Since 1996, Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival has evolved from a budgeted production of a single, featured play (accompanied by a swarm of smaller, unbudgeted productions performing in off-times) to its current format of three fully-budgeted productions of new plays.
Though this year’s plays—Ann Marie Healy’s Gentleman Caller, Sally Oswald’s Vendetta Chrome and Sigrid Gilmer’s Slavey—will perform only six times each between June 8 and June 28, all three will have enjoyed four weeks of rehearsal and been supported by their own, dedicated director, actors and designers.
The Rail sat down with Maria Striar, co-founder of Clubbed Thumb (with Meg MacCary), to talk about Clubbed Thumb’s continuing commitment to fully-realized rehearsals and productions of new plays.
Rail: Why does Clubbed Thumb have such a production focus?
Striar: When we started, we were never, like, “Let’s start a theater company,” we put on a play. Then we were, like, “Well, seems that we started a theater company.” Sort of everything worked that way. Some companies have a name and a mission and a letterhead and a whole sort of agenda, and we just started putting on plays and figured all that stuff out as we went.
Meg and I are actors by training (and a lot of the time in life), and the life of an actor is a lot of waiting around for other people to give you an opportunity. I think we were so excited by the agency that putting up plays gave us that, in a way, readings wouldn’t cut it. Production was actually doing something, actually making something happen.
Rail: How do you approach your roles as producers?
Striar: Meg and I are really more like artistic directors than producers because we’re more interested in creating the work and nurturing the artists—and sort of creating a creative vocabulary and a community—than taking it to the “Broad-Way.” One, because it’s hard for us to imagine a giant Broadway appetite for a Clubbed Thumb show, but also because marketing and fundraising are, to say the least, not the most stimulating part of this. They take a huge amount of time and attention and cause a great deal of anxiety. If you have ambitions to be a commercial producer, those are the things you’re doing full-time, and that’d be just, like, “kill me now.”
Rail: How do you find your plays?
Striar: You have to search far and wide to find the work that really is the right fit. And it’s not just the play, it’s the kind of theater that’s going to result from that play. What’s going to make a unique piece of theater and a great collaboration, and will inspire something in an audience that’s not homogenous?
I think because Meg and I are actresses, we respond to material somewhat from the inside. So, we’re not looking at it like, “Oh, this big play is going to tell me this about the world.” It’s more like what would it be exciting to be chewing on? I think we pick work that, regardless of how ambitious its formal goals, it’s very balanced with the theater basics where the voice is true to the characters, where there’s humor and emotion, where there are characters and there is storytelling. Where something is required of the people who are working on it that will be elevating for the audience because it’s virtuosic on some level—like ‘How can this be achieved?’ And, I do think that that’s informed somewhat by the fact that we’re performers. We look at construction, but it’s also what does it feel like, does it work, does it sing?
Rail: Talk about how you develop plays.
Striar: We’ve started having the ability to commission—at first, mostly through other organizations, then through other organizations and ourselves. And, because of that, we started to try and figure out what development meant for us—for these plays, for these writers, for our circumstances. And that’s like a big and really interesting learning curve for us. For us, development means connecting commission to production because these plays will be produced come hell or high water. So, there doesn’t have to be one response. We’re sort of trying to find ways to support different types of plays and different types of writers, some of which are going to be more time consuming.
Rail: Talk about this year’s Summerworks.
Striar: Ann Marie is a writer we produced back in 2000, and we commissioned her during a production of her play Dearest Eugenia Haggis. Her original play was a totally different play, and that play mutated into a rather huge play that fell beyond something we thought we could effectively produce. So, she brought us this idea for something a little smaller.
Slavey, we boot-camped. [Clubbed Thumb’s boot camp is an annual program of script development and readings]
Sally, who wrote Vendatta Chrome, is a Brown University person, and she’s sent us a bunch of plays over the years.
We’ve done interstitial readings of all these plays since we picked them, but they’re all still being worked on. If a playwright isn’t available for at least half the rehearsal process, we won’t do their play for Summerworks. We might under other circumstances, but not for Summerworks. Because we feel like—since we’re not taking things to the Broad-Way, we do have to offer, like, this process. And, if the writer is booked for other stuff, it’s like, “Well, this is it. The process is what this is about. It’s not about that six-day run.”
I’m also very excited about the degree of theatricalty the directors are bringing to the projects. These are not going to be neutral productions. These are not only really interesting plays, but they’re going to be really interesting, really specific pieces of theater. I sort of feel like they’re either going to crash and burn or be, like, genius.
Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks 2008 runs June 8-28 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street (between Spring & Broome). Please visit clubbedthumb.org for more information.
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.