Most summers, August is Fringe time: those steamy weeks when the FringeNYC festival takes Manhattan, occupying nearly twenty theaters with a couple hundred–odd shows. A sprawling DIY hodgepodge of the scrappy and the strange, the Fringe has long been a go-to for new and untested theatermakers. But not so in 2017 — the Fringe’s producers have announced a one-year hiatus to rethink the festival’s purpose. What are hungry young artists to do? Enter the brand-new Corkscrew Festival, presenting five world premieres and five work-in-progress readings through September 3 at the East Village’s Paradise Factory. Corkscrew, which began on Monday, doesn’t aim for Fringe-scale breadth, but hopes instead to do right by a few early-career artists eager for a break.
Ahead of the run, the Voice spoke with artistic director Thomas Kapusta and producer Alex Donnelly, who met as undergraduates at Columbia University. After college, each founded an independent theater company, Kapusta’s The Brewing Department and Donnelly’s Fortress Productions, which are joining forces to create Corkscrew.
How did the Corkscrew Theater Festival come to be?
Donnelly: In college, theater is fairly easy to produce. After college, you might transition to self-producing your own work, and that can be a daunting process. There are barriers to entry, especially if [producer] Jeffrey Seller of Hamilton is not knocking on your door. We wanted to remove as many of those as possible. The artists behind each Corkscrew project — the playwrights, directors, creative producers — range in age from early twenties to early thirties. Some of the actors are as young as nineteen, and making their professional debuts outside of collegiate productions.
Kapusta: We had similar values in terms of what early-career artists need to thrive. No submission fee, no participation fee.
Donnelly: Having enough tech hours to really make sure that you’re not designing a show around how much time you’re going to have [for] a tech run. I never want to say no to something — if you need all your artists to be suspended from the ceiling, I want to say yes to that!
You say you value groups that are working with innovative collaborative models. What does that mean?
Kapusta: We asked applicants to describe the key collaborative relationship in their project, and how Corkscrew might help that relationship flourish. Cradle Two Grave really exemplifies this. This is a semiautobiographical play about twin sisters — one coping with mental illness, the other coping with her sister. Though Mo [Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood, the playwright and director] came to us with only a sketch of the script, the collaborative relationship driving the piece, between Mo and their twin sister, was irresistible. Cradle Two Grave was a chance to create something beautiful out of this historically fraught relationship. At the developmental workshop Corkscrew produced this June, Mo was very frank: Before this opportunity arose, the two had not spoken to each other in a long time. Cradle Two Grave put them in productive and positive conversation in a way that maybe only theater could.
What connects Corkscrew’s plays artistically?
Kapusta: We had nearly eighty submissions, and it was an interesting slice of what is on early-career artists’ minds right now: an urgent need to be seen and heard. By big institutions, by siblings, by your boyfriend who doesn’t understand that you may be becoming a werewolf! Eight of these ten plays are by women; all of them are directed by women.
Donnelly: That wasn’t an explicit aim of the festival, but it’s how it shook out.
Kapusta: Diversity in the stories told — and in the people telling them — was important to us. We came to a consensus about which plays were the best fit for Corkscrew this year, and it was only then that we saw how many women playwrights and directors we would be featuring. Given the cultural and political climate, it makes perfect sense that these artists’ voices would feel so vital, and we joyously seized the opportunity to feature women in creative roles where they are traditionally underrepresented.
There’s no Fringe this summer. Is Corkscrew stepping into the slot the Fringe has occupied?
Kapusta: People in our community look to the Fringe for production slots, and that felt like a need we needed to respond to. We do not aspire to be the Fringe Festival; nothing could ever be the Fringe Festival. We’re not in contrast, we’re because of. Both of our first independent theater producing experiences came in the Fringe Festival.
Donnelly: Fringe was our testing grounds. It’s where I learned to send emails to press, how you take criticism, how you run a team.
Kapusta: My first producing experience was with my friend, director Cody Haefner, and his vision was constrained by the festival setting. You load in in fifteen minutes, your tech time is twice the length of your show.
Donnelly: My second Fringe show, Plath, had almost thirty on staff. During our tech run it was raining and we needed to be outside because of Fringe rules that allow only fifteen minutes of load-in/setup time in the theater. We were outside with the set pieces under a tarp — violin players holding their violin under a coat. With Corkscrew, we wanted to make it so you don’t have to line up outside with your audience members behind you.
Corkscrew’s plays span multiple dramatic genres.
Kapusta: The plays start from genres, but also subvert genre. All of My Blood feels Twilight-inflected, yet it’s really dancing on that theme. I don’t think the word “werewolf” is even said; it lingers on the edges. False Stars plays like a Southern Gothic drama, but it also provides space for the world to come apart and for us to live in the world of the brain, of the neurons.
Donnelly: Ex Habitus is about a podcast about manners, but it uses the absurdism that can come from two rival podcast hosts to talk about how there is always that struggle between old and new, between the people in charge and the people who are trying to become the people in charge. There’s such an earnest hustle — on the festival staff as well. This isn’t a hobby for any of us. This is the career that most of us want to have. You’re going to do your best work for other people if you are both hustling to get there, and that spirit is captured in the plays. Our tech director is volunteering her personal furniture to these shows. There’s such a realness to that.
64 East 4th Street
Through September 3