Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Brand New Theatre Company Opens Its Doors

Apple Core Theatre Company joins the ranks of NYC's indie theatre community this month. Co-founders Allison Taylor and Walter Hoffman launch their troupe with a double bill of plays by James McLure and Steven Gridley called Won and Lost. Is the middle of an economic downturn the best time to start a new company? I asked Allison about the new venture:

Q: Why did you decide to start a new theatre company? Why not just hook up with an existing company?

A: Several years ago, I read Helen Epstein's biography about Joseph Papp, and it just blew my mind. I've always been in theater, but before, it was in a far more academic sense, more about analyzing texts and studying history than involvement in production. But hearing about what Papp did -- fighting to bring theater to the masses for free -- it completely inspired me to change my direction, to expose as many people as possible to the art form that I love. I have no interest in performing on a flatbed truck in Brooklyn and getting rocks thrown at me, but deep down, I'll always want to be Joe Papp.

I know I can't do what Papp did -- I'd be foolish to think I could. But I do want to make theater as accessible and affordable as feasibly possible. I also want to build up a new kind of audience, like he did. I want the traditional theatergoer to love us, but I also want a diverse fan base in terms of age, race, and background. Unfortunately, most theaters price a lot of people out, especially right now. Even if a theater is discounting, sometimes you have to be in the "know" to hear about it. I want to personally invite people to ACTC who don't even think about theater as something to do on a Friday night, and I hope to keep all the tickets at $15.

As for why I never hooked up with another theater... well, I knew my vision was so specific that the only way to bring it to fruition was to do it myself.

Q: What are some of the particular challenges you’re encountering starting up at this particular time? Obviously the economy is an important factor for everyone right now – how are you handling trying to launch a company in this economic climate?

A: Here's the thing: starting a theater company is just hard economically, no matter what, unless you have a bottomless trust fund. Commercial theater is an impossible business model, and the nonprofits have been built to rely too heavily on contributed income. The challenges I'm facing today are the challenges people were facing a year ago. The only difference is, now it's extremely hard to ask people for money. I've had to teach myself how not to feel guilty about it, and I still do. I've tried to focus on asking a large number of people for small donations -- as opposed to a few key people for very large donations -- and those numbers have fortunately added up. Above all else, this recession certainly makes me extra appreciative of the Apple Core donors.

But because we're all in the same financially leaky boat, everyone has been really kind and supportive. The folks at TBG Theatre, where Won and Lost will be, have been extremely kind and accomodating, even though we're strapped for cash. The artists with whom we're collaborating have volunteered to help out with additional tasks. If the economy has done anything, it's actually brought out the best in us.

Q: What’s the greater challenge, from your perspective: launching a new company right now in this Recession; or launching a new company in New York City, where there is so much competition?

A: Oh, the oversaturation of theater in New York City, by far. It's difficult to make your voice heard in a crowd of so many companies, all going to the same group of traditional theatergoers. On a practical level, that's just another reason why it's necessary to expand to new audiences -- to put in the extra effort to talk honestly to people about theater and then invite them to a show.

Q: What educational/job experiences do you think have prepared you best for the challenges you are facing right now in forming the new company?

A: This May, I'm finishing up an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University. While there, I've received invaluable advice from theater professionals and made industry connections that never would have happened otherwise. I've also taken the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the "business" end of theater: development, marketing, contracts, unions, all the departments that use fine print. I've also, of course, met artists and producers that I hope to work with for a long time. Steven Gridley, who I met at Columbia and whose play we're producing as part of Won and Lost, is certainly one of them.

Q: What are the artistic goals of the company? Who are your major influences artistically?

A: The director of Won and Lost, Walter Hoffman, and I founded this company in part because we kept talking about how much we loved American theater and how often we saw British playwrights being produced. We want to celebrate in a down-to-earth, straightforward style the richness of American theater -- its optimism, its humor, its sincerity, and especially its emotional power. My favorite feeling is watching a play and feeling so moved that I cry. Real catharsis. I want to lose myself in stories that make me feel something in my heart. That's what Apple Core Theater Company strives to do every time we present a play.

The warhorses -- Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, August Wilson -- certainly have informed that aesthetic, and I also deeply respond to traditional American comedy, especially Kaufman and Hart. But until we get some dirt under our nails, I doubt we'll approach those lions. We also want to unearth some lost American gems and work with new playwrights who also tap into that traditional, gripping, heartfelt style. Won and Lost -- which pairs a revival of James McLure's Pvt. Wars with Steven Gridley's new play The Return of Odysseus -- encapsulates exactly that.

1 comment:

Abigail Katz said...

My hat's off to anyone brave enough to start a theatre company period, but even more so in such challenging times! And here's to women in leadership roles in the American theatre!