Watch What Happens
A conversation with Andy Hoff, president of the Broken Watch Theatre Company.
The Broken Watch Theatre Company sure seems to be on the right track. In the few short year's since the group was founded in 2001, it has earned praise for its productions of highly regarded plays by well-known authors, such as Howard Korder's Boys' Life ("Every now and again, a play finally finds a group of people who know what it needs," the New York Post review of the show read in part) and Michael Weller's Split ("Broken Watch's productions could challenge many of the high-profile star packages On and Off-Broadway," wrote TheaterMania's Philip Hopkins.) The young company's most impressive effort to date may well have been American Storage, a gripping play by Edward Allan Baker.
Now, Broken Watch is preparing to shift gears with a comedy titled The Kidney, opening on June 8 in the company's new space at the Sande Shurin Theatre (311 West 43rd Street, #602). I spoke with Broken Watch president Andy Hoff about the troupe, of which Dan Bacalzo wrote in the West Side Spirit: "If this is what they consider broken, let's hope they never fix it."
THEATERMANIA: A friend of mine suggested that your company's slogan should be, "We're right at least twice a day!" What was the impetus for the foundation of Broken Watch?
ANDY HOFF: I had been talking with a couple of guys from college about starting our own company ever since we were in school. We all graduated in 1996 from Boston Conservatory and we had been living and working in New York for about four years, trying with varying degrees of success to get our careers started. One day, I just called up the guys and said, "Listen, we need to take the lead and do it." And that was that. We put up a small production of Boys' Life, a showcase, and it had some success -- enough that we decided to do an Off-Broadway run. From there, we started finding people to fill out the company.
TM: Did the other actors come through auditions?
HOFF: Yes, and the other staff members and administrators were people we knew professionally, some of whom were involved in Boy's Life. Basically, we wanted people who were interested in what we were doing, who believed in our mission, who had energy and were ready to work. Luckily for us, we found them right away.
TM: So, honestly, the company was formed so that you could all get your hands on some really good plays and roles.
HOFF: Yeah, that's right. We were tired of auditioning for stuff that we didn't want to audition for, tired of working with people whom we didn't respect. We were young and full of piss and vinegar. You know, "We can do this better!"
TM: Is there ever any friction caused by the fact that you can't always find plays to showcase everybody in the company?
HOFF: Well, we're three and a half years old now and I think we all realize that we're a part of something larger than ourselves. We're doing this for reasons that are not entirely selfish; we're trying to build something that's still going to be around when we're not. For example, we just did a reading of a play by Christopher Kyle called Safety Net, and that had only one company member in it out of a cast of seven. I think it gave us all a sense of pride to sit in the audience for the reading and be a part of it as the producing entity. Everybody has to take a back seat at some point and allow the company to grow.
TM: You present new plays as well as established ones. Talk to me about how you balance a season.
HOFF: Our artistic director, Drew DeCorleto, has initiated a couple of programs for the development of new work. One of them is called the One by Four. We give four playwrights a common theme or catalyst, as we like to call it, and each of them goes off to write a few scenes independently. Then they all come together with a director and a cast and, over a two-to-three week period, the four playwrights' work is woven into a single piece -- which isn't necessarily linear, because of how it was written, but is definitely cohesive. This serves to create new work and also helps us to be introduced to new playwrights and their style of writing. We find out who works well with us. It's been very helpful in building our artistic community and our body of work.
TM: What's the other developmental workshop?
HOFF: It's called Page to Stage and it's basically an intense staged reading process. We choose a brand new piece that's never been read before, we get together with a cast and, in two weeks, we put it up in front of an audience. The playwright is present for the entire rehearsal process -- developing the script with us, rewriting, revising. Out of last year's project has come this year's spring production of The Kidney. We first met the playwright, Hunt Holman, through the One by Four program. Based upon that relationship, we decided to go with a new work of his.
TM: The description of the plot in the press materials is as follows: "Mark needs a new kidney. His friends stage an elaborate contest to find who among them is the best match but their motives are grossly questionable. Hunt Holman's world premiere comedy looks at the ridiculous lengths we go to in order to serve ourselves in a friend's hour of need." Is the play as funny as it sounds?
HOFF: Yes! The first time I read the script, I was sitting on my couch with tears rolling down my face because I was laughing so hard. I had only made it halfway through when I called up Drew and said, "You've gotta read this thing, man!" Mark, the guy who needs the kidney, is played by Leo Lauer. I play his best friend, a cop. Eventually, a donor is picked from among Mark's friends after a lot of bickering -- and it's a downward spiral from there.
TM: I've told you how impressed I was with American Storage. Did that play come out of one of your workshops?
HOFFF: It did, in a way: The author, Edward Allan Baker, was involved in One by Four last year and we had an instant rapport with him. So, in effect, we commissioned a piece from him. We didn't have a lengthy workshop for American Storage. Every day, we'd show up at rehearsal knowing we had to go up in a couple of weeks, and the play was still being developed and reworked. It was a very interesting process!
TM: So, Broken Watch has a real commitment to presenting new works.
HOFF: Yeah, that's definitely what we've been moving towards. When we did revivals, Boy's Life and Split, it was largely because the company needed a springboard to get going. I stand behind the older plays that we chose, and we chose them for good reasons; but the idea has always been to position ourselves at the forefront of the community, and the only way to do that is to be creating new work, allowing new voices to be heard.
TM: What's the most difficult part of running a theater company?
HOFF: Marketing. It's hard to sell a company unless you've got a brand -- unless you've got David Mamet involved or something like that. We don't have a brand, so what we have to market is consistently solid work, and that takes time. The other difficult thing is fund-raising. Marketing and fund-raising -- which, to some extent, are the same thing. It's surprising how difficult it is to get people off of their couches on a Friday or Saturday night to go out and support theater. People are more inclined to sit in their apartment or hang out in a bar or go to see a movie than to attend a show by a company they haven't seen before; you have to stay on their radar, keep reminding them that you're there. Also, you have to find the right audience for the particular piece you're doing, and that's going to change almost every time.
TM: Do you feel that Broken Watch is achieving what you set out to do?
TM: Well, if you continue to come up with excellent productions of extraordinary new plays like American Storage, there's no limit to what you might accomplish.
HOFF: Thanks. When you tap into that kind of creative energy, unique things are going to happen. I have never seen anything like American Storage. To me, that play is the essence of what we do: hip, young, edgy, fire-in-your-pants, rock and roll theater! That's up for debate within the company, but I think what we do best is work that's out there and in your face -- work that challenges you, takes you by surprise, and makes you think.