Rallying the Troupes

Young Directors Take Charge

They're groundbreaking directors, heading their own companies—and they're not yet out of their twenties. Watch for the youth brigade leading the theater charge this fall.

David Travis, 29, Jon Schumacher, 25, and Joshua Carlebach, 28, are three of a wave of directors flooding out of school and putting together troupes. Their companies—Synapse, Singularity, and the Flying Machine—differ wildly. But that's the point. They set up their own shops to make their kind of art. And their work speaks especially loud to their own generation.

"This current crop, raised on MTV, channel surfing, and pop culture, relate especially well to their contemporaries," notes HERE's executive director, Kristin Marting. "Their work is quick-moving, with a variety of perspectives, collage-based stuff, and a renewed exploration of the spectacle of theater."

Up and away: The Flying Machine's Joshua Carlebach
photo: Joshua Farley
Up and away: The Flying Machine's Joshua Carlebach

These artists also tend to be more political, says Travis (who appointed himself Synapse's second-in-command to free himself of administrative overload). September 11 hit his troupe hard. That November, they read Silence, a feminist comedy set during a medieval holy war, and it resonated with them. So when Synapse's artistic director, Ginevra Bull, mounted it, she underscored its darker elements. Chills shot through the laughs, and reviewers were impressed.

Their third season takes off with another political play, Euripides' The Phoenician Women at Ohio Theatre (66 Wooster Street, 206-1515), beginning November 9. It's a tragedy in which two brothers wage a senseless war against each other. "It's shockingly timely," says Travis, who will direct it. He dismissed as too obvious his early notion of using footage of Sharon and Arafat in the piece; instead, he'll emphasize the "public nature of the spectacle," with seven video monitors representing surveillance cams outside the gates of Thebes and a chorus modeled on Red Cross/Greenpeace volunteers.

Travis, who co-founded Synapse at age 23 after doing a production at the Edinburgh Fringe, wooed Harvard classmates "in finance who abandoned their artistic ambitions," for start-up funds, he says. Singularity's members and backers, similarly, emerged from the "Northwestern mafia." When Schumacher graduated in '99, he and a few others and moved to New York to perform at the Fringe that year. Their entry, which grew out of a class with Metamorphoses director and Northwestern prof Mary Zimmerman, was a docudrama à la Anna DeVeare Smith, focusing on one day in the life of a real, but not famous, person.

That work, A Day in the Life of Clark Chipman, became the first of a series, The United States Project. The latest episode, United States: Work in Progress, making its debut at HERE on November 8, interweaves the voices of three scientists at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. "It will have more dialogue and interaction than the earlier parts," explains Schumacher. "We'll be exploring the potential and limits of documentary theater."

His idealism and drive are typical of these young companies. Schumacher and another member of the company temp at an investment bank at night, while three of his cohorts earn a living as a receptionist, Web designer, and hotel bellman, respectively. But from the start they were applying for—and getting—grants, like the 2002 Drama League Director's Project award that enabled them to mount this new production.

They graduated together from Jacques Lecoq's school in Paris in 1996, but only recently did Joshua Carlebach and the Flying Machine cast off the shackles of waiting tables and tending bar. Trained in traditions like clowning, mime, chorus, and Greek tragedy, the troupe put on their first show in the basement of a rectory by the BQE. They did the '97 Fringe and won a $15,000 grant from New York State Council on the Arts to develop new work, including Signals of Distress, which will run at Soho Rep starting November 12. Adapted from Jim Crace's tragic novel set in 1836, it tells the tale of a priggish social reformer—a 45-year-old male virgin—isolated on a business trip on the bleak Cornish coast. "It's a meditation on a deep sense of longing for human connection," Carlebach explains. A well-made, three-act play, it will eschew their trademark mime and puppets but will heighten the production with choral movement and dance.

What are his ambitions for the Flying Machine? Companies like the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines are his models. "Maybe it's a youth thing," he says. "I'm suspicious of corporate culture and the theater business run by companies like Walt Disney. I don't want to get famous making theater. I want to make plays and have audiences come and see them."

Reviews by Brian Parks

September 6-October 13
Playwrights Horizons at the Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, 279-4200
Playwrights Horizons opens up their 2002-2003 season with the latest play by Keith Bunin, author of last year's The Credeaux Canvas. The World Over is described as a theatrical fable about a man who believes himself the lost prince of a mythical land, and his travels around the globe to claim his birthright.

September 12
Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, 645-8015
The Atlantic casts its eyes back at George S. Kaufman's 1925 comedy, about an innocent Midwesterner who comes to New York and falls in with a couple of suspect theater producers and their loser play. Wonder if Mel Brooks will stop by opening night.

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