Anonymous Is Prominent in Audience of This Play
When Lisa Reynolds saw “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” the play about the inception of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s that opened Off Broadway recently at New World Stages, something strange happened. After Robert Krakovski, the actor who plays the A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson, delivered the first line of the play — “My name’s Bill W., and I’m an alcoholic” — most of the audience spontaneously responded, “Hi, Bill.”
“That’s something that happens at 12-step meetings,” said Ms. Reynolds, who flew in from Minnesota, where she works at Hazelden, the 58-year-old alcohol and drug rehabilitation center. “Everyone laughed because we were at a play, but we were still responding to another human being’s admission to this disease.”
As Hazelden’s alumni relations manager, Ms. Reynolds organizes events throughout the country for former clients. During that March 2 preview performance, she reserved 209 of the theater’s 350 seats at a group rate — $36 instead of $66 — for people in the New York region who had gone through Hazelden’s program.
And those same “Hi, Bills” have rebounded from the audience at virtually every performance. Thanks to interest from recovering alcoholics, group sales for “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” have been brisk. While Off Broadway advance sales tend to be negligible, the play sold $250,000 in advance tickets (all but $30,000 of it prepaid), the “preponderance” of those sales from addiction-recovery groups, said Sam Rudy, a show spokesman. One group came on a chartered bus from Delaware.
As the group’s name makes plain, Alcoholics Anonymous members do not hang neon signs outside their church-basement meetings. The group never, according to its own literature, “endorses, supports” or “becomes affiliated with” anything, including this play about its founders. (Advertising for the play carries a disclaimer that it is not A.A.-sanctioned.)
“I’ve done my share of spinning, but that just wasn’t right for this show,” said Albert Poland, the production’s general manager. “The audience has spent time getting in touch with their humanness. That’s what we wanted to reach into.” Those he hired to market the play are “people who brought their humanity to bear on their work, not spinners or manipulators,” Mr. Poland said.
Among those he hired is Marcia Pendelton. With A.A. meetings off limits, she spoke with other groups that combat alcoholism. Ms. Pendelton has gone to all five boroughs, and her first stop, in the fall, was the Staten Island Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. What does she say when given the floor? “I introduce myself, and I talk about the fact that it’s a play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and that to our knowledge it’s the first time this story has been told in the medium of theater,” she said. “It is because of these two men that many of the people in these rooms are alive and well.”
Adele Smithers, president of the Christopher D. Smithers Foundation, an alcoholism research and treatment charity, knew Bill Wilson before he died in 1971. She said that Mr. Wilson called organizations like those Ms. Pendelton visited “the bridges to A.A.,” as they have a more public profile and often funnel people into the group.
Ms. Pendelton and Francine Major, the show’s group sales agent, also transcended traditional marketing channels for their work on “The Color Purple,” promoting the play to African-American churches, professional groups and organizations like the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P.
But the target demographic for “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey, is far broader. “The recovery community is the ultimate democracy,” Mr. Poland said. “It is every income level, social level and race, and it has no leaders.”
Ms. Major approached so-called “sober travel” groups, recommending restaurants near New World Stages that have either no bars or low-profile ones. She pinpointed groups of 12-steppers within larger organizations through Internet searches of phrases including “recovery for lawyers,” “recovery for doctors” and “recovery for teachers.” Hugh Hysell, who also worked on marketing, provided free tickets to clergy members, couples therapists and teachers. Perhaps, Mr. Hysell reasoned, they would recommend the play to those seeking their counsel.
Now that the show has been up more than a month, some audience members are helping, in A.A. parlance, to pass it on. One woman who had seen the play with a group called Ms. Major. “She had taken a stack of promotional postcards and addressed them to friends at other organizations,” she said. “She put on her own stamps.”
Still, the steady flow of nondrinkers into the theater has not been good news for everyone. During a recent performance’s intermission, Nick Malone stood behind the bar in the theater’s lounge, waiting. There was not a single customer.
“Our bottled water sales are absurd right now,” Mr. Malone said. “Before ‘Bill W.’ came in, our bar manager would order bottled water once a month. Now we’re ordering it every week and a half.” Mr. Malone rarely serves the water, however, as most sales have been from carts stationed inside the theater.
“It’s the polar opposite of ‘Evil Dead,’ ” the raucous musical at New World Stages whose final performance was in February, Mr. Malone said. “They were a big beer-drinking crowd. We could barely keep the beer in stock.”
Finally, just as the chime sounds for theatergoers to return to their seats, Mr. Malone gets his first — and last — customers, two women in their 20s from the “Bill W.” audience. One orders a beer, the other a Tuppertini, a vodka cocktail Mr. Malone concocted for the Tupperware-themed play “Sealed for Freshness,” which is among the five productions now at New World Stages.
There is actually a “Bill W. Cocktail,” which is simply tonic water with a splash of Rose’s lime juice. It is no better than it sounds. “I’m not a big fan of the Bill W. drink,” Mr. Malone said.