Which brings us to a boundary-traversing organization in Manhattan’s East Village that’s using the crisis brought on by the pandemic to lead theater in a novel direction. For in place of what most theatergoers have come to regard as a “season,” the New York Theatre Workshop — the birthplace of “Rent,” among other landmarks — is offering what you might call a 2020-21 un-season. A programmatic embodiment of the possible, fueled by the percolating brains of more than two dozen playwrights, directors, actors and performance artists.
These artistic “instigators” have each been given an initial $2,500 by the Workshop to develop a project over the coming months — and many of the artists will allow audiences to follow along as they build them. For $10 to $125 a month, members gain entree to the instigators’ evolving work, with no guarantee that anything resembling a full stage production will result. Some artists will let the curious see the sausage being made in Zoom presentations and perhaps even live performance; some, not so much.
It amounts to a fascinating new paradigm for contemporary theater: a subscription to the artists, rather than to a roster of plays.
“This goes all the way back to my first days at the New York Theatre Workshop, in ’88,” said Artistic Director Jim Nicola, a onetime protege of Arena’s Stage’s founder, Zelda Fichandler. “It is a theater and a workshop. A place where an audience can become involved in a conversation with an artist, and be nourished and sustained.”
Redesigning the platforms on which artists tell stories — and audiences take them in — is time honored in the theater. “We need new forms!” was the cry 125 years ago of would-be playwright Konstantin in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” But sometimes only the most motivated playgoers are interested in new forms, and whether the Workshop’s approach can sustain the company remains a question. Still, its leadership feels it is an avenue worth trying, at a time when one of the alternatives is not producing at all.
“Hibernation is not who we are,” said Jeremy Blocker, the Workshop’s managing director. “We’re not going to make people unsafe, but we are not going to stop engaging with our community.”
If the idea does take off, it might spur the freshness and adventurousness that some observers believe will be essential as theater attempts to come back. No less an authority than Michael M. Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center and chairman of the DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the University of Maryland, has argued that arts groups striving for a comeback will have to be nimble and stretch themselves inventively as never before.
The scaffolding of the Workshop experiment is as yet difficult to wholly envision because so much of it is still on the drawing board. The organization has recruited a passel of playwrights, including three Pulitzer Prize winners: Martyna Majok, Ayad Akhtar and Doug Wright, as well as such singular talents as Aleshea Harris, Jeremy O. Harris and Clare Barron. Actors including Denis O’Hare and monologuists such as Dael Orlandersmith and David Cale are in the mix, too, and among the directors are Lisa Peterson, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Whitney White and Sam Gold.
“A few people said no,” Nicola said, “but most people were, ‘Yes, this is a dream come true.’ ”
More participants will be added in the coming months, and all with the same open-ended instruction, which seems to boil down to: Come back to us when you’ve got something. Among the instigators are many who have worked with the Workshop before, and number among the company’s so-called Usual Suspects. Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” debuted at the Workshop before moving to Broadway, and its production of Majok’s “Sanctuary City” closed abruptly in March when the pandemic slammed theater doors shut. (The plan is to bring it back after stages reopen.)
White, who earlier this year directed Shakespeare Theatre Company’s sterling production of James Baldwin’s rarely revived “The Amen Corner,” was asked to enlist by the company’s literary director, Aaron Malkin. “I told him that I immediately was flooded with thoughts,” she recalled. Those thoughts, she said, focused on “black women and black trans women and how we occupy space in the world.” Her as-yet untitled project will be “a provocation with music about where the black female body sits in our imaginations as Americans.”
White is envisioning film and stage versions of her work, and inviting people to contribute their own experiences to the ones she will ultimately evoke. “I want to make a website where people can share their stories, share their research,” she said. “I’m realizing in this time lots of people want to see the art-making process, to get rid of the smoke and mirrors between me and you.”
For audiences, the $10-a-month option gets you a discounted ticket to all “virtual and in-person events” as the season unfolds; $20 a month provides one free admission to those events; $50 a month is an “all-access pass” for two people, with invitations to “a few VIP events”; and $125 monthly qualifies you an elite donor with special access to events. The catch, of course, is that you have to divest yourself of the need for too many specifics.
Some of the projects, though, are emerging from a more traditional framework. O’Hare and Peterson, who as actor and director, respectively, created the well-received solo show “An Iliad” at the Workshop in 2012, are now instigators, devising another Workshop piece based on antiquity. The new one, “What the Hell Is a Republic, Anyway?” grows out of a larger production in progress called “The Song of Rome,” which they had been developing for the McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey.
“Even five years ago, we turned to each other and said, ‘The Senate is a mess,’ ” Peterson recounted. “ ‘I think we want to be talking about government structure, and wouldn’t it be interesting to talk about Rome, because so much of American government is modeled on it?’ ”
This time around, O’Hare said, “we are going to be playing versions of ourselves. We are very much playing with layers; we have recorded material on which to build scripts. And either in a Zoom version or a live version, we will have prerecorded material that will be contrasting with what’s happening onstage.”
“An Iliad,” based on Homer’s epic poem, was strictly a stage work; how to incorporate Zoom is one of the challenges. “It’s fun to think about what replaces involvement for an [in-person] audience,” Peterson said in a conference call. “The chat thing is not satisfying,” O’Hare added, referring to a Zoom function that allows participants to write comments. “I want my laughs! We’re exploring all the ways an audience has agency.”
One of the advantages of recruiting so many disparate talents is that it gives a decidedly unstructured season immediate creative breadth. Then again, as Nicola and Blocker note, some artists may simply take the no-specific-strings-attached money and use it to think.
It has certainly given Victor I. Cazares a lot to think about. Nicola has on the Workshop’s agenda “American Televisions,” a play by the El Paso native and product of Brown University’s graduate theater program. Cazares is mulling possibilities for the instigator project, with a digital focus. “It’s so open-ended,” the playwright said, adding that “using Zoom as a theatrical space is really, really cool for me, because I’ve always been using multimedia.” So Cazares is at home in Portland, Ore., gardening and gathering inspiration.
That’s just fine with Nicola. Because for the artistic director, too, the season ahead is a slightly mysterious work in progress.