In early 2020, Maria Striar felt pretty great about her theater company, Clubbed Thumb. The small Off-Off Broadway company had gotten its first Broadway producing credit with Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, which it premiered in 2017. Its musical Tumacho by Ethan Lipton was playing a return engagement (starring Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo and directed by Tony nominee Leigh Silverman). Its annual Summerworks festival of new plays regularly sold out. And it was getting ready to remount Lunch Bunch by Sarah Einspanier with PlayCo. In short, recalled Striar, “It was Clubbed Thumb all the time, everywhere; it was very exciting.”
Then everything came to a screeching halt. COVID-19 happened. Clubbed Thumb had to cancel Summerworks and all in-person programming. For two years. But astoundingly, the small stalwart of Off-Off Broadway avant-garde theater remained. They didn’t have to lay off anyone (Clubbed Thumb has four full-time staff members). They were able to give out money to theater artists, helping them create new work and further their careers during an uncertain period for theater. And now Clubbed Thumb is getting ready to mount its first Summerworks since the pandemic: its twenty-fifth version of its staple festival.
Below, Striar talks about how she’s managed to keep her company small, scrappy, and inventive, despite the rising costs of making theater in New York City.
Diep Tran (Rail): You’ve described Clubbed Thumb as “ambitious, but low stakes.” Why have you decided to keep Clubbed Thumb small over the years?
Maria Striar: My preference is to keep things to a size where we can swap our hats: we can be administrators and we can be artists. And we can also program things where we are unsure of how effective it is. If this crazy thing works, we are unsure if other people will like it—we're gonna try it out.
I guess low stakes just ended up meaning the more money you have, the more you stand to lose. And the more people that you have to get to see something, the more you'll lose if none of them want to see it—the stakes are very high. The stakes are always high if you're invested in something but it shouldn't prevent you from trying things. Because then, what are we doing?
Rail: Do you think that’s why established artists like Heidi Schreck come back to Clubbed Thumb when they have a new idea they want to try out?
Striar: Yeah, I do. Obviously with Constitution, that play was half-written. And when we talked about doing it, Heidi was like, “What if I can't manage to write something that I want to put in front of other people for the other part?” And I was like, “Then we'll do the part that you wrote.” We have an environment that would be harder to do on Broadway, or even Manhattan Theatre Club. Because what we have: it's a small run, it's a small house, it's an audience that's primed to lean into whatever they're given and look to try and understand what it is, instead of sitting back with expectations that they’ll be served something in particular.
It is an environment in which people can go in not knowing what they're going to end up with. And that they're going to be well supported. And we're going to try and find solutions to the various ideas that come up. To use the example of Heidi, at one point, there was choreography, at one point a song was written. There were a lot of different versions of what Constitution could be.
Rail: New York City and the cost of living has gotten more expensive. How do you keep that balance of making theater that’s inventive but with affordable tickets while still paying people fairly?
Striar: It is a quandary. Theater is not efficient. It’s a huge amount of people who have to get together in the same place at the same time to both make something and see something, and they all have to get there every single time.
So Summerworks is constructed with certain efficiencies. The level of remuneration is not comparable to larger gigs, so what's the length of a commitment that people can honor and make, either because they can handle it financially or they can handle it in terms of the other demands on their schedules. A six-week gig is much shorter than your usual theater gig.
Because we're a small company, we work really hard to make sure that we're accounting for the real aspects of the actual individuals we’re in the room with. So if somebody has to pick up their kid or somebody has their best friend's wedding, or another professional commitment, we're always working to schedule a process that can allow people to take part.
One of the conversations we've been having as labor and materials costs go up is, there's a limit to how much we want to spend on stuff. If the professional artists are making not that far above minimum wage, how do we justify having budgets that are in major multiples of that?
So I don't know. I think we're entering a stage where it's a difficult model to keep up, in terms of making risky work that's affordably attended, that is remunerated across the board. And we're gonna have to figure out how to keep that going. I don't know. It's got to be joyful, I guess. It's got to be joyful. If it's not joyful, I'll do something else.