In the murky world of theatrical directing, the hardest thing to be is young and exciting. Consigned to a profession with no clear career track (and with few support groups, beyond a union, to define it), most young and exciting directors are driven by dreams. Chief among them is the dream that the excitement and originality of their work, coupled with their youth, will one day fuse into a moment--perhaps a New York Times rave--when the collective heads of critics, producers, playwrights and actors will all swivel around as one.
The stakes, you might imagine, are improbably high: the chance-of-a-lifetime career in one's chosen artform versus hashing through a day-job bereft of personal satisfaction. Food on the table is important, of course, but when you're a young and exciting director, food might first be a prop in Act One.
Jeremy Dobrish knows this paradox well. In just under a year, the 31-year-old playwright/director has journeyed from being an unknown but respected player in the Off-Off Broadway scene to becoming an almost-known player on the national theater scene, and all without venturing much further than north of Manhattan's SoHo. Currently, he is the director of Off Broadway's delightful Maybe Baby, It's You, which opened November 9 at the SoHo Playhouse; in December, Dobrish follows up with Poona the F**kDog and Other Stories for Children, a production of his lowercase-loving adobe theater company, running at the Ohio Theatre from November 24 through December 17. On balance, Dobrish may be on the brink of that dreamy moment.
The story begins with adobe, the Off-Off Broadway troupe that Dobrish co-founded in 1991 with a cadre of fellow Wesleyan University graduates. "Originally there were six of us and we all had that sort of courage that only comes with youthful naiveté," Dobrish says. "We were people who actually wanted to start a theater company, which is different from a lot of people who come to New York wanting to do theater and they think the best way is to produce it themselves. You really have to want to have a company, because running a theater company is too hard."
By pooling funds whenever possible, and with Dobrish as artistic director, the adobe acrobats produced inexpensively Off-Off Broadway shows for several years, each time inching closer to a unified theatrical style while acquiring a loyal, almost fanatic following among twenty-something audiences.
"When we started," says Dobrish, "everyone said 'you need a mission statement,' but we really didn't know what we were trying to do. Not to be arrogant, but at first it was basically 'we do what we want to do'...mostly we wanted to concentrate on our audience. We care if the audience finds the play accessible and enjoys it."
In time, this concern dovetailed with Dobrish's facility and love for pop culture, ultimately leading adobe to a style Dobrish calls "genre-bending...culling from culture, high culture, low culture, into a kind of putting together of genres in a playful, theatrical way." In their acclaimed 1998 production of Duet!, the New York Times referred to adobe's "Oklahoma-style dream sequences, burlesque comics, B-movie melodramatics and even the Muppets."
The first breakthrough for Dobrish and adobe came in 1995, with their first Times review, but it was Peter Marks' review of Duet! that initiated the transfer from Off-Off Broadway to Off-Broadway of the play. Marks lauded adobe's "offbeat lampoon of the American way of mating...a delightful send-up of that wholesome staple, the boy-meets-girl story, and at the time same a bewitching spoof of the tacky Hollywood and Broadway values that over the years have made that story such a wonderfully easy target."
With its hip, irreverent mélange of "smart, low-rent conceits and disarming, spectator-friendly innovations," Dobrish was at first surprised by the transfer of Duet!, which was engineered principally by Dodger Endemol Productions, a Broadway producing powerhouse that typically favors such multimillion dollar fare as the musicals Titanic and Footloose. "The thing is, they liked the piece," Dobrish says, "and what Dodger said was that they were moving the show because they were making a commitment to adobe, which is really something...Dodger is usually in the business of just producing shows, not supporting groups."
As a result of Dodger's largesse, both adobe and Dobrish found the Duet! transfer to be a "gratifying and incredible learning experience...we learned how to take a show from Off-Off Broadway to Broadway but also a lot about ourselves and our shows and what we want for the future."
From the future, then, to history: If you trace the trajectory of the young and exciting artist, you'll find that the experimentalism that first got the artist noticed often gives way to a creeping commercial approach--the better to keep producers, the public, the press and the capital flowing. Yet, after drinking so heartily from the cup of commercialism, Dobrish is now managing a double trick with Maybe Baby and Poona....
The former is produced by six people with Off-Broadway scorecards to envy, including Roger Gindi, Bruce Lazarus and Libby Anne Rustler, who successfully ran Shakespeare's R&J for a year, and Dana Matthow, who buried Grandma Sylvia's Funeral under a pile of press, popularity and profits.
Poona..., meanwhile, is as ribald and irreverent as previous adobe adventures. Described as a "uniquely goofy, entertaining evening...drawing on a wide array of pop culture influences," even the show's expletive-deleted title seems like a dig at the dough that drives the drama. Indeed, the rest of Poona..., which is written by Jeff Goode, says it all: "a demented spin on children's theatre guaranteed to delight and offend adults of all ages....meet Poona the F*&%dog, her Fairy God Phallus, her friend the Rabbit and a host of other characters including Suzy-Suzy Cybersassin, Mr. Beer, a talking television and The Almighty God Himself."
Dobrish is looking forward to the chance to emerge further as a playwright in his own right, in 2000. He is author of several adobe plays, including Notions in Motion (named Best Undiscovered Play in 1997 by Back Stage magazine), The Handless Maiden, and Blink of an Eye. All are published by Broadway Play Publishing (how ironic, that), in a new anthology called Plays by Jeremy Dobrish.
"In the writing I have found that there's much more at stake in a way because it's really coming from your heart," he says, distinguishing between writing a play and staging one. "And regardless of whether I'm writing or directing, if I'm going to ask people to pay money and give up two hours of their time, shouldn't it come from the heart? So you have to balance those concerns with saying 'these are the ideas I have about the world that I thought I might share with you'." Indeed, for Dobrish, the motor of personal inspiration is everything. And with a company named for half-baked mud, adobe may yet provide the clearest direction of all.