On January 1, Williamsburg’s The Brick Theater welcomed Theresa Buchheister as its new Artistic Director. Founded by Michael Gardner in 2002, The Brick has been North Brooklyn’s home for eclectic works and experimental plays—ones so unique they’ve even starred my dog. Since taking over, Buchheister has stepped up with bolder and more focused programming, but that all changed once COVID—and revolution—hit. Now, The Brick is an outpost for protestors and the houseless community.
Buchheister has been directing and starring in experimental performances outside of the institutional world since 2006, rising to critical acclaim through their company Title:Point. Their most recent show, Sleeping Car Porters (a gory rumination on violence and masculinity by Associate Artistic Director Ryan William Downey), was a sold-out Critic’s Pick in the New York Times. A disciple of Richard Foreman, Buchheister had unconventional theatrical aspirations dating back to their rebellious time in Manhattan, Kansas (“The Little Apple”) where they would protest the Westboro Baptist Church, perform in Christopher Lloyd drag in their grade-school library, and engage with a young communist club in high school. Buchheister’s unconventional and self-described “uncool” approach to theatre making has led them to The Brick right at the time of the current health crisis and Black Lives Matter reckoning. I spoke with Theresa about dude judy’s origins, theatrical turn-ons, career, and the future of The Brick.
Charles Quittner (Rail): How did you first learn about New York’s indie scene from Manhattan, Kansas?
Theresa Buchheister: The only way to find out about something indie is to be unconventional. There’s no, “I did the thing that other people did to do the thing that I want to do.” I went to the University of Kansas. The year before I graduated, I had one magical person in my life, Patricia Ybarra; she was incredible, she directed Lulu by Frank Wedekind and cast me as three dudes because she saw me. And then she brought me to New York over winter break.
Rail: So you got to New York. How did you know where to look for the center of experimental theatre?
Buchheister: Because Patti, Patti brought me to [Richard] Foreman, my friend John Michael brought me to Target Margin. I wrote Foreman a letter and he called my landline at my apartment and said, “If you want to be an intern just be in New York on September 2,” so I said that’s it. That’s what I’m doing. But it was unpaid. So I got five jobs that summer. I worked like 80 hours a week. I lived on my brother’s couch so I didn’t have to pay rent.
Rail: Did you consider Richard Foreman a mentor?
Buchheister: Richard Foreman is why I moved to New York, that is without question. I got here and it formed some of the most meaningful, long-lasting relationships of my life. Patti also gave me great advice: don’t try to tell Foreman anything or think that he’s gonna learn from you. He’s not. Just be there and listen, because if you really listen, and if you’re not waiting to talk and you’re just really listening, you will learn a shit ton about composition, about self-editing, about creating really densely textured, layered, funny, depressing pieces of art.
On the way to New York, Foreman called my first-ever cell phone and said, “I had to fire a dwarf: Would you like to be in the show?” And I was like, “Yes. But can I still help build the set and props?” And he was like, “Why?” as I was like, “Because that’s why I’m coming. That’s what I want to do.” Once the show started running, I had time to get a job that I needed, because my money was running out.
Rail: How did you live during that first year in New York?
Buchheister: I spent $60 a week for two years. So I stole tampons, and I ate free food whenever I could get it. I lost a lot of weight. I quit smoking cigarettes, I didn’t get to drink as much, and I didn’t really get to indulge in anything. I worked as a carpenter. I helped build a lot of stuff at Playwrights Horizons. I bought a rolling pin for Dianne Wiest and handed it to her, which was cool. I helped build Grey Gardens and Vampire Cowboys sets. And then my first job-job was at Drama Bookshop.
Rail: When did you start Title:Point?
Buchheister: I started in 2006. I wrote this play and directed it in the basement of the Drama Bookshop because we could rehearse after hours for free, and then do it.
Rail: What was that play?
Buchheister: It was Q and Y: A Brief Comedy About Death. It started with an image of these two characters who don’t know each other but are signing up for fast-tracking their lives so that they can die quicker. So they basically sign up for this program, where as long as they step through all of the vital moments of existence, then they’re allowed to kill themselves. And do it without guilt.
Rail: And this was your New York playwriting debut!
Buchheister: I was nervous. I couldn’t watch the show. I was crouched behind the risers because I was just too anxious about what people would think. Now I love watching my shows, I usually run the tech for them. But, I was so so anxious, because I invited T. Ryder Smith, who had been in the Foreman show with me, I invited Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, who was the producer of the Ontological. I invited Judith Malina.
Rail: And they came?
Buchheister: Yeah, and Morgan loved it. I got to do it in Parish Hall, at midnight because Morgan had keys.
Rail: What companies inspired you most?
Buchheister: Banana Bag and Bodice, Radiohole, Half Straddle, Debate Society, Vampire Cowboys, I’d go to the Ontological all the time. I’d see every single thing there. That was programming I was like, 100% of the time into. But then there’s also this feeling of not being a cool kid, even though I went to all the shows, and I was friends with a lot of people, I wasn’t considered in the same realm as those people at all. And that’s okay. I’m a decade younger, you know, but, it started to feel sort of hurtful, that I didn’t deserve to be seen, that I didn’t deserve to be in the same space. And it made me feel like I needed to go eat my lunch in the bathroom stall. You know what I mean?
Rail: The bathroom stall being Silent Barn.
Buchheister: Yeah, I will go to my bathroom stall, Silent Barn, and do shows with clip lights and fog machines. That’s when I started doing stuff with Jeff Stark and in DIY venues. Theater people sort of saw it as not cool.
Rail: Were there any other instances of using performance for social justice in these early years?
Buchheister: I think that meeting Judith Malina was really influential. Because that’s all [The Living Theatre] did. Everything they did was an action. So I would do some things with The Living Theater, and around war protests and getting people to vote. I left the Strand after three years to become a manager at Housing Works. Housing Works would train people in civil disobedience, and then encourage you to take off work to participate in these actions. I got arrested with the CEO: Charles King who would be out there with us. That was a leadership that I could look at. Also, when I was in college, Reverend Billy came to Kansas, he came to this Starbucks in Lawrence, Kansas and no one was there. Everyone supports the local coffee shops in Lawrence, Kansas. So we decided instead to do an action at Walmart, and we all got kicked out of a Walmart in Kansas together. So yeah, it’s always been a part of it because there’s always been something to fight for. I don’t necessarily make political theater myself, but I’m a political person. So it’s impossible to say that my work is not political, but I don’t do issue plays. But I do think that having skills in theater helps you be a good activist. You know how to make things. You know how to work with people, you know how to collaborate, you know how to notice if someone is in danger or scared or upset.
Rail: When did you and Michael Gardner first begin discussions for a takeover, and what did you do to blackmail him out of The Brick?
Buchheister: I have some photos. Um, no, I met Michael because he did his show at the Ontological, right before my show in 2010. The Ontological had a rule that I need to reinstate here: you’d leave a six pack of beer for the next show and their loadout. So you always sort of met, which was really nice. I met Michael that way. I’d seen his show and invited him to come see mine. And that’s when we were sort of on each other’s radars. Sometime around 2013 or ’14, he asked me to join The Brick curation team.
And then in 2018, I went home to Kansas and I went to go visit my uncle, my mom’s older brother who was dying of cancer. He was really the only family member that I connected to as a kid when I was just really severely not connecting to my parents and just having a really hard time in high school. He was very adamant that I take care of myself better. And that I do the things that I’m good at, and understand that I have something to offer. And then I got back and it was Exponential. And I was just, go go go, Exponential 2019 baby. I went to like 70 shows. And we did the thing at The Doxsee with y’all, and I was like, “This shouldn’t be what I do in my spare time.2 This is what I should be doing all the time.” And then I got drunk and said, “Michael, do you want to give The Brick to me?” And he was like, “Let’s talk about it.” And so that sort of started that whole thing. Had I not been drinking, I probably wouldn’t have had the boldness to ask. But you know, he’d been complaining about exhaustion so much. And I was just feeling, this is what I should do. This is what I need to do. I need to do it on another level.
Rail: So you have the space now. What were your big plans for the space?
Buchheister: The first thing was the renovation. As soon as I started to be like…I’m taking this over, it no longer was like, “How would I do a show here?” It became, “How will everyone do a show here that I invited?” So it just changes the way I look at things. That’s why I did Interrobang last year. So I could suss out the tech and be like what’s broken? Because something was always broken. I could run the tech for like 40 different projects, see what artists need, see what they complain about. I noticed the access problems of how hard it was to pull out the makeshift ramp for wheelchairs up onto the stage, and how unnecessarily embarrassing it is to be like, “I can’t get up on that stage.” And then drag out this huge ramp that blocks the bathroom door and all the stuff. I was like, my goal is if the Title:Point show does really well in December, can I have one week to renovate? Luckily, it was wildly successful.
So that was really helpful. Because then I got a week. So our strike began renovation, and I raised $10,000 to do it. And that’s hard. That’s hard for me. But we did it. And Abigail Beth Entsminger took my bad drawings and turned it into a practical situation. We used as much of the old risers as we could as wood. So many people came in and helped. It was incredible. Like just so generous from the community.
Rail: After such a promising start, how were you handling the shutdown of all theatre spaces?
Buchheister: As soon as I became comfortable with the idea of the loss, around May, that’s when things started to happen. I refused to fundraise. Even though my board was like, “Do a GoFundMe” and I was like, “People are fucking dying. Are you kidding me?” Like, I’m not gonna ask people for money for a space. I don’t even know if we’ll be able to reopen even if they do donate. I literally have friends that died. If you want someone to do that, I will not be the president of this board, and I won’t be artistic director of a space like that. If you’re asking for something that somebody else will do, ask them to do it, because I won’t, but I will write an insurance claim, we will apply for every piece of government funding and every grant even if we think we won’t get it, and we’ll do online programming, and if people want to donate because of that, great. And then when George Floyd was murdered, it was like, get out of your own asshole Theresa, like Jesus, cause I think everyone got selfish there for a while in COVID, like, “I’m so sad about my life and whatever thing I was doing that is now not possible.” Oh my god, leave your house like, go on a march, disrupt, this is a time that things can change. People can be in the streets every day, like the potential here for actual change is massive, and I hope that every racist institution fucking crumbles. I hope that all the theaters that refuse to examine their practices close. They don’t deserve to be open. They don’t deserve a place in the future that is possible. This civil rights movement that’s necessary has been going on for years. But it’s at such a high level, it shifted my perspective yet again about what’s possible.
Rail: And what’s The Brick’s role in it?
Buchheister: Yeah, we have a space like, what can that space do? I reached out to Radiohole for advice because they said that they’re opening their lobby. And then, I posted on Facebook. People responded really quickly and brought all the things that I thought that I couldn’t get on my own. Hannah Kallenbach brought in her hand sanitizer dispenser that she’d been using in performances for the past couple of years. And people brought in snacks and water and volunteered to sit upfront. It was really useful for the protests at the beginning of June especially. But then, after things shifted to City Hall, there were fewer protests in the neighborhood. It’s so wonderful just being a presence in the neighborhood, which was not really going on in the past. It’s shifted our relationship to our neighbors, which has been nice.
Even just today we met someone else who’s working in social justice that needs a space and had a meeting yesterday about planning, actions, and training. So we’ll see where it goes. But I don’t think it’s done and it was nice to be reminded that like, it’s not a thing that’s separate from what we do, it is what we do. I’m excited for the future of it.
“In the absence of anything that makes sense, create something” —Theresa on their preferred pronoun, “Dude Judy.”