When Jim Simpson talked to me for a 1997 Village Voice report (not currently online) about opening The Flea Theater downtown-with co-founders playwright Mac Wellman, technician Kyle Chepulis, actor Sigourney Weaver, playwright Eduardo Machado, actor Jan Leslie Harding and musician Mike Nolan-he declared that he saw the venture (adventure?) as a five-year commitment to his belief in little theaters and specifically in the enduring significance of off-off-Broadway.
Well, whadya know? It’s just about 17 years later, and to underline his dedication to off-off Broadway he and associates, including producing director Carol Ostrow, have just purchased a new building at 20 Thomas Street. At the site, they’ll install three theaters (the Sam for the agent Sam Cohn, the Pete for house playwright A.R. Gurney and the Siggy for Weaver). The target opening is fall 2015.
So now Simpson and The Flea (name meant to suggest “a small irritant”) are in it for the long haul. What happened in the interim? You might well ask. Simpson is prepared to say and does in the company’s serviceable, poster-covered Walker Street lobby. The area comes, needless to say, as part of the rental they’re readying to leave behind for something permanent.
“I had enough money for five years,” Simpson says, “and I wanted to show that off-off-Broadway is really cool. Why would people want to work in a no-money situation?” Among his answers: “Your work is being honored” and “Young people can start there.”
Simpson’s passion for the Off-Off-Broadway scene comes into focus dramatically as he thinks back to when his initial stay would be drawing to an end-pretty much precisely six months after 9/11. Shut down instantly when the Twin Towers collapsed, The Flea’s survival becomes, the downtown impresario points out, an even greater cause for its meaning to the community.
Looking around for something helpful and hopeful to offer himself, his staff and players and other struggling businesses in the calamity’s aftermath, he says, “Suddenly, you’re in a war zone, and you have to respond to the event.”
That’s when he meets playwright-Columbia professor Anne Nelson at a benefit, and out of the chance encounter reaps The Guys. The two-character play concerns a depressed fire chief who’s helped at writing eulogies for the firemen he lost by a sympathetic confidant. (It’s based on Nelson’s own experience.) Starring Bill Murray and Weaver, the drama is a fast hit and wins The Flea a much larger dot on the map.
Almost simultaneously with the achievement, a friend who knows about Simpson’s finite strategy challenges him on the wisdom of his intentions. Among other sustaining positives, he has the Nelson play packing audiences in and actors and agents (Cohn for one) approaching him with ideas for “a-list” Murray-Weaver replacements. Simpson sees the error of his earlier thinking, and on The Flea goes.
By the way, claiming he’s no good at the grants game, the foremost Flea staffer does it all without those kinds of subsidies but also by not taking on a mortgage for fear of having to succumb to “commercial” needs. Whatever his fund-raising approach, Simpson says operating on restrained budgets “forces you to be creative.”
Which brings us over the extremely active years (140-plus productions) to the new building and the $18.5 million raised for it-from state ($3.75 million), city ($5 million) and private ($8.5 million) funding. Saying that Simpson and she want to make certain incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio knows about their advancing enterprise, Ostrow breaks down the number into: $5.2 million on the purchase of the building (that most recently served as offices for a collection agency); approximately $12 million for the ARO (Architecture Research Office) renovation; and a $1 million reserve.
In addition to growing into the new space and its 99-seat Sam, 40-seat Peter (with exterior area for warm-weather use) and 46-seat Siggy, The Flea is growing in another way: the resident acting company known now as The Bats (and, when formed, as The Furballs). “Jim hates the word ‘apprentice,'” Ostrow notes, but it’s not a misleading description.
From a group of about 30, The Bats now number 115, and they’re Jacks and Jills of all trades, though actors first and foremost. Simpson likes the idea that he’s giving newcomers to the profession “an artistic home of value. While they’re acting, they’re also learning about all aspects of the theater.”
Both he and Ostrow insist the non-salaried Bats have day jobs. Ostrow emphasizes that when projects are developing with Bats participation, rehearsal are organized around their availability. “We go out of our way to communicate with parents,” Simpson mentions, saying most of the give-and-take occurs during intermissions when families are present.
Simpson and Ostrow like the idea that they can allot six weeks rehearsal schedules for productions in which the Bats figure. (N.B.: Bats projects are non-Equity.) They like that workshops exist (fencing is one) and that acting coach Jen McKenna keeps constant watch over the troupe. Among Bats veterans who’ve gone on to burgeoning careers are Taylor Mac, Amanda Quaid, Alfredo Narciso, Greg Keller and Kate Benson.
For all Simpson’s and Ostrow’s devotion to The Flea, they express it in the context of a broader and deeper outlook on contemporary theater. Asked what he sees happening around him, Simpson talks first about “group base work,” by which he means companies forming for the purpose of providing members with meaningful work. He also notices “a real hunger for theater almost as a pretext for social gathering” and invokes the currently hot word “immersive.” “Learning of the literary aspects” of theater is another pronounced interest, as he sees it.
Ostrow admits to having a less catholic perspective. “I rarely get out of The Flea,” she says. On the other hand, she sees quite a lot on the premises and reports, “Forty-seven percent of our audience is under 35.” Simpson and Ostrow attribute the promising percentage to always having a $15 ticket available as well as pay-what-you-can Tuesdays and nights when The Bats serialized projects go for $12, a beer included. These sorts of prices are not unusual for many Off-Off-Broadway companies, itinerant or not, but are hardly prevalent elsewhere in town.
To do whatever Simpson and Ostrow can to build on their positive outlooks, they’re even increasing their efforts. What they have in mind for the impending expansion is two-fold: what they’re calling “anchor partners” and “community partners.” “Other companies are renting space,” Simpson says. “We want to offer them a season at The Flea.” He brings up Clubbed Thumb as the sort of outfit he’d like in residence when he and Ostrow are between productions or have a theater open.
As for Tribeca community partners, Simpson and Ostrow, jointly intent on the sense of community he has always cherished and fostered, are prepared to welcome local groups for anything they long to display, poetry readings, for example.
“What have we lost in the rest of Off-Off-Broadway?” Simpson asks with visible concern. “Something like 80 theaters? We are a permanent institution dedicated to Off-Off-Broadway. There will always be a place [on Thomas Street]. My feelings couldn’t be more different from when I started [The Flea]. We’re saying we want you. We need you.”