Finding a Theatrical Home
My Journey to IRT Theater
What is a theatrical home? That is something I have been asking myself for a long time. Like many of the small theatre start-ups that get a season-long residency, and even the more established companies that have built their spaces over time, I too, started my career as a director/producer in the Chicago Off-Loop scene. With so many companies housed there, I have always admired those companies that found that one perfect space and were able to make every show they produced fit the space. But I never thought that was something I wanted.
I created Kid Brooklyn Productions the summer after I graduated from college. I knew I wanted to direct plays and tell stories that interested me, so I formed a small theatre production company to make that happen. I rented a different space for each production; I thought that would be the way I would always produce work—by simply finding the right space for the play. I still feel that finding find the right space for the play is critical.
I moved back to New York to attend graduate school and began to focus both my personal and Kid Brooklyn’s mission on the development and creation of new plays and works of theatre. This was something that was completely new to me. What did I need to make Kid Brooklyn a place where playwrights, directors, and actors felt safe? I began to look into the companies both in New York and Chicago whose work I really admired. What was it about companies like the Steppenwolf Ensemble, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Playwrights Horizons, A Red Orchid Theatre, and others that made them what they are? What was it that all of these companies have in common?
That is when I really started to realize the importance of having a theatrical home—a safe and freeing environment where you can create work and challenge yourself. In finding a home base for Kid Brooklyn Productions, I had the goal of creating a developmental lab series where we could produce workshops, both public and private, a reading series, and space for devised work to happen. In beginning my quest to find KB’s home, I sent emails, made phone calls, visited spaces, and drank countless cups of coffee. But still, I couldn’t find the space that felt right, and I began to think that it would never happen.
Cut to September 2011. I was invited to see Neighborhood Productions’ Lake Water by Troy Deutsch. When I first stepped into IRT Theater, I knew that the space was different. I felt comfortable there very quickly. As I sat and watched Troy’s wonderful play, I realized the space reminded me of the storefront theatres where I started in Chicago. In this beautiful, intimate space where new work can be born, I started to see the possibilities for the lab series. I began to see how this space could become a theatrical home to Kid Brooklyn. I had to meet the person who ran this amazing space. Through my friend and collaborator, Crystal Skillman, I was introduced to IRT’s artistic director, Kori Rushton. I found someone who was not only a champion of new work, but of independent theatre. Over the past couple of years, I have gotten to know Kori while building Kid Brooklyn and gearing up to start our first lab series and producing other projects. I would like to say that both KB and I have found a home in New York. In the past few months, I co-produced the world premiere of Sarah Shaefer’s The Gin Baby at IRT in January with Mermaid Sand Productions, directed the New York premiere of Crystal Skillman’s WILD (Kid Brooklyn produced the world premiere in Chicago), and we hosted our first lab series there in June/July 2014.
IRT has become a second home to me. I recently sat down with IRT’s fearless Artistic Director Kori Rushton and asked her a few questions:
Evan Caccioppoli: Tell me a little about your background.
Kori Rushton: I am the product of New York theatre education and come from a long line of New York City theatregoers and makers. Being a third generation native New Yorker and going to both LaGuardia High School and NYU Tisch School of the Arts for college, I believe strongly in giving artists support and freedom to develop and produce here in NYC.
Evan: Can you tell me a little about IRT’s history?
Kori: Established in 1986 as Interborough Repertory Theater by Luane Haggerty and Jonathan Fluck, IRT spent its first two decades nurturing artistic freedom and career development for a wide-ranging community of performing artists, providing over 200 first-time professional New York City creative jobs while producing over sixty-eight original scripts in forms ranging from staged readings to full Off-Broadway productions. With respect for the past, IRT looks forward to a bright future.
IRT’s beliefs, core values, and philosophy are to bring communities of artists together in one room; working with and supporting artists to find their own voice; creating a theatre that new innovative independent artists of New York City can call home.
Evan: How did you become IRT’s artistic director?
Kori: In 2007, with the founding directors ready to step down, I was selected as the new artistic director of IRT Theater. The task of honoring IRT’s history, while adapting to the new realities of producing and developing work in New York City, has been a daunting but welcome challenge!
Evan: Since you took over leadership of IRT, what are some of the things you are proudest of?
Kori: Under my leadership, the company created its Artist-in-Residency program and completely revamped its staff and business model. IRT Theater embarked on a groundbreaking journey to support emerging and established artists, to give young artists a unique opportunity to work with professionals, and to offer development and performance opportunities for deaf artists and audiences. Today, IRT Theater is focused in two primary areas: First, IRT fosters independent artists by providing space, support, and, most important, time to create their work through its 3B Development Series, in which there are several residencies reserved for deaf artists, and the Archive Residency Program partnered with The New Ohio Theatre. Second, IRT mentors the next generation of theatre artists through its educational program. Launched in 2012, Westside Experiment is a teen acting laboratory that pairs students with working experimental theatre artists to learn about their craft and create an original theatre piece at IRT.
Evan: IRT is amazing as a home for the creation of new work. Who are some of the artists whose work has been developed at IRT?
Kori: Some of the pioneering artists who have developed work at IRT are: Young Jean Lee, Reggie Watts, Mike Daisey, Tommy Smith, terraNOVA Collective, Immediate Medium, The Nonsense Company/Rick Burkhardt, May Adrales, Katt Lissard, Thomas Bradshaw, The Mad Ones, Crystal Skillman, CollaborationTown, Rady&Bloom, Erica Fay, and many others.
During the course of a season, audiences become a part of the development process, experiencing an eclectic mix of theatre, including bare-bones plays, full-scale musicals, and multimedia productions.
Evan: As someone who has benefited from IRT’s 3B Development Series, can you tell me more and how other theatre artists can benefit from the residency?
Kori: The 3B Development Series was inspired by the ideology of the Joint Stock Theatre Group, which placed actors and directors in collaboration with the playwright. IRT’s Artist in Resident Program provides a subsidized space where artists are given the time to explore their work in a healthy organic manner. We select actors, playwrights, directors, composers, and designers with their conception. The artist makes his or her own creative choices and presents his or her work at the end of the residency. In exchange for this trust, we expect radical experimentation and the courage to risk everything. During the course of a season, audiences become a part of the development process, experiencing an eclectic mix of theatre, including bare-bones plays, full-scale musicals, and multimedia productions.
Kori: The Archive Alliance offers two select independent theatre companies a two-year commitment of space, artistic support, and institutional continuity for the development and presentation of a new work. In other words—a home. The residency includes two separate engagements in IRT’s 3B Development Series and a one-week presentation in New Ohio’s OBIE Award-winning Ice Factory summer festival. The residency culminates in the second year with a fully realized, four-week run in the New Ohio’s main season.
Evan: Another thing I admire so much about you and IRT is your commitment to arts outreach to students that includes the Westside Experiment. Explain that.
Kori: Westside Experiment is a unique two-week summer intensive that pairs middle school and high school students with a working theatre company in residency at IRT Theater, thus empowering students to create their own theatre by apprenticing alongside working artists. Each session culminates in a performance of the students’ work.
I was so excited to be back at IRT this June/July to launch the first Kid Brooklyn lab series, a series of developmental workshops and readings focusing on the creation of new plays. This was something new for Kid Brooklyn and a true theatrical experiment for us. In the past, when we developed new work, we would have readings and workshops that were closed to just those working on the play. With new work you need to let it live in front of people that aren’t living with it everyday and see how it breathes. I wanted to give playwrights and directors the chance to do that in a safe environment, no pressure or demand for it to be perfect. How to do that? I wanted it to be free to attend and be a place we could move into and take over for two weeks. I contacted Kori with the idea and she said let’s do it!
We had ten days of rehearsal and then went into four fully staged public performances; we shot it out of a theatrical cannon.
We focused the first KB Lab around two major projects, the first being Encounters: the la ronde project. We also had a series of readings featuring plays by four of my favorite playwrights: Troy Deutsch, Micheline Auger, Mariah MacCarthy, and Diana Stahl. Encounters is a modern adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde featuring the writing of nine playwrights and ten encounters. I wanted to see how we explore interpersonal connection and sex/sexuality on stage and use Schnitzler’s framework of characters each having two scenes with different partners. I wanted this project to really push what we could do, see, and experience onstage. We had ten days of rehearsal and then went into four fully staged public performances; we shot it out of a theatrical cannon. With the play’s content and where we were asking the actors to go both emotionally and physically in such a short period of time, I wanted a place that felt safe, and IRT gave us that. The work we did in this first lab has us chomping at the bit for the next production of Encounters.
I hope to have the lab become something Kid Brooklyn does twice-yearly, so we can continue to give new work a safe place to develop. IRT is the space I want to be its home. IRT has become a very special place for me personally. Now when I begin to think of commissioning a play or have an idea for something I want Kid Brooklyn to do, my first thought is: Can I make it work at IRT? Most of the time the answer is yes, happily continuing to build on Kid Brooklyn’s goal and following in the footsteps of theatres like IRT of supporting new work and voices in the theatre.