For over 45 years, "Saturday Night Live" has been an American institution. The sketch comedy show has launched the careers of dozens of our most beloved comedy icons. But for the eight young and scrappy comedians who were part of that first cast in 1975, success was far from guaranteed.
The tumultuous first five years of SNL and the newfound stardom of its larger-than-life cast is the subject of the play "Not Ready For Primetime" written by FIU Theatre alumni Erik J. Rodriguez and Charles Sothers. The play, which opens on New Year’s Eve, is the first theatrical production at the new Westchester Cultural Arts Center in Tropical Park.
When "SNL" first came on the air and into living rooms all across the country, the story was the on-screen laughs. For Sothers and Rodriguez, however, the real story was happening when the cameras were off.
“These people had no idea what they were getting into,” Rodriguez says. “They didn’t know if the show would even last two weeks. But when it became a hit and launched them into superstardom the question then became how are you going to handle it?”
Along with the newfound success came bitter rivalries, drugs and affairs. But in spite of the turmoil, or maybe because of it, some unbreakable bonds were formed.
“It’s a play about celebrity and how it changes people,” Sothers says. “'SNL' is a great example of how people get rocketed to stardom and the different ways that can affect them.”
For Sothers, opening night will be doubly special. He is the artistic director of the Roxy Theatre Group, the managing company at the Westchester Cultural Arts Center. The center’s opening ushers in an exciting new chapter and a new home for his company.
The 200-seat black box theatre and art gallery space were built by Miami-Dade County as part of the voter-approved Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond program. The theatre officially opened its doors in October.
“Up until now, if you wanted to experience live professional theatre or concerts you had to drive east,” Sothers says. “Now you can enjoy the arts much closer to home. This is a resource for our community. People can rent the space to present anything from dance to concerts to plays to musicals.”
Sothers and his wife and fellow alumna Ana Andreu were part of the team who founded the nonprofit Roxy Theatre Group 20 years ago, fresh out of FIU. In the two decades since they started the company, thousands of “Roxy kids” have learned to dance, sing and act on their stages.
One of those Roxy Kids was Rodriguez. As a teenager, he tagged along with a friend to a rehearsal for "Guys and Dolls" and soon found himself on stage after another actor had to leave the cast at the last minute. He never looked back.
He started working in the Roxy’s after-school program and quickly struck up a friendship with Sothers. They were backstage during a production of "Holly Jolly Follies" when the idea for the play first came up.
Rodriguez was telling Sothers the story of a fight between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray during the second season of "SNL." The conversation soon morphed into spitballing the idea for a play. Two years later, after many late-night writing sessions, a full draft of the script emerged.
That initial script was produced by New Theatre in 2014 at the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center. The production was a success, but the story kept rattling around in Rodriguez and Sothers’ brains. This year, they decided to revisit the story and make big changes to the structure and focus of the play.
“We revisited all of the characters’ stories and their arcs,” Sothers says. “We go deeper into the dynamics between the characters and how their personalities change during those five years. We also reworked the ending into something that we think is more satisfying.”
The new and revamped production is directed by Conor Bagley and features a new cast of actors stepping into the iconic roles. The production team also features FIU theatre associate professor Tony Galaska as lighting designer; FIU alumna Melissa Almaguer as assistant director; and recent graduate Alexandrea Hess as production stage manager.
You can expect a lot of laughs and callbacks to some of those beloved early sketches and outlandish characters. But between the laughs, you will find a story that is much more human.
“I don’t look at it as a comedy or a drama — it’s life,” Rodriguez says. “Life isn’t one or the other. It’s comedy and drama, and I think that’s what we tried to capture in the play.”
"Not Ready for Primetime" opens on Dec. 31 at the Westchester Cultural Arts Center in Tropical Park. The play is produced by the Roxy Theatre Group, Broadway Factor, and Broadway United. Tickets are available at www.notreadyforprimetimeplay.com.