On my last trip to New York, I took in an obscene amount of theatre in a short time. In under five days there were six shows to see; three were on Broadway, two had full-frontal male nudity, one had Katie Holmes, and one took place in three classrooms of the Village Community School on West 10th Street.
Back in the good ol’ days when I lived in New York, that was the stuff I would always read about in the Sunday Styles section or The Voice, but never quite ventured out to see. There are plenty of academic tags for that sort of thing: environmental theatre, found spaces, etc. Whatever you want to call it, we are always thankful for the opportunity to see it and ignore the usual song and dance for once.
Presented over one weekend, these are “The Parent / Teacher Conference Plays,” a trio of short theatre pieces that took place in different classrooms, on different floors, as two groups of audience members paraded through the building before sitting down in those itsy bitsy chairs. Topics ranged from the germ-infested ways of small children to a very frank course on sex ed to a married couple looking for that perfect (and somehow creepy) private school for their little Princess. All three storylines travel from the joys of school to a far darker place. The transitions are so swift yet smooth that they are all the more disarming. And those of us in the audience watch one another as smiles become grimaces on the faces of our fellow patrons.
The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays” Playwrights, Clay McLeod Chapman, Zayd Dohrn & Anne Marie Healy
The two hall monitors that took us around the building (when we all resorted to perochial school behavior: single file, complete silence), are, in fact, the executive producers of this theatre company, which is called Electric Pear. Melanie Sylvan and Ashlin Halfnight met a few year’s back at a wedding and quickly realized their shared affinity for the theatre (Sylvan as a producer and Halfnight as a playwright). Their first collaboration was on his play, “God’s Waiting Room” in 2005’s New York International Fringe Festival, which went on to play the Merlin International Theatre in Budapest, Hungary the following year.
A day or two after “The Parent / Teacher Conference Plays” had finished, I stopped by to visit with Sylvan and Halfnight at a getting-to-know-you gathering they were hosting for the cast of their next production, “The Sexual Neroses of Our Parents,” which opens on 6 November. The company was cramped around a long table at Pasita, a wine and pizza spot on Eighth Avenue where the West Village meets the Meat Packing District. The place is so perfect and quaint there is really nowhere else I would rather be.
The cast is at the far end, making introductions and swapping stories. I’m on the near end and soon meet a new member to the company. Though she tells me that she’s just been “hired,” the scene before me is not that of an established shop, despite its half dozen staffers and eight board members. It is a company like so many in the city. A few young folks band together, muster up their courage and decide to give it a go. During the day, its captains and officers lead entirely separate lives, but do so in the hopes of breaking through. There are no corporate credit cards and expense accounts here. It’s a not-for-profit built on that old ethic of blood, sweat and tears. But unlike all the rest, Electric Pear has the taste, the imagination and the buzz to become the next great thing in New York theatre.
This week, the company made a splash with the casting announcement of “The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents.” This Swiss work will be making its US debut in a few weeks. It concerns the intersection of “family, pharmaceuticals and sexual awakening,” and will also mark the New York theatrical debut of Grace Gummer, whose sister, Mamie, we enjoyed so thoroughly in “Autumn Garden” at Williamstown in 2007.
Now Electric Pear has a year-round collection of plays and activities to keep their growing audience base engaged. I like it when a small group of people can remind me that big things come in small packages.