Propmaster's Revenge

By Ann-christine-diaz Published on .

Tabletop is a living nightmare. The play, which in July kicked off the season for The Working Theatre at The Bessie Schonberg Theater in New York (and is set to run again in mid-October at the American Place Theater), documents a day-in-the-life of a commercials shoot for a fast-food smoothie drink. For industry outsiders, it's a vicarious thrill ride into the tedium and terror that goes into filming various inanimate what-nots like fruit and beer, but for those already in the biz, it can be a deja-vu dip into all that is excruciatingly real about the world of tabletop production.

"Maybe it is a little scary, " concedes the play's author, Rob Ackerman. "A friend of mine turned to some people in the audience who were technicians. They looked a little horror stricken." The show, which had a five-week extended run playing to full houses, features a cowering technical crew and and a coldhearted assistant director who scramble to film the perfect foamy swirl atop a Frozen Fruit Freeze - as they cringe under the tyrannical thumb of Marcus, a merciless time bomb of a director who likes to punctuate his commands with the word "fuck" and whose once-hotshot rep, now on the downslide, only further fuels his rage.

It's no coincidence that the play is so evocative of true-to-life angst. "I lived it," says Ackerman, who worked as a commercials prop manager and technician for more than a decade. "Every horrible thing Marcus has said has been said to me in real life," he claims. Some of the caustic lines? One is "You could fuck up a one-car funeral," which Marcus bellows at the green and overeager prop assistant Ron, whom Ackerman says he modeled a bit after himself. Another real-life bit resurfaces when Marcus snottily implores the prop manager to employ Ron's assistance. "Come on, help him, Jeffrey, hire the handicapped," he derides.

Although the director may seem a tad over-the-top, Dean Taucher, the play's set designer who has worked with Ackerman on commercials gigs, says Marcus is a pussycat compared to what's really out there. "I have to say he toned it down from real experiences," Taucher claims. "He made this Marcus look like a nice guy compared to some of the directors we've worked for."

Ackerman explains that the tyrannical Marcus is actually a hybrid of people for whom he's worked in the past. "Quite honestly, the director in the play is not one guy," he says diplomatically, but he reveals that, among others, Bruce Van Dusen, Peter Corbett, Bob Giraldi, Phil Marco and Gary Perweiler in some way inspired the shaping of Marcus.

But Ackerman's not holding any grudges. "At this point, I'm not festering about, `Oh, they were so mean to me,' " he explains, adding that the play is meant to enlighten audiences about the high-pressure environment of the ad biz. "In 1991, when I first wrote the play, I had a lot of self-pity. But more recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking, `How does this stuff happen? What are the pressures on some of the people like Marcus?' In advertising, there can be this incredible pressure not to slip up, and if you're already slipping, that pressure becomes more intense."

Ackerman's commentary also extends to the sociopolitical peeves he has about the industry. For example, assistant cameraman Dave is a closeted homosexual who is loathe to reveal details of his personal life. "I don't know a single gay technician, but I totally don't believe there are no gay people in the business," opines Ackerman. "It's worse than the military. The characters do what they have to to survive, balancing what they need personally and from work. All I'm trying to do is tell the truth. There are many notable exceptions, but the film business is homophobic, sexist and it's power-centered."

The world of theater is a lot more forgiving, at least in Ackerman's book. "I did initially write it out of being upset about the business, but in the end, I sympathize with all my characters because I have to. As a playwright, you can't just write about getting somebody slaughtered. You have to care about the slaughterer and the slaughteree."

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