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Astoria Performing Arts Center mounts its first production in its new space
Last Labor Day weekend, as most New Yorkers basked in the last vestiges of summer, a Queens theatre company was saying goodbye to its decade-long home. The folks at Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) had known for months that their lease at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church wasn't going to be renewed, so they'd been holding rummage sales to get rid of extraneous props and costumes in anticipation of the move.
But where to move? Leaving their namesake neighborhood was not an option. Happily, they didn't have to go far: They relocated to a space they had rented in the past at the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens. "Essentially, we moved our stuff down the street," says Jesse Marchese, APAC's executive director, who helped pack the single U-Haul that brought them to their new-old theatre.
Make that theatres. At the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens, APAC has access to two stages: an intimate black box and the larger (and wonderfully named) Broccoli Drama Theater, where they'll mount a production of Caroline, or Change in the spring. This setup is ideal for the 18-year-old company, which traditionally produces two shows a season: a new play and a classic musical.
Currently, APAC is inaugurating its new home with the New York premiere of Madhuri Shekar's drama Queen about two women scientists, Sanam (Mahima Saigal) and Ariel (Rachel Rhodes-Devey), trying to help save the dwindling bee population until they run into a potentially career-ending snag. Shekar began writing the play at a time when "the most important thing in my life was my work and my female friendships," she says. "I never saw that reflected anywhere; I never saw stories about the meaning of work and work friendships," so she set out to fill that void.
Initially, she toyed with the plot hinging on organic chemistry since her roommate worked in the field. "But I realized she couldn't explain organic chemistry to me, and I couldn't explain it to audiences!" Shekar recalls, laughing. An environmentalist she knew suggested bees because "everyone understands ecology."
Although Shekar is no scientist, "I identify with the single-headed obsession scientists have in their work," she says. "That's very much an artist's trait." Queen's director, J. Mehr Kaur, also sees similarities between the way the scientists and theatre-makers collaborate. "We all do such different things, but what's beautiful is there's so much respect and awe of the things we do as a team," she says.
As an Indian-American woman, Kaur was particularly excited by Queen because it's the first time she's directed a play with a lead character who looks like her. Since APAC is located in Queens, one of the most multicultural areas in the world, it's fitting that the theatre values diversity, both on and backstage. While APAC's artistic director, Dev Bondarin, says talent is always a priority when assembling a team for a show, she looks to celebrate and showcase underrepresented artists, so "the symbiosis of something like this is very exciting."
This commitment is evident to longtime audiences at APAC, one of a handful of professional theatre companies in the borough. Recent productions include a revival of the unfairly forgotten Tony-winning musical Raisin based on A Raisin in the Sun; multiethnic takes on Stephen Sondheim's Follies and Merrily We Roll Along; and the world premiere of Monet Hurst-Mendoza's play Veil'd, which focused on the teenage daughter of Afghan immigrants.
"When I'm looking for work, I want to include in my scope writers from many different backgrounds," Bondarin explains. "A play like Queen written by a white man would be a different play, so it's super important for me to look at the voices. There are many white male playwrights I like very much," she says, mentioning a few of her favorites, including Tom Stoppard, whose recent The Hard Problem grappled with some of the same ethical conundrums as Queen. "But my interest right now is seeking voices of women, voices of color."
As APAC continues to settle into its new digs, the staff is already prepping for their next home. The plan is to stay at the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens for a few seasons while they work with local New York City Council member Costa Constantinides to secure funding to build a 99-seat theatre of their own. APAC has been renting space in the neighborhood since its 2001 founding, and a permanent place would be a game changer. In the meantime, they're putting the rest of their energy into what they do best: producing engaging shows wherever they are. "We made great theatre at the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens before," Marchese says. "We can do it again."
Top image: Rachel Rhodes-Devey and Mahima Saigal in Queen. Photos by Michael R. Dekker.