Attention playwrights: Don't adjust your ideas based on what you think theatres are willing to produce. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and artistic director David Van Asselt want you to know that they're eager for your ambitious work. That's one reason Van Asselt has started the Theater:Village festival, which finds the Cherry Lane, New Ohio, and Axis theatres combining forces with Rattlestick to present playwright Lucy Thurber's The Hill Town Plays quintet.
Each theatre (including the two spaces at Cherry Lane) will host one of Thurber's plays over the course of the Aug. 14–Sept. 28 festival. While four of the pieces have been previously produced in New York City, Van Asselt says that the prospect of seeing the five plays as one cohesive whole prompted Thurber to go back and heavily revise many of them. And the final play of the quintet, Ashville, will have its world premiere, thus completing the story of a young woman who grows out of a childhood soaked in family secrets and emotional abuse to become a respected and successful author.
Van Asselt also wants writers to know that there is a home for their most ambitious ideas. "I knew that these plays would really show the kind of ambition I was looking for in other playwrights," he says. "I would like playwrights to feel encouraged and ambitious and take on stuff that they might be afraid to tackle in another situation. And the first playwright had to be someone, so why not Lucy?"
As for working with what some might consider his neighboring competitors, Van Asselt dismisses any notions of a rivalry among the companies, insisting that collaboration is more important. "There are quite a few good, young playwrights in this generation, so there's enough work to go around," he says. "And money is getting tougher, audiences are getting tougher. I kind of feel like what we need to do is work together."
Bringing other theatres together is a concept that Van Asselt has been "kicking around" for a while. After Thurber saw three of the five plays previously produced at Rattlestick and Van Asselt learned that she was completing the fifth work, The Hill Town Plays became the most logical choice to kick off what he hopes will be an annual event.
"I do like the idea of trying to start each season with something that's a little special and a little different," Van Asselt says. In the future, he adds, the concept may change from the work of one playwright to five playwrights writing a play that includes a particular scene, but all of this is dependent upon how Hill Town Plays is received. "This is a big experiment," Van Asselt says, "and part of it is, will anyone come?"
Big is something of an understatement for a project that includes five directors and a cast of 28, all of whom went up to Ryder Farm for two weeks of rehearsals. Because the plays revolve around one character at various stages in her life, the group rehearsal time allowed the other plays to inform the actors' performances.
"It starts with a 13-year-old girl and moves through her life until she's 23," Van Asselt says. "So the more you know about the other plays, the more intelligent your performance will be. That part was really fascinating and great for the other actors to see the other plays and get involved with the other casts."
That same sense of community is something Van Asselt hopes translates to audience members, envisioning Theater:Village recapturing "some of that spirit that the West Village has always had, of artists working and living here." He adds, "That was always part of what I liked in being in the West Village."
Mark Peikert is senior editor at Backstage