A Little Theater is Born
Little Theater is a theater series at Tonic, a music and performance space on the Lower East Side. In a world of increasingly competitive and formulaic Big Theater, Little Theater provides a venue for experimentation, and promises gritty prop-less glamour flanked by red velvet curtains, brief yet soaring bits of newly born theater, and a fully stocked bar. The following are excerpts from interviews with writer/performer Kristen Kosmas (one of the original founders of Little Theater) and current Little Theater curators Jeff Jones (playwright and master of ceremonies) and Kate Ryan (also a playwright).
Mary Ann Healy (Rail): How did Little Theater begin and why?
Kristen Kosmas: Judy Elkan and I started Little Theater as a venue for writers. It was our feeling that writers are the most in need of a place to experiment, to see their work on its feet in a kind of low pressure situation—to play with ideas—and not have to wait for a big theater to want to produce their scripts. I wanted a place where the productions could be writer instigated, rather than director, artistic director, or actor instigated. So writers could say no one has ever done this play of mine! Someone do it!
The idea for the plays being short came from the synthesis of two things I had heard from two of my teachers: Leonardo Shapiro (unfortunately no longer living, once director of the Shaliko company and teacher/organizer of the Trinity/La Mama Performing Arts Program) once told me, "if you get three good consecutive minutes of theater in a full length play, you’re lucky. It’s hard to make three good consecutive minutes of theater." When I told this to [playwright] Erik Ehn, he said, "maybe we should just produce the three minutes of all of our plays that are the good ones!"
Also, I thought short plays would lend themselves more to comedy than to drama, and I want to laugh. In this world, I think it is very important to laugh as much as possible. I had this formal notion that short plays would function more like songs, like music, which was what Tonic was already producing; so I thought it would already have some relationship to what was happening in the space. (Not to mention that Tonic produces a lot of experimental music, and I saw the playwrights we were interested in producing as being the theater counterpart to the musicians who were using Tonic as a home, a playground, a laboratory.)
Primarily, like I said, our interest was in the writers. But we hoped that it would have a secondary benefit in that writers, actors, directors, and producers would meet each other and begin to work together. This has happened, I would say, quite a bit. A lot of the plays that we produced went on to have longer runs at other theaters. Also, I think Little Theater was the first place Sybil Kempson produced something that she wrote, and she then went on to have a residency at Dixon Place. And the plays in James Strahs’s trilogy (How to Act, Jane Dorch, Producers of Fiction) were all presented independently first at Little Theater, then together there as a special event, which happened over the course of three Mondays, and now I believe it’s going to go up again at PS 122.
Rail: What do you think makes Little Theater different from other venues?
Kosmas: You can’t hide anything; there’s no backstage, no fancy lights, no tech tricks; so the work has to rely on the strength of what theater is at its essence. Originally I defined these things as the strength of the text or language, and the strength of the performance; but these ideas broadened when we produced more dancerly work, or when Mike Taylor made a piece for two computers who talked to each other. But still, it’s kind of stripped down theater—in my opinion—and that is great to practice.
a) the bar
b) the lack of chairs
c) the fact that everything is kind of thrown-up, with a minimum of means
d) the 20-minute rule
e) the bar
Kate Ryan: Just practically speaking, Jeff and I (and Judy and Kristen before us) don’t have to pay for the space or any technical needs. Tonic just lets us use it for about five hours each month. They also give us a cut of the door, as they would to any band, so we pay ourselves back for the small amount of money we spend sending out post cards, pay a small fee to Andrew, who helps us run video, then split the rest of the money among the artists. The cuts are not much, but since theater artists rarely get paid to do the type of work we present, I think it’s quite significant.
Kosmas: It’s serious and irreverent at the same time. It’s serious play. The artists who use it are serious artists, committed to what they are doing and trying to do. But it’s a very irreverent, free environment. It’s easy to fail there and go on. Also, you can become familiar with someone’s work there. Someone whose work maybe if you only saw it once, you wouldn’t go back to see it again. But if it happens again at Little Theater, in a night with a bunch of other pieces, then you see it again, and maybe the second time you begin to catch on to what this artist is trying to do, and you become more appreciative of it, more sensitive, more intelligent about it. Little Theater makes us smarter!
Rail: Who does Little Theater hope to serve? How does it help to foster a community of artists?
Ryan: I think that any sort of community it fosters is accidental and out of our control—which is the wonderful thing about it. Jeff and I don’t have marketing strategies or even any plans for growth—we just inherited the series and it seems to have a life of its own. We try to choose work that is interesting to us. I know that artists have met through Little Theater—but this is certainly an informal phenomenon and may be aided by the fact that the show is at a bar.
Jones: It doesn’t hope. It just blindly and mule-headedly serves those who walk through its hallowed doors, but of course as we all know, it specifically seems to be coalescing around two groups of people: some of the artists (and audience) who were part of the previous incarnation—this would include Linas Phillips, Kourtney Rutherford, Mike Taylor, Jason Schuler, Sibyl Kempson (we hope) and Kristen Kosmas herself; and some of the artists (and audiences) Kate and I know who probably are best described as being one or two degrees of separation from the Mac Wellman/Brooklyn College/Flea Theater/Pataphysics axis.
Ryan: Recently we’ve gotten people involved who are not playwrights and who had never come to LT but who are very active in various performance worlds—NTUSA [National Theater of the United States of America] people such as Jesse, James, Jon Jacobs, Stephanie Mnookin, Michael Portnoy, and Katie Workum. I know most of these people through my own past experiences as a director and performer; now their friends are getting involved and I do think the artist groups are evolving.
Jones: I think the artists and audiences are in fact much closer together than in traditional theaters—both in the sense that they come to the events looking to have the same kind of experience, and in the more specific sense that they come to see each other and often are one and the same. That is, we get a lot of "regulars" in both audience and artists, and many repeats in both categories, which is why I described it as an event-cum-activity that has coalesced around a group of people, and not making much of a meaningful differentiation between artists and audiences. Sure, artists and audiences may be coming for different things, but that’s not really as important as the fact that the same set of people are coming over and over.
I actually like—and have always liked—the representation of theater-going as a semi-secret if not downright covert activity because I get so much pleasure out of imagining myself as someone who is engaged in something semi-secret and covert. I was "introduced" to LT by word of mouth and, liking what I saw when I first started going, took added pleasure from the fantasy that I had "discovered" or "been let in on" a little secret. I think many people still come to it this way, and I think that’s great.
Little Theater takes place the last Monday of every month, 8 pm, at Tonic, located at 107 Norfolk Street, between Delancey and Rivington in Manhattan, just a short stroll over the Williamsburg Bridge.
This IN DIALOGUE has been written and curated by Ann Marie Healy.
Ann Marie Healy is a playwright and fiction writer living in New York City. Her play SOMEWHERE SOMEPLACE ELSE was recently produced by Clubbed Thumb. She is currently working on her new play NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL A STORM and a collection of fiction.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: [email protected]
ContributorAnne Marie Healy
ANN MARIE HEALY writes plays and fiction.