Every summer, the Potomac Theatre Project takes root in Manhattan, presenting a few plays in rep and excavating the intellectual possibilities of the scope of live theatre. At the Atlantic Theatre’s Stage 2, PTP/NYC has become a seasonal fixture since it’s relocation to New York in 2007 (the company had previously enjoyed 20 seasons in Washington, D.C.).
With the intention of provoking the audience and “reflecting the nightmares and hoaxes by which we live,” as the company’s website states, PTP/NYC (the company's new moniker) is in the unique position of thriving on an engaging exchange between actors and audience. The political theatre they present is cerebral as well as socially conscious, pushing the envelop with topics exposing the humanity and inhumanity of life, from centuries ago to the present time. And the powerfully poignant work has garnered accolades from audiences and critics, including rave reviews and a Drama Desk Award nomination for Jan Maxwell’s performance in 2008’s Scenes from an Execution.
PTP/NYC is helmed by three passionate artists with academic backgrounds. Cheryl Faraone, Richard Romagnoli and Jim Petosa are all directors themselves, and all three have directed pieces being presented by the company this season. Faraone and Romagnoli teach at Middlebury College (the school’s theatre program is affiliated with the company) and Petosa is the Director of Boston University’s School of Theatre. It’s clear from the work that these artists wish to challenge their audiences with thought-provoking narratives. For this particular season, Faraone directs Snoo Wilson's Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Romagnoli directs Howard Barker's Plevna: Meditations on Hatred and Gary the Thief, and Petosa directs David Rabe's A Question of Mercy.
I spoke with the three co-artistic directors to learn more about the company and its ambitious goals.
Theasy: How was Potomac Theatre Project formed?
Cheryl Faraone: The company is an offshoot of the New York Theatre Studio, which ran from 1977-1984 in Manhattan. NYTS was formed primarily to support work which was not at that time, being much done in NY: new work by young British and American writers, plays which were highly theatrical and challenging in both content, and, generally, form (writers included Snoo Wilson, Gilly Fraser, David Edgar, NF Simpson, Mary Gail...). After 8 years we planned the move to DC in large part because there was no political theatre in the city at that time; we also wished to move to contract status to more appropriately compensate artists.
How and why did the PTP/NYC come to fruition?
CF: After 20 years in the DC area (the last 12 years as the alternative theatre in residence at the Olney Theatre Center, where Jim Petosa was/is Artistic Director), [we] felt we had achieved the goals we had set for the company and the theatre scene had grown, many companies choosing work which hadn't been done two decades before. We were ready for new challenges.
Richard Romagnoli: Cheryl and I proposed to Middlebury College a plan which would provide qualified Middlebury theatre students with an opportunity to work with professional actors, in a major metropolitan community, in return the College would provide funding.
Jim Petosa: Five years ago, the three of us met, as we often have to discuss the big picture of the company and we all agreed that we needed to shake ourselves up. Bringing our work to NYC provided us with exactly the kind of kick in the pants we needed to generate another chapter in this company's expanding history. It was a homecoming of sorts, since the three of us began working together during the late 70s and early 80s under the banner of the New York Theatre Studio...a company that began the process of exploring the aesthetic we embrace and helped forge our particular definition of 'political theatre'.
What are the company’s goals?
CF: To continue to establish ourselves and our ensemble/authors in this community.
JP: To produce provocative, compelling, intelligent and non compromising work for the stage that challenges us and our audiences to genuinely grapple with hard questions. Also, to find, in so doing, a rich experience for the development of young theatre artists [through] their interaction with many generations of theatre professionals interacting with them as we all collectively take on extremely challenging and inexhaustible plays.
In presenting political theatre, do you feel a responsibility or obligation to connect your production with the current political state of affairs? Do you find there is always a correlation or can you separate the story on stage from the reality of the political landscape?
CF: Current events can make for deadly theatre; we choose shows which can be viewed (as most everything can) in a contemporary light, but which have a more universal applicability. We're equally interested in the artistry and the social/political statement of a text.
JP: Every production of every play on every stage in some ways connects to the current political state of affairs, whether it does so consciously or not. I think what we do is to embrace on a conscious level the nature of how a play resonates inside the context of the moment that we are doing it.
I notice that PTP/NYC is a big proponent of Howard Barker's work. Can you elaborate on the desire to explore and present Theatre of Catastrophe?
RR: One fundamental principle of Theatre of Catastrophe is that it deals with the notion that art isn’t necessarily comprehensible and another is that it irritates and agitates the conscience. Howard’s work explores cruelty as part of one’s process of gaining self-knowledge. All that interests me as an artist and audience member.
JP: [Barker's] sense of theatre and its possibilities remains extremely potent and in many ways unparalleled.
How do you find your productions are received by today's off-Broadway audiences? Are audiences excited for an intellectual experience or is it a tough sell in a world seemingly partial to escapist entertainment?
CF: Those who find us are delighted to encounter this work.
RR: Rather fairly. I think Barker’s work is seen as unique. Hard to say how audiences respond. They’re younger and a bit more numerous than they were in metro DC. So maybe they are more interested. But with a non-existent ad budget it [is] always difficult to draw audiences. I wish we could produce during the school year because I believe that students would be very excited by Howard’s plays.
JP: I have been so pleased by the company's ability to generate audiences for our work. For years we would celebrate the notion that our work possessed "no commercial value whatsoever." To find a supportive audience that looks forward to our annual stint of productions is thrilling. Nothing is an easy sell in this day and age, but I do think there are people out there who yearn for the kind of theatrical experience we provide. Hopefully, there are people who try us and discover an appetite for this kind of work, too.
Why were you drawn to the piece you are directing this season?
CF: As a director, I have become increasingly interested in plays about math and science - they explore a mystery and a body of knowledge which hasn't been much represented theatrically, except as the stage equivalent of bio-pics. Lovesong of the Electric Bear does deal with the life of [computer scientist] Alan Turing, but it does so in a surreal, fantastical way (through the medium of his teddy bear; also in a way, the bear's his 'thinking machine'). And his work and discoveries are as important to the play as is the sad melodrama of his life. So we are focused on Turing the genius...
JP: I think we remain, as Americans, woefully inept at dealing with the huge issues of health as it relates to the inevitability of death. In the decade since Rabe wrote [A Question of Mercy] from Richard Selzer's diary, we have had a horrendous dialogue around the issue in the protracted horror of Terry Schaivo and then again in the horrid debate around national health care. I am also profoundly moved by watching the two gay men improvise their marriage with varying degrees of success, but no shortage of human connection and devotion. The tragic dimensions of the Doctor's journey are potent.
New York theatregoers have many options - what makes PTP/NYC different than other off-Broadway companies? What should audiences know before coming to see your work?
CF: We do work very few others do...although we work with many young artists, the three people who run the company are experienced theatre-makers and we're committed to making audiences think as well as feel!
RR: Because of space, money and time [the] production design is very carefully chosen. The principle focus is on the text and the actor. This makes the experience even more challenging to the company, as well as the audience.
JP: Come see us and you can tell us what makes us different! I think you will find a kind of rabid and passionate conviction to tell uncompromisingly human and fully dimensioned explorations of challenging stories, filled with difficult ideas, opinions, and questions. [We] want you to be there...and we want you to be there fully…fully present with your heads and your hearts. [A] PTP/NYC audience is really a member of the company....for all of our 24 years, there has always been a wonderful sense of ownership by people who have grown to love this work. Each year's project invites more people into our community.
(Check out all three PTP/NYC productions through August 1, 2010 at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street. The three shows play in rep - for the full schedule visit potomactheatreproject.org/calendar. Tickets for all performances are $25 and can be purchased at ticketcentral.com. For more information, visit potomactheatreproject.org.)