Independent theater is like a hermit crab. Vulnerable to exposure and attack, it must seek refuge in the protective shell of an empty Off-Off-Broadway theater no longer inhabited by its previous tenant.
There is an inherent humility to this crab-by existence, one that suits perfectly the modest ambitions of an independently produced show. The chance to gauge the reaction of a live audience after months or years of workshops and staged readings is nourishment for the creative team, morsels feed the next draft of the script or leads to an Off-Off-Broadway festival to further develop more nuances and polish. See: the nomadic life of the hermit crab.
Yet, once in a great while, this fragile organism unexpectedly garners big attention. Modest expectations, codified since the first rehearsal, must be abandoned.
You’ll know you’ve stumbled across one of these rare creatures by a change in physical cues. The outside of the theater may look different. Wait-listers may line up outside the entrance a half-hour before the doors even open. The audience demographic begins to skew older. The house is packed in a way that Broadway can’t match, marked by all those plastic chairs hastily set up beside the risers and all those audience members only too happy to sit on them. Even the virtual plumage undergoes a transformation when the pull-down tab for online ticket purchases is now accented by two words, bold and red: sold out.
Whether early in its run or halfway through it, the production is no longer a fledgling, naked little crab. And the drama of its transformation can leave everyone slightly stunned.
Athena is a quintessential case study for this kind of success. Running at a venue called JACK, in Brooklyn, the play depicts two teenage girls training for the Junior Olympics in fencing. The story unfurls through conversations between Athena, which is probably not her name, and a character named Mary Wallace as they begin and end physical practice sessions. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of what happens when the complex relationship between them spills past the walls of the gym. In one case, we discover that the more experienced Athena has taken the innocent Mary to a club, resulting in a trip to the ER.
At the start of its three-week run, the anatomy of Athena looked no different to the outside observer than any other independently produced show passing like a whisper through the Off-Off-Broadway life-cycle. It began with a script by Gracie Gardner that percolated for 10 years without a production. This script was given to The Hearth, a small theater company composed of two artistic directors, Julia Greer and Emily Miller. They rented JACK, a 50-seat staple of Clinton Hill. The cast of three was secured, with Greer playing Athena and Abby Awe as Mary. Normal procedure, through and through.
Then the tipping point: On Feb. 19, New York Times critic Alexis Soloski wrote a glowing review of the play and branded it a Critic’s Pick. “As a theater actor, what you want in your career is to know fewer and fewer people in the audience,” Awe told me. “We sold out, and we have people rushing the show like it’s on Broadway.”
Are there predictors to this success? Let’s start with Gardner and her script. Recently, she won the highly publicized Relentless Award, a $45,000 grant by the American Playwriting Foundation, for a different play, Pussy Sludge. Gardner’s name entering the forefront of the national theatrical consciousness certainly brought Athena a shot at a level of publicity that is generally reserved for much larger shows.
There is much to be said for the seemingly monolithic power of the Times. Many believe as they have always believed: the entirety of a show’s success can hinge on a single review. Such power can be wielded benevolently, to advocate for shows of lesser means. A critic can hold in their hand the trust of a large swath of audience; their review can grant legitimacy to a show that perhaps hasn’t yet achieved it elsewhere. (I am pursuing my graduate degree in dramaturgy and work as a personal research assistant for Soloski.)
Still, to boil down Athena’s rise to context and timing seems reductive. There must be something in the show itself fueling its success. It seems to exploit a tip-of-the tongue phenomenon, both asking and answering questions still forming in the collective mouths of the theatergoing public: Whose stories are going to be told? Athena’s existence insists, for example, that a friendship between two teenage girls is a sufficient story to be told.
The entire production is holistically attuned to this point. It is written by a woman. The Hearth is run by two female artistic directors, one of whom is acting in the show — and the other one directs. All the actors are women. On the production side, women provide set, lighting, sound, costumes, props, stage management and PR. “There is a different feel to the rehearsal room when you enter,” Awe says. “I think it’s very impressive to see female and non-binary artists hanging lights and setting up the sound. I feel like it’s an anomaly in the industry at the moment.”
Audiences want theater that is hyper-conscious of its messaging across the whole of the production. You could liken it to farm-to-table cuisine. The team cares for the authenticity of its message through every stage of the process. You feel it in the final product on stage.
What’s next for Athena? The Hearth recently announced an additional five performances, March 20 to 24. Beyond that? “The exposure Athena is getting and the people that are seeing it are people that could have an effect on where the show goes after this run at JACK,” Awe says. “That’s something that was truly not on my mind two weeks ago. I feel this play reaches many different types on a human level. Clearly the story is relatable to many.”
Nothing is certain, of course. But the surprise success of Athena might suggest that soon this hermit crab will move into a much larger shell.