The Pearl Theatre Company
Matthew Murray sends us the first of two interviews focusing on The Pearl Theatre Company whose 160-seat theatre is located at 80 St. Mark's Place. Part II is an interview with Shepard Sobel, the Pearl's Artistic Director. Today Matthew talks with Michelle Brandon, the Pearl's Marketing Director, about the new season and what makes the Pearl a unique theatrical experience.
MM: Tell me about the history of the Pearl.
MB: Well, we've been in this space for just about seven years. We were over in Chelsea, right around 25th Street, in a smaller theater, about an 80-seat house. And so we moved to the 160. This space used to be a movie theater and before that it was a regular theater. So, there were some conversions we made. Sheperd Sobel is the artistic director and he's the founder of the Pearl. His wife, Joanne Camp, is one of the resident acting company members as well as the development director. They basically came up with the idea and started it eighteen years ago in their living room and it grew and grew.
There are two tenets. First of all that we produce classical works as the playwright intended them to be produced depending upon the word of the playwright, but not really modernizing in any way, just going strictly from the script. The second is that a resident acting company produces the works.
Right now, we have a 13-member resident acting company. The theory, which I think is very true, is that a resident acting company who's working together over a number of years and working in different productions as well as participating in workshops and forums and doing different things brings an added level to a production. First of all, because they don't have to deal with kind of the extra junk that comes with the beginning of the production - they all know each other there isn't a lot of ego involved in as there might be in other productions when you're first starting out. And then it also brings something special to it. For example, the Cherry Orchard which we did last year had ten of our resident acting company members in it - it's an ensemble piece - and it was fantastic to watch because these people have interacted so much with each over the past however many years that they've each been involved.
MM: How do you get other actors who aren't part of the resident company?
MB: We hire a number of guest actors. Some have actually been guest actors and then will join the resident company. Rachel Botchan, for example, was actually an acting intern with us, and then became an Equity actor, guest acted with us, and became a member. Some resident actors have been here almost the entire existence of the Pearl. Some stay for a couple of years and then move on.
MM: Do you find it difficult to keep up with other, bigger theatre groups that have a lot more money, or more media coverage? Is that a continuing challenge?
MB: A little bit. Joanne Camp, our development director, earlier today was talking about the fact that we produce classical works, and a lot of other theaters aren't really doing that in the same way. We really kind of have a little bit of a niche market. Even though there are lots and lots of theatre companies in the city, a lot of them aren't really providing that. But it's very risky.
In the case of The Seagull in Central Park, you had a lot of big name actors and actresses. Lines out the door before a review came out. Lines around the block. I walked past those lines every day on my way to work. The fact is, the Pearl produces classics on a regular basis. And it's a little risky to do that because we're not looking to have a big name actor who we can headline and say "THIS PERSON in the name of play in little letters" and it's not a brand new work by a well-known playwright which people may flock to see just because they like the performer or playwright. We have a very dedicated core audience of people who have come to the Pearl and liked it and keep coming back, which is what we really like to see, we like to build. You come your first time and say, "Hey, this might not be what I thought I would like originally, but this is interesting, this is applicable to me in some way," so they keep coming back.
MM: How do you decide what types of plays you're going to do?
MB: It's more a process of building season upon season. For example, doing series' of different Greek plays and building on what the group of actors and directors and designers have learned in each previous season.
MM: You try to do a Greek play each season?
MB: Not necessarily each season, but there will be some groupings of these four Chekhovian plays that eventually build to the one that might be the most difficult for actors and a director. We've done four or five Chekhovian works. That was a build. It wasn't necessarily each season, but it was building up. So far, we've pretty much done a Shakespeare each season, not a guarantee, but a possibility. But that's something the artistic director decides with the input of quite a few other people, takes some suggestions from the resident acting company and all of that.
MM: Is there a suite of resident directors, too, or do the directors change?
MB: We don't really have a suite of resident directors right now.
MM: Are the designers always the same, or do you have new ones come in?
MB: They change. We have a resident set designer who also does properties and a resident sound designer, but again, they'll come and go a little bit because they'll do three of the five shows and we'll have guests for two, so they're off doing something else so they can build and come back, which is the same as our resident acting company. They work in two or three of the shows out of the season and then be off doing something else.
MM: How do you use the artistic vision of the director or the designers in marketing?
MB: With a small theatre company you get a sense of what everyone is thinking. I'm going to sit in rehearsal so that I can pick shots for different press photos and I'm meeting all the actors beforehand, the understudies while I'm down here, talking to the director beforehand as he writes an article for our playgoer's supplement, just a lot of communication back and forth. It just kind of permeates. Also, a lot of asking, "Do you think this is the right track, does this really support what we're looking to do?" We're not going to go out and market to the ten year-old segment, it's just not who we want to attract. But at the same time, we have an arts and education program that's bringing students into the theatre, and our artists go into the classroom. It's a very a back and forth type of process.
MM: How do the students react?
MB: Right now we have four different schools - most of them in our neighborhood - that participate in our Classics in the Classrooms program, and they come to all five productions during the season; the classrooms are anywhere from 30 to around 65 kids. They come in and they see each show and an actor or a designer goes in and works with them beforehand, and they do scene work, or they practice writing their own scene. Or, in the case of Ionesco, they might have them do an exercise like with The Bald Soprano, where he actually wrote The Bald Soprano because he'd been looking at a language book, a translation book, that he was working in as he was trying to learn, and he was struck by what the conversations were within that, what the phrasing was, so that was the basis for his play, and have the students do an exercise like that where they're taking their own language book/translation book and working with that. Then they come see the show and at the end of the year, it's incredible, we do surveys and we get comments back from a lot of the kids and I was reading through them the other day, a number of the kids said, I never would have seen this had I not had to go for school, but it is great, fantastic, I love it, I want to work in theatre. We have a couple of kids who come volunteer and usher and they liked it so they want to start coming back. Very successful program, and I think it does a lot for kids who probably wouldn't otherwise ever be exposed to anything like this. And, I think the added benefit is the fact that interacting with people who are successful in the career they have chosen and it may not be a career kids had thought of.
MM: Aside from working with school kids, what ways do you use to build an audience?
MB: This showed up in a survey we did a little while ago. The best thing for a theater is word of mouth, which I can't do anything about besides rely on the people who like us already and try and get more people to like us. But if you have a core audience who does come to the shows - we have some really dedicated board members who bring in groups - it's a sort of evangelism if you think about it, bringing other people and telling your friends to come to the theatre. It's the best way to attract new patrons because if they come in with someone else and they like it they may come back again. You can do tons of other things, and we do. We do all kinds of different marketing with other theaters who do similar productions. When we did our French rotating repertory, we worked with French schools in the area to promote the shows. But really the best thing that can happen is that people like it and talk to other people about it, either the show or the company in general. And that's one thing I think we're very fortunate about and we've built up to people who like coming to the Pearl. They may come to see Exit the King, they like Ionesco, but they'll come back because they liked the experience here and the show here.
MM: What can you tell me about the upcoming season?
MB: We start off with Exit the King, Ionesco. It features King Berenger, who's played by Robert Hawk, one of our resident company members and played Gayev in The Cherry Orchard, and his two wives are also played by resident acting company members Carol Schultz and Celese Ciulla. Carol is the partner wife, she's the older, the one who is the very realistic one telling him, "You have 90 minutes to live." Celeste is the younger wife who's telling him to cling to life and to love her. When I read it, I thought it's a funny, funny play but there are these undertones that kind of grip; you just leave the theater thinking about these bigger topics you wouldn't expect to leave a comedy thinking about. Joseph Hardy is the director. He directed The Cherry Orchard here last season, and before that, he actually directed the original production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in this space, thirty-four years ago, when it was a theater before it became a movie theater, and then went back.
MM: Iphigeneia at Aulis . . .
MB: . . . is a Greek tragedy, Euripedes, and features some of the same cast of characters who are in The Oresteia. Dan Dailey is Agamemnon again - he was in The Oresteia here, Carol Schultz is Clytemnestra, and Soo Jinh Soong plays Iphigeneia. Basically, Agamemnon has a difficult choice he has to make. They're sailing down to the Trojan War and a soothsayer tells him that he has to sacrifice his daughter in order for them to continue sailing. They've come into a harbor and stopped, the wind isn't blowing, they aren't moving at all. And so he brings Iphigeneia down with the false promise of marrying her to a hero, to Achilles. She thinks she's coming to get married and instead she's coming to possibly die. And when Clytemnestra gets wind of it, it all breaks loose. Shepard Sobel, our artistic director, is directing.
MM: The Phantom Lady . . .
MB: The Phantom Lady is a cloak and dagger comedy from Calderon who is called the master of the Spanish Golden Age. Rene Buch, who is the artistic director at Repertorio Espanol is directing it, and it's the story of Dona Angela who is a young widow. She's very young, and she has some brothers who are kind of keeping her safe away in a little apartment so that she can mourn. She's ready to live her life so she begins to write notes attract a guest in her home, Don Manuel. Angela is played by Celeste Ciulla and a number of resident acting company members are in it. Angela's two brothers are trying to keep her sequestered, there's a revolving mirror, there's a beautiful stately family home in it, and it's a mystery: How does this woman get into another room in order to leave notes for the man she likes? Very romantic. She's doing exactly what she wants to do. She's supposed to be in mourning, she's young, she wants to live her life and so she's doing it as best she can.
MM: Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing?
MB: Well, we're doing them in rotating repertory. This is the first year where we will actually have them occurring on the same day. So if someone wanted to, they could come see Romeo and Juliet in the afternoon and stay for Much Ado About Nothing on a Saturday night. We've done rotating repertory for the past two seasons and each time we've opened them about a month staggered. This will be our third season with the two shows in rep. They'll be in previews simultaneously and open three days apart right around Shakespeare's birthday, April 23. We have about eight members of the resident acting company that are in both shows. Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing are both played by resident acting company members. Juliet is going to be played by Rachel Botchan. We have a number of guest actors who will be in both as well, but all of the resident acting company members, all of the actors actually play dual roles, one role in each.
MM: How do you think the Pearl changed in the eighteen years since its inception?
MB: It's grown a lot. I think we've reached the point where we're starting to accomplish goals that, when they founded it, they wanted to accomplish. One of our biggest focuses is paying actors a living wage, respectable, and we actually do pretty well with it. I know when Shep and Joanne were starting the theatre it was almost on a volunteer basis for a lot of people, which is how it is with most theatre companies but to get to the point where you're starting to get respectable living wages is a real accomplishment. I think that we've reached a level of stability in some ways. Of course I always speak in terms of marketing, but we have history, history in New York, and although I think a lot of people may not know about the Pearl, I think the people that do really get a sense of being part of a little community. The catchword is "the Pearl Family." But really, it is in a way. Shep is often down here during shows, greeting subscribers and saying hello to patrons, and they'll come out and talk to him about the show and what they thought, which is something you don't get, you don't get the artistic director standing in the lobby in many theaters, and that's an example of how the Pearl has grown a lot but still there are touches that are definitely very human and very personal.
MM: How has the Pearl changed in the year since you've been here?
MB: Just in the year that I've been here, in marketing, we've done some different things. We got some new box office software, and we've been doing some new different campaigns. We've added a resident acting company member, also added a board member or two. I don't know, I guess during the past year, I was kind of just getting used to how everything worked. Over the course of the season you can see with each production things are different: different actors, different designers, different directors. The administrative stuff is all the same, so upstairs really didn't change ever so much try to build, we just kept doing what we normally do and trying to build, in my case, bigger subscriber bases and attract new folks in different ways.
MM: What ways have you tried to attract more people?
MB: Well, right now, we're actually beginning a new membership campaign which will be directed at a slightly younger demographic. We also have just done increased subscription mailings, different possibilities for potential patrons and also just some different promotions working with some radio stations on giveaways, and different theaters, trading flyers.
MM: Where do you see the Pearl going?
MB: We're looking to continue to grow. As of now, we're still looking at building the number of resident acting company members, the number of actors who are with us and just steadily growing. We have thirteen right now. Eventually, I think, we would like to have it so a lot of our roles could be filled with resident acting company members but we'd have several people to choose from. So that if there are three people of an age who could play a role . . . two might be off doing something else or playing something in rotating repertory. We have a hero and a Juliet, we're looking at two women the same age who have pretty big parts, and we would have two women from the resident acting company who could play that, even three if one was off working somewhere else, there would be that choice, so it's not an actual number, but it gives you an idea. With Richard III you have so many men, a lot of Shakespearean plays there are just so many men, especially so many men of certain ages, you're not looking at necessarily one young man, one middle aged, one older . . . So, that's an eventual goal, I think.
MM: Any others?
MB: Continuing with the tenets and the mission we've established. But at the same time keep growing and keep letting people know about the Pearl so that we're not just getting bigger and bigger and possibly sacrificing a lot of the smaller things that make it a really special company, not to lose some of the relationships that have been built up and we want to continue to build with patrons, with donors, with anyone who really walks through the door, with actors, with designers, not to lose that focus, but to hopefully continue to get bigger. I don't think the goal of the Pearl is to become a huge 3000 seat theatre up near Times Square, but it's definitely just to get as many people as to come to the shows because we think what we're doing is important and really applicable to everyone's life. Even though you may not think something that was written 2400 years ago could possibly, what could something Euripedes did during the Trojan War really have an effect on me, but you sit there and someone has to choose between career and family. People do that every day.
The Pearl Theatre
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