NEW YORK CITY: When you walk into the Wild Project, a garage-like 80-seat space in the East Village, the first image you see is a large deer’s head made of cardboard, placed behind the ticket counter. It’s the show art for a play called Five Genocides, produced by Clubbed Thumb, which is currently presenting its annual Summerworks series, its 20th, there. Play title doesn’t ring a bell? Five Genocides was by this “playwright no one had heard of named Sam Hunter,” said Clubbed Thumb artistic director Maria Striar. Next to the deer head are images of a television and a peach, representing plays by Kate E. Ryan and Anne Washburn, respectively.
Name a prominent contemporary playwright and there’s a good chance they had an early Summerworks production: We’re talking Sarah Ruhl, Sheila Callaghan, Lisa D’Amour, Jordan Harrison, Tanya Saracho and the aforementioned Hunter, whose Five Genocides was his second professional production.
“If I were to make a short list of writers I admire, whose work really inspires me, chances are 9 out of 10 of them came out of Clubbed Thumb,” said playwright Jerry Lieblich, whose D Deb Debbie Deborah opened the current festival and ran May 20–30. “It just feels like where all the cool kids are.”
Clubbed Thumb—founded in 1996 by four twentysomething friends, Striar among them—functions primarily as a development hub. Throughout the fall and spring, the company hosts a series of readings, workshops and writers’ groups for mid-career and emerging playwrights, and Superlab, a week-long play development opportunity. During the summer, the theatre produces its month-long Summerworks; its current iteration runs through June 29.
In addition to Lieblich’s D Deb Debbie Deborah, this year’s Summerworks offerings include a new play by Ryan, Card and Gift and Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus. Each play runs for 10 performances, though an 11th of D Deb was added due to high demand. Leiblich said he considers it a pinnacle in his career thus far. “I literally said this to somebody at one point: I would feel like I was succeeding as a writer if someday I was produced at Clubbed Thumb.”
D Deb begins with a typical urban fear: a young woman named Deb opens the door to her apartment for someone she assumes is a friend but who turns out to be an intruder after her wallet and computer. The play gets weirder from there: In the next scene, Deb’s boyfriend Karl (played by Nick Choksi) leaves the room and comes back in as someone completely different (played by Geoff Sobelle).
In a climactic scene, the play’s five actors are in an art gallery, and they switch roles mid-way (and sometimes mid-line), inhabiting not just their five designated characters but the dozens of attendees in the gallery, with three actors now playing Deb (or is it Debbie? Or Deborah?).
If that sounds like a confusing acting exercise, that was what Lieblich was going for. The play was inspired by philosopher Derek Parfit, who believed identity was not so much a solid core of self, but, as Lieblich put it, “a more complicated process that has to do with all the different little interchangeable parts of you that continue over time. There’s a moment I realized, ‘Oh wow, I actually have control over who I want to be,’ which is very liberating but then also, ‘Okay, then what am I?’ It’s nothing more than that construction I’m building.'”
“The plays that appeal to me are ones I don’t completely understand,” said Striar. “They compel me but I don’t totally know how they work. But I want to engage in that battle.” As an actor herself, she enjoyed the way D Deb Debbie Deborah stretched its actors’ skill by requiring them to inhabit multiple identities in one scene.
On the page, the art gallery scene is divided into four columns to delineate the actors and which identity they’re inhabiting. Programming a play on what even Lieblich called “a really confusing read” is a testament to “Maria’s adventuresome-ness and her willingness to take a risk.”
On the surface, Card and Gift (through June 14) would seem to be on the less-weird side of the Clubbed Thumb aesthetic (the company’s stated mission is to produce “funny, strange and provocative new plays”). The play opens on two middle-aged women working in a gift shop in a small town in New Hampshire. But within this quotidian setup, the play leaves room for moments of bewilderment: In one scene, the stage darkens and twentysomething Shana, a new hire at the shop, suddenly sees fiftysomething Lila and Annette shuffling around slowly with their backs stooped, in a comic exaggeration of the age gap. The lights soon come back up and the two older women are back to normal. At another moment, a woman named Johnnie comes in, and the audience is not sure if she’s real or a figment of Lila’s imagination.
This is Ryan’s third Summerworks play; her first, Design Your Kitchen, was in 2003. She is based in San Francisco now, though when she’s in town for rehearsal, Ryan stays at Striar’s apartment (“I’m kind of living at the theatre because I live so close,” she said with a chuckle. “I can never be late!”). Ryan said that Card and Gift is an exploration of small-town life and how two generations of women relate to and observe each other.
“I was interested in this cross-generational viewpoint,” explained Ryan, who grew up in south New Hampshire. “How Shana views these women and their own lives and sense of empowerment, and how that might influence her—how she might first see them as being small-town, quaint, and how she gets to know them and gets a deeper sense of who they are.” Ryan also wanted to explore the complicated inner lives of women in their 50s. “I was interested in paying close attention to these women, because we don’t often pay attention to characters like that.”
That’s another thing Striar said she looks for: stories about female agency. “I want to hear some different stories and see some different people,” she explained. “I do feel like for me, that’s the less-known territory. Sometimes I say—besides funny, strange, provocative—unusual stories unusually told. I feel like stories with women at the core are not quite as familiar.”
While the third play in the Summerworks lineup, Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus (June 19–29), obviously is not a story about women, both its content and its telling are suitably unusual. It’s based on the real-life journals of geologist John Wesley Powell, who led an expedition in 1869 down the Green and Colorado rivers, and was the first explorer to go through the Grand Canyon. Backhaus, who grew up in Arizona, was fascinated by Powell’s diaries from a young age.
“My dad is pretty into non-fiction adventure stories, because he’s a scientist,” she explained. “This Powell guy—I was really fascinated with him as a kid because he did all this crazy stuff and he only had one arm.”
Backhaus’ play attempts to capture the scope and various locales of the expedition with a 10-person cast and numerous scenes of the explorers fighting dangerous river rapids. Sample dialogue: “Holy shit holy shit this is so fun oh my God AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH Whoa whoa whoa woo ahh whoa!”
And though the play is called Men on Boats, a majority of the actors in the cast are women; Kelly McAndrew plays Powell. Backhaus said that she and director Will Davis wanted to subvert the notion of Manifest Destiny being about “a bunch of white men claiming ownership and rights of things that were not necessarily theirs, at the expense of other people. We thought it would be really fun and very illuminating…to be able to cast it with actors who are not the traditional harbinger of Manifest Destiny. If it was just a bunch of white guys, I think that it would be telling the same story that we’ve been hearing for forever.”
Telling new stories in new ways has been Clubbed Thumb’s mission from the start. How has the company grown in 20 years? “People are paid!” Striar exclaimed. It’s still a modest sum, admittedly, but while the production budget has grown, and artists’ pay and show run times with it, the mission of Clubbed Thumb has stayed consistent: incubate offbeat new plays and give writers, both new and mid-career, resources and a platform to experiment. That’s why Striar is perfectly comfortable running a theatre company with a six-figure budget.
“The stakes are high enough to give something a seriously good shot but not so high and not so much pressure that you can’t explore and experiment and take risks,” she said. “We’re not frightened to do a play that doesn’t quite work or hire somebody where you don’t know what their chops are. We don’t have to hedge our bets too much.” Striar added a caveat: “We try not to make stupid choices.”
Another thing that hasn’t changed: the load-in time between shows. On the day of her interview for this article, Ryan was preparing for the first preview of Card and Gift. Props and paper were strewn all over the lobby; she’d only been in the theatre with her team for four days, and opening night was in three days. “It’s fast and furious!” she exclaimed. “We’ll see how much we can do before tonight. Hopefully by the time we open Sunday, we’ll have everything set. It’s crazy! But I think it’s kind of awesome.”