DON'T F#@! WITH the stageFARMby Trish Harnetiaux
To decide what to produce, the stageFARM’s artistic director Alex Kilgore draws on his hard-earned, hard-living experience as a former punk rocker in Houston, Texas in the ’80s. Along with founder and executive director Carrie Shaltz, they have assembled quite an advisory board…one that includes both playwright (and new work mentor) Marsha Norman and Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers.
Kilgore’s first band was called Throbbing Cattle. The others? Party Owls, Verbal Abuse, Champale Assman, Poor Dumb Bastards and, currently, CLAW. It’s slightly hypnotizing as he tells you about that other world, how he quit school at 15 to be a rock and roll star, how he stumbled into theater as a lost sound tech and has been acting, writing, directing – and now producing – ever since. And there’s something about the way he casually mentions that Poor Dumb Bastards opened for Nirvana in Houston in 1991 that makes you think you grew up a little boring and that maybe you’d like to climb into his world for a while.
Now with the stageFARM, it’s possible. After only a year and a half, they’ve got three productions in the can and two more opening this year. Kilgore is infectious as he explains the parallels between a great rock show and how he knows a theatrical experience can inspire and dazzle. How there’s a unity of audience, a collective tremor of witnessing something important and maybe—hopefully—even transformative. The power in the sheer proximity of the audience to the live performance elicits a rawness, solicits a danger that leaves you out of breath and always wanting more. This does not scare the folks at the stageFARM, it drives them.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the company is that it is producing at an Off-Broadway level. In a town relying heavily on Equity Showcase contracts for most small companies (who must thus produce Off-Off-Broadway), this is no small feat. There simply are not a lot of people out there ready to throw serious money at new plays. Admittedly, Kilgore and Shaltz had a few big donors at the outset, which helped get the company rolling. They recently received a Brown Foundation grant and will continue playing the grant game and trusting their instinct to pick shows that sell. Last October, their production of Vengeance, 5 commissioned one-acts by 5 playwrights, sold out over half their run at the Cherry Lane Theatre and would have extended (for a second time!) had it not been for another show opening.
Similar to the philosophy of downtown theater darlings 13P, the stageFARM is dedicated to producing new plays. No, really, to DOING them, now. Kilgore has little interest in “dicking around with development,” but he understands it is a necessary step, particularly in longer work, and the two full-lengths the company has selected had already been through the process elsewhere. Their first production in the fall of ’06, Drug Buddy by David Folwell, had been workshopped by Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) before finding itself all but abandoned and un-produced. Gina Gionfriddo’s U.S. Drag, which had a Clubbed Thumb Summerworks production in 2001, opens in February, marking its Off-Broadway debut. The company is also commissioning new work and, similar to the Vengeance role model, this fall will produce a collection of one-acts based around the theme of Win.
The often debated (sometimes boring, sometimes not) topic of New Play Development is a subject that shouldn’t and won’t go away. How much development a new play needs is at the heart of the debate, as is the awareness that it’s quite possible to develop something into irrelevancy. Defending the need to produce fresh work while it’s still, well, fresh, Kilgore rightfully asks: “How can young playwrights possibly be the antennas of this generation if they aren’t being produced or it takes 8 years to get a play up?”
They are producing Gionfriddo’s play on the Off-Broadway level because they love it. Additionally, they are hoping to attract an audience of non-theater goers—the stageFARM loves people that hate plays. They hate plays. They champion and produce plays specifically for people that hate plays—it says so on their website and they’re quick to remind you. The thought of pandering to anyone causes a violent shudder and the thought of a subscription-based audience kills them. Though not interested in being overtly political, they are interested in timeliness. “I’ve always loved Gina’s writing,” says Kilgore, “and I think U.S. Drag is so timely because…among other things…it satirizes this collective hysteria that’s consumed with finding a suitable scourge.”
Gionfriddo also penned a one-act for the Vengeance series.
“Vengeance was—honest to God—the first theater in so long that made me want to wrestle with the rest of the audience about what we’d seen,” she said. The experience clearly built trust between the writer and the company. She goes on to give props to the stageFARM mentality because “they aren’t interested in connect-the-dots dramaturgy. They never asked me to ‘clarify’ my characters’ psychology. It was a rough-and-tumble, fly by the seat-of-your-pants process and the end result of that process was plays that hadn’t had the truth bleached out of them.”
Adam Rapp, the now-highly produced NYC playwright, will be writing a play for Win in the fall. He’s a big fan of the company precisely for its rapid producing and Kilgore’s punk rock fearlessness—“the stageFARM is the perfect antidote to the endless reading-workshop-development hell that is the current cancer crippling the new plays culture in America,” Rapp explains. “They put on plays and they put them on dangerously close to your discomfort zone and dare you to flinch. Any emerging playwright worth his or her salt would kill to be mixed up with this company.”
With so much energy, the stageFARM has positioned itself as an exciting new company. Even with the group’s badass background, or maybe because of it, you believe—and cheer—Kilgore when he tells you that “this is the greatest generation of playwrights yet and the stageFARM wants to use them as a barometer for what’s happening now. We want to help unshackle them, by giving them the caliber of productions they deserve so they can scream out loud and make theater as relevant and cool and dangerous a medium as rock and roll.”
the stageFARM’s production of U.S. Drag, by Gina Gionfriddo, directed by Trip Cullman, runs February 23 through March 16 at the Beckett on Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Showtimes: Tues-Sat @8 Sun. @ 7, Sat & Sun matinees @ 3. Tickets: Further info: www.thestagefarm.org