DIVING IN: On the Pop-Up Theater Company The Pool and the Generous Act of Producingby Deborah Stein
A couple of years ago, playwright Lynn Rosen was certain that her play Washed Up On The Potomac was ready for production. In order to finish it, she “needed a rehearsal process.” In this moment, she encountered that catch-22 that so many playwrights face, there are things you can only learn about a play through a production process, but there are finite slots in professional theaters for production. Inspired by a recent spate of peers producing their own plays, she decided to take matters into her own hands. With one wrinkle: she didn’t want to do it herself.
She thought about how theater is collaborative. She thought about how what she needed for the play to fully flower was other people in the room with her. Then she had an idea: what if she extended this collaborative ethos of together-ness to the act of producing? As she recalls, “Theater is a communal thing. I wanted partners, help in this.”
So she reached out to New Georges’ Susan Bernfield, downtown theater producer extraordinaire and an accomplished playwright in her own right. While Lynn was familiar with New Georges’ Supported Production program, which offers non-monetary support to affiliated artists producing their own work, she had something slightly different in mind: would Susan be interested in doing something together? Speaking on a 4-way Zoom call, Susan told me that partnering with Lynn appealed as a way to keep her playwright-self alive, to establish her playwright identity as separate from her fierce and influential work as a producer. “How can we take these parts of our lives and our artistic lives, each of which feed us, and just be sure that we can have a career in all of them?”
And then, because two is a team but three is a movement, Lynn reached out to Peter Gil-Sheridan, a colleague from her time in the Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, to see if he also had something he was yearning to see fully realized onstage. The answer was: of course! And so The Pool was born.
A pop-up festival of new plays happening this fall in the brand new Flea Theater space in lower Manhattan, The Pool is a temporary but mighty collective born out of these three writers’ desire to see their works staged, to not wait for the permission or imprimatur of an institutional theater for the chance to realize their visions. Lynn tells me, “There’s something liberating about just not waiting anymore for a yes. We’re saying yes to ourselves.” Peter confesses that self-producing has helped him own his professionalism, to feel established. The experience has “helped me approach the institutional theater a little bit more easily, like, oh I’m working now. I feel more in the game. And I feel a little less in no man’s land.”
Of course, on one level we all know that if you write plays, you’re a playwright. But we also know that given the punishing economics and deep conservativism of many professional theaters, there are limited production opportunities for new plays. This is especially true for those at the odd “mid-career” stage, when for myriad reasons one is no longer “emerging” (a nebulous term that can just as easily describe a young writer fresh out of school or a middle-aged writer who suddenly “emerges” into the attention of New York audiences and critics after twenty years of working in small or regional theaters). Lynn, Susan, and Peter are not alone among playwrights in finding themselves at mid-career with projects they are passionate about, which are utterly stage-worthy yet still not produced.
“We all felt like these particular plays were ready to go,” says Lynn, recalling how the festival came together. The plays are each quite personal, and idiosyncratic to each writer. All of the plays feel like risks in some ways. Peter’s The Rafa Play is a fantastical imagining of his life with tennis star Rafael Nadal that slips seamlessly into a moving meditation of what it means to get what we think we want only to discover maybe we didn’t want it in the first place. Tania in the Getaway Van, Susan’s entry, takes a fond but clear-eyed look at her own pre-adolescence in the ‘70s, searching for role models and trying to make sense of her mother’s choice to go back to school, in light of what it is to be a working woman today. And Lynn’s Washed Up On The Potomac similarly looks at the world of work, and asks if in workplaces we form a kind of family and what it means when that family falls apart.
Lynn remembers, “This is the one I was tired of waiting for a yes. I got close to a yes, but… it needed a rehearsal process.” Peter thought this play “would never get done by an institutional theater.” Susan’s play is a play that she had been developing for five years, but stylistically it didn’t feel like a New Georges play. “I also felt it was harder [to produce my own work] because at New Georges we have so many things in the hopper, so many great projects I want to produce.” By banding together, they could forge their own way out of the various boxes they felt they had been limited to. In that way, the very act of producing becomes a creative act, personal to each of them.
Susan thinks that the more theater artists push against the pre-conceived and extant boxes, the richer our field will become. “I think that people coming up don’t perceive those boxes in the way that we were told we had to perceive them. So I'm hoping we’re approaching a time of a whole lot of change. I do feel like the response to The Pool and our doing this at mid-career has been reflective of the fact that people find this refreshing and are ready to be open to it.”
Of course, self-producing is as old as theater itself; there have always been writers who worked with ensembles or as producers or directors of their own work. But until recently, many felt there was a stigma. Even Peter felt this sensitivity at first, describing how “when we first started I felt a lot of shame about the fact that we were doing it ourselves. I felt like ‘oh, I think this means that I didn’t make it.’” But after actually diving into The Pool and having the transformative experience of staging his own work “that really has faded,” he says. Instead, “the feedback I’m getting is ‘I can’t wait to see your show!’ Nobody cares whether I do it or a theater does it, they just want to see the play.”
In the last ten or fifteen years, increasing communities of writers have taken the means of production into their own hands, inspired by the pioneering work of P13—companies like Orbiter3, The Welders, and Workhaus Collective (of which I was a member from 2007 – 2011). Some do this out of a sense of frustration or being stalled in their careers; others do it in order to have a creative say in the whole enterprise for which the script is the occasion. Susan describes how “it feels like there’s a different rhythm around [playwrights self-producing] now. People are finding all kinds of ways, different models for production, which really excite me, many of which I can participate as a supporter through New Georges supported productions.” So when Lynn approached her about joining The Pool, “it felt like I should walk the walk and do it myself.”
Doing it themselves meant doing it their own way, rather than copying other companies’ models. “I didn’t want to start an ongoing company,” remembers Lynn. “It seemed like too much work. But I did want to produce this particular play.” She also knew that producing by one’s self “could be very lonely.” They all knew that they didn’t want to make a long-term commitment; the desire to wear producing shoes was specific to these specific plays. Peter told me, “the temporary part was very attractive to me. I don’t think that I could live my entire existence in producer land; I feel like I’m living with a level of stress I couldn’t live with all the time. It’s such a different part of my brain than the creative side.” For Susan, the Producing Artistic Director of New Georges, offers the opposite attraction: a chance to share the work of producing, so she can focus on the creative work of being a playwright. As Lynn describes, by producing each other’s plays, “there’s a generosity to it, a sense of reciprocity.”
One of the most impressive and exciting things about The Pool is the clarity of their project: three playwright/producers, three plays performed in rotating rep with a shared design team and staff. By making it a “pop-up,” they announce this festival as a one-off, a special occasion, a party. And by performing the plays in rep, the project leans into and amplifies what’s exciting about a festival. Rather than plays running sequentially for two weeks each over a period of a month or two, these plays are running concurrently—you can even see all three in one day, on December 16th.
Peter points out that “one thing that’s nice [about the rotating rep] is that I have a show that’s running in New York for a month, which I wouldn’t be able to do on my own,” because of the limits of space rental, actor schedules, etc. The fact that these three plays will be running for a month is “better for us as writers and for our shows to have some growth and have some space. And hopefully the energy of the festival will build and hopefully by the end we’ll be selling our shows out.”
And when this Pool is over? Its creators wish to pass it on to a new group of divers. Lynn tells me, “the hope is that we pass it on to three other playwrights, and that it lives on beyond us.” Their ideal would be to be approached by a crew of three more enterprising writers, to whom they would gift the name of the company and all of the knowledge gained through this experience. Susan explains, “if three people want something that feels entitized, that has a conceptual idea behind it, that would make them feel doubly less alone, this could make producing easier.”
Lynn adds, “it’s nice to think it’s larger than just the three of us.” This generosity is in keeping with the vision of The Pool—pooled resources, pooled energies, pooled creativity—a generous vision in which the sum of three writers’ work is greater than any one whole.
The Pool’s three new plays will be performed in rotating rep at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas Street, TriBeCa) from November 15 – December 16, 2017. The plays are: Tania in the Getaway Van, by Susan Bernfield, directed by Portia Krieger; Washed Up On The Potomac, by Lynn Rosen, directed by José Zayas; The Rafa Play, by Peter Gil-Sheridan, directed by Morgan Gould. For schedule, tickets, and further information, visit https://www.thepoolplays.org/.
DEBORAH STEIN is a playwright and director based in Los Angeles. With performer-creator Suli Holum, she is Co-Artistic Director of Stein | Holum Projects, a laboratory for interdisciplinary new work. Their play The Wholehearted will be seen in New York at Abrons Arts Center in March 2018.