Long before there were studies, theories, rabble-rousing, fretting, blogging, grousing, cheering and funding, there was Ensemble Studio Theatre. It was founded by the late Curt Dempster, according to the organization’s website, together with a “loose-knit group of fellow theater artists” between 1968 and 1972. Then as now, the idea was pure in its intentions: to develop new American plays.
Then as now, too, this is a rough road: by their nature, plays cannot live until they are heard and seen — until the alchemy of theatrical fermentation takes effect. Dramatic prestidigitation is EST’s gift to the theater in New York and well beyond — and if you’re looking for the latest bit of proof, look no further than Octoberfest, EST’s annual festival of new and developing plays.
Coming off New York’s key summertime festivals, especially the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theatre Festival, some might wonder if EST is, in effect, piling on, what with 53 plays being offered during a 27-day stretch as the crisp autumn saturates the air. Yet EST points out that it pioneered the idea of massive festival before they became the norm: the first Octoberfest occurred in 1981. Plus, EST flourishes is one building on the far west side of Manhattan, presenting logistical and dramaturgical challenges different from festivals located on multiple sites. What EST does is unique — and maybe just a little mad. In that madness like bounty.
For this year’s Octoberfest, the choice was made to focus strictly on full-length plays; 2010 selections include Suzanne Bradbeer’s Shakespeare in Vegas; Joshua Conkel’s The Sluts of Sutton Drive (give him props for a great title); Arthur Giron’s The Exhibitionist, a Farce; J. Holtham’s Dunroamin; Eduardo Machado’s That Night in Hialeah; Daniel Reitz’s Turnabout; Tom Rowan’s David’s Play as well as a second work, The Second Tosca; Murray Schisgal’s Naked Old Man & 4XMe; Saviana Stanescu’s Ants; and about 45 or so additional plays.
The man standing atop this torrential theatrical rainstorm is William Carden, who succeeded Dempster as producing artistic director of EST in 2007. Previously, Carden was artistic director of the HB Playwrights Foundation and Theatre for 12 years (1994 to 2006). It was also during that time that he scored two major hits directing the late and unfailingly extraordinary Uta Hagen: Nicholas Wright’s Mrs. Klein and Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, both of which enjoyed commercial Off-Broadway runs at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Carden is also an actor of long standing in the New York theater; his breakthrough role was as the title character in Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes in 1974, which was perhaps one of the best plays ever presented by Joseph Papp, who moved the play from the Theatre of the Riverside Church to the Public Theater to Broadway. Nice ride.
Octoberfest — which is characterized in promotional materials as “so large and complicated (and organized like a military operation) that no single month or press release can contain it” — runs through Oct. 16 at Ensemble Studio Theatre (549 W. 52nd St.). For tickets, click here.
And now, 5 questions William Carden has never been asked — and a bonus question:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A bunch of things come to mind and I’m not sure any of them were actually questions. From my experience, people don’t tend to ask directors a lot of questions, perceptive, idiotic or weird, since there is a certain confusion about what we actually do. As an actor I’ve gotten more questions. But what comes immediately to mind is the more perceptive things people have said that were valuable to me in the course of working on a play. When we were in previews for Collected Stories with Uta Hagen and Lorca Simons, I felt like Lorca was holding back in the final scene, not matching Uta in the level of ferocity that needed to be there. In talking to Austin Pendleton after he’d watched a performance, he observed that Lorca, as Lisa, was trying not hurt Ruth, played by Uta, because she cared so much about her and maybe she needed to understand we are only truly savage with those we love the most. It was a great note that helped me take the lid off the climatic scene in the play. For those old enough to remember, in Miguel’s Pinero’s powerful play Short Eyes, most of the cast, except for me and Joe Carberry, were men who had done time in prison, which contributed to the extraordinary authenticity of the production. One day when we were in rehearsal, I asked the director, Marvin Felix Camillo, if these actors were playing who they were in prison and he replied, “No, they are playing who they wished they had been.” I suddenly understood that the fiery energy that drove this cast came from having this creative opportunity to relive humiliating circumstances on their own terms.
4) Octoberfest plays are offered “in varying states of readiness.” What’s the advantage of juxtaposing work that isn’t necessarily polished with pieces that are? Also: 53 plays in 27 days! Is it about volume or the statement that is made by offering so much work at once?
Octoberfest is an opportunity for any member artist of EST to present a piece that they are working on. This year, as part of a strategic plan, we are putting in place to produce more full-length work — we decided to focus solely on new full-length plays. We don’t select the plays; the artists sign up and we try to accommodate all the requests that come in before the deadline. The real goal here is to let the work be heard. A playwright doesn’t really know what they have until they can at least hear the play. This festival is about providing a chance for that to happen. That is what makes it exciting and risky. It is more about the process than the result. That means, at some readings, you may have the heady and charged experience of hearing a new play take off for the first time, and at others you may realize there is more work to be done. In the recently published Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, playwrights surveyed nationally named the Ensemble Studio Theatre as the number one theater company in New York in terms of supporting the development of new plays. This event is one of the reasons why. The goal is to see what is really there and move the work forward. The tight schedule creates a “can do” energy that is unique to EST.
5) Is there a theme not in this year’s Octoberfest plays you’d have liked to tackle? Is there any theme too many playwrights currently explore that you’d like to leave be for a while?
We don’t know all the plays that are in the program. Some are familiar to me and the artistic staff because they have been in our pipeline during the last year, but others are totally new. As a developmental theater, our focus is actually more on the artist than the work. Rather than themes, we are looking for voices that are original, authentic and surprising.
6) Of elements like pacing, character development or dialogue quality, what’s the best current attribute in American playwriting? What’s the American playwrights’ Achilles’ heel? Beyond doing workshops/productions, how does EST celebrate/ameliorate these?
The plays that last, the plays that engage and resonate with greater meaning, are the plays that need to be written rather than the plays a writer feels ought to be written. So, rather than the technical elements which are necessary and important, we, as a theater dedicated to helping the artist develop, are more concerned with the source, the truth of the impulse behind the play, and supporting and encouraging the playwrights who have the fire in the belly to work from there. That means providing a place where the playwright can take those essential risks — and giving them a chance to get the work on it’s feet and in front of an audience so we can all start to experience what it really is. That is why we have added what we call RoughCut Productions to our seasonal programming. These are bare-bones-style productions that are fully but minimally produced, performed for a week and not reviewed. This gives the playwright, director and cast the unique opportunity to work in-depth on the play, take risks and see what happens without all the pressure to succeed that comes when you are opening a play in New York. Our Youngblood Program for playwrights under 30 has a brunch the first Sunday of every month during our season, at which they present five short plays in quickly rehearsed one-time performances. It is a fun and valuable forum for these talented young writers to experience their work in front of an enthusiastic audience, a unique way for them to explore and discover their voice. It is illuminating to go back and look at the early work of some our most established playwrights, like John Guare, Sam Shepard, Richard Greenberg and John Patrick Shanley. You will find wild and challenging stuff as they test the limits of the form and search to find their own voice.