“You Say You Want a Revolution...”
A Glimpse into NYC’s Independent Producing Scene

“Where would I be without inventive producers?”

“An affair is a test of love. How you live with it tells you everything.” Hunter Canning and Jeff Ronan in Crystal Skillman’s Wild. Photo by Louise Lee.

Flying back to N.Y.C. from my first trip to La La land, preparing to go back into the room with my play Wild (to open at I.R.T. this spring), I find my mind wandering its way to this question. It was writing for playwright/curator Caridad Svich’s wonderful “Artistic Innovation” blog salon series for Theater Communications Group (T.C.G.) last summer that first unearthed the importance of this idea for me. I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be the inventive theater artist I am without the inventive producers who have commissioned me and created opportunities for writers like me to develop my work.
Now, as I land, grab my baggage, and get caught up on ye olde Interweb, I’m catching wind of “The Summit,” a series of discussions at Arena Stage (a theater which has, wonderfully, committed itself to commissioning more women artists in the coming years). But the most recent discussion, which featured artistic directors, seemed to evoke the old despair, with the same issues reappearing: diversity, affordable ticket prices, and the how-to of getting women’s voices out there.

A lot of my friends are seriously down from what I sense is the despair of fixing a broken system by systematic solutions. What is up with this pipeline thing? So many decisions seem to be made for an amorphous subscribership. But are younger theatergoers even going to want to buy a subscription in this modern artistic tapas world? While the theater world is working to solve these issues in a more long-term way, I want to draw attention to the solution I’ve seen on a more immediate level and which has allowed me to grow as an artist in the past five years dramatically, no pun intended: the independent producer.

Hunched over various bars across the city, or perhaps snagging a cookie at the Path Cafe across from the wonderful I.R.T. and New Ohio Theater, I’ve had this discussion with some incredible individuals—from artistic collaborators on Wild (which started as a commission) to some of the innovative producers I’ve been working with this year.

So, pull up a chair! Here’s your merlot! At this table you’ll find actors who take a more active role than you’d expect in creating work on stage and on screen, as well as artistic directors, directors, and designers—people who have made the IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE.

Like—director Christiana Roussos! Christina and I met when she was recommended to direct Diana Stahl in a monologue from Wild for a benefit that writer Mariah MacCarthy was creating. After that simple collaboration, Christina and Diana began working together on a short film (now making its way around town), and Christina found herself directing a new webisode series written by Emily Chadick Weiss, which I love, called The Share.

Christina Roussos: To me, inventive producing means that everyone in the room really wants to make the project happen, and the project itself is put through rigorous scrutiny. If I’m going to show up at 6 a.m. schlepping props and costumes I’d better be really clear on why I’m doing it and why I think it is important. I got involved with The Share when I was directing a short play by Emily Chadick Weiss in a festival of short plays with Theater Breaking Through Barriers. T.B.T.B. is a conventional off-Broadway production company with the unconventional goal of exploring disability. Emily and I were drinking at West Bank Cafe after the show and talking about careers and it felt like we had pretty similar goals—to work in Film, T.V., and Theater—and it turns out that she had this great pilot she’d been working on and a stellar cast to match! It was almost right after that conversation she and I and Steve Boyer started planning to film her script. We funded through Indiegogo, tapped into all of our respective resources and after about six months had made this great pilot. We were certainly inventive, but more than that we were totally committed to making it happen. Who said, “Necessity is the mother of invention”?

Sometimes changing artistic roles—going from producer to actor and back again—can feed you as an artist. Addie Johnson Talbott (Associate Theater Editor of the Rail) is one of my favorite actresses (we worked on my play Follow last fall), but she also is one of the best producers in the city (All the Rage, Rising Phoenix Rep).

Addie Johnson Talbott: Before I ever helped produce anything, I think I spent way too much time as an actor trying to control my circumstances. Actors have to unzip their skin, night after night, and let us in. It all happens in the breath and life and in the moment onstage, so everything you build up in the production has to support the acting. Good producing is a service job, and the better it’s done the less you can see the support structure. When I work as an actor now, I trust that I can let go of shit I can’t control, and that leaves me no excuse not to try my damnedest to fully give over to the demands of the play and character and production. I definitely don’t succeed at that most of the time, but it’s such a gift and such a responsibility to act, and producing makes me appreciate that more. 

Currently, I’m lucky to be working with Hunter Canning as Peter in Wild. Hunter is one of the incredible actors on several webisode series I love— The Outs, Whatever This Is—and he’s also one of the best theater photographers I know. Hunter is an artist who thrives on collaboration.

Hunter Canning: In New York we all wear a lot of hats, there’s really no other way to make it work. With the web series I’m in—Whatever this is—our production team of 20 was considered “big” for a web show. But every one of those people was lifting the weight of five jobs. One would think online marketing, line producing, and costume assistant would be three different people, but nope, we had someone that rocked all of it, so he did it. I also work as a theater photographer and I just love it. It’s insanely satisfying to shoot a dress rehearsal of a show I’ve never seen before and walk out of there knowing I captured the essence of the show. When I sync up my mood with the tone the director has presented, my actor instincts kick in, and I know where to move to get the best shot. Shooting theater helps me keep a pulse on what my peers are producing and continually inspires me to rethink what’s possible. 

Diana Stahl, also in Wild, and a personal longterm writer/actress friend, chimes in on this idea of the possible.

Diana Stahl: [The second time I produced] it was a series of short plays set in a house party which I co-produced with Hunter Canning and Leon “Buddy” Pease. We asked a bunch of writers to write plays that might happen at different parts of a party, then we strung them together in party sequence and threw a rager in Williamsburg. It was a blast. There were 22-year-olds screaming “we want to see the play!” and then we danced until 4 a.m. I think I’m sort of restless, which is why I started to produce things. And also, sometimes if I wanted to act in something for an actual audience it meant having to co-produce it with friends to make sure someone saw it. So I’m not sure if that comes from a combination of skills but more from knowing that the only way to get better at what you do is to do it. Not to wait. To find a way to do it.

Directors with producing/developmental vision continue to change our world. Wild would not have been written if Evan F. Caccioppoli, who formed the company Kid Brooklyn Productions, hadn’t commissioned the play, producing and directing it in Chicago. He is now directing Wild for Sanguine Theater Company at I.R.T. this spring. Jessi D. Hill is a director who shaped my life personally when I was working in Groundbreakers (a great developmental group run by the wonderful terraNOVA Collective).

Evan F. Caccioppoli: If I was just a director on both these projects (Wild and a new play by Sarah Shafer in the works) I would have either been brought in to develop the play in workshop or direct a production. I don’t know if I would have been with both these projects from beginning to end. I feel that being a director/producer allows me to really develop a project and tell stories that excite me. Being a director/producer allows you to continue with a play through the development process to production, it allows you to create deep artistic relationships with playwrights and actors. Doing both is not always easy—having a great team of collaborators who have the chance to be with a play from start to finish is priceless.

Jessi D. Hill: From past experience I can say it’s a pretty special and coveted experience for a director to be there from the start and to have all the questions that the playwright has been grappling with in the writer’s group room in mind when approaching the full production. I learn pretty intimately what the playwright is trying to do with the play and I feel like I have a voice in reflecting back to the playwright what’s coming through to an audience at each stage of development.

I got to know Artistic Director Nick Leavens when I worked with him and his company, |the claque|, in their Quick and Dirties series. Every time we talk over a drink, I’m floored by his unique take on the issues of creating a life as a theater artist today and his passion for finding cool ways to create developmental support to do so.

Nick Leavens: The reason I started |the claque| has little to do with me as a director. Many companies form because they want to produce work that they want to be involved with as artists. The reason that we started to put what we do together was to create a more sustainable vision of the performing arts. Sustainable meaning if I’m looking at an entire season and how to fund it, it’s difficult, but if I look at an individual program I can identify key artistic players and funding resources that are interested in that specific project. We can find an artist base that’s invested in this project specifically. Sometimes the projects can support themselves creating an income stream, which is somewhat unique.

As an example, we created the Spotlight Actor Fellowship. (Note—actress Megan Hill is the first recipient). David Chapman came up with the idea—we had a conversation about this type of support existing for writers and directors but not for actors. He had an idea of some kind of actor fellowship and we talked about it over a few months and continued to fine-tune the idea. Then I felt confident enough with what the program was that I said, “Let’s do this!” The thing that I do that’s really stupid is that everything we’ve ever done we started without having the money for it. Which is fucking stupid, but when you create a solid track record and start to establish that what you do is valuable and important, then the money will follow. We did that, and that still sometimes surprises me.

Jennifer Conley Darling (terraNOVA Collective) has also been tackling these issues of development. I was floored when in the winter of 2012 I could see terraNOVA’s production of P.S. Jones and the Frozen City (Rob Askins’s play) at the New Ohio , or run upstairs to IRT, in the same building, on the third floor to see their Ubu (Adam Szymkowicz’s version with Daniel Irizarry), both running at the same time. Jennifer talks about their approach to producing and development. (Just a quick side note, to say, as you might have noticed, that the New Ohio and IRT Theaters at 154 Christopher Street—and I’d include Incubator Arts at St. Marks Church on this list—are venues programming some of the best work in this city right now. Amazing! And you might also note, many of these wonderful producers, like Jennifer, I met through Women’s Project Theater’s incredible Lab—I encourage you to check it out.)

Jennifer Conley Darling: When you look at our seasons you’ll always see that a major aspect of it is a Groundworks production, whether it’s a workshop production or fully produced. TerraNOVA strongly believes in creating partnerships and communities around our work. To that end, we consistently look for ways to pool resources with other theater companies and producers that share our passion for innovative new projects and new plays. As a result our season can often include co-productions that allow us to support more work we believe in. We would say it is our focus on what our artists are most passionate about in any given period. This is the most innovative to us—listening to our artists’ needs.

To keep up with a modern world requires inventive ways. Lanie Zipoy, a very inventive producer, knows firsthand how to cultivate an audience, with totally organic PR. She brings us back to audience expectations.

Lanie Zipoy: Inventive producing means that I can work with more incredible artists than I dreamed possible and deeply impact communities—both artist and audience—with the work. So much is learned from seeing a play up on its feet—even in the back room of a bar. I’m always thinking about how to get an audience to a show, how to engage them once there, and what will speak to them. To me, PR and producing are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. PR is really the story around the story. It’s important to get both right—the PR and the producing. They need to align so that when the audience walks into the theater, they feel they are getting the experience—or something close to—what they were expecting.

Below, director Alex Mallory (Co-Artistic Director of Poetic Theater, Artistic Associate of Culture Project), Jonathan Cottle (Theater Designer who is doing sets/lights on Wild, and who has created a new designer/writer collaborative series, Work with Me Here , at HERE this March), and Anna Fearheiley (one of the Sanguine producers of Wild), chat about ways to involve the audience that invites them in—from reflecting the community you wish to attend in the subject on stage; to new, welcoming environments; to literally giving your audience a voice in the selection process.

Alex Mallory: In my work with Poetic Theater Productions, we try to turn issues into communities. In Goliath (written by Takeo Rivera), we have military veterans read their poetry before the piece and then follow the show with a conversation with the audience. This becomes a platform for conversations between civilians and veterans that continue beyond the theater walls. For the Women Center Stage festival, we started a roundtable “Think Tank” series before shows where we could talk about issues relating to being a woman artist: from mentorship and opportunity cost to motherhood and definitions of “success.” In each of these cases, the goal was to expand community by bringing in friends of friends and friends of friends of friends and to act as a conduit for further collaboration and conversations among artists and audiences who might not otherwise cross paths. In addressing political issues, the question becomes how to change the concept of seeing a play about an issue to inviting the audience to participate in it.

Jonathan Cottle: When theater goers hear the words “workshop,” “reading,” or “rehearsal,” they call to mind a certain visual vocabulary: rehearsal cubes, black box theaters, music stands, etc. What happens when those things are not part of the equation? What is a rehearsal in a space that calls to mind 18th-century Shanghai? What’s a work in progress performed in an imperial British African hunting lodge? That was the origin of Work With Me Here. I wanted to, if only for a little while, carve out a place for some fantastic people to show their stuff in a non-traditional theatre space, an eclectic room rich with allusion, character and anachronism. In America, theater designers come to meetings and tech. They are not part of the generation of content, only the refining. As a designer, I am deeply invested in how the visual/tactile world affects the interior world.

Anna Fearheiley: To me, inventive producing means stripping away the formality of “the theater” as an institution, and inviting improvisation, exploration, and collaboration into the producer’s process just as much as it appears in a design studio or a rehearsal room. The Project Playwright competition grew out of the necessity to recognize undiscovered playwrights who struggle for years to even have their plays looked at.

On that note, Sanguine’s Project Playwright is a very cool initiative—it literally makes producing a new full length play an event—the fun is in the producing itself. The plays are selected on Project Playwright Festival night—the audience votes on selections from the five finalist full-length plays which Sanguine’s Literary Team has chosen. That night, the audience green lights the new full-length play that will be fully produced in their upcoming season, in addition to the other plays Sanguine has already selected to produce that year (for instance, Wild).

When Sanguine called me up after workshopping Wild with Evan and I this summer and said they’d like to produce the play in NYC, as a playwright I had an important decision to make. Wild is a very strong play for me and has opened many doors to larger theatres who are now eager to read my next play. It’s an exciting time. But what about Wild itself? Do I still hold on, tweak, hope, pray that it will get picked up at some point by a 100-200 seat house? Fellow Sanguine producer Jillian Robertson’s words sealed the deal—I think I’m getting this right: “We just believe that Wild can be done in any city around the world, and it will affect an audience with its universal message of love.” Unknown to her, these are the exact same words that Evan said to me upon reading the first draft of the play and what director Sharon Willems (Artistic Director of Kibo Productions) spoke to me when asking to debut Wild with her company in the UK (in the works for 2014 – 15). Some of the new plays I’m writing are written to be done in larger theaters—just by their budgets, that’s where they belong. It’s not that Wild didn’t belong there (it enjoyed success as well in MCC Theater’s Playlabs series), but it’s having a wildly, excitingly different opportunity: to find several productions with communities that want to put on the play and share it with those communities. There it can reach the audiences it needs to—it might be an audience of 50 a night, but that is a beautiful, beautiful thing to me.

I’m so excited by all the discussion right now being had by theaters of all sizes—about how theater can truly be effective and continue to find meaning in our culture, reach audience, and allow theater artists to, well, do their job! Because it is a job. An important one. It allows us to dream. My ultimate dream is for that conversation to happen between theaters of all sizes—where inventive producers of all sorts of projects can engage (other than in Chicago, and here with Women’s Project Theater Lab, I have yet to see this happen). What independent producers and producing offer is tremendous. As Alex Mallory says, “You have to give an audience something that they can’t find on the internet because it involves a physical experience like Sleep No More or dinner at Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, because human interaction is essential to the performance, or because it just offers something that they can’t predict or recreate.”

And for a final kernel of inspiration, I think Jonathan says it best:

Jonathan Cottle: My opinion is as long as we’re all stuck playing to 60 seat houses and getting way underpaid, we might as well commit ourselves to a greater task than “maybe we’ll get noticed by someone important.” So what’s in our favor? Ticket price is a big one. We need to use the fact that our tickets range $10 – $50 to get butts in seats! New young, smart people who don’t usually come to the theatre! We can convert them! We are not slaves to the commercial market, nor to aging patrons who increasingly lack the energy to give to innovative work. We can do whatever the fuck we want.



Sanguine Theatre Company’s production of WILD, by Crystal Skillman, directed by Evan F. Caccioppoli, runs March 13 – April 6 at I.R.T. Theater (154 Christopher Street, 3B, Manhattan). For more information visit irttheater.org.

Contributor

Crystal Skillman

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN is an award-winning playwright living in Boerum Hill Brooklyn. Her play King Kirby, about the life of comic book creator Jack Kirby co-written with her husband Fred Van Lente, will open in Calgary with Sage Theatre this spring, following successful runs in NYC and Seattle. One of her new plays, Open, which she is currently developing with Megan Hill and director Jessi Hill, has been selected by All for One Theater Company’s Solo Collective Program to be presented this fall.

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