It’s March, it’s cold out, and I’ve been in a filthy East Village basement for a week. Water stains line the walls. The lights leak when it rains. There’s a stench from the alley. And there’s a mess of trash everywhere. Admittedly, I’ve been adding to the garbage every morning with old clothes and books I find at friends’ apartments. But it’s getting out of control—an actual mountain of debris.
I’m in the back room at Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar with a fantastic beer selection and a small side room that once-monthly gets turned over to Rising Phoenix Rep for their “Cino Nights” series. In front of me are five actors who aren’t getting paid and seem genuinely thrilled to spend a week on a pile of trash. Amongst them, Broadway credits and Juilliard training mix with real, legit downtown cred.
The play I’m directing is favorites by Charlotte Miller. favorites tells the fucked up fairytale of two grown siblings cleaning out their dead parents’ home. The audience finds them asleep on the floor on a pile of trash. Slowly, the brother and sister awaken and realize that not only is the room wrecked, but now there are 40 strangers watching. In the hilarious and devastating nightmare that follows, Mom and Dad return as ghosts, sing them childhood songs, and starve them. The siblings counter by murdering their favorite children’s TV show host, Uncle Nick. The family goes camping, climbs mountains, eats sandwiches, and beats the shit out of each other.
But they only do it once.
On day one of rehearsal, I explain the rules of the production to our cast. They are simple: we get a week of rehearsal, the drab room in front of us, 40 chairs (max), and no money. And only one performance.
“It’s not a punch in the balls, it’s a slap in the balls.” I tell Amelia, the actor playing the older sister. “Keep your hand open. Trust me, it hurts more. Every guy in the audience will understand.” Amelia pauses to think, then lets hellishly loose on Seth, who is playing her younger brother. It is unhinged, terrifying, and perfect. They wrestle on the floor. Trash goes everywhere. A sheet flies in the air. They collide with the front row of seats.
“You just bruised an audience member, but it’s definitely what we want.”
This is the power of Charlotte Miller’s writing: audience members come away bruised, and it feels right. But hers is not a theater of cruelty, nor even the slap-you-across-the-face aggression of a Tracy Letts or a Sam Shepard. Instead, Miller expertly tricks the audience into believing that the world they’re watching isn’t real. Her characters are ghosts, freaks, lunatics, sad sacks, or, in the case of her upcoming play Joan’s Boutique, too eccentric to appear dangerous, at least at first. But in the final minutes of all her plays, Miller expertly snaps the characters back into realism, and suddenly the audience cannot escape the feeling that they are seeing themselves on stage. It’s brutal, and it hurts so good. Miller’s plays don’t terrorize the audience or induce guilt. Instead, you leave them acutely aware of the shortcomings of humanity, the undeniable pain of childhood, and the circuitous torment of searching for escape from life’s emotional dead ends. And you laugh your ass off the whole damn way.
But chances are, most readers will never have heard of Charlotte Miller. Because Miller, like so many other young playwrights, directors, designers, and actors, is stuck in the orbit of “emerging artist” that hits when you’re no longer in your early 20’s but haven’t yet had that first major New York production. And as costs skyrocket, stipends and grants vanish, and rents climb despite the economic downturn, the chance for playwrights like Miller to make work are slim.
Unless, of course, they find a way to do it for almost no money. Which is exactly what Miller did with favorites, and will do again next month with Joan’s Boutique—this time at the Spectrum, in Bushwick. For many theater-makers and theatergoers, the low-cost production is no longer a chore or a joke. On the contrary, theater companies are now hedging their reputations on the once-in-a-lifetime spark that comes from getting to watch a play go up for almost no money made by artists who truly know what they’re doing.
It’s a strange, exciting alchemy that makes the already off-kilter whimsy and terror of Miller’s writing crackle even louder.
Something different happens when the budget is totally non-existent but the experience of seasoned theater-makers is at the helm. Miller herself explains it best:
When my production partner told me that he wanted to give me his performance space in Brooklyn for free for the purpose of this play, I felt this immediate tug in my belly. It was fear, it was excitement, it was the knowledge that something is going to happen because we decided to do it. When you work on a play in this way, without a budget, without real funding, the play and the artistic team are all you have. It makes you realize that it’s all you really need. Make up a story and tell it. It’s the simplicity and immediacy that excites me.
Miller is a playwright who tinkers until her plays work perfectly. She reworks lines and sequences as many times as it takes. She takes on a profound responsibility for her writing and will not allow an actor to just “make a line work,” even if they can. She’s muscular, and this strength makes the already intense experience of putting her work up in low-budget, limited-timeframe, minimal performance environment feel like the theater is aflame. It’s thrilling, and the audience devours it.
When they get the chance to. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. But perhaps all that is changing for Miller and other playwrights like her.
There’s a constant murmur amongst young theater-makers in New York bemoaning the impossibility of putting up work without a trust fund. I spent my first years out of college watching scores of friends and colleagues decide that “theater” was synonymous with “how I spent my 20s.” These artists moved on to other pursuits not because they weren’t talented or capable, but because they just didn’t have anyone underwriting their work. Sure, it’s possible to start in theater without a benefactor, but the infrastructure for how to begin the process, especially if you’re not instantly recognizable as a commercial possibility, is severely withered. And if you want to work in uber-expensive New York, sometimes it seems like a trust fund is the only ticket.
But things are looking up. Over the last few years, so-called “mid-career” artists have paved paths towards low-cost theater making. The playwrights’ collective 13p, which finished its cycle last month with a production of a play by the now-famous Sarah Ruhl, put up 13 high profile Off Off Broadway productions for a sliver of what productions typically cost by pooling their talents and resources and collecting no fees. And major institutions like Lincoln Center and the Public Theater are slashing production costs and ticket prices to bring more emerging and mid-career artists under their roofs with programs like “LCT3” and “Public Lab.” It’s progress.
But many theater artists, like those working with me, aren’t waiting for institutions. They are changing the landscape themselves. These cohorts have reinvigorated theater by making this type of production feel genuinely hip, a place of possibilities rather than restrictions. It’s not that we have to work under these circumstances; it’s that we get to work under these circumstances.
And something happens when money is off the table: nobody in this room is doing anyone else a favor by being there. “There’s no pay” is the perfect excuse to say no, so everyone in the room wants to be there, and that leads to instant community. There are no egos to manage in the back room at Jimmy’s; there literally isn’t room for them. So we just get down to work. And although the work is scrappy and messy, it is consummately professional and impeccably polished. There is no winking at the audience, none of the “we did the best we could but we didn’t have much money” mantra often brandished in the theater when funds are scarce.
Miller, in particular, is exacting in her detail. She belabors one word or even inflection, reverting to her signature “Miller-scrunch,” her lips pursed, forehead burrowed, eyes squinty. “Cwabby-pants, not crabby-pants. That’s the line. Cwabby pants. Baby talk,” she tells Seth. favorites will be cheap, but it will be seamless.
Miller’s next play, Joan’s Boutique, is nothing at all like favorites, yet somehow feels equally destined for success via financial limitations. Subtract the parents and children and testicle slaps and piñata, add a trans woman meets virgin meets homeless person rom-com told with the violence of Dog Day Afternoon. The Spectrum, a new space in Bushwick catering to offbeat, queer, explosive new artists, charges $15/hour to rent its cavernous space (roughly one quarter of what similar spaces in Manhattan charge), and in Miller’s case, they’re giving her the space for free. Productions can happen on the cheap, and they can be all the better for them. In presenting a play about a marginalized community within a marginalized space, Joan’s Boutique promises to find in its low-rent surroundings and limited resources not a hindrance but an opportunity.
It is Sunday, our last day at Jimmy’s No. 43, our opening and closing. I hit play on my favorites playlist (my iphone doubles as our sound board). We open the house. The audience enters to the tune of Jack White’s cover of “Jolene,” Andrew Bird’s version of “Bein’ Green,” and a series of unplugged outtakes from The National’s early albums. Ten minutes pass. Amelia and Seth are asleep on the pile of trash; the audience stares at them waiting for the show to begin. Our “light board op” brings the house lights down with the dimmer on the wall, and the only-ever performance of this production of Miller’s favorites begins.
55 minutes later, it ends. Forever. The audience trickles out to the bar and begins drinking beer and eating sausage. The actors, Rising Phoenix Rep folks, Miller and I hug and clean up the side room at Jimmy’s, because, of course, there is no crew. A brief affair? Yes. But a complete experience that stands strong on its own: scrappy, low budget, once in a lifetime.
Boutique by Charlotte Miller, directed by Dominic Spillane, runs Thursdays-Saturdays, September 13-29 at 8pm at The Spectrum, 59 Montrose Avenue, 1st floor (btwn Lorimer and Leonard) in Brooklyn. Tickets: $5 cash at the door. For reservations email: firstname.lastname@example.org