Duplex Team Heads to the Bistro Awards
Thomas Honeck, General Manager, and Lisa Moss, Assistant General Manager, of the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, will be recognized as a creative team at the 29th annual Bistro Awards for the work they do at the venerable hotspot. Each wears many hats, but their artistic collaboration goes back thirty years, when they met at Brockport State University.
EDGE recently sat down with the pair to ask about their history and their ongoing work at the Duplex, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street in New York's West Village.
EDGE: I had no idea you two first knew each other in college. Were you both performers?
Lisa Moss: Yes, we were both theater majors, so in the course of college we played brother-in-law and sister, and mother and son. And then Rosalind and Orlando. So we did a lot together back then.
EDGE: Did you come to the Duplex as a team?
Thomas Honeck: I actually came because I knew Tony DiCicco, who is the owner now. We were touring together doing ’Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and he had stopped to take over a management position here. And then a weekend management position came open. I wasn’t all that comfortable with it because . . .
Lisa Moss: The other owner could be difficult to work with. [Laughs]
Thomas Honeck: So I left, but then a tech director position opened up in ’96. The boss was kind of hands-off with the cabaret room, so Jim Latzel and I ran the room together. It was great because he would go off to do Twyla Tharp for six to eight weeks, I did the Cleveland Playhouse for two months. Then Twyla wanted him full-time, so I went from being a technical director to hiring people and all the other stuff. Basically, I got back from the Cleveland Playhouse and they said Jim’s not coming back.
It was a sudden change. I went through a ton of booking managers and technicians. I always like to say, ’I can’t make people care and I can’t teach feel.’ A lot of times I’d get a technician who was really good at running the lights and sound but they could not relate to the performer. Or I would get somebody who was really great personally but they could not run two cues consecutively. I got to a point where I became the only one here and I was running everything. There was a span of time where I ran every show for ten weeks. At about the seventh week, I approached Lisa, and told her, ’I think you could do this job.’
Lisa Moss: I started in 2003. I was the ingénue in college, I was the girl they would give the job of pulling the nails out of flats. I had no technical background but I had been directing and coaching for a long time and had been dramaturg on a lot of Thomas’ screenplays when he was writing. So we’d been working together. I was also doing a lot of stage managing at the time. He was desperate because he was literally making himself sick, having no day off in two months. I think directors should have an understanding of sound and lights. It’s helpful. So I said, ’Sure, I’ll give it a try.’ [Laughs] I was also working full-time at Goldman Sachs at the time. We had a very short training and he gave me the basics.
Thomas Honeck: I wasn’t paying attention because I was so grateful to have a day. Because she worked full-time, she had scheduled herself back to back to back techs on a Saturday!
Lisa Moss: It was the only time I could do it, on the weekends.
Thomas Honeck: I didn’t think anything of it, but this was the accelerated program.
Lisa Moss: We had a show in here that was running at 11:30 at night and it had 70 lighting cues. It was ridiculous. Then they brought their lighting designer to the tech and redesigned the whole show!
Thomas Honeck: And she wasn’t ready to put down her foot and it kind of snowballed. I walked in after the third tech. I asked her how it was going, and she turned around and it was like Laura Petrie. [Cries] ’Oh, Rob!’
Lisa Moss: So he got me off the cliff and then fortuitously ended up in the hospital with pneumonia a week later. I had no choice but to get thrown right into it. Every show, every tech! One of the first persons he gave me was Baby Jane Dexter and she scared the crap out of me! I was terrified! I’m calling him, crying, and he’s lying there with a punctured lung! Such a nightmare.
A crazy business
EDGE: This is such a crazy business. If you look back on those thirty years and your lives in New York, have your dreams turned out in a way you imagined?
Lisa Moss: No! Not even a little bit! We moved right from college; we were both 21 at the time. Thomas almost left New York after six months.
Thomas Honeck: I had gotten a technical director job at HB Studios right off the boat and I didn’t know what evil was until I worked for them.
Lisa Moss: He was working sixteen hours a day-
Thomas Honeck: And I couldn’t please them. New Year’s Eve, I had finished my commitment to them, and I was going home. It took me about a month to recover, and then I came back.
Lisa Moss: We both really wanted to be actors. He pursued it more than I did. I was supporting myself, working temp and doing day jobs. I did well, though. Pretty much anything I went out for, I got called back for.
Thomas Honeck: She would go to an audition and get a callback. I’d audition, crickets. I didn’t make the decision to do theater until I was eighteen so I didn’t know a lot about it. I wanted to learn all about it-I took lighting design, stagecraft, everything I could possibly do. So when I came back to New York, I made money in the business, but not necessarily as an actor.
EDGE: You both wear so many hats. How often do your roles overlap?
Lisa Moss: Definitely we confer with each other on the running of the club. He is the booking manager and the general manager but-
Thomas Honeck: But I couldn’t do it without her.
Lisa Moss: He completely took it over. It was not very profitable at that point. He quadrupled the amount of business that was coming in here within about a year.
Thomas Honeck: The idea was that I was going to do it until they got somebody permanent. I had no training period, but I had watched and learned how not to do the job.
Lisa Moss: He wanted to change the philosophy of running the room, how people were treated when they came here. That’s how we work together really well. I love doing the tech stuff because I feel that every night I’m giving somebody the night of their lives, an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. It makes me so happy to know that when people leave here, they are thinking, ’This will go down in my memory as one of the best nights of my life.’ That’s the philosophy he instituted. That’s what changed the feeling of the room.
EDGE: That’s powerful. It’s true. Any time I’ve done cabaret, it becomes one of the great moments of my life.
Lisa Moss: It is! It’s like getting married, having the kids, to say, ’I performed a solo show in New York.’ It’s about how people were treated that started that, and that’s something he initiated.
Thomas Honeck: It’s cabaret. Everybody should have a good time, from the time they call here to book to the time they leave with their audience. This is home, have a good time. And I want the staff to have a good time too.
Lisa Moss: And everybody should be treated the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re Betty Buckley or someone who just came off the bus. It doesn’t matter.
EDGE: What do you look for in an act when you book or produce or direct?
Thomas Honeck: The Duplex has always been a place of beginnings so I give everybody a shot. It’s been a launching pad for a lot of people and you really don’t know what someone has to offer until you see them on the stage. Then you know if it will work going forward, or if you can suggest a better venue for them.
Lisa Moss: I don’t really produce because I’m terrible with the money! I do the directing. We look for things that make us happy. Maybe an unusual idea, something we can use. New talent. We like to find talented people who don’t yet have a lot of credits in New York. ’Sing Me a Story’ came out while we were riding in a car and we were listening to songs of the ’70s.
So we wanted a show of story songs, and the best ones were in the ’70s, which was our music. It became such fun hearing the kids saying, ’I’ve never heard this song! Maybe I’ll use it at an audition!’ Some of these kids had never heard of ’American Pie’! And then I got the idea for ’Social Intercourse’ while I was working at Goldman Sachs. I started looking at emails, and then technology kept coming up. The show finally evolved twelve years later.
EDGE: The great thing about that show is that the technology is always changing, so the material kind of gave a history of how we communicate.
Lisa Moss: Yup. Then Thomas’ solo shows were some of my favorite things to work on ever. He’s the writer, but he writes a lot-
Thomas Honeck: I had written about seventy pages, and she was ruthless in a wonderful way. We cut it down to twenty pages. I trust her. And it’s great when you have someone who has your back. We would literally spend hours on a certain word.
Lisa Moss: Every word is important, so we were word-smithing the whole thing. And I was working at Goldman and teching at night at that point.
Thomas Honeck: And at one point, she called me and said she was in the hospital-
Lisa Moss: It wasn’t serious, but I was there for hours. But that’s where his brain goes! I got her pinned down! She can’t leave! I’m coming over there with a script!
EDGE: How much does box office potential weigh in your decision when you book?
Thomas Honeck: I want people to be successful. Sometimes people come in and say they want to do five shows, and I say, ’Wouldn’t you rather do two shows with a full house, and then we’ll go from there?’ It’s a whole different energy with a bigger audience. Just because you put in all the time and effort, it doesn’t mean you have to do it all at once. Cabaret is a different thing: pick and choose your time. Or they want to do three days in a row. No. How about three days, once a week. That way you have time to build word of mouth. Allow your audience to want to come back.
Lisa Moss: And then people want to come in and make money, so they want to charge $25 a ticket. And he is very good about telling them, ’Would you rather have 60 people at your show paying $10 each or 20 people paying $25 apiece?’ It’s a feeling of accomplishment when you fill the room.
EDGE: Here we are in awards season. Usually the performer gets most of the attention. What do you think is the most undervalued role in the success of a show?
Thomas Honeck: A lot of it is the planning of it and the writing of it.
Lisa Moss: As a director, I’m used to working on the patter with them. That’s the most underrated aspect of a show, I think. The patter. And I have an appreciation for music directors who take it seriously and go home and practice. And, of course, technicians are totally undervalued!
Thomas Honeck: There’s a quote: ’I want to be as unnoticeable but as essential as the air you breathe.’ When the lights and sound are right and it takes care of the performer, it becomes part of that flow.
Lisa Moss: It supports the performer without upstaging them.
EDGE: What has been your most satisfying accomplishment at the Duplex so far?
Lisa Moss: Thomas’ show was an absolute highlight, and I loved ’Social Intercourse’ because it had been in the works for so long. Like I said, the overall feeling of giving people the night of their lives.
Thomas Honeck: What was satisfying about my own show was that the stuff that I went into is stuff that is not normally talked about, like my spiritual journey. Sometimes if I talk to people about it they get a glazed look, but if you put it in the form of entertainment, people can relate to that. It gives you the opportunity to widen someone’s perception just a little bit. And that can literally alter someone’s whole world.
Secret to success
EDGE: What is the secret to running a good room?
Thomas Honeck: Before they turned the club over to me, the waiters would go to the owner, the tech staff would come to me, and the performer would go to the booking manager. When I took over, they kept giving me more to do. And before I knew it, everything was under one umbrella. It was one vision.
Lisa Moss: It became a clear vision, which it never was before. It became about treating people with respect. Treating it as a business. And loving what you do. And make sure they walk away loving the experience. They are such basic things, but I think a lot of times people don’t think about them.
Thomas Honeck: We love that Julie Gold lives up the street and she loves making this her home. And just yesterday, we had Concetta Bertoldi, a best-selling psychic, but she loves coming here to do readings because she feels this is where she can completely be herself.
Lisa Moss: It’s a really a safe place. You can do anything. Cabaret in here is not defined the way it is in some other clubs. Thomas has been working to change what cabaret is and what it could be. If it stays the same, it will go away. It will go away if people don’t change their impression of what cabaret can be, and open it up to the young people.
Thomas Honeck: It’s an intimate experience, but it’s not defined by the American Songbook. It’s allowing people to have a shared, intimate experience. Ben Rimalower’s show was a lot of fun, and it was a different kind of thing. We followed that up with Tom Hewitt’s ’Another Medea.’ Very dark monologue. I felt so privileged to be part of the working process and watching it develop here. It went to the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Lisa Moss: That’s what it used to be, too. Hal Holbrook started ’Mark Twain Tonight’ here, at the old location.
Thomas Honeck: It is kind of black box theater. Often people want to do these grandiose things. And I tell them to make their limitations their strength. Instead of trying to expand outside of that, take this and make it work.
Lisa Moss: As long as people are okay with the fact that you can’t move the piano!
EDGE: It was obvious to the Bistro Awards Committee that you two do this for the love of the art form. Where do you see the future of cabaret going and how do you keep your finger on the pulse of that?
Lisa Moss: One thing is that Thomas never says no to anybody. He’s willing to try anything in the space to see if it works. [Laughs] Well, we did have a couple of instances of baton twirlers and fire eaters.
Thomas Honeck: And aerialists!
Lisa Moss: Yes! He invites them in to see a show in the space. I don’t know if that’s the future of cabaret, but it certainly helps not to slam the door on anything.
Thomas Honeck: A lot of the people, we kind of helped along. I might have heard someone do a song and asked them if they wanted to do an entire show. Like Will Van Dyke. Now he’s the associate music director on ’Kinky Boots.’ Sometimes you see that flash of somebody and you say, ’Come on, do a show.’ That’s part of the fun part, when they finally say they are ready.
Lisa Moss: And they take off. And they end up having the best time of their life. The Duplex is a really special place. Once you play here, you’re family.
Thomas Honeck: And they almost always come back.
The Bistro Awards will be held at Gotham Comedy Club on Tuesday, March 4, starting at 6:30 p.m. Go to ww.bistroawards.com to see the complete lineup and for ticket information.