Rattlestick Playwrights Theater: The Off-Broadway new-writing venue transforming itself
For its current shows, the West Village’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater has radically redesigned its auditorium and ditched half the seats. Its artistic director Daniella Topol tells Nicole Serratore why these changes typify the pioneering spirit of a venue that has staged 100 world premieres in the past quarter-century
Coming to see the latest shows at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which has staged some of New York’s most daring work by writers from Annie Baker to Jesse Eisenberg, patrons will find it unrecognisable.
The black material has been removed from the massive windows lining two walls. The squeaky, raked seating of the 99-seat proscenium-arch venue has vanished and been replaced with half as many folding chairs around the perimeter. The tin ceiling and stage remain, but now the original wooden trusses of the stage from 1854 are visible. Some familiarity persists. The toilet, famous in the West Village because it is only accessible to audiences by climbing on to the stage to reach it, is still where it has always been.
This dramatic reinvention of the theatre’s space is an artistic choice. The creative team behind the current productions, Lewiston and Clarkston – two plays written by MacArthur Genius fellow Samuel D Hunter – said that to make the shows possible everything in the theatre had to go. To their surprise, the Rattlestick’s artistic director, Daniella Topol, agreed.
It is a bold move for Topol, who is two and a half years into her tenure, but she feels it is time that more light was thrown on the theatre. “It’s such a great metaphor for letting the Village in,” she says. “I’m in love with it. I feel like the natural light is so good for all of us and really necessary.”
Founded in 1994 by Gary Bonasorte and David van Asselt, this single-stage non-profit will be 25 years old next year. In the past 23 seasons, it has staged 100 world premieres. Topol had worked at Rattlestick as a director and took over from founding artistic director Van Asselt in April 2016. Her intent is to maintain the theatre’s gutsy reputation. Rattlestick has “this DNA of trying to do the impossible pieces”, she notes.
The challenge for her is: “How do we hold on to this idea of daring to tell stories that you don’t typically hear or presenting them in ways that are unique and innovative or ambitious?” Tearing out the entire guts of the theatre certainly qualifies as daring. Staging a three-and-a-half-hour, two-show evening while halving the seats to 51 does too.
Rattlestick’s audacious reputation comes from working with artists such as Adam Rapp, Lucy Thurber, Diana Oh, Dael Orlandersmith, Martyna Majok and David Adjmi. But it’s also what these artists have been allowed to do with this space.
Rattlestick made it possible for Thurber to stage her five-play cycle The Hilltown Plays all at once. Oh, in her radically inclusive gig-theatre show My Lingerie Play, had a glitter station for the audience to apply their own sparkles. She had audience members come up on stage and get their heads shaved.
Topol sat down with Hunter, an alumnus of the company, to talk about what future projects he might want to work on. He suggested Lewiston and Clarkston. He had wanted the plays to be in conversation with one another, but they had only been staged separately, many miles apart—with one production in Texas and another in Connecticut.
They focus on two towns – one in Idaho and one across the Snake River in Washington State – named after the US explorers Lewis and Clark. In 1804, these two embarked on a mission from President Thomas Jefferson to survey the lands America had bought from the French west of the Mississippi river, making an 8,000-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean.
The plays deal with the pair’s descendants but also look at life in the American West today. Clarkston is set in and around a Costco store. Lewiston takes place on the edge of a new housing development encroaching on a former cattle ranch.
By staging the plays with lights up on the audience and in an intimate format, Hunter and director Davis McCallum get the audience thinking about space, proximity, and each other. The two pieces with different characters both circle questions about the land, the history of the people on it, displacement, violence, trauma, family, legacy, and disconnection. Young characters in both plays struggle to see the way forward, and yet the future is coming no matter what. Like a lot of Hunter’s work, human connection is at its heart.
Between the shows, the ‘second act’ of the evening involves the audience sitting together to eat dinner. This meal break perfectly links to Topol’s own mission. She sees her approach to the company as asking: “What is the art of community gathering and how does that intersect with making theatre and experiencing theatre?” Over barbecue chicken – or tofu – coleslaw, potato salad and lemonade, strangers introduce themselves and talk about their lives, Lewis and Clark, and the play.
This spirit of communion, listening, dialogue and politics is present in a lot of Topol’s programming. “Everybody is extremely sensitive and alert to power and powerlessness in this very intense way. So the programming choices are in conversation with that energy that we have as a culture right now,” she says.
Q&A: Daniella Topol
What was your first non-theatre job?
I have always worked in theatre. Even when I was a camp counsellor, it was for a theatre camp.
What was your first professional theatre job?
At Pittsburgh’s City Theater – I was company manager, literary manager and associate producer. I was running the education department as well. I learned everything I needed to learn.
What is your next job?
I’ll be here forever, but I do have another job, which is to be a mum of my six-year-old. I love that too.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
No show will make you and no show will break you. Hold on to your humanity and prioritise others as well.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I feel – and felt – very influenced and moved by Barack Obama. I’m also moved by many people we’ve worked with who had to fight really hard to work in theatre.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I definitely think a lot about social justice – about what our responsibilities are to other humans and what we do with privilege and the resources that we have and how to activate people towards creating a more equitable humanity for all. I think I would have ended up working in non-profit land.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Oh God, so many. I think the ghosts lurk and I think the reality is you can’t mess with the ghosts, right?
The spring show, Lockdown by Cori Thomas, will address incarceration and criminal justice. Next, it will stage playwright Cusi Cram’s St Vincent’s Project: Novenas for a Lost Hospital. Founded in 1849, St Vincent’s hospital had a long history in the city and the Village. Survivors from the Titanic were brought there and it was one of the epicentres of the Aids epidemic in New York. It was just around the corner from Rattlestick until it was closed in 2010 and torn down two years later to build new housing. When the workshop production was staged this summer, the audience followed the show out into the streets and to the site of the former hospital.
With work like this, the boundaries between the theatre and community blur, and Topol wants Rattlestick to feel open to all. Under her leadership, the theatre launched an education programme, which comes from Topol’s desire to “serve people on a continuum, and make sure that young people feel welcome to be here as much as older people do”.
Another new creation is New Songs Now, which invites songwriters to perform concerts of new works. From that, Topol was introduced to singer-performer Diana Oh. She programmed Oh’s concert-style show about being a queer Korean-American artist and making inclusive space for all, for the 2017-18 season. Topol hopes to integrate more musical work going forward.
This is the kind of organic development Topol favours. “Like all things at Rattlestick, we don’t have a slot mentality. But we really try to give artists resources and time and space and then see what is ready to be developed more and what is ready to be produced.”
While the run of Lewiston and Clarkston ends on December 16, change at Rattlestick will continue. These plays were the catalyst the building needed. With the 25th anniversary approaching, Topol hopes to do some fundraising to “give the space the love that it deserves”. She says: “Our spring show will be back to a proscenium set-up but the intention with all of this is to have flexible configurations.”
No matter the form the space takes, Topol sees theatre as necessary for this moment: “Creating theatre and experiencing theatre can be healing to the divides in our culture. It can help us find our humanity, it can help us find our empathy, and I think these plays [Lewiston/Clarkston] are such an extension of that.”
Profile: Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
Artistic director: Daniella Topol
Staff: Three full-time; two part-time, three fellows, one intern
Performances: 119 (2017/18)
Audience figures: 7,907
Income: $1 million
Affordable ticket schemes: Pay-what-you-can nights, concessions for students, seniors and artists
Funding: Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, Howard Gilman Foundation, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, Shubert Foundation, Tow Foundation and private donors