Leaders of the Pack

Begun as a response to the kind of work being produced by the theatre establishment, summer play festivals in New York City have, over the past two decades, become an institution unto themselves -- not only as a way for emerging artists to break into the mainstream, but as a separate community with its own aesthetics and objectives. Back Stage East sat down last month with representatives from four of the festivals -- Kristin Marting of the American Living Room at the Here Arts Center, Elena K. Holy of the New York International Fringe Festival, Kris Stewart of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and Arielle Tepper of the Summer Play Festival -- to talk about how their events evolved and how they have influenced theatre in New York. The interview was conducted by Leonard Jacobs, Back Stage's national theatre editor, and Andrew Salomon, news editor of Back Stage East.

BACK STAGE: What were the motivations for starting your festivals?

Kris Stewart: We founded the festival mostly because of the challenges we were seeing presenting independent writers and producers in developing their work. A lot of existing models of readings and things like that didn't seem to be working. At the time, I was executive director of a small nonprofit, the National Music Theater Network, and we'd been doing writer development and a reading program. But I was just sort of seeing less progress -- we were having less impact than 10 years earlier. And then there are the challenges of watching small companies work, and working in isolation in Manhattan. We tried to find a way to bring people that were working in musical theatre together so they could get their work to another level.

Elena K. Holy: We started the festival because we [the Present Company] were producing a show called Americana Absurdum by Brian Parks in the mid-'90s. It got some critical recognition, and our peers working Off-Off-Broadway said, "This is great, it's fantastic. You should take it to Edinburgh." We found out about the festival there, and I started crunching numbers to find out what it would take to get 12 of us to Scotland. At the time, that was the equivalent of our annual budget. So that was not going to happen. Then we had a little tiny announcement in Back Stage that we were holding a town meeting about starting the first annual New York International Fringe Festival. And we were hoping that 20 or 30 people would show up and that they would think it was a good idea‌and we stopped signing people in at about 350. That was kind of a mandate that we should go for it.

Arielle Tepper: We started the Summer Play Festival as a crazy idea. I was totally immersed in the world of commercial theatre. I knew of the Fringe Festival, but as a commercial producer I felt like there was a very big hole. I felt like I wasn't producing my peers' work, and that was a really hard and depressing thing, and my friends couldn't afford to come see my shows and I wasn't putting on plays that they'd want to see anyway. So there was a lot going on that just wasn't really working for me, and I had wanted to create some sort of think-tank living-room space where people from different generations could come together and talk to each other. When we found out that Theatre Row was available for the month of July, I said, "Hey, what if we take over the building and get four theatres -- they're all 99 seats -- and we can put on 16 shows in those four theatres over a four-week period and then we use their bar area as the lounge/think-tank place." And someone said, "Oh, that's called -- you know -- doing a festival." [Laughter.] It was really one of those crazy ideas, let's see if it works, and, you know, someone else said, "How much is this going to cost?" And I thought, "I don't know, $25,000?" [More laughter.] It was so wonderful the first year. We sold really well, and on the first week, Mike Nichols showed up and he was talking to one of our young writers and I sort of felt like I wanted to cry.

Kristin Marting: My original company was the Tiny Mythic Theatre Company, and we were based at the Ohio Theatre for five years. In our second year there, we went to [owner] Robert Lyons, whose theatre was always dark in the summer because he didn't have A.C., and we said, "Hey, can we have the theatre on Saturday nights? We'd like to do something. We don't have anywhere to go; we don't have money to go to houses in the Hamptons." We were all in our 20s, and we have nothing to do, let's do some shows. So he let us do it and he gave us part of the box office, and tickets were $5. The first summer we did 18 shows. We set the theatre up with sofas and easy chairs, because the idea was about making theatre as much a part of everyday life as possible, not as a special event. And we had a big sort of kitchen that we set up with a linoleum floor, a fridge, and whoever was serving the beer was in a dress whether they were a man or woman. And we had fans set up because there was no air conditioning. We had lines around the block. We didn't take reservations, so people used to come and they would actually have picnics starting at, like, 5 p.m. to get in when the doors opened at 8 p.m. We grew the festival when we opened Here in 1993 to involve more disciplines. We also changed the focus so you could do a full-length piece or you could do a short-form piece; it depended what was most useful for artists. We felt like what we had to offer was higher technical resources than a lot of festivals, so we put the emphasis more on providing more tech time, more resources to artists. We're puzzling over what's different about our festival and the other festivals now as the market has gotten so expanded in the summer -- and it is that multidisciplinary work, those higher production values.

BACK STAGE: Each of you created your festivals because the theatre community wasn't meeting your needs. With the proliferation of festivals -- and we blame you [laughter] -- how has the proliferation aided your objective? How has it thwarted it?

Stewart: It's quite hard in New York getting enough bang for your buck, you know? It's a very crowded and noisy city, so getting yourself to be seen amongst all of that is very, very challenging. And I think the one thing that a festival kind of does is, you know, it allows you to be much bigger -- a critical-mass syndrome. I think one thing that sort of happens in a festival environment is everyone realizes that they're selling their show but also selling this festival, so that brings other people to other shows. You get this network of people. It really helps get a momentum that you could just never do with yourself.

BACK STAGE: Have there been any negative effects with so many festivals?

Stewart: I kind of feel like we're starting a dot-com in 1999, you know what I mean? I think five years from now there won't be as many festivals. But that's not even necessarily a bad thing. I think that's part of people realizing that there's some value to this and people doing it, and not necessarily all of them are going to last 17 years or 10 years or whatever. I think that's part of the process. And what will happen is, instead of there being festivals, there will be institutions.

Holy: There's just been an incredible responsiveness to the community, which I think is the key to success. When Kris had this crazy idea, he talked to a lot of us who did festivals and found a need in the musical theatre community. And I think we each fill a different niche. We probably have a lot of the same kind of emails to deal with, but other than that, we're all pretty different from each other as far as structure, I think.

BACK STAGE: Talking about proliferation, some of your festivals are held in Midtown, some are held downtown. Does geography make a difference?

Marting: I think so. I mean, I feel like there's becoming a lot more in Midtown -- I think there are seven or eight [festivals] now in Midtown. There didn't used to be. It used to all be downtown activity. I think audiences are different and there's a different expectation. Although I think the Fringe has crossover -- that it's getting some of the Midtown and downtown audiences. I think a festival like the Living Room or the Ohio Theatre's Ice Factory or the Ontological festival -- those are real downtown; the artists are doing "downtown work" and there's kind of an expectation the audience has about what they're going to see.

Holy: I think it has to do with sensibility -- our geography represents our sensibility in a lot of ways. I was working in commercial theatre to pay my bills and then at night we'd make some crazy new play. So I kind of had my foot in both worlds, and that was one of the goals with the festival. We do have a lot of work that has commercial aspirations, particularly in the P.U. years -- the post-Urinetown years.

BACK STAGE: Arielle, you have a foot in nonprofit and commercial theatre. How have the festivals had an impact on the mainstream?

Tepper: One of the ideas behind SPF was that we would create some sort of network. So that when a show goes to XYZ Broadway producer, the playwright says, "Hey, I was in this festival or that festival, we're really cool, you have to pay attention instead of tossing my script in the trash can." [The festival puts] a stamp on it. The artist can say they've done something -- that audiences have seen their shows. We had two shows transfer last year, which was a really big deal for us. We felt, "Okay, something good happened and people are noticing what we're doing." We definitely have a group of writers and directors who are sort of at the level that I think we imagined we would be getting -- you know, people who have gotten grants or really been working at it for 10 years but never got their break. We're getting directors before they go to Broadway.

BACK STAGE: I was wondering if you could touch on the meat and potatoes. What are your application processes?

Stewart: There's two ways. We do about 30 to 34 new musicals that each receive six performances in a Midtown theatre or smaller, 199 seats. Of those musicals, 18 come through a blind, open submission process for which we get about 400 entries. All those are read internally and go through a series of ratings to whittle them down to 36. Those 36 go to an external jury normally made up of industry professionals from different disciplines: directors, writers, producers, whatever. And they will get it down to 18. Then, typically we'll have between 12 to 16 shows that we invite to the festival.

Holy: For FringeNYC, everyone must apply in a category, so there's dance-movement, clown, mask, puppet, vaudeville, sideshow, magic, burlesque, play, musical. And then we have 80 or so adjudicators, who each review 30 applications within that category on an individual basis. Then three people who each looked at the same 30 projects get together and hammer out a ranking list. They rank those 30 from No. 1 to 30, then present their findings to a panel, and those of us on the panel, rather than representing our own likes and dislikes, each represent a stated objective, which is sort of our core values: innovation, vibrancy, and diversity. We have about 850 national and local applications and 200 slots are allotted, but that's not nearly enough. There's always at least two really amazing festivals' worth of work. Our applicants are teenagers up to Tony-winning octogenarians. And we get people from across the spectrum.

Tepper: For us, you have to be an emerging writer and you have to have never had a show performed in a house larger than 99 seats. The idea behind that was we want to find the needle in the haystack, but we also wanted to find the person who's been writing for 10 years and been getting grants and had a number of readings and had their one-night-only performance in some little theatre and is ready to stop writing unless they get something. This is our third year with more than 1,000 submissions, so we're happy about that. We have about 70 readers, and each play is read twice. I then go through those 1,000 submissions and whittle them down to between 50 and 65, and then [they] go to our outside selection panel much like Kris', which is a group of industry people -- writers, directors, producers -- to look at.

Marting: We get around 250 to 300 applications. We get many more inquiries, and when we make it more clear that our festival is multidisciplinary, it whittles down stuff. We have a panel that consists of a combination of myself and usually one or two Here staff members. Most Here staffers are practicing artists and prior American Living Room participants. Our panels are usually five or six folks. We all read applications on our own, then we come together usually for a two- or two-and-a-half-day panel session where we look at work samples in person. We have a rating system, discuss each project, and we are certainly looking for a range in subject matter, a range in representation of different subsets of New York City. It's really important to me, like with everything with Here, that the festival represents the city we live in -- it's not a white, middle-class perspective. We also change the form from year to year if there's a theme that gathers the work together. A couple of years ago, the year the Republican National Convention was here, we did a politically focused festival.

BACK STAGE: Because that was the work you were getting from the artists?

Marting: And because it felt like the right thing to do. Last year we did something called "The Carousel of Progress," which was all about the way that technology and other things are impacting the way that we're functioning. For this year's festival, we went back to the festival's roots about risk-taking in form or in content.

BACK STAGE: If you've got to look through 250 applications, or 1,000, how do you actually read all of that?

Marting: Well, we have to do it quickly. That's one of the challenges.

BACK STAGE: But, I mean, how do you --

Holy: -- well, one night you read the Woman Held Captive plays -- the plays with prevailing themes.

BACK STAGE: Hopefully, not dozens of those.

Holy: You'd be amazed. I love the part of my job where you see what people are writing about -- there's a lot of darkness out there. In some ways, I think that helps. Rather than looking at 140 things blindly, we get feedback from the adjudicators about what thematic categories they all sort of fall into.

BACK STAGE: Let's talk more about theme for a second. What are the common ways writers deal with themes effectively? How do they shoot themselves in the foot?

Marting: It's the strength and passion of the artist's vision. I mean, that's what comes through. That's what I get behind -- when the strength and passion of that individual artist's vision is really clear to me. And when I don't feel that, it doesn't matter kind of what the subject is or how topical it might be. It's specificity; it's not the generality.

Holy: There's no answer to, you know, "How does someone blow it when they're approaching writing about a certain theme?" Our three key words at FringeNYC are innovation, vibrancy, and diversity. And vibrancy is the artist's passion.

Stewart: I think part of the challenge of writing for the musical theatre is when a writer starts with an outcome already in mind. They choose their subject matter based on "Well, I want this musical to get produced, and it's only going to get produced if I choose Subject A." The danger of that kind of stuff is musicals take a lot of time to write, so by the time you finish it, that center of public opinion has moved. So we look for people that have written something that obviously appeals to them. They're not writing it because they think, "This would be fantastic when it opens at the Shubert Theatre in 12 months."

Tepper: I agree. The stuff I've seen or read that doesn't work is, you know, a child who wants to kill their mother and tries to kill their mother -- it's so sick, violent, and graphic, but they're not actually telling a story; they're just getting out their anger and aggression or whatever and there's no play in it.

BACK STAGE: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about your festivals?

Stewart: I think part of the misconception is that all our organizations are more successful than we really are.

BACK STAGE: You don't all really want to dispel that myth, do you?

Holy: I do. I try to dispel that myth every day. Because the Fringe has a big reputation, we're celebrating 10 years and people have seen our logo before and heard of our festival. That's really amazing, I'm very proud of that, but I'm also the only employee of the Present Company. We have 70,000 audience members, and it's amazing that we keep a personal relationship with our audience, but I can't reach out to 70,000 people. And it's 200 shows, 1,300 performances, and it all comes down to only one employee and then a bunch of really extraordinary volunteers.

BACK STAGE: So what does constitute success for you?

Stewart: I think we are very successful when the shows have a successful experience in the festival. And it's very important to me that we present to the public a professional, well-run, well-managed organization -- in the case of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, I'm talking about myself and Isaac Hurwitz, our executive producer. The challenge is that our festival is still quite young -- and all of us, I am sure, would speak of the financial challenges.

Marting: I just want the artist to go away having the experience they expected.

Holy: I don't even know how to begin on the success thing, because I'm not really sure how we would measure it. Maybe we talk about what shows moved and what writers went on to the next step in their career, which I actually feel really good about. A really high percentage of our writers have gotten agents, or have gotten their next writing deal, or have a commission, or have got another one of their plays produced.

BACK STAGE: If commercial producers were to convene the four of you and say, "What can we do to get younger audiences?," what would you tell them? You know, other than to cut your ticket prices to acceptable levels.

Stewart: I don't know that ticket price is seriously the issue. I think it's value. I think it's really interesting talking to Equity about the number of showcases that happen here -- the number of things springing from artists. New York, up until maybe 20 years ago, was always a city where things could be made. We work in the garment district because almost no garments are made there unless they're on Project Runway. Yet there are still these artists here who want to keep seeing things created. And I think that's where people need to wake up -- to stop thinking it'll ever be the '70s again: There's not going to be hookers in Times Square. There's always going to be tourists. Things aren't going to get any cheaper. We need to start thinking about the next generation: What's this next way of supporting artists so things still can be created in New York?

Marting: I think there's something about the idea of institution, that there are people who are not going to get over that barricade. They feel that they're walking into an institutional place -- whether it's the Metropolitan Museum of Art or a Broadway house -- and there's something about the architecture and the feeling they have going into that space that they're not going to get over. So there's a whole range of people to be engaged in a different way, because they're just not going to be comfortable. There's also something about who's making the work and what the community around that work is. There are people who, even if they could go for $10, are not likely to go to that Broadway show, because that's not how they self-identify within their community, just as you have the indie film market and mainstream movies, the blockbusters, and all that. I think you're always going to have that. I think there is some back and forth that happens, and things I never thought would be commercial -- I never thought The Vagina Monologues would be the commercial success it was.‌ I think you can never identify what it is, but there's something ethereal about what an audience experiences. It's about a direct link between the performers and the audience. How you create that most effectively is the question.

BACK STAGE: Arielle, following up on what you were saying with regard to Midtown and mainstream and downtown and Broadway, do these labels mean anything anymore?

Tepper: I really self-identify as an alternative theatre maker and producer. I don't want to be somewhere else. I want to be in the community that I'm in.

Stewart: I also think there's a kind of nostalgia for when things were a bit cleaner and clearer in New York. Downtown was where everyone went for a bit of the edgy; now you're paying $5,000 a month for rent. Downtown there's lots of kids on trust funds spending a lot of money to look edgy.

BACK STAGE: This is why I'm asking the question. What do these trends mean?

Stewart: I think there's a kind of a holding on to an aesthetic anchored to a location. You come here and there are all sorts of entrenched ideas, and I think they're ghosts of stuff that don't exist necessarily. I think you get placed somewhere because of space.

BACK STAGE: We've got five minutes. I feel like we should ask you all for closing statements.

Holy: Well, my favorite quote about my festival is it's the best of the worst theatre in New York. I'm really proud of that, because my festival's really about giving the artists the chance to do what they want to do. They might succeed and they might fail and that's okay. The idea is that they're having the opportunity to try.

Stewart: The critics have been quite generous as well. People come being relatively generous of spirit. They can recognize what's being offered here and the way it's being offered. It's not being offered at $75 and we're just doing a job and it's a paycheck and, what the hell, there'll be another gig next week.

Marting: We tend to, I think all of us, get criticism rather than just reviews. I think that's part of what Kris is talking about.

BACK STAGE: You're talking about the positive aspect of criticism.

Marting: Well, critical thought. New work being created as opposed to what's your box office tally and that being where the story ends. And I think that's a great gift.

Tepper: I was just going to say, I think the Broadway thing is really hard, because I think when you walk into a Broadway theatre, no matter what show you're doing, whether it's lowest common denominator or not, there are four million billion people involved in it. Whereas at our festival -- and it sounds like at the others too -- everybody's getting together and making sure that the stage is painted black. Or, "Do you need help with that?" "Hey, do you need a bed? Because we had a bed and we're going to throw it out, but you know what, we won't throw it out if you need it." You can't do that on Broadway. It's just not the industry -- it's not the way it works.

BACK STAGE: Well, I just thank you, thank you very much, for coming in to share your thoughts.