… “Great Work Can Happen Anywhere” *…
March 22 I attended a panel** on “The Land of Plenty” — New works in the NYC theater scene,” with a focus on sustaining Indie/Off-Off-Broadway theater. The setting was a tiny theater on East 4th Street — a street dense with theaters, tiny to ample. The stage set behind the panelists, with hospital beds and overhead lights, is for the OYL Theater Company’s current play, The Killing Room. Thumps from above led Ianthe Demos, OYL’s Artistic Director, to explain that the theater is dark on Tuesdays because of the karate class — that’s why we were here on a Tuesday.
And that says a lot: small, determined and seizing upon obstacles as opportunities, to say nothing of committed, varied and talented: these are powerful signatures of the Indie theater scene in NYC today.
What really matters
I was struck, in the discussion, that though some problems were brought up, at any given moment the panelists were much more likely to be talking about the pleasures, thrills, gratifications of working in Indie–Off-Off-Broadway theater! They were well aware of the issues and problems, and looking to find ways to solve them, but what they really cared about was what they were doing creatively. What matters is “the work,” as Daniel Talbot said.
Actors Equity loomed as a nuisance factor in the course of the evening, in particular rules on numbers of performances permitted — Indie would like longer runs — and strictures against taping performances. Equity’s rules are in their way — antiquated and certainly not designed for the issues of current Indie theater. Fiscal problems came up. “I would like to be able to pay my playwrights $10,000,” said Demos. But the speakers invariably spun off from these “negatives” to their satisfactions and excitement about “the work.”
Theater as nurturing “home”
Several panelists stressed that Indie theater plays an essential role in developing new plays and nurturing new playwrights — “Playwrights learn by being produced,” said playwright Crystal Skillman. Several emphasized Indie theaters can provide an important “home” for theater artists — August Schulenburg spoke with pride of the generative “home” environment his theater, Flux, provides for new plays and playwrights — Skillman agreed with enthusiasm!
Schulenburg suggested a unifying organization with perhaps some theater-sharing. How about an intra-theater flex-pass that would encourage theater-goers to get to know a variety of Indie theaters? Strengthening and encouraging connections between Off-Off and Off-Broadway; this already happens informally since some people involved in Off-Off-Broadway, including some panelists and audience members, have “day jobs” and other connections with Off-Broadway. “Don’t miss a chance to talk about your work,” said Skillman, “talk about it anywhere and everywhere, in and out of NY!”
One might expect people so dedicated and involved in their tough work might wear blinders to quality beyond their immediate world but not these creative artists. The panelists were not at all parochial. They enjoyed talking about fine works they’d seen at well established Off-Broadway theaters such as Public Theater and Manhattan Theater Club — although they didn’t spend much time on that, and it wasn’t the point of the evening. I hope those working in the established Off-Broadway theaters, and Broadway theaters, have the same broad view.
*”Great work can happen anywhere,” Talbott said in discussing connections between Indie and Off-Broadway. Yes! That happens to be one of my most deeply held beliefs, and by the way, I’ll go anywhere, Off-Off-, Off- or plain vanilla, where I think there’ll be something good. Off-Off-Broadway today is a land of astonishing plenty and we on hand in NYC are fortunate to enjoy the bounty. I wish even more people realized that.
**The panel: Zack Calhoun, actor and playwright; Ianthe Demos, director, Artistic Director One Year Lease Company (OYL); Alan Lockwood, theater critic, writer and cultural commentator; Sarah McLellan, arts administrator; August Schulenburg, playwright, actor, director, and Artistic Director of Flea Theatre Ensemble; Crystal Skillman, playwright; Daniel Talbott, actor, playwright, teacher, Literary Manager Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Artistic Director Rising Phoenix Rep.