OBIES 2012: What Off-Broadway Needs Now


It would seem churlish to say that Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway lack for anything. We have more than 200 brick-and-mortar theaters (to say nothing of parks, repurposed churches, and semi-legal lofts), producing nearly 2,000 shows per year. We have comedies, tragedies, experiments, aerial acts, and the occasional cat circus. Who could ask for anything more? Well, nearly everyone. This year, on the occasion of the 57th Annual Obie Awards, The Village Voice polled a number of noted theater artists and asked them, “What’s missing from Off- and Off-Off Broadway?” Here’s what we found.

Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar:
The pioneer spirit that started the scene back in the Caffe Cino, La MaMa days—a diverse, subversive theater that really takes risks and really speaks to our time.

Young Jean Lee, playwright/director:
More female playwrights and directors, and more people of color. Also: more farting dwarves.

David Henry Hwang, playwright:
A healthy commercial scene, for plays and musicals that deserve longer lives, but are not blatantly commercial enough for Broadway.

Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges:
We gotta get with the food thing. I’m talking about the people who brine pickles and cure meat in our city and do their own butchering and cocoa-bean grinding and whiskey distilling. That’s something I’d like to see: Theatermakers—maybe with a similarly hands-dirty, process-oriented aesthetic—creating events with some cool food folks.

Qui Nguyen, co-artistic director of Vampire Cowboys:
Asian actors with no accents. Black actors with British accents. British plays with people of color in roles other than housekeepers. Women in lead roles where they don’t fawn over any men. Latino actors in lead roles where they don’t have to be downtrodden. Gays and lesbians in lead roles where they don’t have to cry. South Asian and Middle Eastern actors in lead roles not about terrorism.

Nick Jones, playwright:
Live animal acts used to be a staple of downtown theater. Now it’s all gay theater. But where is the gay animal theater?

Ken Rus Schmoll, director:
Asian-American actors. Ten-hour plays. Working-class audiences. Also, someone needs to bring the productions of Unga Klara over here from Sweden.

Elizabeth Marvel, performer:
A living wage and child-care support for working parents.

Anne Kauffman, director:
Vaudeville acts. Reliable and quiet air conditioning. Reliable and quiet projectors. I guess I’m just nostalgic for the old days but with modern conveniences.

Stew, composer/performer:
I’d like to see more free theater in Prospect Park. The drummers jam there every weekend. Why can’t theater people do that? Of course, since I live across the street maybe I should shut up and start my own weekend musical-theater jam session in Prospect Park. Anybody wanna join me?

Lynn Nottage, playwright:
The international voice—from someplace other than Eastern Europe. I saw a marvelous piece of work years ago at BRIC Lab by a Congolese artist, Faustin Linyekula, that is one of the most wonderful, moving, and arresting pieces of theater that I have seen in years.

Pam MacKinnon, director:
Boring but important: Clear websites that tell you curtain times and location of the theater. I’ve missed things because the website requires either a programming degree or strong familiarity with the graphic novel art form.

Jay Scheib, director:
A federally funded national theater in Lower Manhattan!

Eisa Davis, performer/playwright:
More of the Signature Theatre Center–style cheap tix funding and more crazytown collaborations. (Deerhoof, Jeremy Ellis, Sasha Grey, and Reggie Watts with Questlove at BAM is the act to follow).

Alex Timbers, playwright/director:
Things that I wish were happening Off-Broadway: Australian circus, more Brecht, Dario Fo. Thing that I’m thrilled hasn’t made it to Off-Broadway: Sippy cups.

Lear DeBessonet, director:
An audience as diverse as a subway car (or jury duty!).

Kristin Marting, artistic director of Here Arts Center:
More work with women as the lead artists. More experimental work by artists of color. More participatory work: I would love to see more artists really thinking about their communities and how to actively engage them.

John Collins, artistic director of Elevator Repair Service:
More crazy people—a steady diet of the artistically insane.

J.T. Rogers, playwright:
Venues for open-ended runs.

Rachel Chavkin, artistic director of the TEAM:
Cannot believe Sfumato have not been to NYC before. I saw two of their works this summer. They seem to be the Wooster Group of Bulgaria. Every young artist I met cited them as primary influence.

David Greenspan, playwright/performer:
I find the theater scene quite vibrant. And even if a play disappoints in one way or another, I find it always has something to offer. Of course I wish there was increased funding for theater companies and for theater artists.

Richard Foreman, writer/director:
What Off, Off-Off needs is the radically other both politically AND aesthetically. I.e. RISK EVERYTHING. How to make it happen? By daring and DEMANDING the impossible—knowing it’s un-realistic and impossible and still—outrageously—DEMANDING it.

Mac Wellman, playwright:
For years, I have been trying to get some New York theater to do a mini-festival of Australian plays, in particular: Christine Evans, Lally Katz, Tee O’Neill, and John Romeril. Has our theater even been so isolated and xenophobic?

Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons:
Long-running commercial productions of new plays.

Christopher Durang, playwright:
The nonprofit theaters seemingly are getting money to develop plays, but not to produce them. This is very detrimental to playwrights; they end up with three- to four-day workshops at multiple theaters, with multiple dramaturgs and artistic directors constantly looking to give them more and more rewrites.

Alec Duffy, artistic director of Hoi Polloi:
A downtown theater that reflects the diversity of the surrounding city.

Brian Rogers, artistic director of the Chocolate Factory:
More Forced Entertainment. Maybe it’s just me, but I think their work is criminally underrepresented in the States. Last year in Ljubljana I saw The Thrill of It All. Amazing.

David Herskovits, artistic director of Target Margin:
We can never have enough exuberant mutual support, generous affection for our shared trials and failures and celebration for the successes.

Michael Gardner, artistic director of the Brick:
What’s missing? Funding, certainly. As I write, the Living Theatre and Theaterlab are fighting to keep their homes, and Center Stage has recently lost such a battle.

Erin Courtney, playwright:
More new plays written for younger audiences. Kids are the next generation of theatergoers and theater makers, so let’s give them (and their parents!) something complex and beautiful to engage with.

Geoff Sobelle, co-artistic director of rainpan 43:
More magic shows. Better magic shows. Also shows with live animals. Shows with talking animals. More international shows. International magic shows starring talking animals. With opposable thumbs. Dressed as humans. That’s all we need. And a little more love and a little less irony.

Paul Lazar, co-artistic director Big Dance Theater:
I have rarely been so liberated by a theater experience as I was by Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). I feel ridiculous even asking that more theater artists be that artistically ambitious, because the only honest action is to try to be more that way myself.

Quiara Alegría Hudes, playwright:
I wish more plays had live music.

Mimi Lien, set designer:
A Fluxus for right now.

Brooke O’Harra, co-founder of Two-Headed Calf:
I think what is missing is R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Thomas Bradshaw, playwright:
There’s this choreographer, Dave St-Pierre. He has a show called Un Peu de tendresse bordel de merde! I wish his work was being done in New York.

Oliver Butler, Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen of the Debate Society:
Butler: More funding? Low cost rehearsal/office space? Ability to video tape performances?
Bos: Sure. Plus also . . . food trucks!
Thureen: Like outside theaters?
Bos: Yeah. It really makes going to the theater a special event.

Taylor Mac, performer/playwright:
I’d like to see more Off-Off Broadway productions transfer to Off-Broadway runs. Every year much of the best work in the city dies after 16 performances.

Michael Friedman, composer:
I’d like a season devoted entirely to my work at the Signature. (Ha.)

Maria Striar, artistic director of Clubbed Thumb:
We could use some affordable, ground-level theaters with lobbies—where people come in off the street and mingle together before they see a show in an intimate and idiosyncratic environment. Theaters like the old Ohio.

Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Lila Neugebauer, and Stephanie Wright Thompson of the Mad Ones:
More company-generated work from American cities outside of New York. More live music in non-musicals. More ingenuity in the use of technology in theater. More epic theater that trades on inconsequential moments. Oh, and more rear-end nudity.

Joe Silovsky, performer/robot engineer:
More robots. Oh yes, and fonts of money that you can just dip your hat in.

José Rivera, playwright:
Where are the theaters doing truly meaningful, adventurous new work on a consistent basis?

Where are the young artists of color breaking boundaries and testing mainstream sensibilities?

Where are the places where young Latino artists can incubate?

Why do we preach risk taking in our national culture and mostly reward safety and convention?

Where are the new plays that aren’t warmed over TV dramas written for the comfortable?

Why don’t we reward meaningful failure?

Why is there so much gimmickry out there—plays and events that seem to avoid the hard, necessary work required of narrative storytelling and character development?

When was the last time any of us saw a new play that broke our hearts and sent us from the theater in tears?

When was the last time a new work of theater illuminated the human condition in a timeless, archetypal way?

When did off-Broadway become like Hollywood in its insistence on casting stars instead of actors?

When did “mediocrity” become the new “good” and “good” become so rare?

Why do you have to practically be a member of the 1% to buy a ticket to the theater in this city?

If I were a 21-year-old playwright of color, where would I take my new play where I know my voice will be respected?

Where is the theater that scares us, pushes us outside our comfort zone, offends us with its vivid anger?

When did our new plays get so technically sloppy and emotionally flaccid and so damn cute?

On our stages: Where’s the dirt, the chaos, the rough edges, the visual ambiguity, the pain, the real sweat?

Except for Shakespeare, where is the diversity within our casts?

Where is the language that makes us close our eyes in rapture?

Where is the new theater that brings us closer to our roots in religious ritual and myth?

Where is the new theater that will still be relevant and fiery five years from now?