Looking Back on 15 Years of Primary Stages
by Michael Casano
Since becoming a Primary Stages subscriber in 1997, I always look forward to the upcoming season because I never really know what to expect.
One season alone, I was mesmerized by the haunting messages conveyed in Jeffrey Hatcher's Scotland Road. Felt the poignancy of the characters in Keith Reddin's Brutality of Fact. Marveled at the performance of Brian Cox in Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas. And sat speechless watching the tragic world of Joe Orton unfold in Lanie Robertson's Nasty Little Secrets. I doubt many theatergoers could claim so many distinct theatrical experiences just from one company.
Now celebrating its fifteenth anniversary season as the home for developing and producing new works by new and emerging playwrights, founder and artistic director Casey Childs remembers the first Primary Stages production as if it were yesterday. Or, to be more accurate, the second.
Truth be told, financial concerns and other situations kept the first intended Primary Stages production from ever making it to the stage. But Childs was eager to create a theatrical environment that catered specifically to the vision of the playwright. And he was determined to bring that mission to life.
"At the time, we had done a workshop of Majorie Mahle's play, Late One Afternoon in Okabena," Childs recalled. "The cast (which included Laura San Giacomo) had already put in a week and a half of rehearsal. So, we decided to put that up as our first production after about two more weeks of rehearsals. We even 'stole' the show's set from an Off-Broadway production that had just closed. The set had been thrown in a dumpster, and we pulled it out and reworked it. Let it be said that running a theater also takes a tremendous amount of street sense."
Fifteen years later, Primary Stages no longer needs creative ways to find sets. Under Childs' artistic direction, Primary Stages has evolved from an enthusiastic Off-Off Broadway company to a critically acclaimed, award-winning Off-Broadway theatre. The company has successfully brought more than 70 new plays to life -- featuring such writers as Willy Holtzman, Melissa Manchester, Edwin Sanchez, Donald Margulies, Constance Congdon, Mac Wellman, and John Patrick Shanley. And a good number of those productions were world premieres.
"Audiences love the high-quality of our productions," Childs said. "They don't necessarily like all the plays, but they always trust what they are going to see is art and of a certain artistic level. That always makes me feel good."
Childs' impetus for founding Primary Stages came out of his work as artistic programs director for the New Dramatists which is America's oldest playwrights organization. There, he conducted workshops for more than 75 new playwrights in developing over 300 new plays. But Childs observed a common problem that a great number of playwrights faced: finding venues committed to seeing that their plays are produced.
"There were many playwrights who I thought were carrying around pretty good scripts but were not getting productions," Childs said. "That's when I decided to get out of development and get into producing those plays."
The playwright has always been the 'center of the universe' at Primary Stages -- involved in all the artistic choices of the production. Acknowledging that the playwright's work is very difficult and very grueling, the company offers a positive atmosphere for playwrights to do the work they need to do. Primary Stages also provides advisement, but it is nowhere near a theater company that is going to twist a playwright's arm to rewrite a piece.
"Playwrights tend to clam up if they feel as though they are being attacked all the time," Childs added. "We may have some thoughts, and we hope the playwright will take the suggestions. Sometimes they won't, but I've had very few experiences like that. I find that developing playwrights usually can see what's wrong with a script and are more than eager to figure out a way to make a script better -- if they are working in a supportive environment."
Primary Stages' commitment to developing and producing new and established American playwrights has also led to some important recognition over the past decade and a half. The company has received over 20 theatre awards and nominations including the Lucille Lortel, the Outer Critics' Circle, a number of Obies, and several Drama Desk nominations.
In addition, five Primary Stages productions have transferred to commercial venues: David Ives' Mere Mortals and All in the Timing, Colin Martin's Virgins & Other Myths, Charles Busch's You Should Be So Lucky, and Sam Henry Kass' Lusting After Pipino's Wife. And several of the company's premieres have led to productions throughout the country and the world.
"My choice of writers for our productions is quite eclectic," Childs said. "I want to work with people whom I believe we can all learn from. I am more interested in the potential of a writer than in any one particular play."
Primary Stages recently broadened its mission to produce new international playwrights, and to adapt American novels for the stage. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of the Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw, marked the company's first venture in this area, and won director Melia Bensussen a 1999 Obie Award. Irish playwright Conor McPherson was the first international playwright to be produced at Primary Stages with the highly praised St. Nicholas starring Brian Cox, followed by this past season's American premiere of This Lime Tree Bower.
Ironically, St. Nicholas was not intended to be Primary Stages' first foray into producing a play by an international writer. Because of his interest in Russian theater, Childs always believed the first production would be of a Russian play. But no production developed. Then along came St. Nicholas.
"The script had originally been sent to me by Brian Cox's agent," Childs said. "I was looking for a play to present because we were in the middle of our season and we still had a slot to fill. One afternoon, I pulled out everything that was behind my desk that was one or two characters. I just went through it and I stumbled across McPherson's play and read the first paragraph of St. Nicholas, which is gorgeous from the very first line: 'When I was a boy, I was afraid of the dark . . . And maybe one of the things I thought was there was vampires.' I said, "My God, how can you stop reading?'"
Along with its focus on the playwright, Primary Stages' 99-seat theatre location on West 45th Street in Manhattan also offers an intimacy quite rare for theater audiences. Although the theatre wasn't Childs' first choice as a permanent location, it has become just as important to a Primary Stages production as the set itself. And Childs hopes to keep the spirit of that intimacy when the company moves into a larger theatre facility in the near future.
"If we have any signature style at all, it's been defined by the shape of our space," Childs said. "But now we need to open that up a little bit. I've just had to say 'no' to too many very good scripts through the years, because I didn't know if they were going to fit on our stage. Many times, a producer, playwright and director will insist that their play can fit on our stage. And I just shake my head and say, unless I do this with puppets, it's not going to work."
Regardless of where Primary Stages will spend its next 15 years, there's no doubt that the company will continue to nurture the development of the new playwright. That includes Primary Stages' own productions and the company's "New American Writers Group" led by Associate Producer Seth Gordon, where emerging playwrights meet for roundtable readings that lead to discussion and feedback of their work.
"New playwrights are coming from everywhere," Childs said. "When you sit and listen to the doomsayers say, 'Where are the great new American plays?' I don't buy any of it. There are more people writing plays than ever before, with a wider diversity of places to develop those plays than ever before. And here at Primary Stages, we'll continue to seek out those playwrights who touch the soul and stimulate the human spirit."
Daisy Foote's new drama, When They Speak of Rita, directed by Horton Foote and featuring Hallie Foote as Rita, is currently in previews for a May 17 opening, running through June 4, at Primary Stages, 354 West 45th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). Tickets: (212) 333-4052 or at the Primary Stages website.
Michael Casano is a New York area entertainment writer, playwright, and a Primary Stages' subscriber. His articles have appeared on theatermania.com, and Theatre Today. His one-act play, Who Knew?, premiered in New York in 1999, while staged readings of his full-length play, A Hell of a Time, took place at the Waterloo Bridge Threatre in New York and with the Chicago Dramatists.
Photo Credits: (1) photo: Marvin Einhorn (2) photo: Carol Rosegg/ Martha Swope Associates; cast: (l-r) Janet Reed, Jodie McClintock, Laurie Klatscher, Lilene Mansell, Laura San Giacomo, Diane Heles, Jessie Noonan (3) photo: James Leynse; cast: (l-r) Anne O'Sullivan, Arnie Burton (4) photo: Trevor Ray Hart (5) photo: Marvin Einhorn; New American Writers Group: (back row l-r) Daniel Goldfarb, Janis Astor del Valle, Bruce Faulk, Jessica Goldberg, dir. Seth Gordon, Janet Reed, (front row) dir. Andrew Leynse, Julian Sheppard
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