Historic Cherry Lane Theatre Blooming Under New Leaders

Cherry Lane Theatre's new Co-Artistic Directors Seri Lawrence and Janio Marrero.

According to a recent article in American Theatre magazine, leadership at theaters across the country is at a crossroads. At the time the article was published, there were more than 20 artistic director and high-level management vacancies at major American regional theaters. Seasoned performing arts executive Wiley Hausam, who recently wrote a feature on this topic for CFR, expects that filling these sorts of positions could be a tall order. Looking further out, according to Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), there will be even more openings. Yet while the volume of vacancies is a concern, Eyring told the magazine that she believes there will be “some ascension of promising associate artistic directors from within the ranks.” She hopes that many organizations will use these opportunities to hire underrepresented people, in lieu of the status quo white male.

One theater that has undergone a passing of the torch is NYC’s historic Cherry Lane Theatre. Built as a farm silo exactly 200 years ago, it was converted to a theater in 1924 by members of the Provincetown Playhouse. More recently, and after serving for some 20 years as Cherry Lane’s guiding light, Founding Artistic Director Angelina Fiordellisi resigned and promoted two longtime staffers, Seri Lawrence and Janio Marrero, to lead the way forward as co-artistic directors. I recently discussed their new roles and what lies ahead as they plan a special benefit for the theater, set for Oct. 22.

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Robin Rothstein: Congratulations! Can you tell me a bit about your backgrounds? How did you get involved in theater? What draws you to it?

Janio Marrero: I’ve been acting in theater since I was 15. Before that, I was doing commercials as a kid. I was always a performer, visual artist and inventor growing up. Once I made it to college for acting, my accent was so thick that I wasn’t getting cast in much at school. So I auditioned for a lot of Latin and Off-Off Broadway. At school I wanted to learn everything — directing, producing, design, production. I ended up working as a carpenter for a bit. I was then hired to be technical director for Cherry Lane’s Mentor Project in 2004. Once that was over, I was hired full-time as the theater’s TD, but I believe I have had almost every production role known to theater over the past 13 years.

Seri Lawrence: I got to theater later than I think is typical. I wasn’t in the drama club in high school and I didn’t major in theater in college — but I think it was in my cards. My favorite thing to do as a little kid was to write and put on plays with friends, neighbors and cousins. I dreamed of building a stage in our living room. The turning point, I suppose, was when I didn’t get the part as the wicked witch in our fourth-grade production of Sleeping Beauty! That was a quick wrap for my theater (and acting) career. By the time I made my way to NYC for college, my professional interest had shifted to film and TV production. But when I was on the hunt for my first job, post-graduation, I came across a listing for the assistant to the Cherry Lane’s founding artistic director — Angelina Fiordellisi. All it took was an intro to the awesome history of this little theater in the Village, and everything changed. I’m smiling right now as I think of how the universe playfully brought theater back into my orbit. I love this form. I love the living energy. I love getting to watch a production evolve once we’re in performances. To me, the variation within constancy that a production experiences night after night is endlessly fascinating and inspiring. It’s an incredible privilege to witness.

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RR: Seri, what roles did you grow into under Angelina’s leadership after being her assistant?

SL: [I became the theater’s] administrative assistant. Then I managed to break into the literary department as an assistant — which is my first love, the text itself. Eventually, I became the literary manager, which has been my job for years.

RR: How would you describe the kind of work the Cherry Lane has produced?

JM: Angelina established a series of programs such as “celebrating female playwrights,” “celebrating black playwrights,” Heritage Series, Discovery Series, The Mentor Project. We are keeping Mentor Project and the Discovery Series. The Heritage Series will be absorbed by the Founder’s Project, which is Angelina’s new program, as of last year. The “celebrating” ones highlight minority artists. Even though that goal remains, we’ll modify our approach. We’ll make sure to prioritize inclusiveness and diversity in our artistic choices and hires. As a service to our theater community, we’ll also continue our Tongues reading series, the Cherry Lane Late Nite Series and Cherry Lane School.

RR: What about The Mentor Project — its history, process and purpose?

JM: Mentor Project is the true “farm to table” new-play development festival. It is the staple of our company and primordial vessel of our mission.

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SL: This year is momentous because we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mentor Project. The program pairs emerging writers with established writers to mentor them through developing a new work. Every spring it culminates in a series of three new plays. This year we’re very excited to follow Mentor Project with a world premiere of The Surgeon and Her Daughters by Christopher Gabriel Núñez. This is a very special and timely play we developed in the program a few years back, mentored by Rajiv Joseph.

RR: Besides Mentor Project, what else do you have planned for this current season?

SL: We’re gearing up for our third season of Cherry Lane School — Oct. 16 to 28 — which hosts master classes, workshops and panel discussions with leading artists. Next summer we’ll produce Chuck Mee’s First Love, directed by Kim Weild. This will be part of our yearly Founder’s Project, curated by Angelina. We’ve also awarded LAByrinth Theater Company a two-year residency.

RR: Has the current political climate influenced any programming decisions?

JM: It has made us hone in on the stories that we feel matter, what we want to tell. We have joined the Ghostlight Project and partner with several other companies in putting on one-off events. The arts are under the gun. They are being threatened to lose a lot of funding, and we will not go out silently.

SL: Janio and my aesthetic values are in sync in so many important ways. From the get-go, this has been at the forefront of our minds, as we imagine what we want this theater to be for our artists and for our community. As the season progresses, I think you will notice more opportunities to engage with us, as we continue to explore what’s possible, what’s needed and what inspires folks. Our production choices will continue to reflect our desire to be rigorous and conscientious in helping to diversify the voices of American theater, as we evolve our collective story towards an ever-fuller understanding of who we are together.

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RR: As new artistic leaders, how do you describe Cherry Lane’s mission?

SL: Our mission is centered on continuing to build a home for artists to experiment and for audiences to play a central part in this. We produce powerful work, and this is how we get there. But it’s also how we tackle the third part of our mission: to continue the groundbreaking work of our century-long past. For 20 years, Angelina worked in service of our mission. For many of those years, Janio and I were right there alongside her. You could say we grew up together in this theater. This will be a natural continuation, but one we will make our own.

RR: What’s your advice for success?

JM: Perseverance and curiosity. Apply those to anything you do and touch. It will keep you going, motivated and passionate. Also, the eternal search for great storytelling.

SL: For the people who’ve stuck around for the long haul at Cherry Lane, a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of attitude played an essential part. This is professional theater. We take great pride in that. But we’re scrappy too. My favorite artists and administrators to collaborate with — and invariably the most successful as well as the happiest — are all like this. They roll up their sleeves and get it done. No matter what. And they have fun doing it. No task is too large or too small because they hold onto the greater picture. They understand that it is all in the service of making a production the best it can be. I love that about theater.