Monday, June 30, 2008

2nd Indie Theater Convocation

On Saturday, July 12, at 2pm at the Barrow Street Theatre, NYTE will host the 2nd Indie Theater Convocation.

We held the First Ever Indie Theater Convocation a little more than 2 years ago, on April 9, 2006. That event brought together about 130 artists from every sector of the NYC indie theater community, and led directly to the expansion of our website indietheater.org, the creation of at least two of our podcast series (Indie Theater Now and The Indie Theater Life), and the formation of the League of Independent Theater. You'll hear more about all of this at the 2nd Convocation on July 12th.

Right now I want to talk a little about why we need a second indie theater convocation. If the first accomplished all those things, what's the compelling need to bring the community back together again?

The short answer is: Because we're not done yet. The Indie Theater Movement in NYC is on the threshold of becoming what it can become, but there's more work to do.

What is Indie Theater going to become? I think it's going to become the top choice for excellent, innovative, live performance among young audience members in NYC. I think it's going to become a respected and well-understood alternative to more expensive kinds of theatre offerings--one that is viable and rewarding, both artistically and economically.

I think it's going to become a cool cultural/entertainment option for people who don't traditionally go to the theatre.

Here's a true story. About six months ago, I was at a Borders Book Store here in Manhattan. I was buying a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five because for some reason I didn't have my copy at home anymore. This was when Godlight Theatre was presenting the stage version at 59E59.

As I was paying for the book, the young man working the cash register said, "I love that book." I said: "Oh, you should go see the play Slaughterhouse Five. I just saw it and it was great." He said: "Really? There's a play of Slaughterhouse Five?" And then he frowned and said, "It's really expensive, right, like a hundred dollars?"

And I said: "No, it's about 20 or 25 dollars."

The key to the work that lies ahead for us is right in that anecdote. Young New Yorkers like this Borders employee want to see theater that's relevant to them, such as a great dramatization of a Vonnegut story. But they believe that theatre is irrelevant to them; and anyway it's probably not even on their radar because they think it costs a lot of money.

We know that Indie Theater is loaded with content that's compelling to the contemporary audience. And we also know that tickets to Indie Theater don't cost a hundred dollars. We know it's theater that people can afford....and that people want to see.

And THAT's the message we have to work together to communicate to--well, everybody in the whole world.

At the 2nd Indie Theater Convocation, we're going to talk about the next steps in doing exactly that.

If you want to be invited to the 2nd Indie Theater Convocation, send me an email now.

Friday, June 27, 2008

NYTE Gets a Couple of Boosts

I just wanted to share a little bit of good news with you today. NYTE (the nonprofit parent of nytheatre.com, indietheater.org, nytheatrecast, and NYTE Small Press) has received two significant grants this month--from the Peg Santvoord Foundation and from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). Both of these institutions have been providing support for NYTE's programs for several years now, and we are very grateful for their continued confidence in us.

Their support will help us meet, in part, the expenses of operating nytheatre.com and our other websites. They will also help us fund the cost of publishing our projected next volume of our annual play anthology series, "Plays and Playwrights 2009," which is targeted for release next February and will be the 1oth in that series.

Our major institutional funders are invaluable to us, but they are only part of the overall funding picture for NYTE. We are, and always have been, a grassroots organization, and we rely on the support of individuals to fulfill our mission and to grow so that we can provide new and better services to the New York theatre community. Here are a few links to more information about NYTE and how you can join NYSCA and the Peg Santvoord Foundation in supporting our programs:

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Resources for Indie Theater Folk: 2 New Podcasts!

This week we've posted two new episodes of the nytheatrecast podcast program that provide valuable info and resources for indie theater practitioners.

Episode #225 is a special edition of our Indie Theater Life series that focuses on the challenges of being a theater artist and a parent. Jessica Davis-Irons of Andhow! Theatre Company is the moderator; she's joined by Susan Bernfield of New Georges and Robert Lyons of Soho Think Tank to share experiences and advice about navigating through the world of parenthood while trying to maintain a viable career as artistic director of a theatre company. It's a fascinating conversation with lots of useful tips for folks dealing with the same issues in their lives/careers. Read more here or download the podcast.

Episode #226 is part of our series hosted by Leonard Jacobs (aptly titled "The Leonard Jacobs Show"). His guest is Tim Errickson, and the subject for most of the podcast is The Community Dish, an organization of indie theater companies that Tim is now heading up. The Dish is a great group with a (relatively) long history and successful track record; small/young companies especially should check out this podcast to find out more about what they have to offer. Read more here or download the podcast.

Manhattan Rep's Summerfest 2008

I spent last evening at Manhattan Repertory Theatre, which is located on 42nd Street just beyond 8th Avenue (it's in the building next door to the Duane Reade, on the 3rd floor). Artistic director Ken Wolf has been producing rotating festivals of new plays at this intimate space for several years now, and I admit that I just don't get there often enough. Summerfest 2008 is the current event at Manhattan Rep, running through August 15 (with a break over the next couple weeks for July 4th). Info about the festival is here.

Last night there were two different programs, one at 7pm and one at 9pm (that's the standard festival schedule at Manhattan Rep).

The early show--which plays again tonight and tomorrow (June 26th and 27th), and which I highly recommend--is a smart and funny one-act called Basic Training. It's written and directed by Daniel Landon, whose day job is managing the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Landon says Basic Training was inspired by stories told to him by his son, who is a petty officer in the United States Navy.

This play takes place during the first three weeks of basic training at a navy base near Lake Michigan. It centers on Phil Thompson, a kid from Paterson, New Jersey, and a Mexican immigrant named Torres Torres Torres who sleeps in the next bunk at the barracks and quickly becomes Phil's best friend. The other characters are Master Chief Mahan, who makes Lou Gossett Jr's character in An Officer and a Gentleman look like a pussycat; and Petty Officer Kowalski, the 26-year-old female who is Phil and Torres's immediate superior. She makes Mahan look like a pussycat.

I don't want to give away Basic Training's surprises, which are frequent and delightful. I will say that it's a throwback to the classic military comedy No Time for Sergeants by way of the already mentioned Officer and a Gentleman, with a hint of that classic Phil Silvers Show episode about inducting "Harry Speakup" into the army. Landon's writing is sharp and funny; the play surprised me by covering a great deal of ground in 45 minutes, from the very real reasons that young men join the United States military in the 21st century to the very real challenges of being 18 and coping with lots of new emotions and sensations for the first time. The play is well-directed and produced as well, and features a fine cast headed by the highly personable and skillful Thomas Matthews (currently a student at NYU Tisch) as Phil, with Kelvin Hale as Mahan, Karyn Plonsky as Kowalski, and Omar Portilla as Torres. Basic Training deserves a life after Summerfest 2008 and I hope it has one.

The late show, which also plays June 26 and 27, is a double bill of half-hour pieces. The first of these is Michelle Ramoni's The Misadventures of Julia Child, which centers around two original ideas: that Julia Child is/was a repressed lesbian (an unfortunate, unfunny, and unnecessary premise) and that Julia Child is being tapped to star in a Broadway musical based on the film Babette's Feast (a potentially hilarious premise). Ramoni seems to want this piece to be earnest, but what's best about it is its broad satire of show biz. I'd like to see her flesh out the Babette sections, which also feature Catherine Zeta-Jones lusting after the lead role and agreeing to be Julia Child's audition coach. It feels like there's possibly a pretty funny, pretty silly one-woman show that can emerge from this piece with further development.

Capping the evening is The Dark Land of the Sun, written and directed by Paul Hufker. Jennifer J. Hopkins stars as Sandra, an unhappy young woman who is afraid to venture out of her NYC apartment and harbors deep resentments for her husband (who moved her to the big city) and her mother (whose abuse led to a lifelong inferiority complex). Sandra passes her time by drinking and conversing with an imaginary friend named Clara. When her husband Percy (played by Matt Timme) comes home, fireworks erupt. This is Hufker's first produced play, and it definitely feels like the work of a young playwright still finding his voice. Antecedents--most notably Tennessee Williams, with a touch of Tony Kushner, I thought--are clear in the dialogue and the structure. The emotions generally ring true, though, and the conflict at the heart of the play--between a scared, scarred young woman and a husband who is no longer willing to care for her--is compelling. Timme has little to do, but Hopkins's work here feels too histrionic.

All in all, my visit to Summerfest was entertaining and I was introduced to a number of interesting and talented artists whose work I hope to see more of. The atmosphere is friendly and informal and homey, too, making this unheralded event a welcome addition to the many theatre festivals all around NYC at this time of year.

Below, a scene from Basic Training featuring Kelvin Hale, Thomas Matthews, and Omar Portilla.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

About the Tony Awards Telecast

Charles Isherwood blasts this year's Tony Awards TV show in a feature in today's New York Times.

His complaint, in a nutshell, is that the show featured too many musical numbers and too little time devoted to acceptance speeches. He writes

The pleasure of the Tony Awards, for me and probably for most theater lovers
(and, seriously, who else watches?) is a chance to see artists we admire
rewarded for their work...


Mr. Isherwood is out of touch with America on this one, I fear. I lived outside NYC for much of my theatregoing life, and I can aver that when I was somebody who only got to see Broadway shows up-close maybe once a year (or, after the fact, on tour), the Tonys were a lifeline to the one-of-kind excitement that is Broadway theatre. The chance to see live musical numbers from the new season of shows--including the ones that didn't get nominated for Best Musical of Best Revival--was and is the best part of the Tonys.

Does the show amount to a kind of commercial for Broadway as a result--a way for potential consumers to get to sample the wares for free? You bet. It's the only commercial that theatre gets in the American cultural landscape; it's a darn good idea and all of us in the theatre community should be grateful for it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Festive Summer

Summer theatre festival is in full swing, and nytheatre.com is ready to cover it, more vigorously and completely than ever!

Happening right now is the Brick's FILM FESTIVAL: A THEATRE FESTIVAL, which has been extremely well-reviewed so far by nytheatre.com's writers. The reviews are here. More will be posted intermittently through the end of June; the festival closes on June 29th.

Coming later in June is terraNOVA's SOLONOVA ARTS FESTIVAL, which features eight very diverse, very interesting solo shows. We'll be releasing an episode of nytheatrecast today that spotlights four of the participants--Eric Lockley, Krista DeNio, Moana Niumeitolu, and Julia May Jonas. The podcast features excerpts from all four of their shows plus info about everything else in the festival. Visit www.nytheatrecast.com.

I'm also keeping an eye on Manhattan Repertory Theatre's annual SUMMERFEST, which begins today. I am going to see a few of their offerings later this month, so watch for a report at the end of June. And we will likely be covering more of this festival later in the summer (it's on hiatus for a few weeks before and after the 4th of July).

Dixon Place's annual HOT! festival, celebrating queer theater and performance "for the whole family," starts on June 16th and continues through the end of August. There are three commissioned pieces at the center of HOT! this year--Annie Lanzillotto's site-specific(ish) performance The Flat Earth, Jack Ferver's Meat, and Kenny Mellman's Say Seaboy, You Sissy Boy? We're hoping to review them, and we'll dip into the other short-run items that pepper this exciting festival all summer long.

July brings a host of festivals. Summer Play Festival (SPF) is much smaller than in previous years, with just 8 shows at the Public Theatre; it's never been open for review in the past and I don't expect that it will be this year either.

EAST TO EDINBURGH at 59E59 will give New Yorkers a sampling of some of the American fare heading across the pond to participate in the Edinburgh Fringe; I haven't gotten details on this festival yet.

But we do know the lineup for this year's ICE FACTORY at the Ohio Theatre. It includes a new solo performance by Lenora Champagne, new work by Adriano Chaplin, and the long-awaited world premiere of W.M.D. by Sponsored by Nobody. nytheatre.com will guide readers through as much of Ice Factory as possible! It runs July - August.

Also in July: FRESH FRUIT, the second gay-themed festival of the summer, which features a new musical by Chip Deffaa and a new play by Nigerian playwright Nanna Mwaluko, among other offerings. And the BAD MUSICALS FESTIVAL. And the SAMUEL FRENCH ONE-ACT PLAY FESTIVAL.

July 9th is the opening date of UNDERGROUNDZERO, a three-week festival at Collective: Unconscious curated by Paul Bargetto. We're putting together a new feature on nytheatre.com that will give readers a fun and informative first look at the shows in this festival -- it will be online by next week, so watch out for it!

The MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL (MITF), the second largest of the summer's theatre bashes, starts on July 14th. With 50 shows on its roster, MITF is bigger than ever...it will occupy seven venues on West 36th/37th Streets. We've got a comprehensive list of the shows and their creators, with links to ticketing and show websites, online here. We plan to review all 50 MITF shows.

After that, of course, is the NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL FRINGE FESTIVAL, which runs from August 8 - 24. There are 204 shows scheduled at about 20 downtown Manhattan venues (to be announced). Our signature gavel-to-gavel coverage of FringeNYC begins with our exclusive nytheatrecast "Live From the FringeNYC Town Meeting," which will be online next week; continues with our popular show previews, which will be online starting July 1st; and then culminates with our reviewing every one of the shows in the festival. This will be the 7th year in a row that we will review the entire FringeNYC festival, and as far as I know, no other media outlet has ever accomplished this even once.

The nytheatre.com Festival Calendar is your gateway to all of our summer theatre festival coverage. You should bookmark it!

Our reviews of FringeNYC, MITF, and the rest are written by our ever-expanding squad of dedicated volunteers--theatre artists who give freely of their time to make sure that audiences and participants in all of these great festivals get the feedback they need and deserve about this work. You can learn about our reviewers here.

I love summer festival season. The diversity and variety of what's available in NYC theatres never ceases to astonish. And the unexpected gems that pop up in every single summer festival are thrilling and exciting. That's why we cover all of the summer theatre festivals so comprehensively--because you just can't predict where the great stuff is going to be, so you've just got to review it all.

So I hope you will stay tuned to nytheatre.com for a great summer of amazing theatre!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Getting to Know Counting Squares Theatre

Photo of Ryan Nicholoff
Counting Squares Theatre is one of NYC's newest companies. I got to know about them after nytheatre.com's Allison Taylor gave their production of Bent a rave review last fall. I saw their next show, Boys' Life, and was just as impressed. I've since had a chance to meet the company's founders, Ryan Nicholoff, Dena Kology, and Joshua Chase Gold, and I'm impressed by their passion for theatre and their dedication and commitment.


Their current show is Carpe Tunnel, running this week at the Spoon Theatre.


I emailed Ryan (shown in the photo) a few questions to help us get to know Counting Squares better. Here's our "cyber-interview":


1. You're a pretty new company to the NYC indie theater scene. Tell us your background: how your company was founded, who the key members are, how you got together, and especially where the name Counting Squares came from??


Counting Squares is a relatively large collective group of peers. Most of us have known each other a long time so we speak the same "language" which is really great when it comes to collaboration. It allows us to cut corners of "social politeness" and focus on the work. I trained at the wonderful and underrated UCF Conservatory Theatre at the University of Central Florida where I was lucky enough to meet a lot (or most) of the great contacts and professional I work with now. I was also able to work closely with faculty and create my own kind of technique, which I think is very freeing for an artist.


I was making the usual 11-hour-a-day rounds with my very close friend Edward Lynn Davis at the AEA building, essentially feeling like a wilting flower, when I was cast in an off-Broadway play working with Israel Horovitz which was in rehearsal for quite a while when they pulled the plug on us the day before opening. So I said to myself, "I'm sick of needing permission to perform," so I picked up a few extra shifts at the bar and produced my first play: Howard Korder's Boys' Life, which ended up being a great success. That was started with Mr. Edward Lynn Davis, and myself, my beautiful girlfriend Dena Kology. During the show our good friend Joshua Chase Gold offered to do the set, and it ended up being such a wonderful collaborative team that Dena, Josh, and myself agreed on being the co-artistic directors of Counting Squares Theatre. Ed Davis remains one of my closest friends and a key member, along with many other peers. It is truly amazing how much people contribute to something they believe in and I truly hope (and I know I speak for Josh and Dena) that everyone feels like they have their own piece of the company they can call their own.


So the name is kind of a long story, but I'll keep it short. Basically: counting squares is my OCD tick. I count every square I see on my fingers in sequence--creepy I know. But, the only time I am not doing that is when I am performing so I guess it kind of represents a different version of counting squares. I wrote the song "Counting Squares" my first winter here about all of the square tiling in the meager god forbidden non-equity limbo room of the AEA building, so it kind of inspired the name.


2. Counting Squares does very naturalistic, kind-of gritty work with a focus on acting--at least from what I've seen of your work so far. Is that a fair assessment of your aesthetic? How did you form your company aesthetic? And who would you say are the key influences on your work as a theatre company?


Yes, I think acting is the number one asset of our company. We believe in everyone involved and think it is important to use people who you know will do the job. Not that it doesn't stretch them, but at the end of the rehearsal period you know that they are going to come through. I personally believe that simple concept paired with visceral and real acting is always the best recipe. For me.


People joke with me because I always use the word artifice because I treat it like my enemy, and I think in our company if we find something that doesn't feel right, we try to logic our way through it and eliminate the superfluous stuff. I think when we did Bent it was a good turn for us because Joshua Chase Gold brought a lot of thought-out artistically stylized elements to his direction and coupled with actor collaboration and Dena as his assistant director I think we were able to balance realism with style, which is a certain branding of Counting Squares Theatre. We love pragmatic sets, beautiful lights, and wonderful acting: but doesn't everyone in the theatre business?


I've never been one of those guys who obsess about one style of theatre or one playwright, or one director, or one actor, because maybe I learned my harsh lesson when I was fourteen and realized I would never be Paul McCartney. Which was heart-breaking, so now, when I compare myself to someone else I just find it useless or depressing. I have a huge reverence for theatre as an art and I love all different kinds. My biggest passion is synthesizing different kinds. Counting Squares is focusing on new works or re-vamping old works so that we can develop our own personal style by using our education and personal ideas to stay consistent with the trends and mores of our artform while staying inventive and original.


3. Tell us about Carpe Tunnel. It sounds like a very ambitious evening combining lots of different kinds of theatre. Who's involved? What can audiences expect to experience? How did the show get put together?

Carpe Tunnel is a truly collaborative effort. Written (mostly) from the ground up through vigorous writing sessions with the contributors and creating different things in rehearsal (which is the coolest part right?) we have created something that I think will be a really neat step towards what the future of Counting Squares will closer resemble. There are so many great artists involved who have such a passionate voice in so many areas of theatre.--from actors to dancers to visual artists to musicians to Shakespeare specialists to movement specialists--that it just seamed ignorant to ignore that any longer. So we have done our best to use different aspects of our collective talents to create a one-of-a-kind production which is master directed by Shannon Beeby, set designed by co-artistic director Joshua Chase Gold, and last but not least lit by whom I think is the best lighting designer in town, Maruti Evans.


We have longtime friend and collaborator Nick Sprysenski (who just released his first album entitled Caterwaul) playing our central character of The Busker, who holds the central reality that we have created together. We have chosen 10 pieces, 8 of which are by company members, that we feel in some way reflect the day-to-day struggles and triumphs that affect all people, or most of them. The 10 pieces are individually directed by various directors and have been shaped and overseen by Shannon Beeby, which has lended itself a very interesting feel. From a new piece by Stephen Belber to a new adaptation of Buchner's Woyzeck, the celebration of life is captured through the eyes and the minds of Counting Squares Theatre company members. Stephen Belber, Emmy-nominated for his work on The Laramie Project, lends us the scene that inspired the major motion picture Management. Currently in post-production, Management, written and directed by Mr. Belber, stars Jennifer Aniston, Woody Harrelson, and Steve Zahn.


Additionally we examine a segment from our 2008-2009 season opener Woyzeck. This world premiere adaptation incorporates music, the ever-present theme of soldiers returning from war, and the struggle to reintegrate into society. Counting Squares features eight additional new pieces written solely by company members.


So please come see our production of Carpe Tunnel at the Spoon Theater at 38 W. 38th Street, between 5th & 6th Avenues, on June 3rd through 10th at 8:00 pm. Tickets are $18.00. Call 407-765-6308 or e-mail info@countingsquarestheatre.org.