In Conversation with Maria Striar and Michael Bulger of Clubbed Thumb
Maria Striar is Clubbed Thumb’s Producing Artistic Director and Founder. She helped found Clubbed Thumb in 1996 and has been on its staff since. Maria conceived and edited 2007’s Funny, Strange, Provocative: Seven Plays from Clubbed Thumb.
Michael Bulger is Clubbed Thumb’s Associate Artistic Director, and has worked with the company for five years. He teaches Creative Producing at Playwrights Horizons Theater School/NYU, where he is also a consulting producer on mainstage productions.
David Dudley: This year’s Summerworks program is thematically unified. Each of the plays seem to deal with civics in one way or another. Can that be said of all the Summerworks programs?
Maria Striar: No. We’ve always tried to curate pieces—though curate would be a heavy term for what was going on in the early years—that show a variety of aesthetic and thematic approaches, a variety of styles and tools, and taking the pieces that we are especially responding to in any given moment. But the given moment after the election was so extremely intense. We’ve never had a time when we were curating pieces where all of the people involved had their minds and hearts in the same place at the same time. We don’t really do agitprop or theatre of bearing witness—that’s not to say that this season isn’t that. This year is just different. These plays were in the pipeline before the election, so none of them had their genesis post-election.
We’ve never had a time when we were curating pieces where all of the people involved had their minds and hearts in the same place at the same time.
Michael Bulger: When we learned that we’d do three plays a year, which is the current format that we use, we felt that the plays should interlock in some interesting way. They are a kind of triptych, but we still want there to be a diversity in language, form, performance style, and so on.
David: Why these plays now?
Maria: These plays feel fresh in so many ways. These were the plays that, in the very narrow window of time we had, felt like the things we wanted to engage with. They’re each true to our aesthetics. We tend to do pieces that are very fresh, we always have the playwright around, so the plays will change a good deal when being produced for the first time. We find so many plays that are troubling and funny and wonderful, but many of them didn’t feel like, we should do these right now. But it’s tricky, because right now very quickly becomes the past.
Michael: It’s very important to us that these plays feel of the moment. It just happens that there is a lot to respond to in this particular moment. Even then, these plays weren’t easily or directly programmed. In the six months after the election, there were a lot of plays that felt like they were programmed two years earlier. While some had changed in ways that encouraged us to read more into them because their meanings had changed in light of recent events, others had the opposite effect. They didn’t feel current.
David: How did you decide upon these three plays specifically?
Michael: The process was more organic and improvisational. We had read Ariel Stess’s play The World My Mama Raised a year and a half ago. In the fall, before the election, Maria and I discussed workshopping the play. We had it scheduled for after the election. But then we got in a room together, and we thought, “Oh, this play seems much more important now.” Alex Borinsky’s play Of Government was a commission. We read a draft in August. We liked it right away, but we didn’t want to fast track it. We knew we wanted to do it, but we didn’t want to rush it. We did a workshop in January, and we thought it was ready to be done. Maria had seen Heidi Schreck’s plays What the Constitution Means to Me at a reading with a writer’s group, and knew that Heidi was hoping to continue working on it. As we honed in on what the season was really going to be about, these plays really stood out.
Maria: These plays fall into the categories of art and politics. All of the writers we have produced have extremely personal, distinctive voices as writers. They have a distinctive way of shaping the narratives and the dramatic events, and they’re also coming at different ideas from their own life experiences. The things that are moving them and preoccupying them at any given time. The art and the politics, in these three cases, are inseparable. They’re not documentaries, they’re not editorials, but they are dealing with this moment. Still, it’s not that the election gave birth to these plays. It’s not Building the Wall, which was written in, what, ten hours? We’re not doing that, but these plays, which are all Clubbed Thumb plays, speak to this moment.
David: What do you hope an audience member who sees these plays will leave with?
Michael: I hope they see theatre as a place where we can gather and exchange ideas. Some more provocative than others. Ideas about equality, community, unity, and how to probe and investigate the society that we live inside of. Though they are very different in their style, I’d like to think that they’d love everything they see. Some people will like one play more than another. But I hope they have thoughtful, investigative experiences. At least that’s what I take away from these plays. I can’t pretend that we’re going to change anyone’s total perspective in any way. That would be nice, but I hope that we’ve at least provided some thoughtfulness and community.
Maria: We want to see people come together and express their values. A lot of us were feeling despair about the direction the country is going. We want to see people who may have been disengaged get involved again. To start thinking again. We’re always reaching for magic with people. That’s what keeps us doing this instead of something more lucrative. We wanted to ask ourselves, What do I believe? What do others believe? And what’s my daily practice? How can it reflect my larger values? We hope that people in the theatre will ask themselves the same questions, and reexamine their answers. We’re definitely feeling moments of crisis. Everybody’s approaching these things in wildly different ways, and many basic values are being challenged. The plays in this year’s Summerworks program hope to provide some clarity.