Community theater has a long history in America, nurturing local talent and bringing tried and true fare to communities outside the reach of first-run plays. But what happens when the community is Brooklyn’s Park Slope, whose stone-skipping distance from Manhattan has transformed it into a kind of residential boom-town over the past twenty years for working professionals, many of whom are active in the professional theater world? Well, the answer is the strategically-placed Gallery Players. Established nearly four decades ago, it has been growing with its community, and emerging as a new force in recent years, both reflecting and serving residents in surprising ways—for the audience, great theater that you can stroll to; and for theater artists, new production opportunities comparable to off-off-broadway theater across the river.
“I like the fact that The Gallery Players is a neighborhood theater,” says Henry Wishcamper, who will be directing their upcoming production of Sheridan’s School For Scandal in the theater’s 99-seat house (the standard size theater for an oobwy equity showcase). “They’ve been in Park Slope for 38 years and have built a base in the neighborhood—both artists and audiences. A true audience base is quite rare in the world of off-off Broadway.”
About their audience, Heather Siobhan Curran, the theater’s president, says that they do have a loyal following of Brooklynites (who make up most of their subscriber base), but they also get a lot of people from other boroughs including Manhattan. “Our audience comes from all over, depending on the show,” she explains. “If you see for example we are doing Merrily we Roll Along and it is being revived and you really want to see that show...you’ll be there.”
Wishcamper likes the theatrical context the Players provide, too: “The situation in which a large, neighborhood-based audience can see a seven show season that includes such variety as Hair, Cloud Nine, School For Scandal and The Full Monty seems completely unique in my experience. It’s a great context in which to have your work seen.”
What is also rare is the chance for a young director to have an opportunity to direct the classics. Wishcamper, who also serves as Artistic Associate of Keen Company in Manhattan (Keen will produce John Belluso’s Pyretown Jan 25–Feb 20), is grateful for the opportunity. “Opportunities for young directors to direct classic plays in New York are quite rare and I feel very fortunate to have the chance to do School for Scandal for the Gallery Players. It’s a great play, with a wonderful plot, great parts for actors, easily accessible comedy and a surprising modern sensibility,” he says. “My background is primarily in classical theater but I have never had a chance to work on a play from this particular period in theatrical history. I love the very formal structure of the play and the extreme theatricality of the playing style.”
“Our choice for School For Scandal was because we always like to have one or two classic plays in each season,” Currans says. “I’m very fond of restoration comedies and they attract good actors and directors. Also, it’s not something that every theater can attempt an do well. We can, and I hope, do.”
Director Wishcamper also feels this particular choice of a play is politically relevant to our present climate. School for Scandal was written in 1777 and depicts a colonial empire at the peak of its power whose influence is about to rapidly decline. “The American and French Revolutions (the latter just around the corner) are in the process of completely changing the role of the British Empire in the world and upending the aristocracy’s cultural and political supremacy at home,” explains Wishcamper. “There is a profound struggle at the heart of the play between the characters’ strongly felt need to justify the value and virtue of their culture and their desire to revel in the pleasure and privileges that their wealth and power entitles them to.”
Sound familiar? Needless to say, Wishcamper finds this undercurrent of cultural strife and fear particularly poignant.
The Gallery Players mainly produces revivals of plays and musicals. A play reading committee makes recommendations to the ten-person board of directors, and then the board votes on which plays to produce. In June the theater will produce a black-box festival of new plays, opening up opportunities for playwrights. Each weekend will feature plays of a different theme: Brooklyn Plays/Brooklyn Playwrights; Gay Gallery; Plays en Espanol; and the Sandbox (plays for children and families).
“We’ve been through so many changes in just the last couple of years…our publicity has improved, more people are aware of us,” Curran says. “The quality of our shows just keeps getting better and better. I guess I’d like to see us be able to extend the run of a show (like Hair) and transfer it to another space when it is so successful.” She’d also like to continue the theater’s fundraising efforts—they just received a JP Morgan Chase grant enabling them to start doing on-line ticketing. “For us to really face another 38 successful years I think we need to find a development director,” she elaborates. “All our board members produce shows, work other jobs and we’re always so focused on getting the next audition, the next reading, the next show up that it’s hard sometimes to look farther down the road at what may be best for the organization.”
So what is Curran’s wish-list for The Gallery Players?
“Take Me Out, A Sam Shepard Play, Shakespeare, Joe Orton, more productions for families, a new play developed at Gallery by one of our Black Box New Play Festival playwrights that goes on to win the Pulitzer Prize or at least make some money for the playwright.” And, not surprisingly, “To be sold out every night.”
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.