Theater

Five Off-Broadway Luminaries Assess the Evolution of the Downtown Theater Scene

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Keeping tabs on New York theater is a tricky business, with shows of all stripes appearing at venues of every size. But when the 2015 season drew to a close, one thing was easy to notice: how many women enjoyed notable creative successes this year. On a recent spring morning, some of these artists — all of them winners of 2015 Obie awards on Monday night — forsook the blossom and sunshine to gather on a basement stage. At HERE Arts Center, one of Gotham’s premier launch pads for innovative projects, they joined Village Voice theater critic Tom Sellar to compare favorite shows from the closing theater season — and to talk about what it takes for creative women to succeed in this tough town.

The participants: performer-creator Bridget Everett (Rock Bottom); director Anne Kauffman and playwright Clare Barron (You Got Older); and playwright Kate Benson and director Lee Sunday Evans (A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes). Following are excerpts from their conversation.

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Tom Sellar: This year it felt to me like maybe something was changing. It really was noticeable that there were so many breakthrough shows by women — as directors, writers, performers — as well as by artists of color, with Hamilton and other shows. Are new voices, new kinds of work by women finally getting their due, finding recognition?

Anne Kauffman: It probably is shifting. I feel like a little ostrich with my head in the sand, because working here for the past twenty years I guess I just decided that instead of looking around and getting discouraged by the numbers, I’d put my head down and just do the work. I feel like that’s what a lot of us are doing and that work is being recognized. As it should be.

Early in my career I had an interview for a job at NYU with Zelda Fichandler, maybe the most important woman in American theater, who basically started the regional-theater movement. She asked me, “How’s it going?” I said, “You know, it’s hard to be a woman director.” And she looked at me and just said, “What? What are you talking about?” I just sort of took my cue from that.

Bridget Everett: When I moved to New York in ’97, I was showing up at auditions and there was never anything for my type. The roles for women were either chorus girl, best friend, or ingénue, and I just didn’t fit into anything. I’m six feet tall and athletic — well, formerly athletic — build. Basically I decided that I had to write for myself, so that’s what I did. I feel fortunate that if there is a breakthrough for women, I’m a part of it or considered a part of it. But basically I have no choice. I wanted to have my voice heard, so I just steamrolled ahead and lucky for me the Public Theater kept encouraging me. You just have to do it for yourself sometimes, and that’s what I’m doing. I look around, and particularly in the downtown performance-art world more people are being embraced and heard, and I think it’s really cool.

Clare Barron: I also started as an actor, and when I started writing I also felt so much more empowered to just do what I wanted to do. I had been doing 6 a.m. lines for Actors’ Equity Association auditions when I first moved to New York, because I didn’t know what else to do. I got so much happier and my whole life changed the moment I started focusing on writing instead, because I felt like I could talk about things that I cared about. But I will say that in my experience I’ve just had so many women mentors and people who have really helped me — the playwright and performance artist Deb Margolin, Maria Striar [artistic director of the theater Clubbed Thumb], and Anne here — and I think that has really changed the opportunities available to me.

Kate Benson: In a way you have to behave as if it isn’t going to be an issue that you’re a woman. That hits me when I’m writing. I don’t have to struggle before I have to struggle, if you know what I mean. I also met up with some remarkable women theater artists when I was younger. [Legendary avant-garde actor/director] Ruth Maleczech directed my thesis project at NYU. It’s not that theater is operating from a completely holistic, beautiful, utopian universe, but I think there need to be many more lady producers. I think the ones that I’ve been lucky enough to work with are extremely brave and are thinking about plays that reflect a human experience more than they are concerned with plays that will let women make their marks, even though that may be something they want to do. So that the work is the work.

Lee Sunday Evans: I feel really similarly. I don’t want to undermine what someone else might have gone through. But I don’t know that I’ve experienced a ton of resistance, and I think I approach it not anticipating that there will be a struggle. My mom is an engineer, and when I was, like, twelve, she won what was previously known as the “Man of the Year Award” from the Engineering News-Record. And because of my mom they changed it to “Person of the Year.” That had a really big impact on me.

Sellar: In the Obies spirit, I want to ask you hardworking women of the theater why you like creating in New York. It seems so hard. There are so many limitations. The commercial pressures are huge, real estate’s expensive, there aren’t many good spaces. What draws you here and keeps you going?

Benson: It’s the other humans who are here. When I feel uninspired, then I go see a play. There is so much to revive your sense of what’s possible. And because we all know it’s hard, when you see someone achieve something beautiful, it’s even more like: Just forget the hard. It doesn’t seem fruitful to go somewhere where the rent is cheaper. Even though that would be really, really nice.

If I try to look at it objectively based on very little research, it seems like one of the real problems is that so many artistic directors and so many producing directors are men. Which is not that they’re not interested in work by women, but that the people who are deciding how the money gets spent — I’m a little reluctant to say this — but it does seem worth noting that the people who decide how the money gets spent and who to hire — at a higher or more expensive level than I’ve reached, let’s say — well, there aren’t very many women who are given those chances.

Kauffman: And those women who are in power also don’t always give women chances.

Everett: Initially when I moved to New York, the only people that were coming to see and support me were gay men, and women. Straight men are sort of like the last frontier of who will embrace what I’m doing. The opportunities I’ve been given have come from people who are either part of the queer community, or women. At the Public Theater, Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub, would just let me do whatever I wanted. The only place in the world where was I given an opportunity happened to be in New York.

It’s sort of a weird dynamic or weird thing to talk about, but sometimes there’s a definite sisterhood that I’ve relied on artistically and personally and professionally to push me forward. And it’s here, it’s here in New York, the theatrical and artistic capital of the world — what a thrill to be here and work with rock ‘n’ roll superstars you would never have the opportunity to work with anywhere else. New York has given me opportunities that I would not have found otherwise, because there’s a larger scope of what women do here.

Barron: We just switched our three-bedroom apartment into a four-bedroom apartment, and my roommate is living in our living room without a curtain, but we are all paying less rent. I, especially right now, with, like, Detroit and other cities that are trying to create real creative stomping grounds — my friends are all the time wondering if we should leave New York. Because the slog gets tough, and figuring out a way to make money and pay your rent — it gets exhausting. I agree with Kate. For me it’s the people who keep me here. I was just talking to someone who said when they first moved to New York they made their rent in a week working two days in a coffee shop — and I’m like, is that true? Now you can’t even get hired by a coffee shop, because there are so many specially trained baristas.

Evans: I moved to New York thinking: This is my education. I had no idea if I would be able to make a life here. But I came here so I could see [French director] Ariane Mnouchkine at the Lincoln Center Festival and the Wooster Group’s new work and what [playwright-director] Richard Maxwell is doing. New York is like my graduate school. The question for me and my peers is whether New York theater is going to get so commercial that those kinds of things aren’t here anymore.

Sellar: Are the expressive possibilities for theater limited by the available spaces? We are always stuck in a basement or a shoebox Off-Off-Broadway.

Everett: My friend Murray Hill always makes a joke about how he closes down every joint he plays. Joe’s Pub is so great, and it’s almost the only place to do the kind of thing that I do. Everything else is closed or closing. Nothing can make it.

Kauffman: I don’t know — I like these shitty basements. You can do whatever you want, you know? I’m actually interested in exploring television. And it’s not just the money, but also just learning something new, learning cameras and all that stuff. I feel like our job as directors is to break out of that box. I like theater because I like its limitations. When we staged You Got Older upstairs at HERE, we had beds disappearing, we had a landscape that was behind a window and a doorway that you didn’t quite know what was happening out there and it would change all the time. That’s my way of breaking out.

Benson: The mysterious resourcefulness and adaptability of humans really comes bubbling up in the smallness of New York. There’s something thrilling about the way you have to do so much with so little. I saw David Neumann’s show I Understand Everything Better at Abrons Arts Center, where giant sheets of plastic became mountains and waves and hurricanes and then were just sheets of plastic again. Of course you do get tired of the tiny dressing room where someone’s elbow is in your ribcage while you’re trying to change. But I miss the old Ohio Theatre [on Wooster Street]. I miss the Incubator. I miss—

Kauffman: Cucaracha!

Sellar: Cucaracha Theatre! That takes me back.

Benson: Oh man, Cucaracha was fantastic. And Todo con Nada [on Ludlow Street].

Sellar: The Piano Store.

Benson: And House of Candles! Now a bourgie bar.

Everett: They all are.

Benson: And I don’t think we need any more bourgie bars.We need some places with theater funk.

Sellar: Bridget, Rock Bottom, your cabaret hit at the Public this season, was a collaboration between you — a downtown performance-world goddess-icon — and some more uptowny people like Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote Hairspray. Do you feel like downtown and uptown are merging?

Everett: Marc and Scott started down and dirty like the rest of us. They have worked with Patti LuPone and Bette Midler and all these heroes of mine. They used to do shows back at the Limelight in the Eighties and have worked with Joey Arias and all these people from years ago that I also admire.

Sellar: Can you still transgress with an audience like in those days?

Everett: I think so. People still walk out, and that to me feels like a great success. Which is another great thing about New York. They’re like, “Hey, did you see that you got some walkouts tonight?” And I’m like, “I know!” Give them a high-five. Because Scott and Marc were working on the show, all these fancy uptown people would come to see it. I never like to know who’s in the audience, but my show is, for lack of a better word, very interactive. So I’m walking around the audience and I’m seeing all these crazy people — a movie star, a famous drag queen. I learned a lot from them about being a better songwriter, and they also learned a lot about tits.

Sellar: So what next? Are you interested in taking your cabaret in more of a narrative direction? Making a musical or theater show?

Everett: I don’t know. Ever since I started, there was really not a specific role model for what I was doing, I have just made opportunities and every time I get one, I’m like, oh my God, this is what’s next. I’ll continue to do the character of Bridget Everett, who is actually me, Bridget Everett, as written by Bridget Everett, starring Bridget Everett. I don’t feel like I could write a narrative. Because I know when I walk out of a theater feeling a certain way, I know I’ve landed there, and for me that doesn’t involve multiple characters and subplot points and all that stuff. It involves a wild ride with a tender underbelly, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

Sellar: This season you all steered some familiar forms into unusual new territory. A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes is not your father’s dysfunctional-American-family drama. We have a Thanksgiving dinner that turns into blood sport. Or a play like You Got Older, where violence and sexual desire enter the family headspace. Are you conscious of trying to overturn an old form or expressing something new about family, given the times we are living in?

Barron: I did not want to write a play about my family. For me You Got Older was a little bit of an accident. It’s not autobiographical. For me it was about intimacy and what happens when you are alone with a parent. And yeah, all the sex stuff. I think that people are still incredibly uncomfortable with women’s sexuality and it always sort of shocks me that they are. When I write, I try to put period blood in all of my plays, because I’m always surprised by how uncomfortable it makes people. One of the biggest impulses in my writing is to be honest about how huge a part of sex is in all of our lives and minds, particularly in the way that works with women. I think that sex is super-present in families, and in the way that we process grief. And I find it sort of baffling that we continually want to pretend that that is not a daily and huge part of how we all function.

Benson: I think writing is like dumping out your handbag and finding out what things collected in there when you weren’t looking.

When I got to the end of the play, I thought, “There is no way this has a saccharine ending,” because I think Thanksgiving is a really strange day. And I wanted people to see how strange it is. We get together to eat like anacondas and then watch other people knock each other down as a way of saying, “Look at this bountiful world we live in.” It is not particularly bountiful for many people. All of those things. So I thought: “This cannot end well.”

Sellar: It didn’t. On your stage, Thanksgiving dinner has more blood than gravy.

Evans: I thought the premise of Great Lakes, which is set around Thanksgiving, was an incredible opportunity to do something really surprising with American family drama. The inspiration for my staging came from sports, because that’s in the language of the play [with the narration]. But I had no interest in it looking like sports. A common misconception about physical theater is that it becomes abstract. So that’s how I got to the idea of a floor that had those patterns on it.

Sellar: Anne, you are known as a director who works well with challenging new plays. Everybody shows you their crazy scripts. Do you see any particular tendencies in contemporary playwriting?

Kauffman: There’s an ambition in the writing now that I feel in my generation — super-ambitious writers like Anne Washburn and Jenny Schwartz — played out in a fascination with the minute, the small, the mundane. The younger writers I’m reading right now have another way of taking theater back for theater’s sake. Amongst the more adventurous writers, epic natures are making their way back in.

Evans: To speak to the question of reinventing the American-family play, I think that part of what was so exciting about Great Lakes, but also seeing You Got Older, was the feeling that when a lot of those naturalistic family dramas got written by O’Neill and Ibsen and Arthur Miller, people weren’t watching movies and TV all the time. It was an exciting thing, to see your life reflected back to you in that way, because you weren’t so used to seeing it. Now theater is moving beyond that — taking something familiar and making it strange again so that you can see it in a new way.

Sellar: What excited you this theater season?

Barron: Great Lakes was one of my favorites. Also, Kentucky by Leah Nanako Winkler at Ensemble Studio Theatre. It was just like this crazy, epic play that was around for, like, six days, that was so exciting and crazy and messy and dangerous. I also really loved Iowa, which I just saw at Playwrights Horizons and found very moving.

Everett: I was really inspired by [Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play] An Octoroon. That had an enormous impact on me. John Cameron Mitchell doing Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway was electric. It was so wonderful to see that downtown show on that uptown stage and the audience losing their shit and John just being so magical and in command.

Benson: I took my fourteen-year-old niece to see Lookingglass Alice [by the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago], which was so delightful. Iowa was the second Jenny Schwartz play where I thought I was going to have to leave because the beginning was so upsetting, and by the end I was just carried to a whole different emotional landscape.

Kauffman: The other thing that sticks out in my mind is Jacuzzi by the Debate Society — a company that I’m just super-wild about. I think they’re funny, irreverent, completely mysterious, and somehow speaking to something beyond your intellect.

Sellar: With this season behind you, what comes next?

Barron: I’m going to Romania in ten days with the Drama League to do a new-play development workshop.

Evans: Next up I’m doing a new play called D Deb Debbie Deborah by Jerry Lieblich in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks series.

Everett: I have a special on Comedy Central coming up in July called Gynecological Wonder, and I’m very proud of myself for being a fortysomething-year-old woman on Comedy Central.

Kauffman: You and Amy Schumer should get together. I think she’s a fucking genius. Someone asked me what show on television is most empowering for women and I was like, Amy Schumer.

Everett: She’s one of my best friends!

Kauffman: She’s incredible. You tell her.

Everett: I will.

Benson: I’m writing a new play with the Assembly Theater Project called I Will Look Forward to This Later and then I’m performing in Fondly, Collette Richland with Elevator Repair Service, which is a dream I’ve had for years.

Kauffman: I’m reworking this piece called 100 Days with the Banksons, this singing duo in Cincinnati. I’m excited about The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which is a Lorraine Hansberry play — yeah, a dead playwright! I’ve been trying to get it done forevs and now the Goodman Theatre’s doing it next season.

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