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Under the Silver Lining

Nicky, David, Doug: the playwright, director, artistic director behind six years of Silver at the Vineyard Theatre. logo

From The Altruists
Three Separate Accounts of Mining Silver
from the Vineyard

Nicky Silver: "I had been writing plays and directing them myself for like six years, and I was getting tired, so I sent this one [Pterodactyls] out."

Doug Aibel: "The first time I read it, I had that wonderful sense that you have once or twice in your theatrical lifetime, of being in the presence of a major new voice."

David Warren: "I was a couple pages into the play, and I thought, how do I not know this writer?"

Doug Aibel: "I knew after reading Pterodactyls that it was a play that could be dramaturged to death, could easily be categorized and watered down, and I was determined not to do that. I felt that the play deserved a hearing as quickly as possible."

Nicky Silver: "Doug Aibel put me in touch with David Warren."

Doug Aibel: "I just thought David would be a good match...that his theatrical intelligence and precision would suit the themes of Pterodactyls beautifully."

David Warren: "I knew I wanted to direct this play."

Nicky Silver: "He had introduced me to five or six directors, and I was so tired of listening to bone-head directors that I said to him, 'I'm tired of listening to directors tell me what the play is about,' and so I said, 'Let me tell you what the play is about.' And he agreed."

David Warren: "I got on the phone with him and he wanted me to list my credentials and I almost hung up. And when I did start to list my credits he said, 'You're too big! You don't want to direct my play,' and I thought that was funny."

Doug Aibel: "And they hit it off, so that launched the relationship."

Silver, Warren, and Aibel

That's how it all started: the playwright-director-artistic director relationship between Nicky Silver, David Warren, and Doug Aibel that has been the creative force behind six years worth of Silver's work at the Vineyard Theatre, including Pterodactyls, Raised in Captivity, The Maiden's Prayer, The Eros Trilogy, and the current production, The Altruists. So what makes it work? And what makes this such a good way of working, for both the artists and the theater?

"I think there's a lot of mutual love and respect. They are very much a team when they are in a room together," says Aibel, speaking as artistic director of the Vineyard, where he's been in the unique position to closely observe Silver and Warren working together--again and again. "I think that David's spirit is extremely collaborative, which suits Nicky beautifully. When one of his plays is launched, he knows that in David he has a director who will listen to him, who will involve him all aspects of the production, from design to casting to the rehearsal life of the play."

According to Warren, from very beginning of working together on Pterodactyls, he and Silver were simpatico. "There was something that told me I should work with this person," he says, "and I really thought that more strongly when we began auditions. The casting process was really interesting because we seemed to agree on almost everything."

From The Altruists
Warren's first instincts were right. Six productions later, their working relationship, and friendship, has grown. "When you work this closely, this often, and with this many productions, the level of trust becomes so profound. Really there's nothing that I can't ask him, and nothing that I think he feels he can't say," Warren relates. "And to his relief, I think, Nicky realizes that he doesn't have to say many things. He'll look over at me taking a note and he'll smile, because he knows what I'm thinking."

Warren, who thinks his direction helps to "deepen the serious resonances and the emotional truths in Nicky's plays," notes that in general his vocabulary as a director has grown and been influenced from his close and continued work with Silver's plays. "I've learned so much about comedy from directing his plays. Having internalized his comic rhythms, I can spot them better in other writers," Warren explains. "I've also learned about trusting theatrical styles. Pterodactyls is pretty farce-like in the beginning, and then it becomes very dark and lyrical. And people would ask me all the time: How do you do that? I just did it because I trusted in the play. I learned that when a play is funny, to do it funny, and when the play is lyrical, to do it that way."

At Home at the Vineyard

The fact that Aibel also wanted to do Pterodactyls--as it was--remains a significant detail in the relationship of Nicky Silver to the Vineyard. "We feel very loyal to Doug because of the fact that he was the first artistic director who said 'I don't want it to be something else, I want to do it,'" Warren says.

Silver, who says he's had either a production or a workshop done every year for past six years at the Vineyard ("It does feel like he's here a lot..." Aibel says), explains his loyalty to the Vineyard in another way. "I've had offers from other theaters to do my plays, but I very much like the linear quality of not trying to get bigger. Because bigger isn't necessarily better."

Speaking from the theater before The Altruist's performance last Saturday, Silver explains, "I very, very much feel like a member of the family when I'm here, and it entitles me to special privileges, like sneaking in the odd cigarette in a no-smoking zone." He likened having a new play produced to going through childbirth (although he conceded to never having experienced that first-hand), saying, "It's a horribly, horribly physically draining experience, and so it is very nice that you can feel a part of the family while I'm here working on it."

"While I'm always committed to bringing new voice and new directors into the Vineyard, it's also a pleasure when you develop an ongoing vocabulary with a particular artist, so you're really not starting from scratch, you really understand one another, and so it makes the work process that much more pleasurable," says Aibel, who also has ongoing relationships with other artists, including writers Polly Pen and Craig Lucas, and directors Mark Brokaw, Tina Landau, and Michael Meyer.

Betty Buckley in The Eros Trilogy
A Ready, Willing and Aibel Home

This level of comfort and sense of belonging is "the best gift a theater can give an artist," Warren believes. "You only do your best work when you're not working with fear. It's easier to make bad decisions when you're afraid that you are going to be replaced or not asked back again. [At the Vineyard] when something isn't working, we can all be very free to talk about it. I always know Doug's on our side."

Not only is the production process of a play affected by a trusting relationship of playwright/director/theater, but also the writing process itself. "I would say that having an artistic home has given me a certain amount of artistic freedom," Silver says. "If I had a role model in terms of work, it probably would be Woody Allen, because he makes a movie every year. And very few people in the theater approach it that way, yet I've always done a play a year. It lets you experiment and feel free because the next play doesn't have to be a masterpiece."

And knowing that the yearly play will also have a yearly place at the Vineyard, ironically, can contribute to making it that much more singular. "If I went to Manhattan Theatre Club and did a play, I would think that this has to be wild and fantastic and special, but really, feeling that this is just this year's play helps you to create something that is wild and fantastic and special."

Honing in on Artists

For the artist, the connection to a theater clearly has advantages, both inside and outside of the rehearsal room. According to Aibel, who last year received an Obie for his work at the Vineyard, it is also something which defines not-for-profit theater in general, in addition to the definition it gives each particular theater. "I feel that the non-profit theater has been infected with this sort of hit-or-miss mentality that is often placed upon the commercial theater. And one of the most valuable parts about working in the non-profit theater is that you can establish a long-term relationship with an artist," Aibel comments. "And your involvement with them, as with a particular work, has as much to do with the bigger picture as it has to do with whether a particular play scores."

And how did Aibel recognize Silver as a Vineyard writer? "He's audacious, daring, original, passionate. You never know where he's taking you. And I'd like to think that our work does all of those things." And by forming a relationship to Nicky, it does. According to Aibel, the Vineyard's relationship has "also contributed to, I think, a real educational experience for our audiences. I think after a show or two they began to expect the unexpected from Mr. Silver. And that's neat too: to see mainstream theatergoers relate to his work, and dig it."

For Aibel himself, the relationship that began with his commitment to produce Pterodactyls has also been a very satisfying one for him personally. "I've been very, very honored, for instance, to have produced Nicky's play the Maiden's Prayer a couple of season's ago. And I'll never forget when he gave me that play to read. I had a very emotional reaction to it, because it was seeing an artist stretch, and try for something new, and trusting you enough to understand that they wanted to go to a different place. So I feel quite a responsibility, in a sense, when an artist entrusts their work to me to such an extent. And by same token, I also feel a responsibility to support them in the various journeys that they take."

The Altruists

The committed, collaborative relationships between Nicky Silver, David Warren, and Doug Aibel, developed through six years of work together at the Vineyard, are characterized by trust and respect, breadth and depth. But even knowing Silver's work as well as he does, when Aibel first read The Altruists he says, "I was floored by it. I was particularly surprised because it's the most purely farcical of his plays on a certain level. It also, without giving away the plot, makes some twists and turns stylistically that are stunning."

And in addition to admiring the piece itself, Aibel had the history and sensitivity to realize the play's significance in Silver's development as a writer. "I was very impressed that he had the courage to try that--in a sense, leading the audience down a path to one journey, and then suddenly taking them on another. I think that excited me the most about it."

While still the midst of previews for Altruists, Silver comments, "I don't think I'll open another play in New York for a few years." And what does Aibel think about the prospect of his absence? "I haven't talked to him about it," Silver pauses (well, exhales...does Nicky Silver ever really pause?). "But I could go home tonight and write a play, so who knows?"

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