1.12.2017 The Orange Fog

Last night was the second preview for Orange Julius. About 10 minutes into the play there is a Vietnam fantasy scene where a hazer pumps light fog out to give the illusion of other-worldliness. Last night's hazer malfunctioned and the stage was instantly flooded with thick fog. We could barely see the actors standing right in front of us. Fans were switched on aOrangeJulius_050nd side doors were opened. Though there was no real danger, the moment felt uncertain.

Many of us now feel as if we are living life in a type of fog where it's unclear what's real and what's not. Is it fake news or real news? Does the Orange One really mean what he says or is it just an act? Will this just be a passing phase or are we are on the edge of the precipice?

Theater by design deals in the realm of artifice, where things are often not black and white. Moreover, in live theater we can't always control things, things don't always go according to plan. Still we embrace this ambiguity, and accept that things will not always turn out the way we expect them to. In this way, the fog of theater is illuminating and cathartic.

Is there a lesson in this beyond mere escapism? As the Artistic Director of a theater company, I think there is. For the many of us who are disturbed by what's going on in the "real world," through theater we are trying to imagine another type of world in which difference is appreciated as providing richness, not danger, and we greet an uncertain future with optimism, not fear.

12.23.2016 Can Theater Save Us?

Recently, I have heard many people give toasts at holiday parties along the lines of “Here’s to the end of 2016. I am ready for this year to be over.” I understand the sentiment, yet I and others also look to 2017 with a deep sense of trepidation.  How will we be shifting towards or away from one another in this political climate? How ready are we individually and communally to fight for what we believe in and how can we make our voices truly heard?

A ray of hope can be seen from the New York theatrical community. I recently saw Anna Deavere Smith’s tour de force Notes from the Field. What a stunning and nuanced portrayal it is of our education system and our prison system. And what ferocity she has as a curator, interpreter and performer. This incredible piece, along with Adam Bock’s A Life, an unflinchingexploration of what it means to be alive, Sweet Charity, an unflinching depiction of male domination in an America some want us to go back to, and The Band’s Visit, an unflinching vision of an Arab-Israeli world where the two sides find commonality and a measure of grace as frail human beings, have given me great hope about the ferocity of our artists and the impact of their courageous work.

It’s now December 22nd around noon, 9 days before the New Year, and the Rattlestick stage has been almost entirely transformed into a scene shop as our crew furiously builds the set for Orange Julius by Basil Kreimendahl. Orange Julius, featuring a father who has been in Vietnam (Stephen Payne, an actor who served two tours in Vietnam) and a transgender child (actor/playwright Jess Barbagallo), under the artful direction of Dustin Wills, will fearlessly look political and moral complexity in the eye. We are getting ready to present Basil's vision. Table saws are blaring while we attempt to finish up last-minute preparation for the play before the holiday turns everything quiet. There was a bit of off-stage drama two days ago when it was unclear when or how the garage door  - a key scenic element - was going to make it to the theater on time. But fortunately a garage door delivery and installation is in the works - all is back on track for tech on January 3rd and the first prevue of Orange Julius scheduled for January 10th.

As you make your way to an uncertain 2017, remember this. You can take refuge at Rattlestick, a place that gives voice to the misfit, the iconoclast, the voice crying out in the darkness. Given the uncertainties of the world, we want to do whatever we can to lean into this uncertainty.  Indeed, if we can get a balky garage door to work on stage, anything is possible!

Happy holidays and Happy New Year to all our artists, patrons and friends.

Daniella Topol, Artistic Director

11.23.2016 Thanksgiving

General Manager Annie Middleton, Associate Producer Victor Cervantes and I have been moved by the many people who have helped Rattlestick over these past few months. These champions of our company have taught us (cliche alert!) how "it takes a village" and why we need to "depend on the kindness of strangers." As we approach Thanksgiving, these are some of the people/groups we want to acknowledge:

Thank you to Founding Artistic Director David Van Asselt and our robust alumni playwrights who have welcomed this new chapter with a generous spirit.

Thank you to Middle Voice, our apprentice company, under the mentorship of Lucy Thurber, which has participated in many new programs this fall with professionalism, creativity, generosity, and courage.

Thank you to Polly Lee who is heading up our crack 'Stick Lit team (with Ngozi Anyanwu, Vered Hankin, David Mendizabal, and Cori Thomas) who are out scouting new work, reading submissions, and acting as an artistic sounding board for new ideas.

Thank you to to our amazing Board of Directors and Advisory Board for their advocacy, support and advice.

Thank you to our producing partners this year (Page 73, The Sol Project and The Amoralists) for being wonderful collaborators and generous artists.

Thank you to Andrew Asnes, Phil Gelston, Dan Markley, and Rosalee Lovett (our fierce Finance Committee); and Karen Kowgios, our new auditor.

Thank you to Kathy Evans, Niko Tsakolakos, David Forney, and Ava Paloma Elliot Kreloff for their energetic work on our Marketing Committee.

Thank you to Phyllis Goldman, Colin Greer, Nello McDaniel, Horace Barker, and Trudi Biggs McCanna who have quietly and selflessly spent hours with me as strategic advisors on board development, and strategic planning.

Thank you to Scott Johnson for working on the design of the stairway leading up the theater, and for hosting our Actors-Who-Write labs.

Thank you to Justin Townsend, Sarah Johnston, and Andrew Kerr-Thompson for making sure that our theater is in top-notch condition for incoming artists like Mike Daisey and AFO Theater to do their best work.

Thank you to Laura Rebell Gross, Maureen Burgess and Morgan Gould for working with us on creating new theater programs for the public/charter school sector and private schools.

Thank you to Margot Avery, Cusi Cram, Neil Goldberg, Scott Johnson, Ricardo Perez-Gonzalez, and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis for working with us on the first step of our Storytelling through the West Village, with the generous support of Still Point Fund.

Thank you to our committed and tireless interns who have designed posters, supported our grant submissions, organized our play submissions process, painted the stage, and done scores of other things to keep Rattlestick humming.

To all of the mentors in the industry who have been so helpful during this time of transition and new managerial experiences: from Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center, Ginny Louloudes and Ann-Marie Lonsdale at ART/NY, Jim Nicola and Linda Chapman at NYTW, John Eisner and Michael Robertson at the Lark, Billy Carden at EST, Julie Crosby and Bruce Cohen, Lauren Wainwright at Tectonic, and George Forbes at Lucille Lortel Foundation - we thank you.

Thank you to those foundations and individuals who financially support our company's programming and general operations. You know who you are. THANK YOU. We are a small theater with low ticket prices so every dollar counts and your support enables us to take more risks, increase artist fees, and provide adequate resources to our productions.

A deep thank you to our families. In my case: to my husband who has only embraced and supported my love of this all-consuming new position without judgement or resentment. And to my curly-haired pistol of a four-year-old daughter, who had the privilege to actually sing "Maybe" from Annie on our stage during one dinner break this fall and now begs me to come to work nearly every day (I tell her she can be an usher when she is 10).

Finally, thank you to our patrons and audience, for attending, supporting, and believing in the theater we are making. Your energy and curiosity plays a vital role in our ability to test out new material and launch new work.

11.03.2016 Getting To Know You (Even If We Disagree)

You're seated before the lights go down for The Story of the Gun by the celebrated monologist, Mike Daisey, at Rattlestick (Nov. 3-5 at 8 PM). Surrounded by other theater-goers about to share a communal experience about a subject that divides the country. You're interested in hearing what the person sitting next to you is thinking. But you don’t ask. You want to. But you don’t. Why? Why can't we get past our fears to get to know the person sitting next to us, particularly about a subject like this that affects us all?

In that spirit, I have been ruminating a great deal about what we can do so that Rattlestick gets to know our West Village neighbors better and roots itself in our neighborhood while being true to our mission to present fierce theater. Last month, I attended a Community Board meeting as a preliminary step towards launching Experiment #1 of a new Rattlestick/Neighborhood initiative. On November 2nd, we tried Experiment #1: fifteen participants, West Village leaders and a select group of artists, joined us for a theatrical walking tour of the West Village. We went to a few strange spaces that triggered memories for the participants. But I wondered afterwards if we challenged our participants enough. I think we were too safe.

This is why I am glad Mike Daisey is currently in our space. Daisey is a provocateur. And Mike Daisey talking about guns certainly isn’t safe.

My goal is to hold a different "experiment" every six months. How we are going to do that is a work in progress. If you have access to a private space in the West Village that is associated with some rich - even ugly - aspect of the Village, let me know via email to dtopol@rattlestick.org, and we'll see how we can use stimulating, perhaps audacious, theater to bring your space and story alive. We welcome your input as well since we want this to be a true collaboration.

Perhaps buoyed by bold initiatives like this, at the next show you see, at Rattlestick or elsewhere, you will be brave enough to turn to the person sitting beside you and say: Hello, I'm [fill in name]. Do you want to talk about what we just saw?

10.13.2016 Meaningful Partnerships

I am not an early morning person by choice. But that has changed since becoming Rattlestick's Artistic Director.
Recently, on a Wednesday morning at 7:30 in the morning, I walked into the Waldorf-Astoria to see a program involving the charming and self-possessed girls and young women who are the students at the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN). YWLN is an outstanding network of all-girls public schools across the country whose mission is to create powerful young leaders of color. The visionaries behind YWLN are Andrew and Ann Tisch.

I had been invited to attend the YWLN program by Laura Rebell Gross, the Managing Director of Girls’ Education and founder of YWLN’s affiliate school, Young Women’s College Prep, in Rochester. Since then, YWLN has become one of Rattlestick’s newest partners. This promises to be a great partnership since we will bring our Middle Voice artists into YWLN classrooms to introduce students to theater and YWLN students will attend our Mainstage shows through a newly-created student matinee program. Middle Voice is Rattlestick's unique collective of young actors, directors, designers and playwrights from diverse backgrounds who are developing their craft under the guidance of our senior artists. We hope that YWLN students' imaginations will be fired by studying with Middle Voice artists and attending Rattlestick productions.

Across town, four days later, I walked up the stairs to The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender

Director Jenna Worsham says a few words at AFTER ORLANDO on Saturday, October 8th at The LGBT Center

Director Jenna Worsham
says a few words at AFTER ORLANDO on
Saturday, October 8th at The LGBT Center

Community Center (The Center) for a reading of excerpts of plays that were written in response to the horrific shooting in Orlando. Both The Center and Rattlestick were invited to partner in hosting this event. Our Associate Producer, Victor Cervantes, and director, Jenna Worsham, took the lead in finding the artists and guiding the curation of material with Robb Leigh Davis. A beautiful company of artists created an evening of theater that captured the humanity of those whose lives were lost and those left behind to mourn, and the Center made the event meaningful for the LGBT community that it serves. All of us were in tears after experiencing the evening.
We at Rattlestick recognize that we are part of a diverse community of educational, cultural and social organizations. We are seeking deep relationships and partnerships with organizations like YWLN and the Center which give new audiences the opportunity to be stimulated and uplifted by new theatrical experiences.

If you are connected with an organization that may be interested in forming a meaningful partnership like this with Rattlestick, please contact Associate Producer Victor Cervantes at vcervantes@rattlestick.org.

9.30.2016 You Try Running a Theater Company Named After a Native American Totem                          

After being named Artistic Director of Rattlestick, during these past few months I’ve received a lot of advice from people who know a lot about running a theater and running a board. I want to share some of that advice with you to show the pushes and pulls on someone trying to run a creative organization in NYC.

You've spent many years freelancing and resent many of the practices you've had to endure . So, at first, you will try to change everything about your theater and the theater culture in general. Then, you will realize just how hard it is to change anything. No, impossible. You will fall into a deep despair. And then slowly you will emerge out of your despair and try to change things very slowly, bit by bit.

Write down your top four priorities and check your progress against them every day.

Sleep. Do not forget to sleep.

What’s the story behind the name Rattlestick? (The questioner listens to me explain that it comes from the name of a Native American totem which feels awful to publicize because we aren’t a Native American company and the name just feels like bad cultural appropriation.) I see. Hmm. Well, you need a better story.

When are you going to get the bathroom off the stage?

Sorry, patrons. There are some things I can change, and others I just can't.

I've written down my strategic priorities and look at them almost every day: 1. produce provocative work in new ways while stabilizing the company’s finances and staff. 2. create development and partnership opportunities to find the strongest material to produce. 3. deepen our audience base and community engagement; and 4. create educational initiatives, and promote our Middle Voice (apprentice company).

We've made a lot of progress on each of these priorities. But there's so much more to do. Fix the two squeaky seats. Develop this crazy 12-person musical. Am I sleeping? Of course not.

I'm still in the market for good advice and ways to improve our theater. Do you know someone who can help us, as a goodwill gesture, redesign our website and do some graphic work? And, more importantly, do you know any creative ways to make sense of the name Rattlestick?

8.30.16 Transitions                                        

Topol Headshot A few years ago, NYTW (New York Theatre Workshop) invited me to direct a reading of Orange by the deeply thoughtful and extraordinarily talented writer Basil Kreimendahl. The play centers around Nut, a child, longing to be close with Julius, Nut’s father, who has been poisoned by agent orange in Vietnam. He never speaks about his time serving overseas. So instead Nut fantasizes that Nut is in combat. With him. Orange Julius has haunted me ever since.

Basil wrote Orange at a time when things were in transition politically - I hate to say it was ahead of its time - but in some ways maybe it was. Basil was writing about a protagonist we weren’t perfectly ready to meet, and about PTSD in ways we didn’t want to face. Then again, are we now?

Rattlestick and P73 are now joining forces to produce Orange Julius, which will be on our mainstage mid-January.  There have been changes since my first exposure to the play. Basil has transitioned from female to male, and is now in a place to allow Nut to be the character that Basil always intended - a character who is clearly in transition and looking for intimacy, love, and understanding from their family.

In September, we are doing our annual F*ck!ng Good Plays Festival (I have my irreverent predecessor David van Asselt to thank for that title; i pledge to try to continue in that spirit). The Festival gives time and focus to a handful of writers, and I have Cori Thomas, an amazing playwright on our lit team who helps find new work, to thank for connecting me to Mashuq Mustaq’s Deen’s timely Draw the Circle. Circle is a play about Deen’s personal experience being a Muslim transitioning from a woman to a man, and the multiple perspectives of family members and the community around the change.

Now there are transitions and there are TRANSITIONS. I am flying on instinct at Rattlestick as I make a transition of sorts into my new role as Artistic Director. With both Basil and Deen, I find myself earnestly fumbling not to f*ck up how to best talk with them about their lives and how to bring to life their plays.  And though my own transition pales in comparison to Basil and Deen's, i do find it to helpful to use my personal moment of change, in trying out a new role, to try to get in synch with the cosmic changes they are revealing.

We invite you to bring yourself and your transitions big and small into our intimate space at the 'stick.

7.26.16 Rapping with Adam, Origins

i was meeting Adam Rapp, prize-winning playwright, Daniella's Blogfor coffee the other morning at one of those new fancy West Village coffeeshops where everyone eats avocado toast (including myself) and we had a long talk about Rattlestick’s history. About the plays that he had done at the ‘stick and how much he loved coming back to downtown theater. That as crazy as every production was (in good and messy ways) at the 'stick, it was a place, a community, and energy that he felt deeply connected to, and we started brainstorming ways for him to come back. Then he asked me about how i got to where i am and i vaguely talked about working on Ironbound, which i had directed at Rattlestick, which led to my becoming Artistic Director. That conversation got me thinking about where it had begun for me.

i began making theater at a suburban Jewish school in Maryland where we only did musicals. In Hebrew. Of course, i couldn’t sing. So i played the older characters who didn't do much singing - like the Reverend Mother (strange for a Jewish school) in Sound of Music, or the old lady in Oklahoma. Still, i really wanted to do plays in English! My sister told me i should just find one i liked and direct it. So i quickly thought of what would go over well at a Jewish day school - and the next thing you know, i was directing Brighton Beach Memoirs. i had no idea what i was doing - all i know is there were a lot of my classmates throwing chairs across the room in order to “feel their character's emotions.” Eventually, i did a summer pre-college program at Carnegie Mellon where at the end of the summer you audition for a spot at the college. For some reason, randomly it felt like at the time, i got a letter telling me i had been accepted to Carnegie Mellon’s acting program. My first year was a disaster - turns out not only can't i sing, i don’t have the spontaneity to be an actor. They quickly advised me that to survive that i would need to switch into something else. Recalling my triumph in Brighton Beach Memoirs, i pounced on the directing program. i then found out about a program called 3-1-1 where you can get your masters in arts management while you study directing. Before i knew it, i was 19 years old, writing a statement about how i want to be an artistic director one day. And here i am with Adam Rapp.