One by one, writers, actors and directors stream into a cozy East Village apartment adorned with books, puzzles and a turntable. There’s hugging and greeting before people settle into the chairs crammed around the dining room table. The hostess, Maria Striar, is busy finding more chairs and wine glasses. When everyone completes the allotted “15 minutes of kibitzing,” Striar, 43, gently guides this writers’ group through a reading and discussion of a surreal and funny yet moving new play by Jordan Harrison, with performances by locals like Matthew Maher, there on a night off from Golden Child at Signature Theatre Company uptown.
This sort of gathering is not unique in New York City. But for playwrights, this is the one where you want a seat at the table. Until recently, Striar’s apartment was also an office for Clubbed Thumb, her respected, even venerated, low-budget theatre known for its annual Summerworks; the company is dedicated to developing and staging new works by living American writers. Since 1996 it has produced plays by Adam Bock, Sarah Ruhl, Erin Courtney and Sheila Callaghan, among many others. Despite the departure of key personnel and two devastating economic downturns, Clubbed Thumb has survived and thrived where many other small theatre companies have faded away.
“Maria has a remarkable knack for finding writing that is unique and innovative,” says Adam Greenfield, director of new-play development at Playwrights Horizons, who partners with Striar on developing plays. “Her track record speaks for itself.”
The one constant has been endless change: Clubbed Thumb lives in perpetual evolution, trying new things and shrugging off what doesn’t work; through it all, the unwavering element has been Striar, whose commitment, savvy, dramaturgical skills and nurturing personality are the company’s soul. “When we started I had no idea what it took to do this,” she recalls. “But I find the constant mutation of how Clubbed Thumb is run to be exciting.”
Last fall, Striar moved the company’s headquarters into an office as one of several steps to professionalize the organization, yet she still emphasizes the homespun touch.
“She takes a personal approach, not a top-down one,” says playwright Peggy Stafford, whose Motel Cherry was co-produced with New Georges last year during Clubbed Thumb’s three-play Summerworks season. Striar’s probing questions and deep involvement in a play’s development make her, Stafford says, “an artist as a producer.”
Striar acknowledges being hands-on, but adds that once she chooses a play she won’t dictate from on high. “I don’t always know best,” she admits. “I have some really good ideas, but I have some really horrible ones, too. People are allowed to reject my opinions.”
Director Pam MacKinnon says Striar and Clubbed Thumb co-founder Meg MacCary (who departed in 2009 to focus on her acting) always put the play’s needs first—which meant, in the early days, not paying themselves a cent. “There is not a cookie-cutter approach to the plays here,” MacKinnon says. “Maria knows that some need multiple readings and workshops, and sometimes it’s just, ‘Away you go.’”
Stafford’s play is a case in point. Motel Cherry needed a specific feel—mysterious, almost ominous—and the set needed flexibility. So she was thrilled early on when Striar suggested a design workshop “to see how it would look up on its feet.”
It isn’t only playwrights who benefit from the Clubbed Thumb ethos, says MacKinnon. The director, who recently scored an Obie win and a Tony nomination for her work on Clybourne Park, met Striar in the 1990s while they were in San Diego getting MFAs; by coincidence, they moved to New York on the same day. MacKinnon made her directing debut at Clubbed Thumb. “It’s really rare that young directors can waste people’s time and money while learning,” she says. “In New York every production feels like an audition—if you fail, you don’t just go back to square one, you go to square negative five. But Clubbed Thumb is a place you can flex and grow your muscles.”
MacKinnon, now with six Clubbed Thumb shows to her credit, isn’t dishing wistful nostalgia—she is involved as an affiliated artist and chairs the theatre’s executive board. Courtney is the board’s vice-chair. They are among the many Clubbed Thumb alumni who, regardless of where their careers have taken them, have maintained their connection with Striar’s company.
Clubbed Thumb’s success is all the more remarkable considering that its birth was an accident. Striar and MacCary had known each other at Brown University and at the University of Southern California in San Diego. They’d come to New York to make it as actors. At Brown, Striar planned on studying international relations to become a diplomat, but finding that she hated the systems analysis and jargon-filled writing, she returned to acting.
Wading through auditions in New York proved dispiriting, and, in 1996, the women and their bridge partners—Arne Jokela (Meg’s husband) and Jay Worthington—decided to put on their own play with Maria directing, Meg acting, and the men working on design and in other support roles. They rented a small downtown space; then they realized that, while they had the space for a month, Equity rules limited them to 16 performances. So they invited friends to fill in the gaps and added 10 p.m. shows and sometimes midnight ones.
“It was so much more fun to do even the most menial of tasks that were leading to, and making us a part of, something bigger,” Striar recalls.
Their little one-off play was suddenly a theatre company. Clubbed Thumb had no mission statement, though the basic concepts were in place: focus on new American plays, keep everything around 90 minutes, experiment and be flexible, and then burnish and hone what works. (Striar soon stopped acting for Clubbed Thumb because she felt it distracted her from her main job; she still acts elsewhere in readings, workshops and, occasionally, full productions. Worthington gave up his day-to-day involvement in 2003; Jokela remains on the board.)
“As we started developing plays, we put that word [into the company description] so we were not just producing,” Striar says, “then we started commissioning plays and added that, too.” (The company still reponds to unsolicited scripts.)
The 90-minute time limit was born of pragmatism—in light of the multiple-shows-per-night format that lasted for several years, not to mention the small restrooms and lobbies of most downtown rental venues—but all that fits Striar’s aesthetic, too. “I’ve never been drawn to the kind of storytelling structure that demands an intermission,” she says. She likes her theatre experience in real time—“I don’t want to let the air out.” (She also prefers simpler sets, disdaining the idea of “crew running out in black turtlenecks between scenes,” which leads to “wrestling matches” with some playwrights.)
Clubbed Thumb’s founders attempted both summer and winter programming, then realized they were “always in pre-production”; then they tried producing every other year, but felt that re-starting “a dormant machine” was draining and diverted time and resources from developing scripts. After MacCary left, Striar emphasized lengthening the Summerworks program—not just longer runs but also more time for development, for the selection process, for assembling production teams, for rehearsals. “The goal,” Striar says, “is not to have to cram everything in.”
The development process has grown increasingly ambitious. Striar has overseen initiatives called Under Construction and New Play Boot Camp (the latter ensures that each play gets read through three times); then, in 2009, Clubbed Thumb received a MetLife/TCG A-ha! “Think It, Do It” grant to partner with a larger institution. Originally Striar thought about co-producing projects, but instead, she and Playwrights Horizons’s Greenfield dreamed up Superlab, a developmental partnership bridging the gap between uptown and downtown. “We are very different sizes but have a similar focus on innovative and idiosyncratic American voices,” Greenfield allows, pointing to numerous playwrights and directors who have worked with both companies.
Superlab was designed, Greenfield says, as a place that “would not be an audition for productions, with no producers breathing down the writer’s neck.” (That’s why, despite the built-in opportunity for public readings, the word “workshop” is not in the name.) Some of the plays do go on to productions at Clubbed Thumb or, as with next season’s Your Mother’s Copy of Kama Sutra by Kirk Lynn, Playwrights Horizons. The first year there was disagreement about what plays to choose for the four-to-six-week-long incubation process, but it was still such a success that they got money from donors to continue. Now, in SuperLab’s third year, the two have had a “mind meld,” Greenfield says. This year’s play selection featured each of them saying, “Ah, yes” a lot. (Peggy Stafford is among the current playwrights working at Superlab.)
The 2013 Summerworks lineup (on stage May 24–June 29 at the Wild Project, a 90-seat venue) features Jen Silverman’s Phoebe in Winter, Clare Barron’s Baby Scream Miracle, and Gregory S. Moss’s La Brea. Moss, previously produced at Clubbed Thumb, had won a Biennial Commission—which calls for projects on a given theme (most recently: “The Matriarch”)—for a piece titled Sui Generis, but Striar gave him permission to switch plays if he wanted; Moss showed up at the writers’ group with a 200-page version of La Brea ready for reading.
Striar is comfortable being Clubbed Thumb’s sole curatorial voice but misses the “common ground achieved through argued consensus” of the early days. So she also partners with New Dramatists, New Georges and New York Theatre Workshop (which provides space and other resources). That “elaborate network of relationships” fulfills her desire for collaboration. She recently hired a managing director, Nora DeVeau-Rosen, giving her someone in-house to bounce ideas off.
Hiring DeVeau-Rosen was one step in the stage-by-stage formalization of Clubbed Thumb’s operation; renting an office was the next. “This was a long time coming,” Striar admits. She and MacCary had each worked out of their own homes. When MacCary left, the economy had cratered, “So it was hard to say, ‘Hey, lets spend upwards of $10,000 a year for a space,’” Striar says.
In late 2012, Clubbed Thumb was finally able to amass grants and move into a room the size of a suburban walk-in closet, which as of December contained lawn chairs and not much else. In early 2013, the office acquired three desks, a couch and shelves. DeVeau-Rosen takes phone calls into the hallway to avoid interrupting Striar’s conversations. Having established these headquarters, the organization is now streamlining its databases and digitizing its archives.
The Clubbed Thumb identity will remain, however: “Small and idiosyncratic,” as Striar puts it. Just don’t call it “scrappy,” which she finds condescending. “We’re efficient—we don’t spend money on cosmetic things—we’re raising money so we can do our programming and remunerate people.”
First up is Michael Buhler, who is finishing a theatre administration degree at Columbia University, and who Striar hired part-time as associate producer. He’ll become full-time in the fall. She’d like to expand her payroll even further. “I’d love to have a few writers in staff positions or as a part-time community,” she says. She’d enjoy helping support those underpaid artists, of course, but she also likes the idea of giving those people a taste of what she experienced back in 1996. “Everyone should have some responsibility in doing the mundane tasks,” she says. “Everyone in the theatre should know what it really takes to put shows on.”
Stuart Miller is a frequent contributor to this magazine.