Like most theatre artists, Heidi Schreck long harbored the dream of being on Broadway, though she never thought it would actually happen. It wasn’t for lack of trying. “I had many auditions for Broadway shows, and sometimes I turned them down in order to do a bigger, more exciting role Off-Broadway,” she said recently. To date, in addition to her budding career as a playwright, she has starred in around 40 plays Off-Broadway*.
So when a team of commercial producers told her they would be bringing her play What the Constitution Means to Me to Broadway, Schreck’s first reaction wasn’t transcendent joy. “My stomach dropped,” she recalls. “I thought, Oh no, this is such a scary play to bring to Broadway. What if nobody comes, and then people don’t want to take a risk on shows like this? I become the evidence that plays with a woman at the center telling her own story doesn’t make money or can’t recoup.” Her thoughts began to spiral: “Am I then ruining it for everyone?”
Schreck had a lot of concerns, in other words—and overcame them, thanks to her therapist. But they were not unfounded fears. To wit: Of the 38 productions opening on Broadway this season, only three plays are by women (Schreck’s Constitution, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, and Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet), only one musical is created by a woman (Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown), and one jukebox musical has a female bookwriter (Dominique Morisseau on Ain’t Too Proud). It’s a common assumption that plays by women and people of color don’t sell and are seen as risky—an unfounded one, considering that work by white male creators seems at least as likely to fail, and that’s never seen as a referendum on their right to write and direct most of what’s onstage.
Another thing that’s seen as risky: shows that bend the theatrical form. In a part of town that’s become primarily known for adaptations of hit films, jukebox musicals, Disney spectacles, and Phantom of the Opera, Schreck’s Constitution is among a small group of works promising to add not only diversity in terms of who’s making them but a bit of stylistic adventure to a theatre district not known for it. And it’s probably not a coincidence that they all come courtesy of artists who’ve never been on Broadway before. They include Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, director Daniel Fish’s fresh take on Oklahoma!, and Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.
Shreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me may not seem as “downtown” as these three, but it did have its world premiere at New York’s offbeat-play, Off-Off-Broadway incubator Clubbed Thumb. It begins as a recreation of a speech Schreck gave on the title topic when she was 15 years old, then morphs into an exploration of sexual violence in Schreck’s family and a consideration of how the nation’s founding document has historically failed to protect women and people of color. Part civics lesson, part family legacy project, the play ends with an onstage debate between Schreck and a teenager about the future of the Constitution. Though it was a sold-out hit Off-Broadway last year at New York Theatre Workshop—attracting the likes of Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and Tony Kushner to its audience—no one expected it to go to Broadway. Least of all Schreck herself: “I never in a million years thought that Broadway would be part of its future,” she exclaims with a laugh.
What’s true for her is also true for a number of other artists this season. The first Young Jean Lee play I saw was a wordless 90-minute meditation on gender fluidity featuring naked, dancing AFAM (assigned female at birth) people of all races and sizes. My first Daniel Fish show was a verbatim reading of a David Foster Wallace essay accompanied by 4,000 flying tennis balls. And my most memorable Taylor Mac experience was when, during A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Mac—in purple eyeshadow, wearing an oversized shimmery purple mohawk headpiece and a jacket that resembled sparkling purple coral—sang Bowie’s “Heroes” while a giant inflatable penis roved, mosh-pit-style, through the audience.
All of these would be widely defined as experimental—a word that defies definition, given that the point of the genre is to run counter to the mainstream. If the mainstream loves narrative work, then non-narrative work is a form of experiment. If the mainstream loves by-the-book revivals, an experimental take would be to chew up a beloved treasure and spit it out in a form that’s barely recognizable. If the mainstream is Shakespeare, an experimental take might be an irreverent sequel to his bloodiest play. It’s theatrical counterculture, and it doesn’t care if you understand it, or even like it.
This season the experimentalists are coming to Broadway, a place that really cares if you understand and like what’s onstage. They join other artists with something of a “downtown” pedigree: Lucas Hnath (with Hillary and Clinton), Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown), even Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Choir Boy).
So has downtown NYC moved uptown? The genderqueer Mac (who uses the pronoun “judy”) cries foul on such divisions. “In the 25 years I’ve been working here, there’s been a lot of labeling: ‘You’re a downtown artist,’” judy says. “Even the premise of this article—we’re downtown artists and now we’re working uptown? No, we’re artists! We’ve all been working. Can we stop putting everybody in little boxes just because it’s easier to communicate that way?”
Still, even Mac concedes that the season includes more stylistic mold-breaking. Many of these works break the fourth wall, employ non-linear narrative, are heavily stylized, and/or feature random dance breaks or live video. “I actually think that Broadway needs us and deserves us, and audience members deserve to see our plays and should be seeing this work,” judy says.
Mac’s new play Gary stars Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen as Roman maids whose job it is to clean up after the massacre that ends Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Gary contains blank verse, iambic pentameter, clowning, and absurdism in a morality play about moving forward from catastrophe, and about how it’s usually the poor and disenfranchised who are left to clean up the messes of the rich and powerful. The play is set in ancient Rome, but Mac wrote it so that modern audiences can draw a straight line from what they’re seeing onstage to what they’re watching on the news. “Trump is making this giant mess and someone is going to have to clean up,” judy says. “Who is going to have to clean up, and when we do, what is our conversation going to be about? What is the best way to clean up? Those are the things that I wanted to consider to help us get ready for when Trump is out of office.”
Oh, and get ready for fart jokes, a mountain of corpses, and bodily fluids sprayed out into the audience. “Broadway has never seen anything like this,” promises Mac with a gleeful laugh.
It’s not like avant-garde work has never graced Broadway stages: In the 1970s and ’80s, works like Elizabeth Swados’s Runaways, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus found a place on the Main Stem. But though they were often influential, they were sporadic and seldom financially successful. In recent years, with what Mac has called the “Disneyfication of Broadway,” producers have become more risk-averse, mostly veering away from original work to film adaptations or jukebox musicals; every so often a Hamilton or an Indecent will break through, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. “It wasn’t like Broadway hasn’t welcomed this kind of work, but it does feel like it hasn’t been on Broadway in the last 20 years,” says Mac.
Indeed what these artists bring to Broadway is the difference between chiming into a conversation and leading it. They are generating buzz not because their work is Disney-approved, but because it’s wholly original and nothing like their audiences have ever seen (early online reactions for Gary have literally been “What the F did I just watch?”). Their originality, even oddity, is their selling point. And in pushing the theatrical form, they’re expanding what the live arts are capable of, and giving Broadway a much needed jolt of adrenaline.
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The first time I saw live video onstage, run by visible camera operators, it wasn’t a flashy Ivo van Hove production. It was 2014’s Platonov from director Jay Scheib at an Off-Off-Broadway venue called the Kitchen. Which is why I was surprised to see that, in a recent New York Times article listing experimental theatre directors to watch out for, no Americans made the list, and that the Belgian van Hove is considered the premier experimental director working in the U.S. In Times head critic Ben Brantley’s construction, it is Hove who has opened “doors for directors who take less traditionally naturalistic approaches to theatre. After all, the Daniel Fish Oklahoma! is Broadway bound. And perhaps there’s a touch of van Hove in its use of merciless simulcast video and the witty contradiction between text and action.”
When I mention this to Daniel Fish, he responds with a groan. “First of all, most of the use of live video that you see in theatre right now goes back to Frank Castorf and Volksbühne, everything,” he says, then adds quickly, “aside from the Wooster Group, who was doing it before Volksbühne were.” He then talks about colleagues like Rachel Chavkin or Scheib, who’ve used video in their work. “I’ve been using live video since the early 2000. No slight to Ivo—I just think he’s part of a larger conversation that’s going on.”
That’s a conversation that should include American experimental artists. In Fish’s Oklahoma!, a community is forged not just through the farmer and the cowboy being friends, but also through violence and an us-versus-them mentality; and John Heginbotham’s dream ballet (featuring a soloist who is a woman of color) is quite controversial. Fish doesn’t agree that his version is “experimental,” but its fast-and-loose treatment of Rodgers and Hammerstein wouldn’t be out of place on European stages. And there’s the live video shot in the dark, employed to unnerving effect in “Poor Jud.”
If there is a dearth of experimentation in mainstream theatre, or of American artists on Broadway who can work in a non-naturalistic mode, it is the fault of producers, not artists. The great experimentalists aren’t just abroad, they’re in black boxes and found spaces below 14th Street and in Brooklyn, not to mention in cities around the U.S.; they create their own work and tour it and typically get wider audiences abroad than at home. And they’re arguably even more resilient and resourceful than their European counterparts because they’ve been able to be creative and boundary-breaking while remaining underpaid (and with sporadic health insurance). It’s not to say that adversity is necessary for brilliance, but if brilliance can survive despite such harsh conditions, then the American theatre is producing its share of diamonds.
If van Hove hasn’t inspired these artists, he may have made an experimental approach seem less alien or risky for Broadway producers. That may be why these downtown artists aren’t being pressured to mute their aesthetic to appeal to wider audiences as they move uptown. In fact, all the artists who spoke for this story were adamant at there not being very much difference between creating on Broadway versus Off-Broadway. As director Rachel Chavkin puts it, “Tech is tech. Tech is the same at the Bushwick Starr as on Broadway.” Chavkin was nominated for a Tony Award for directing Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and is directing Hadestown this season. But prior to Broadway, she had a thriving career as the founder of the TEAM, a devised theatre ensemble based in Brooklyn.
The only difference between uptown and downtown is budget and reach. The budget is bigger uptown, pay is better, marketing power is wider, and artists can work without having to worry about a day job. At the same time, to paraphrase Notorious B.I.G., with more money comes more problems.
Producers may be willing to risk money on unknown creators, but only to a point. When Straight White Men transferred to Broadway after playing around the country since 2014, it was recast; a star was needed for insurance. Enter Armie Hammer (and Josh Charles). As Lee puts it, “Having stars definitely helps ticket sales—there’s no doubt about that.”
And none of these experimental artists are untested newbies. They’ve all had their works produced around the world, not to mention their Broadway debuts come with some brand recognition (Oklahoma!), star power (Gary and Straight White Men), or multiple successful runs Off Broadway (Constitution). So even if producers find there’s money to be made with the avant garde, they’re still selective about which boundary-breaking project they bring to Broadway.
Filling the house is crucial. Because shows downtown tend to have pre-set runs, if audiences don’t come you can still finish your run and get paid (albeit minimally). On Broadway, audience turnout determines whether a show is a shameful flop, a break-even proposition, or a bona fide hit. For Lee the question wasn’t so much whether people would show up but rather who would show up.
“I realized that downtown audiences and Broadway audiences are similar in that they tend to be college-educated and culturally savvy,” says Lee. “The difference is that downtown audiences tend to be way more culturally literate in way more obscure areas,” she said. (Lee has me pegged, at least.)
But in making work for Broadway, Lee realized she had an opportunity to reach truly a wide and diverse audience, not just members of the avant-garde intelligentsia. On its surface Straight White Men is a play about a family gathering for Christmas, but it is also an examination of privilege, and the titular demographic is presented like a diorama at the Museum of Natural History. And there are random dance breaks and metatheatrical moments. “With Straight White Men, I made a show for a broader audience, which alienated members of my previous audiences, but gained me many new ones from more diverse backgrounds,” Lee says.
If this isn’t what you’d expect to hear about a show on Broadway, where ticket prices can be a high bar for attendance, there’s a catch: Many of those audiences “bought discounted tickets. We were selling a ton of tickets, but they weren’t necessarily going to the highest-paying buyers.” She came to realize that “my dream is to reach audiences that aren’t college-educated and don’t live in major expensive cities. To me a truly diverse audience is an audience that’s also diverse in terms of class.”
Some of her downtown colleagues are feeling the same desire: Producers for Constitution have set up a fund where patrons can make a tax-deductible donation to underwrite tickets for low-income people. It’s all in the name of balancing the altruistic nature of Off Broadway with the money-making impulse of Broadway in order to bring in the widest, most diverse audience possible.
As any marginalized group knows, when you’ve entered the mainstream, success is crucial, for many reasons. “I want my play to be a huge hit on Broadway and recoup and make all the money so that people want to produce more and more plays by women and non-binary folks and trans folks and people who are not cis white men,” says Schreck adamantly. Not to mention for good or ill, a show’s future life is more or less guaranteed if it’s been on Broadway (it’s no coincidence, for instance, that Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 was the most-produced play around the country after it was on Broadway).
And if these shows succeed, that means there are potential audiences who can be lured downtown. After all, those who loved What the Constitution Means to Me might also love Lee’s We’re Gonna Die or The Courtroom, by Off-Broadway theatre company Waterwell. If you loved Straight White Men, then Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview (coming in June to Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, in an encore staging) is a master’s-degree-level education on privilege.
It might also prove to producers that success is not dependent on the race, gender, or Broadway bonafides of the artist. Explained Chavkin: “There’s still far too little representation in terms of women and artists of color, and I don’t think that’s changing nearly as fast as it should, in part because there’s a harmful belief that working on Broadway requires a Broadway resume.” As someone who garnered a Tony nomination her first time out on Broadway, Chavkin can add with authority: “I would say that is untrue.”
In Episode 1 of the new FX TV show “Fosse/Verdon,” Gwen Verdon, as played by Michelle Williams, is talking about early 1970s-era theatre when she says that audiences aren’t looking for escapism; in a time when “kids in the jungle are being zipped into body bags on the evening news,” they go to the theatre “to find something true.” But she might as well be talking about this Broadway season, where the new experimentalists are less concerned with razzle-dazzling the audience than with challenging them, in both form and content. Apart from their atypical aesthetic approaches, these works address constitutional crises, white privilege, herd mentality, and income inequality—some of the currently throbbing pulses and sore spots in the American collective body. In contributing fresh blood to those conversations, Broadway is making a case for its own relevance to Americans today. After all, if Hollywood can create challenging, form-breaking content that taps into the national psyche and make money (Jordan Peele’s unsettling horror film Us broke box office records this past weekend), why can’t the biggest stages in America be seen as something other than elitist, escapist, or superfluous?
Perhaps these experimentalists can break that mold. “After the election everyone was saying, ‘We have to bring our art to Oklahoma, we can’t keep performing in our bubbles.’ And I thought, we have to go to Broadway because Oklahoma comes to Broadway,” says Mac. Judy’s referring to the statistical fact that a majority of Broadway ticket-buyers are from out of town. But now that a radical new Oklahoma! is headed to the Main Stem, Mac thinks it’s time to ask, “Why can’t we transform the culture that’s here in our hometown?” In short, while Mac may dissent from my downtown/uptown demarcation, judy does concede that “what’s happening with Heidi and Tarell and Young Jean and Daniel Fish—it’s thrilling.”
*A previous version of this story stated that Heidi Schreck had appeared in more than 200 Off Broadway plays. That’s actually a misrepresentation, she’s been in 200 plays in her lifetime, which is still impressive.