Best known for its revivals of musicals and the classics, the not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company branched out into new work more than a decade ago with Roundabout Underground in its basement black-box theatre. The programme’s associate artistic director tells Nicole Serratore how the company is nurturing the next generation of playwrights
Nestled beneath Roundabout Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway venue is a 62-seat studio space that has proved critical in launching the careers of a string of celebrated US playwrights.
Alumni of Roundabout Underground include Steven Levenson, Tony award winner for Dear Evan Hansen in 2017, and Stephen Karam, whose play The Humans won the Tony for best new play a year earlier. Others to make their New York debut at the venue include Jenny Rachel Weiner, Joshua Harmon, Ming Peiffer and Selina Fillinger.
RTC, founded in 1965, is one of the largest not-for-profit theatres in the US and is best known for its Broadway musical revivals and classic plays starring famous actors, which have built a loyal following. While RTC started a new play initiative in 1995, new work has not been central to the identity of the theatre. Roundabout Underground is one way the company is changing that.
Roundabout Underground associate artistic director Jill Rafson says: “Our audience has been fed a steady diet of revivals because that’s what this theatre was founded to do – revivals of the classics. While we had given them new plays, it was more like new plays by people you’d heard of – it was the new Beth Henley or the new Harold Pinter.”
But in 2005, RTC went out on a limb and programmed new dark comedy Mr Marmalade by young playwright Noah Haidle. This was Haidle’s first major New York production but it was not well received by either audience or critics. “There was something off about doing this million-dollar production of a brand-new play in a 400-plus seat proscenium theatre, and we just realised we were doing it in the wrong context. We did not set this play up for success,” Rafson says.
Key staff: Jill Rafson, associate artistic director
Tickets: all $30
Shows: Two per season – up to 168 performances in total
Audience figures (2018-19): 9,528
• Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate (2007)
• Steven Levenson’s The Language of Trees (2008)
• Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days (2009)
• Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews (2012)
• Meghan Kennedy’s Too Much, Too Much, Too Many (2013)
• Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone (2015)
• Jenny Rachel Weiner’s Kingdom Come (2016)
• Martín Zimmerman’s On the Exhale (2017)
• Jiréh Breon Holder’s Too Heavy for Your Pocket (2017)
• Alex Lubischer’s Bobbie Clearly (2018)
• Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls (2018)
• Selina Fillinger’s Something Clean (2019)
Key donors: Alec Baldwin, James Costa and John Archibald, Linda L D’Onofrio, Peggy and Mark Ellis, Howard Gilman Foundation, Jodi Glucksman, Sylvia Golden, Angelina Lippert, K Myers, Katheryn Patterson and Tom Kempner, Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater, Ira Pittelman, Mary Solomon, Lauren and Danny Stein Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, The Tow Foundation
When RTC spotted a new play by an unknown playwright – Karam’s Speech and Debate – it wanted to avoid the same fate as Mr Marmalade. So RTC artistic director Todd Haimes converted a small basement space into a theatre. According to Rafson, his idea was that if they made a programme around emerging playwrights, kept the tickets cheap (so younger audiences might come), it might serve these plays and artists better.
So, in 2007, Roundabout Underground was born, opening with Karam’s play, and with it a new approach to developing new work at RTC. To be eligible for the Underground, a playwright must not yet have had their professional debut in New York. Each artist who gets a production there, at the same time gets a commission for a new play for RTC. Before the Underground production even opens, RTC is committed to producing more work by that artist, giving them a little security in an insecure industry.
It means playwrights keep coming back. Lindsey Ferrentino debuted in the Underground with Ugly Lies the Bone in 2015 and then delivered her commission, Amy and the Orphans, about three adult siblings dealing with the death of their father, in 2018. This season, she returns to the RTC’s Off-Broadway venue, the Laura Pels Theatre, with new play The Year to Come.
‘I’m not interested in a one-hit wonder. I want to find writers who will stand the test of time’ – Jill Rafson, Roundabout Underground
Even if it sells out every show (and it often does), Roundabout Underground is a money-losing enterprise. It’s simply too small and low ticket prices cannot cover the costs. But everything that happens there is viewed as an investment in the larger ecology of the company.
“Everything about the Underground is about the long-term,” Rafson says. “I’m not interested in finding someone who writes a one-hit wonder. I am interested in finding writers who both want to stay in the theatre and who will stand the test of time.”
Rafson sees her work with the Underground as serving RTC’s goals while also changing the theatrical canon. “Roundabout is a theatre that pulls from the canon, and the canon has been stuck in place for a while. It is very hard to add to it. So, I’ve decided that’s our job. Our job is to find the writer of that play, who will contribute to the American theatre canon in the long run and who sounds a little bit different from the canon’s earlier voices.”
Despite its size, the Underground has also found a way to support new musicals. Composer, lyricist, and book writer Adam Gwon put up his show Ordinary Days there in 2009. A decade on, he premiered his RTC commission Off-Broadway – new musical Scotland PA. This was a musical adaption of the independent film of the same name, itself inspired by Macbeth.
Ordinary Days fit the Underground because, as Rafson says: “It’s a four-person cast and it was written in a way that could be done with just a piano. We thought the storytelling was good enough to give it a shot. Thankfully, it worked and we were really proud of that show. That was in 2009. We have been trying ever since to find another musical for the Underground.”
The space and the needs of musical material have been a challenge. “We’ve done readings of several musicals, and in most cases, it felt like we would be hurting the musical if we tried to constrain it within that physical space. It’s been this epic search,” Rafson says.
After a decade, they finally found another one: Daniel Zaitchik’s Darling Grenadine, which is being produced at the Underground this month. It is a small-scale musical comedy about a songwriter who falls in love but finds the fantasy version of romance easier than reality. Rafson saw a developmental production of it and contacted book writer, composer and lyricist Zaitchik about trying to figure out if there was a version of the show that would work in the Underground. He agreed.
“It’s been a lot of work since then, and we are practically bursting at the seams in there, but it works,” Rafson says. “A lot of directors who have been coming to see Darling Grenadine have been saying: ‘I didn’t know you could do this in here.’ And I have a feeling I’m about to get a lot more pitches. Which is great, I would love to do more musicals in there.”
Making space for the new and challenging is something that Rafson is committed to – she feels the Underground is part of changing the larger company too. “I think of Roundabout as a giant cruise ship, and I’m constantly telling people: ‘The boat is turning, it’s a big boat, so it takes a very long time to turn. It is happening slowly but surely.’”
In her time with the company, starting as an intern in 2004 and becoming Haimes’ assistant in 2005, Rafson has seen audience attitudes evolve. “Back when we did Sons of the Prophet [Stephen Karam’s commission play] in 2011, we had a couple of phone calls from people who were angry about two men with their shirts off kissing in that play, which blew my mind at the time. I know that if we did that again now, it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow because we have slowly brought [the audience] along in terms of who’s on stage, what the content is, the kinds of stories they’re being told, and the style in which they’re being told.”
In 2018, Ming Peiffer’s Underground show Usual Girls was a raw look at racism, violence, sex and consent and its impact on young girls. Over the course of the 90-minute play, they become adults living with the consequences of the childhood we’ve seen glimpses of.
Usual Girls was one of the edgier shows at the Underground but audiences were enthusiastic. Even subscribers who saw Usual Girls were really engaged and Rafson thinks “when Ming Peiffer writes her next play, they’re going to be excited to see it, and they’re going to be ready for something a little more dangerous at the Pels than they would’ve been otherwise.”
The Underground is influencing the artists being programmed at Roundabout now and in the future. Because of a focus on ‘classics’, Roundabout is not known for producing a lot of work by artists of colour, but Rafson notes that she “can make the Underground more diverse just by saying: ‘That play, that writer, that director.’” Moreover, that becomes a long-term commitment for RTC with the commissions. “We’re diversifying this company immediately. I feel a huge responsibility because I know that my decisions can get us to those goals quicker.”
This autumn, playwright Sanaz Toossi makes her Roundabout Underground debut with English, a play about a group of people in an English-language class in Iran. Rafson compares it to Annie Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation: “You see the characters going about these different exercises to get better at English, but then of course the exercises reveal a lot about character. I just think it’s a gorgeous play and a gorgeous meditation on identity.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked for a local newspaper, the Rockland County Times, where I interviewed local figures and attended a lot of council meetings. I drove around my county and met a lot of interesting people. My editor was this fascinating kind of character you could not make up.
What was your first theatrical job?
I was an intern at the development office of New York City Center. I had no idea what a development office was. I learned how donors support all the things that happen in an institution and that has become invaluable to understanding how a place like this has to run, because it is all hand-in-hand. If the artistic and development sides are not working together, you’re not going to get a heck of a lot done.
What is your next job?
Following through on the opportunities I’ve been given this year. This season Roundabout is doing the most new works in its entire history: six out of nine productions. That comes from growing the Underground, commissions from writers that have ended up at the Laura Pels Theatre, and a long campaign to get more new work on Broadway here. My job for this year is to make sure it all goes well and makes an argument for itself.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s okay not to know everything right away. A person like me with a dramaturgical brain wants the context for everything, but it takes time to learn who people are and how they connect. You don’t have to figure it out the first second you’re on the job.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Todd Haimes and Robyn Goodman have been great mentors to me. One lovely thing about being at Roundabout since the beginning of the Underground has been to find voices that I related to, then grow up together and see all of us try to figure out our paths at the same time – to watch how different people handle success, failure, setbacks, exciting rewards.
What is your advice for auditions?
Because I work with so many playwrights, say the words on the page. Don’t paraphrase – you will make a playwright your enemy if you paraphrase too much in that first audition.
If you hadn’t become an artistic director, what would you have been?
I’m a nerd for grammar and for precision, and I think there’s a world in which copy-editing would have been really great in my life.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’m a very prepared theatregoer, but I don’t think I’m superstitious about it. I have my water and my ChapStick, and I know where my bag is tucked so as not to be in an aisle. I’m just very aware of my surroundings.