“Welcome to our sandbox!”
Sue Kessler isn’t referring to a physical sandbox when she holds her hands out and beams at me shortly into our conversation, though her theater, The Bushwick Starr, has been known to build stranger sets for their eccentric, joyful, Off-Off-Broadway plays. Kessler, who co-founded the Starr and has served as its creative director since 2007, is speaking to the scores of new audience members that the Starr has welcomed since its recent uptown transfer of their 2016 hit, Miles for Mary.
A pictorially detailed, delightfully uncomfortable, raucously funny imagining of public school teachers planning a telethon in the 1980s, Miles for Mary was birthed by Brooklyn-based theater company The Mad Ones over a multi-year development process at the Starr. Time Out New York declared, “Your troubles lift from your shoulders while you’re watching Miles for Mary,” and the New York Times hailed it as “an ideal showcase for this company’s strengths.” After receiving critical raves, it followed a typical path for a hit Off-Off-Broadway production: extending several times and quickly selling out its run in the tiny venue.
And then it was gone, vacating the theater so The Starr’s next scheduled show could load in before most people who hoped to see Miles for Mary could land a ticket.
A year before, a similar (if even more foreshortened) trajectory followed Jaclyn Backhaus’s subversive historical fantasy, Men on Boats. Produced by Clubbed Thumb’s annual Summerworks festival, Men on Boats followed ten men—played by actors who were not cis men—on a wild journey to chart the Colorado River in 1869. Equally hilarious and revelatory, Men on Boats smacked gender shortsightedness out of its audience’s brains and then gave them a big hug filled with new ideas. It sold more tickets than any previous Summerworks show, but when the Times deemed it a critic’s pick and praised “Ms. Backhaus’s lively script,” the festival’s schedule allowed the run to extend only a fraction of what the market demanded.
Men on Boats and Miles for Mary are merely two stops on the veering path of weird, challenging, and joyful theater that small companies like The Bushwick Starr and Clubbed Thumb have forged over the past two decades. As Broadway slowly closes its doors to new American plays (the last two seasons have each premiered only five), and commercial Off-Broadway lies dead in its grave (excepting direct-from-Broadway transfers like Jersey Boys and English-language-optional tourist bait like Blue Man Group), one might expect a general malaise to have stymied emerging playwrights. Thankfully though, the opposite has happened: theaters have produced wilder and weirder plays like Woodshed Collective’s production of Jason Kim, Helen Park, and Max Vernon’s KPOP! and Ars Nova’s incendiary mounting of Scott Shepperd’s and Jennifer Kidwell’s Underground Railroad Game. Indeed, while new American writing struggles in the commercial theater uptown, there perhaps hasn’t been as exciting a moment for Off-Off-Broadway since the ’70s.
But with the uptown commercial door so solidly locked, what happens to hits like Miles for Mary or Men on Boats after their very limited, sold-out runs conclude and throngs of people have been shut out? Historically, there were two options. In some cases, like the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s seminal 2010 production of Annie Baker’s The Aliens, the show closes after a number of soldout extensions, the writer’s career explodes, regional productions of the play follow, and the lucky few who nabbed a ticket to it still speak of it in a reverential timbre. In other cases, like Ars Nova’s 2012 production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the show lives on in a huge way, transferring to Broadway and earning Tony Nominations—but not before being rewritten, redesigned, and recast with celebrities. And while commercial transfers of daring Off-Off Broadway plays occasionally dot the landscape (such as the 2016 transfer of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds or Baker’s 2015 transfer of The Flick), historically there has been little reason for playwrights with big shows in small spaces to expect their productions to live on after closing.
But thanks to a paradigm-shifting new program at Playwrights Horizons, the limited trajectory for Off-Off-Broadway plays is slowly expanding. Launched in 2016 with a summer re-mounting of Men on Boats, “Playwrights Redux” transfers successful Off-Off-Broadway to the midtown venue without any demands for revisions or recasting. This new path for Off-Off-Broadway work grew out of an unusual decision that Playwrights Horizons made in 2013. During an internal self-examination led by Associate Artistic Director Adam Greenfield, the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning theater decided that they would push their artistic boundaries in breadth and depth rather than volume. Greenfield explained, “We didn’t want to grow in an outward way. We didn’t want to have a Broadway stage.”
Playwrights Redux was born of this decision. The idea was simple: when the artistic staff of the theater encounters a thrilling play at an established but small company, they present it, intact, as an ancillary production to the Playwrights season. They don’t recast it with celebrities. They don’t demand re-writes. They barely even re-design it, other than to fit it to their space. They simply present it again, but to an uptown audience who might have missed it downtown – or might never have gone downtown at all.
Eighteen months after Men on Boats, Miles for Mary became the initiative’s second production. Like Men on Boats, it was re-reviewed by critics and met even warmer notices in remounting. Bushwick Starr Artistic Director Noel Allain describes the move uptown as a “wonderful adventure” which made money, increased their mailing list, and welcomed new audiences to Bushwick. The intermingling of the downtown theatrical aesthetic with uptown theatrical resources created a symbiotic ecology of both artistic and financial ferment. Both the Starr and Clubbed Thumb reported that the move uptown to Playwrights brought new ticket buyers, new subscribers to their mailing lists, and new followers on social media—all crucial means of audience engagement for companies that don’t sell subscriptions and rely on grassroots marketing. “This made us visible in a very different way,” explains Clubbed Thumb’s Associate Artistic Director Michael Bulger.
Kessler is particularly animated by the artistic authority that her theater affords artists doing a show at the Starr. “The artists don’t feel any pressure regarding finances or theatrical critics,” she says. “We do not want to surround them with any heat.” What they do want to surround them with, though, are audiences. Playwrights Redux allows downtown theaters to stay weird while expanding their audiences, and it inspires Playwrights Horizons’ audiences to get weird by seeing more edgy fare.
When I ask Greenfield what audiences could next expect from Playwrights Redux, he shrugs and smiles, reveling in the initiative’s open-ended nature. “It is not considered part of the rest of the season. Ticket prices are cheaper,” Greenfield says. “We’re doing our best to keep it writing driven.” The program deliberately lacks a set production schedule. Instead, when the Playwrights team sees a production that they want to share with their subscribers, they find a calendar opening and program it. “The point is to respect exactly what was created in the way it was created and to honor the series of choices that worked out just great,” explains Greenfield. Playwrights Redux is intent upon keeping the heat off of smaller companies just as the downtown companies kept the heat off their artists.
Greenfield gives no hint as to what might be next for Playwrights Redux, but he grows animated and excited when discussing all of the potential playwrights whose work excites him and might live on through the program after an Off-Off-Broadway run. He is deeply committed to helping companies like the Starr welcome people to their theaters by temporarily relocating the sandbox to a higher-traffic playground. “My personal favorite playwrights are people who have worked through panic-driven downtown experiences to find a voice and get control of their voice to get to a place where they are suddenly speaking to a larger audience,” says Greenfield. “Redux says that there is a path from smaller productions to a larger venue.”