The Off-Off-Broadway theatre has provided a testing ground for a string of plays that have hit the Great White Way. Artistic director Maria Striar tells Nicole Serratore why choosing ‘funny, strange and provocative’ work is the key
Two years ago, the Tony-nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me was playing at an 89-seat theatre in the East Village. Now the work – which was also a Pulitzer prize finalist – is thrilling Broadway audiences and has attracted a celebrity-studded crowd including Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Josh Groban and Glenn Close.
While playwright and star Heidi Schreck’s passion and words have turned this small-scale show into a major event this Broadway season, that it originated through Off-Off Broadway company Clubbed Thumb is truly remarkable.
Clubbed Thumb is not a company you’d normally see in a show’s credits on Broadway. As founder and producing artistic director Maria Striar says: “Certainly we’re not a Broadway-orientated organisation. We make the work that we want to make and if other people like it, that’s fantastic. But we’re not thinking that way.”
But Constitution’s transfer is just the latest in a streak of shows starting out at Clubbed Thumb that have caught the attention of bigger theatres and wider audiences in the past few years. These shows have gone on to enjoy celebrated encore runs and multiple productions around the country. Much of this is a testament to the persistence and support of Striar, as well as her taste for the unusual and inventive.
Striar founded the company with friends Meg MacCary, Arne Jokela and Jay Worthington in 1996 after leaving graduate school. The name came from a random image in a Victorian palmistry book lying around her apartment. As Striar says: “We did not want to have a twee theatre name, or anything burdensome and overly pretentious. We wanted something a little bit opaque and sort of curious.” While the friends who started the company with her have moved on, Striar jokes she is “the sole survivor”.
The artistic director says the company’s longevity comes from the fact that their work has “always been based in a certain kind of aesthetic that has perhaps allowed it to grow past individual artistic missions” and it focuses on “funny, strange and provocative new plays by living American writers”.
Clubbed Thumb shows tend towards the form-breaking, with absurd humour, or off-kilter sensibilities, and they often showcase early-career playwrights. “I have always felt like I want to make theatre with a lot of different points of entry. You want people to have simultaneous experiences, but not identical experiences, because people aren’t identical,” Striar says.
Each summer, Clubbed Thumb puts on three new productions in its series Summerworks. But like many companies who help to develop new work, it has quite a few behind-the-scenes projects driving the engine of its work. Through its early-career and mid-career writing groups and director fellowships, many theatrical talents enter into the Clubbed Thumb orbit.
Schreck was in Clubbed Thumb’s mid-career writer’s group. Playwrights and directors such as Anne Washburn, Lear DeBessonet, Samuel D Hunter, Adam Bock, Lisa D’Amour, Pam MacKinnon, Anne Kauffman, Clare Barron, Jen Silverman, Julia Jarcho, Leigh Silverman and Sarah Ruhl have all staged shows through Summerworks.
Summerworks shows may be sourced from the writing groups, the directing fellowships, submissions or commissions. The shows get a 10 to 12-day run in the intimate Wild Project theatre. They are all 90-minutes long with no interval and offer substantial, challenging roles for women by design. This is borne from Striar’s own experiences as an actor.
“Doing plays in the 1980s and the early 1990s, the ratio that we’d find just skewed towards male,” she says. “The female parts skewed towards girlfriend roles and supporting somebody else’s narrative. That was certainly a big motivation for me to change that roster, in a larger political way of really changing the understanding and the representation of women, but also just to give exciting actresses, who happen not to be male, some material to work with that was worthy of them.”
Representation for women on stage has got better, and frankly, I think we’ve contributed to that
She points out Sarah DeLappe’s play The Wolves started out in Clubbed Thumb’s early-career writer’s group and has now had “170 productions or something at this point” and is indicative of the kind of women-driven narrative that Clubbed Thumb is known for. “I think representation for women on stage has got better, and frankly, I think we’ve contributed to that,” Striar says.
The artistic director is committed to work with a sense of humour, which feels all too rare in theatre. She sees it as a necessary part of the spectrum. “In a performance, humour is super charismatic. Making people laugh, it’s like you’re giving the greatest thing. And it’s virtuosic and shows talent. You can’t fake funny.”
Even Constitution is a very funny play. Styled largely as a monologue by Schreck, with emotional, narrative and structural support from actor Mike Iveson, it is a personal look at Schreck’s own evolving relationship with the US constitution.
When she was a teenager, she used to enthusiastically participate in debates on the document to win scholarship money. Now a 45-year-old actor and writer, she is questioning what the law does to serve and protect women, immigrants and anyone not straight, white and male. The play gets into some dark family history, which Schreck emotionally girds herself for during the show. This is no laughing matter, but Schreck and director Oliver Butler manage to keep so much of the play light that it balances against the more challenging material.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Au Bon Pain in Copley Square in Boston.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I had a few small parts in plays at what is now the Lyric Stage in Boston. My first play with an Equity card was The Good Person of Szechwan, adapted by Tony Kushner.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Something that somebody did tell me is that it’s okay to change your mind. Every decision you make is not a lifelong commitment.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I have no idea. That becomes college-essay territory.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Give a respectful amount of space to the people for whom you’re auditioning, but actually act with your reader as much as you can.
If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have been?
Right now I’m obsessed with waste and packaging, so maybe I would work in some sort of recycling initiative.
What’s your next job?
I don’t know. Retiree. Woman of leisure.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, not really. I respect the ones that other people have.
Another offering – similar in tone – to come out of Clubbed Thumb is Will Arbery’s play Plano, which just closed an encore run after a successful outing at Summerworks in 2018. The play focuses on three sisters wrestling with ghosts, the men in their lives, their past, their mother and maybe – cosmic forces beyond their control. Time and space leap and shift within the play but the sisters remain linked to each other.
Wildly funny, rooted in real pain, and blending the nonsensical with the human, Plano fits very much into the rubric of a Clubbed Thumb play. With three strong female characters and an unusual sense of humour, it’s the kind of work that has the audience laughing one minute and bursting into tears the next.
Striar was introduced to Arbery by one of his graduate-school professors. As she saw it, he was “new to town and needed some community”, and for Striar, that’s the perfect person for their early-career writer’s group. His play was then given a bare-bones workshop and further developed with one of the directing fellows. As it grew, Striar says it felt like the right fit for Summerworks. Lunch Bunch, by Sarah Einspanier, which kicks off Summerworks 2019, followed a similar path.
Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus had a run at Summerworks 2015 that led to a transfer of the play uptown in a co-production with Playwrights Horizons – the long-standing Off-Broadway institution – in 2016. Calling for the casting of female-identifying, transgender, gender-fluid or non-binary performers in the 10 roles, it tells the story of an 1869 expedition to explore the Grand Canyon. As critic Karen D’Souza wrote: “Backhaus takes the man out of manifest destiny in her cheeky Men on Boats.”
Focusing on voices that are not often given significant stage representation, and also untethering history from a white male perspective, Backhaus’s play also tickled audiences with its sense of humour. Since it’s Clubbed Thumb run, the play has gone on to steady productions all around the country including in Chicago, Houston, Boston, San Diego and San Francisco.
While Summerworks does not have a theme each year, Striar does make an effort “to pick pieces that operate differently – and that’s really much more a formal question than it is a question of content.” They do not plan their season many months in advance, so they have more of an opportunity to “respond to the moment we’re in”.
But after the 2016 election, the Summerworks season ended up with plays that resonated with each other. “The plays that we did that year were plays that grappled in different ways with the aftermath of that election, and where we all were worried, or wondered where we were. That was the context in which we did What the Constitution Means to Me – a play that Heidi had been working on for a really long time, but wasn’t finished.”
Clubbed Thumb’s flexibility towards programming Summerworks extends to all aspects of its work. Striar sees Clubbed Thumb as having advantages in being smaller and less rigid in its approach. “We have a calibration of low stakes and high stakes that says that we can pick a play that is not complete, and we can say: ‘Let’s go on this ride. Let’s figure out what we need and just keep the budgeting flexible. We’ll try to stave off all the deadlines, and we’ll figure things out as we go. If we have to close it to press, we’ll close it to press and if we have to cancel a show we’ll cancel a show. And if you’re just doing this part of the material, then you’re doing this part of the material. It’s okay.’ Obviously that would be a much riskier place for most theatres that have much longer runs.”
Clubbed Thumb’s finger on the pulse of what audiences want to see also hints at the shrinking distance between ‘downtown’ and ‘uptown’ work. Besides Constitution, Broadway hosted plays by well-known ‘downtown’ artists Young Jean Lee and Taylor Mac this season, plus an experimental production of musical Oklahoma! by Daniel Fish. These productions have suggested more risk-taking by Broadway producers on adventurous ideas, themes and forms.
For Striar, it is gratifying to see What the Constitution Means to Me making waves. “It’s humbling and it’s moving to see how many people are responding to it, and it feels like it’s filling a need. That’s really lovely.”
Producing artistic director: Maria Striar ( above )
Number of performances:
Summerworks: 30-36 (three plays)
Outside Summerworks: 70 (two plays)
Winterworks: 8 (three plays per night)
Audience numbers: “Summerworks sees about 3,300 audience members annually and many hundreds for Winterworks, workshops and readings. We just produced Plano which played to roughly 3,100.”
Number of employees: Three full-time, a few part-time
Budget / income: About $1 million as of 2019
Funding: Largest grant is for $50,000
Key donors: National, state and municipal plus support from the Howard Gilman Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Shubert Foundation, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and others