There is much I love about going to the theater by myself, not the least of which is the chance to chat with seat mates who start out as strangers, but end up being lovely company pre-show and at intermission. A recent experience offered up just such a treat. We may never have exchanged names, but we exchanged theater personalities! And something we talked about has prompted this post...straying from the Broadway beat and finding a rhythm in the many small theaters and productions all over NYC that offer exciting opportunities to experience theater in more intimate settings, and often with fresh and unique voices!
Turns out that my Atlanta friend (AF) and I have each discovered, over the course of multiple theater trips, that while we definitely make time to see the major productions at the Broadway theaters, we've had some of our most treasured experiences at the Off Broadway shows we've seen. It is certainly more easily accomplished when you have numerous opportunities to be in NYC, but I think I can comfortably say that if you do a little research before you come to the city, you may find a fantastic opportunity awaits to see your favorite star in a tiny theater; or an early production of a story you loved that may not ever be suited for a major production. AF shared a wonderful memory he has of seeing a production of Bluebird that changed the way he thought about theater.
So you’re heading for New York City, and you want to include some theater while you’re there. All the big musicals spring to mind: The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, Mamma Mia, Chicago, Kinky Boots, Pippin. Or perhaps you’ve heard of some big name stars in plays: Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in Betrayal, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot.
My mantra is to go see what appeals to you; you'll get no judgment from this corner. But theater tickets can be pricey of course, making choosing just one or two all the more difficult; which in turn makes doing some advance research into the shows you’re considering, all the more important. Most of those I’ve mentioned above are wonderful choices (though not all for all!). However, here’s another option that’s worth exploring before you commit to one of the big ticket shows: check out some of the numerous Off Broadway theaters, for an often quite unique and intimate theatrical experience. And you may just get to see a famous actor up close without taking quite such a big financial hit!
By the way, the term “Off Broadway” does not refer to geographic location, but to the size of the house and to what contracts/agreements govern its productions. If a theater is an Off Broadway theater, it has between 100-499 seats (fewer seats than 100 would be considered Off Off Broadway; and 500 seats or more are Broadway theaters). There are Off Broadway theaters just down the block from the largest Broadway venues. Many of these theaters are wonderful spaces, offering new work, with great sight lines and lower ticket prices. This means you may get to be one of the first to see a show that the world will be talking about next year. For example, New York Theatre Workshop has launched several big Broadway hits, including Tony winners, Once and Peter and the Starcatcher. Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre was the original home of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, last season’s Tony-winning play starring David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.
The New York Theater Workshop (fictionalized as the Manhattan Theatre Workshop in the television series Smash), has an impressive track record in nurturing and growing new shows, some of which you've watched be awarded with Tonys. Two shows with that distinction are the musical Once (Best Musical, 2012), still running at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre, and Peter and the Starcatcher (Best Play nominee, 2012 and winner for costumes, set and sound), which ran on Broadway, is currently running Off Broadway again, and is also on tour (as is Once).
One of my most thrilling experiences was at Cherry Lane Theatre, Off Broadway’s oldest continously running theatre, sitting just 15 feet away from Vanessa Redgrave as she starred with Jesse Eisenberg in the play he wrote, The Revisionist. Cherry Lane is a charming venue, near Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, that may be used by more than one theater company during the year.
Vineyard Theatre, near Union Square, is another one that ranks high on my list. Their shows over the past couple of seasons have featured well known actors such as Kate Mulgrew, David Hyde Pierce and Anthony LaPaglia. One of my recent favorites was Now. Here. This. (from the creators of [title of show]), which offered poignant, spot on commentary on being a human, accompanied by terrific music!
Likewise, it was exciting to see Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci in a production of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Classic Stage Company, a flexible space that accommodates creative staging. Currently playing at Classic Stage is a production of Romeo and Juliet, which includes rising star Elizabeth Olsen and Grey’s Anatomy’s T.R. Knight in the cast.
59E59, in Midtown East, provided me the opportunity to see Michael Learned up close in The Outgoing Tide; a well-received revival of Stephen Schwartz's musical Working; and in just a few weeks I'll see Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in All That Fall. The theater space is just the right size of small, and has great sight lines from all points.
Closer to Midtown Manhattan (the location of the Theater District) is Second Stage Theatre, which features new plays and musicals, along with other work. The new stage musical adaption of the film Little Miss Sunshine is currently running, for example. And Second Stage was the home of the wonderful Benj Pasek and Justin Paul musical, Dogfight, which premiered in 2012, and starred the current Wicked team of Lindsay Mendez (Elphaba) and Derek Klena (Fiyero).
The Signature Theatre, on W42nd St., has several spaces in its Pershing Square complex that allow it to present various types of shows, including two traditional theater spaces and some flexible black box spaces as well. Betty Buckley recently starred in Horton Foote’s play Old Friends there. I was truly honored to see her on stage from the second row!
Playwrights Horizons is a wonderful place to discover new work, both musicals and plays. Last season's new musical Far From Heaven brought us Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale on stage together, performing a score by Broadway's Grey Gardens team, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (that show ran at Playwrights Horizons before moving to Broadway in 2006). O'Hara and Pasquale are soon to be seen headlining the Broadway production of Jason Robert Brown's new musical The Bridges of Madison County, beginning previews in January '12.
New World Stages has 5 different stage spaces that can accommodate a wide range of shows, including productions of long-running shows (Avenue Q; Rent; Gazillion Bubble Show) and shows that transfer from other theaters (Peter and the Starcatcher; Murder For Two). I've had some marvelous experiences seeing such shows as Freud's Last Session, Bare and The Two-Character Play with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif.
When people think of Lincoln Center, they likely think about big shows in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (War Horse, for example), as well as operas, ballets, symphonies; all of which are specialities of this wonderful venue. But I love the two small theaters at LC Theater: The Mitzi Newhouse and LCT3. The Newhouse was home to the Off Broadway premiere of the recent Broadway hit, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the Tony award for Best Play in 2013. LCT3, which presents its shows in the Claire Tow Theatre, an intimate black box space, focuses on work by new artists.
Other theaters to explore for new work, revivals, special events, and more, include:
Each of these great theaters present varied and interesting seasons, and I always check out their offerings when I'm choosing what to see.
But my favorite Off Broadway venue of all is probably the venerable Public Theater near Lafayette Square, founded by Joe Papp in the 1960s, and inaugurated with the original production of the musical Hair. Papp’s mission was to bring theater to as many people as possible, especially those in the local community, and those for whom ticket prices are often out of reach. He began the annual summer tradition, Shakespeare in the Park, during which The Public produces two free shows each summer in the lovely outdoor venue in Central Park, The Delacorte Theatre. One is generally a work of Shakespeare with a twist; the other might be a revival of a well-known musical. The presentations this past summer were Comedy of Errors starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and a new musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The Public Theater has five different theater spaces, from a traditional house, to flexible spaces, in which developmental work can be tested in what are sometimes called “lab” or “workshop” presentations. The tickets for these are often quite inexpensive, at $15-35, and you might see some leading stage performers too. These labs may move forward to full stage productions, such as this season’s new musical, Fun Home, which I saw in its lab form last year, and is now running in a full production in The Public’s main stage space to rave reviews. The Public also has a concert entertainment venue called Joe’s Pub, and a full restaurant that serves both before and after shows.
Keep in mind that Off Broadway shows may not have the same frequency of performances, and may have a different schedule than the traditional Tuesday through Saturday evening performances, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees, common to the Broadway shows. This can work to your advantage, as I’ve seen small productions with 5:00pm performances on some days, that don’t conflict with other shows.
For an easy reference of the Off Broadway theaters, check out my Stage Directions: Find a Theater: Off Broadway page. All of the theaters I’ve mentioned are easily accessible by subway, and each has their own website that will provide you with information about their current and upcoming seasons. Also, Playbill.com has full listings of both Broadway and Off Broadway productions with synopses and ticket information.
So find your way Off Broadway, and enjoy some new theater adventures!
Theater is everywhere. It goes on every day in countless spaces around us, big and small. If we're lucky, we stumble upon a show that surprises us with a fresh perspective; one that enriches our understanding of the roles that theater can play in our lives. This is just such a show:
Performance. Art Exhibit. Dialogue.
A diverse cast explores female sexuality. The truthful, the awkward, the poignant and humorous.
I'm convinced that if every show had a Maggie Keenan-Bolger and a Rachel Sullivan, every show would also have a full house every night! These two makers of theater have seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm, creativity and commitment to making life work better for all of us. And they've made us a show about being sexual beings, especially women (and those who so identify), that is designed to entertain, educate and elevate. It's called "The Birds and The Bees Unabridged," and the show, and accompanying art exhibit, runs for five performances at Speyer Hall in NYC from March 27-30 '13 (see end of post for more details).
I had the privilege of sitting down with Maggie and Rachel to find out more about the motivations and inspirations that gave rise to The Birds and The Bees Unabridged, and couldn't help but be swept up in their excitement for the process that birthed this show. The two met while working on their graduate degrees in Applied Theater (the use of theater to effect social change), and each is committed to the belief that there needs to be significant change in how women view themselves as sexual beings, and therefore how we experience sex in our lives. More openness and acceptance of ourselves and our sexual reality, in their opinions, will naturally flow from stepping away from a notion of a single "normal" and towards a plurality of "normals" that are the truths for each of us. To that end, they prepared a survey to start the discussion, and crossed their fingers for 500 responses. They needn't have worried...2000 responses came in; some of the returned surveys running as many as 50 pages. Looks as if they were right that we have a need to talk about sex!
From these responses, they selected the topics that respondents ranked as most important to a show about female sexuality (#1 was partner communication, #2 was reproductive rights, #3 sexual violence, and so on) and those that had the unifying theme of communication. Then they gathered a group of twenty actors that spans ages 20-70, a range of professions (teachers, lawyers, real estate agents), includes a mother and daughter and a transgender actor who self-identifies as someone with a female body but "man identified." Read about the cast members here.
The key to casting, Rachel said, was that, as well as being at least somewhat stage-experienced, the group be made up of "nice" people; people who could form a community of trust and productive conversation. Together, Maggie, Rachel and their creative team and actors set about evolving the ideas into a stage work. There has been no set script from which to work, making the process fully collaborative and responsive. Everyone has had a voice in what is working and what's not as successful. That's part of the fun, said Maggie; i.e., some of the actors read the survey responses and then, during the development process, the actors would remember specific survey comments they'd read that felt "powerful" to them and that they felt should be included; while other actors would describe a personal issue they felt should be addressed in the show, but not one they wanted to be part of addressing.
Both described the show as a "quilt," made up of separate stories that, when stitched together, form a beautiful whole. The show is expected to run around 90 minutes, and when asked what the audience can expect to see, M & R shared that there'll be a series of vignettes/scenes that stand on their own and may include dialogue, music and/or designed movement relating to experiences in the realm of female sexuality. There is no nudity, and the show does not have an age limit. Instead, the women feel that individually appropriate decisions must be made. What about men, you might ask? Well, this is a work of theater performance, designed to entertain, and there is a universality to our human existence that makes theater a unifying medium. Personally, I welcome shows that expand my insight into those around me! So the show may be about women, but it's for everyone.
A discussion of the "birds and bees" seems one without a definitive end, so I was particularly interested in what might come next for the show, as well as for its creators. As Rachel said with a laugh, "the most interesting, intoxicating and difficult thing about theater is that it is never finished!" Specifically I asked if there would be any interaction with the audience post-show (such as exit surveys or talk backs) and both expressed the intent for some form of further communication of that sort. They feel that, although they can't really take the current incarnation with this cast on tour, that the show would be a great fit for college communities, among others. And we all agreed that there was an embarrassment of riches in the way of ideas, topics and personal stories that deserve to be told, to provide plenty of material going forward!
The biggest surprise, the two said, has been the amount of support they've received since they first started the project. From a healthy survey response rate to the successful Kickstarter campaign that funded this initial production, the willingness of people to become involved convinced them that they are on the right track. So if you can make it to the show during this, its original run, go... don't miss the opportunity to see this unique theater work, created by two women from whom I know we'll hear much more in years to come! And along with being entertained, you may find yourself changed "for good," to quote another show that involves women getting to know themselves (heck, even Glinda and Elphaba could use a bit of Maggie and Rachel in their lives I suspect!).
The Birds and the Bees Unabridged
Wednesday, March 27th- 8pm
Thursday, March 28th- 8pm
Friday, March 29th- 8pm
Saturday, March 30th- 2pm and 8pm
Buy tickets here / suggested donation $10/$15/$25* (based on interest and economic ability)
Speyer Hall at University Settlement (see map below)
184 Eldridge St.
New York, NY. 10002
(photos of Maggie & Rachel at work and of the cast are from the show website)