believe the writer's unconcious is always working and needs to be acknowledged. It is part of the writer's craft, and I think I like to acknowledge how good the writer is throughout the process because I never want that  to be forgotten. In an 'open' process people can start to think that they're helping to develop a play, and they are, but there is only one writer, and that person is respected throughout the process.

I also want to go back to the statement, that I direct the play.  This particular play has two music videos that were produced, shot, and edited for the production. The writer is invited and involved in every aspect of design, - and in this case filming. However, my job is to communicate with the writer before and after each meeting. It is not required that she be part of every meeting, every editing session, every...they are of course invited, but they wrote the play. That was plenty of work. Now it is our turn to help bring that play to life.

You are also a playwright, what are you working on right now?

I have two projects I'm working on. One is a solo piece that I wrote called, How to Survive Crack Addiction, which I am performing. It is the first time I've performed since college. I'm enjoying developing the play thru performance - and eventually I'll enjoy performing again.  And I have a play that I just started that I'm excited about, currently titled, You Should've Seen Me...right now it's a single mom needing to be recognized for what it takes to raise a family, and the first female to play professional baseball. We'll see where it goes.
Rehearsal for Murphy's Severence directed by Lillis
 You also teach, what is your approach? How do you frame the class, guide the process etc?

I have a play development workshop. My approach is to have actors come in to the class and cold read sections of the play for the writers to hear their work. And I ask a lot of questions. First thing I do, is to ask the writer what did they hear. Plays are meant to be seen, heard, experienced. From there I let them know what I respond to, what I'm excited to learn more about, what I'm invested in. But mostly I ask them what they are interested and invested in...and I hope that I guide them in discovering where that is happening and what needs to happen next to make the play stronger. My goal is the facilitate a process that allows the writer's voice to be as strong and clear as possible.

You can see the Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyber Queen at the Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street) now thru March 17th. Purchase tix here or call 800-838-3006. Rise and Fall is produced by LabRats Theater company. Tickets are $18 but you can get them for $15 bucks by entering or mentioning SceneQueen! Do it.