5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Peter Tear

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I know it’s frowned upon for writers to inject themselves into their reportage, but when I write about 59E59 Theaters, to some degree it’s a personal story. The setting is late 2001. I was a new reporter and associate editor at Back Stage, only the second time I’d worked a full-time journalist, and boy, were my instincts being tested. The print version of Back Stage then required 10 pages of news each week, six in the front, four jump pages in the back. While news editor Roger Armbrust, who was a spectacular mentor, was certainly capable of filling his share of column inches with copy about the entertainment unions, it was my job to unearth other news and features actors wanted to read. During those late 2001, post 9/11 months, it was especially challenging time to find stories that didn’t relate to the drama unfolding below Canal Street. You had to sleuth.

Peter Tear, at right, with Elysabeth Kleinhans. Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images
Peter Tear, at right, with Elysabeth Kleinhans. Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images

Cut to my N train ride to work, and modest article in the business section of the New York Times. Elysabeth Kleinhans, daughter of a fantastically wise, fanatically brutal real estate wheeler-dealer who, among other things, bought Manhattan land at 10 cents on the dollar at the bottom of the Great Depression, was reportedly selling one of her buildings, the Hotel Delmonico on East 59th Street and Park Avenue, to Donald Trump. The proceeds, per the Times, would be transferred to a foundation that would build and operate a nonprofit theater complex just down the street, where a deli at 59 East 59th Street was operating. A great story, then as now.

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Eight years later, the tale of 59E59 Theaters needs little explanation. Manhattan’s Midtown East may remain devoid of much in the way of theatrical activity (and, indeed, artistic activity in general), but Kleinhans’ handsome, industrial-style complex is rarely dark, an increasingly beloved, dependable locus of creative fertility. Theater A features the complex’s anchor tenant, Primary Stages, which after years of struggling in subpar West Side spaces has clearly thrived in its elegant digs for several years now. Theaters B and C, each fine spaces with equally fine amenities but are nevertheless basic black-boxes, have been whirling carousels of interesting work, much of it unusual, even startling to New York audiences and artists. 59E59 has become synonymous with festivals that are required theatergoing, from Brits Off-Broadway (U.K.-to-U.S. transfers) to East to Edinburgh (U.S.-to-Edinburgh Fringe shows) to 2009’s new idea, Americas Off-Broadway, which spotlights non-New York-produced work running in Gotham for the first time. The Drama Desk’s special award to 59E59, bestowed in 2008, was as inevitable as it was well-earned. I have always been grateful to Kleinhans for granting one of her first interviews about the space to me, back when 59E59 Theaters was little more than a series of architectural drawings and grand-sounding plans.

To be sure, 59E59 Theater is not immune to criticism. A perception continues to persist in the New York independent theater community that while it’s terrific to import U.K. shows to New York’s Rialto, and great to preview U.S. shows heading to Edinburgh, and an exciting, even patriotic gesture to offer non-New York shows in an Off-Broadway setting, there are hundreds of new plays and hundreds of Off-Off-Broadway companies working in the Big Apple that deserve a lot more of a presence on the complex’s wide-ranging radar. Indeed, there is something about the Brit-centric slant to 59E59’s programming that drives some local theater artists into paroxysms of envy. At a time when American theater artists are fiscally besieged from every side, who can blame them?

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At the same time, 59E59’s executive director, Peter Tear, is an industrious, almost hyper-enthusiastic supporter of the complex’s firm grounding in high-quality work. So, with the sixth annual Brits Off-Broadway festival running Nov. 3 through Jan. 3 with seven productions — including the highly anticipated U.S. premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 73rd play, My Wonderful Day — it seemed like an opportune time to speak with the courtly Tear, and to request an artistic and administrative peek behind the wizard’s curtain. (For more info. on 59E59 Theaters, visit www.59E59.org or call 212-753-5959 x101.)

And now, 5 questions Peter Tear has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Anything asked by [Scottish actor-writer-director] Giles Havergal.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
My mum always said there’s no such thing as an idiotic question.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I have met plenty of weird people, but I can’t say they have asked me any weird questions! Most of the questions are pretty perceptive.

4) Can you explain how the Brits Off-Broadway productions are selected or invited? What quality control, if you will, factors into your decision to offer these shows — or is it come any, come all?
Brits productions — like all productions at 59E59 — are “curated,” meaning we try to see them before bringing them in. In the case of Brits, nine times out of 10 the shows have been mounted in the U.K., and we are often there to see them. We travel over generally twice a year looking for new plays, and, of course, we are at the Edinburgh Festival every year.

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Certain times, plays are world premieres or we just can’t get to the original production, in which case we rely on script reading, reviews and the past work of the creative team involved. At this point, you really have to trust your instincts about the creative team. For example, neither Elysabeth nor I had seen the Writers’ Theatre production of Crime and Punishment [part of Americas Off-Broadway], and it turned out to be one of our biggest hits in Theater B. I had seen another one of their productions when I was in Chicago, and I knew there was something really special about them.

And above all, we set our own bar high at all times. We really value excellence and working with people who are excellent in their own field, at what they do. Production designer Maruti Evans comes to mind as the perfect example. His designs are always challenging and aesthetically beautiful, and he constantly pushes himself to raise the bar.

And, finally, it is also about trying to present something that wouldn’t otherwise arrive in New York.

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5) What specific elements makes great theater for you? We know telling a good story, telling it well — can you be specific on what topics interest or don’t interest you? Also, must you appear impartial about which shows, especially in festivals, you like the best?
Once a show is in the theater and I am seeing it again, and I get excited and it’s something fabulous, I shout and scream all over the city about it!

To create great theater, to me, yes, the story comes first. You also need a solid creative team in place. If the actors and director can turn a “good” play into something extraordinary, you know you have the right team.

I also value integrity. The production needs to have integrity: I don’t like to see a phenomenal performer cut out of a New York City premiere because a celebrity name will sell tickets. I want that phenomenal performer.

All theater companies like to talk about having plays that deal with human relations in all kinds, but what gets me going is a play with universality, regardless of where the play is set or where it comes from. Red Sea Fish, for example, is a small play in this year’s Brits Off-Broadway with a very big, universal theme.

Bonus Question:

6) What is the one thing 59E59 Theaters can do right now to actively promote American directors and playwrights that it isn’t currently doing?
We actively promote American directors and playwrights year round — we have a number of regular New York-based companies that produce work by American playwrights, and a number of out-of-town companies have brought productions in, like Steppenwolf from Chicago, Merrimack Rep from Massachusetts, Rude Mechanicals from Austin and American Conservatory Theater from San Francisco. In addition, we launched Americas Off-Broadway last spring, with the focus on new American plays from regional theaters across the country. And of course our resident company is Primary Stages, whose mission is to produce new work by American playwrights.

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What you won’t see at 59E59 Theaters are revivals from famous American playwrights. Or Shakespeare, for that matter. The work must be new to New York for us to take it on.

The 59E59 model, which goes for shows in or out of our festivals, is that the productions must be produced by nonprofit entities. They pay a below-market licensing fee for the theater and they cover their production costs. We provide for the companies, at no additional charge, front-of-house and box office staff, facilities management and we also have a generous sound and lighting package for each theater on site for the productions to use (details of which are on the website). We can also order additional equipment on the company’s behalf.

We also provide, again at no additional charge, press and marketing support, which includes a contracted press representative and a weekly ad presence in publications like Time Out New York and the New York Times, as well as other marketing or ad opportunities that may fit the show, such as e-blasts and so forth. The companies can opt out of this and take it on themselves; however, they are usually happy to have the assistance. And, of course, we have a very active membership of over 1,500 that the companies can tap into — and these are a regular theatergoing audience.

This goes for all shows at 59E59 Theaters, whether the show is in a festival or out of a festival. It’s also important to note that the smaller shows do not get less than the bigger ones. The key is not the size of the show. It’s the content.