Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Indie Theatre?: Daniel Talbott

 In celebration of Indie Theatre Week (July 23 - August 1, 2011),
we asked members of the OOB community to answer this question,
"Why Indie Theatre?"

I was really excited (and scared J) when I was asked to contribute to the Indie Theatre Week blog.  I love the IT Foundation and what they’ve done for the theatre community, and especially Off-Off-Broadway and the Indie Theater, and I’m also really inspired by other theatre folks’ blogs all over the country. It’s something I really wish I was better at because I respect it so much and it’s such a wonderful galvanizing and community-building tool for theatre artists.  I love being constantly reminded how fucking determined, active, creative and impassioned our community is all over the world, and again it inspires me and helps me not get too down and overwhelmed with all of the other shit facing the arts and theatre right now. It’s so great to be able to turn on your computer at two in the morning when you can’t sleep, and even when you don’t always agree with what’s being written, to see how many people are struggling with the same fears and problems that you and your friends are, and how everybody’s trying so hard to find solutions so that work can happen.

I’ve been sitting here all day trying to figure out what I want to write about, and honestly I’m having a really tough time organizing my thoughts about Why Indie Theater? in a concise and deadline-friendly way (for those of you who know me – big f-ing surprise there!) because there are so many things that I want to say and write about.  I think this was due like seven hours ago though, so I’m going to choose one small part of the work our company does—our work in the back room of Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village, and site-specifically all over the city—and why we do that, and hopefully that will help me write about the bigger whole and about the question without getting so overwhelmed.

When Harry Koutoukas passed away in 2010, I read and was insanely moved and inspired by his obituary in The Times.  I loved his fuck it all, we’re going to create work at any price, in any place attitude, and his belief that theatre needs to happen whether we have money, resources, or means for it or not. His spirit and artistry seemed to personify what Indie Theater means to me, and why I love it so much. About six or seven years ago, the extraordinary people I run Rising Phoenix Rep with (Denis Butkus, Sam Soule, Brian Roff, Julie Kline, and Addie Johnson-Talbott) really wanted to stop focusing as much as possible on money and fundraising, so we gave ourselves the challenge that instead of waiting until we raised enough moolah to work on a specific project, we wanted to try to start creating the highest quality theatre we could for as little money as possible. That didn’t mean that we were going to be able to do whatever project we wanted to work on—some plays and productions of course really do need an actual budget and legitimate theatre space to explode them in the right way—but we were just sick of getting hung up constantly on the financials of everything, and wanted to see for ourselves if we could turn one of our problems into a possibility. For me, that’s where our work at Jimmy’s and other places comes from, and site-specific work for me means that anything in this city, state, country, and beyond can be a theatre. You can literally (if you’re guerilla enough about it) do theatre anywhere, and for me a theatre is a theatre, whether it’s the Barrymore or Delacorte or if it’s happening in a garbage can on Ludlow Street. You still have actors in space trying to embody and tell a playwright’s story in the most personal, dangerous, universal, and active way possible, and I’ve seen great, insanely high-quality work in both places – The Barrymore/Delacorte, and a garbage can.

You’re never going to be able to build a more beautiful, alive, and inspiring set, or find a more dynamic performance space than Central Park, or the Highline, or the Staten Island Ferry, or even an alley or basement that Robert Mapplethorpe has been blown in or taken pictures in somewhere in the East Village. These sets/sites/spaces are deeply alive and collaborative, and they may not obey us, or be perfect acoustically, but as in all great theatre I think they force us to collaborate with them, open our imaginations and hearts in very different ways, and get extremely creative. They’re also all truth boxes, holding us to a standard that goes beyond the conventions and expectations we can sometimes take for granted in a traditional theatre space. And no matter how realistic you’re attempting to have your work be, or how stylized and theatrical, these spaces force us to face the real world, as it is, juxtaposed with our work in all directions, and see more clearly how far we’re really pushing ourselves to do the best work possible.

There is so much to learn from producing a play in an unconventional space, and some of the best and most wonderfully dangerous plays I’ve ever seen have happened site-specifically—from Brian Mertes and Melissa Kievman’s extraordinary and brilliant work at their gorgeous home in Lake Lucille, to some of my students’ work on Sarah Kane, Shakespeare, and on contemporary playwrights like Crystal Skillman, Ken Urban, Florencia Lozano, Daniel Reitz and Jessica Dickey—the work I’ve seen done in and around the city on rooftops, back alleys, and on the streets of Dumbo have been many of the most magical theatre experiences I’ve ever had. I heard someone say the other day that often the quality of theatre has to do with money, and that we need more money to create higher quality theatre, and maybe in their very limited range of how theatre is made and their idea of what theatre should be, that’s true, but I’m sorry, for me, that’s bullshit. Not that money isn’t great, or that we don’t all deserve money for our work and how hard we all go at it, but a huge part of why I love Indie Theatre is because Indie Theater is not about how much money you can raise, or how much money you come from, but how willing you are to think outside the box and find a way to push yourself and the folks you’re working with to use whatever you have to make the most brilliant theatre possible.

I think you learn pretty much everything about theatre from the world around us, and our constant investigation and exploration in it, and I love that our lack of resources literally forces us to take theatre to the streets if we have to and embrace a completely uncontrolled, alive, and constantly changing environment. Again, for myself, I don’t actually think of work as site-specific or not site-specific, I just try as hard as I can to embrace whatever space I have to work with for each given project, and not get complain-y about it but have it become an ally, and see if its inherent difficulties can become assets and push us and the play in new ways.  I often look at spaces when I’m walking around or riding a subway or sitting somewhere, and if you took a chunk out of the sidewalk or a café or a storefront in NY that was literally the same dimensions of an average blackbox in this city, and just let life enter and exit through it, the staging of life is so much more physical, theatrical, and extraordinary than most of the staging I think you see onstage. Just the angles, the explosions, the physical relationships that happen so naturally and all come out of cause and effect, action and reaction, are stunning, and I think there’s so much to learn and borrow from that in your work on a play. Working outside or in an unusual environment just explodes your ideas of what staging and life in a theatre can and should be, and it constantly challenges you and forces you to dig deeper, work harder, and not take a conventional theatre for granted. Working in an untraditional space or site-specifically hopefully makes you more awake when you go back into a more traditional theatre space, and I still think that when you are working in a traditional theatre all the same rules apply—that every space, traditional or not, has to be collaborated with and honored.

Not every space is right for every play—if you have a dream production of Twelfth Night or The Birthday Party in your head that you want to work on you better find the budget and the strongest space possible to hold and explode that play and that production. I also think, for example, that it would be really hard to take one of Vampire Cowboys’ extraordinary plays and put it in any available space because of all the meticulous and beautiful fight choreography, and the incredible design elements that make those stories what they are. It’s interesting though that I’ve never heard them complain about lack of means or seen anything but insane innovation and genius in taking what they have and making it work with awe-inducing stagecraft, heart, and style. Another example is the wonderful Boomerang Theatre Company that I was lucky enough to work for and with this year on Much Ado, and they work very hard to raise money to produce a rep season of plays indoors that they think need to be done in a more traditional space, and then they also take it to the park every summer to offer free theatre to the masses with no lines, no celebrities, and almost no budget.

If you’re flexible and want to be working, you can go out and commission your best friend who’s a playwright to write a play for your bathroom, or kitchen, or closet, or your street corner, and then you couldn’t pay a set designer to build a more authentic and personal space for you and the other artists. You have a theatre and a set without so far spending a dime. Being willing to work and create work anywhere takes theatre back into artists’ hands, is truly independent, and allows us to not be constrained by money, funding, and awards.  It’s always work for works’ sake and I think especially right now, with so many funding and budget cuts and so many of our theatres biting the dust, this is one of the ways that we can flip all that into opportunities for our community and friends and get to put the work first instead of financial concerns. We all may have to think about theatre and playmaking in a larger way as funding continues to disappear, and I think no one does that better or more nimbly than the indie community, both because we often have so little to begin with and because that’s the spirit of so much of what we do.

I’m writing about all this in response to Why Indie Theater? because I want to be working all the time, especially with my friends and the people I admire and love, and I want to be trying to create the greatest work I can and as many opportunities for theatre artists as possible, and that’s why first and foremost we work in and are so proud to be a part of the Indie Theater community. I want our community to be working, and working hard, and be seen as the immensely essential part of our city that we are. I want theatre people to be respected and to respect themselves and each other, and get out of the tier mentality of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway, and I think site-specific work which in many ways is so pure and unencumbered that it again forces us to do work for its own sake and realize that no matter where we’re working, whether it’s Lincoln Center or on Broadway or in a beer garden in Queens, work is work and the play is the thing.

Work is either happening or it’s not, and I’m not saying don’t produce a three show season, or try to get grants, or follow the models that have already been laid down by extraordinary companies like New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, and Soho Rep. Just don’t wait around, or make excuses that you can’t create brilliant work when the money isn’t rolling in or the grants/reviews/other things aren’t happening. For me, the only thing in the end that matters is the work, and you can always be working in the theatre, and nothing personifies that more for me than the Indie Theater. Why Indie Theater? Because almost every great movement in art, everything from the surrealists, to American independent film in the 70’s, to the punk and glam rock movements, were all personified by their independence.  I think an artistic spirit is an independent one. 


Daniel Talbott’s most recent work as a director includes Much Ado About Nothing (Boomerang Theatre Company/Central Park), Squealer (Lesser America/Theater for the New City) and The Umbrella Plays (teacup company/The Tank/FringeNYC), and as an actor he’s appeared most recently on The Big C. His play Slipping was produced at Rattlestick with Piece by Piece Productions, and was a finalist for the 2011 Lambda Literary Award, and his play Yosemite will be produced in Rattlestick's upcoming season. He teaches at ESPA/Primary Stages and is one of the literary managers of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and is the artistic director of Rising Phoenix Rep (recipient of the 2007 IT Caffe Cino Fellowship Award).


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