Should “Go Big or Go Home” Be the Mantra for Downtown Theater Producers?

TheaterMania talks to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater Artistic Director David Van Asselt and playwright Lucy Thurber about their massive collaborative production of Thurber’s five-play cycle, The Hill Town Plays.

Girls about to kiss on stage: Betty Gilpin and 
MacKenzie Meehan in <I>Where We're Born</I>, the third play in Lucy Thurber's <I>The Hill Town Plays</I> cycle.
Girls about to kiss on stage: Betty Gilpin and
MacKenzie Meehan in Where We’re Born, the third play in Lucy Thurber’s The Hill Town Plays cycle.
(© Sandra Coudert)

“They came from a desire to see girls kiss on stage,” Lucy Thurber (half) quipped when I asked why she wrote The Hill Town Plays, her epic five-play cycle examining hidden poverty in rural America. The cycle is currently getting a complete production as part of the inaugural Theater:Village Festival. When pressed further, she explained, “I felt compelled to make the people I grew up with, who I feel are fairly invisible, visible. I felt lonely and stuck between worlds because I couldn’t fully communicate anymore with the people I grew up with, but I couldn’t fully communicate with the people I met in New York or in college.” Based largely around the lives of people living in small-town western Massachusetts, The Hill Town Plays focuses on the life of one woman and her struggle to break free from the poverty and despair of her youth. Yet when she finally breaks into the upper-middle class, she’s not sure she can ever really belong there.

Although the central character goes by several names throughout the cycle (Rachel, Celia, Lilly, and Lizzy), Thurber insists that they are all the same woman. “Honestly, when I was writing them, it made it easier for me,” she admitted. “Though I knew it was the same girl, it made it easier for me to give her a different name so I wasn’t locked into the specifics of one family.” So while the character details are different, the circumstances and issues are strikingly similar, creating a spiritual continuity throughout the plays. The different names and family details also allow the plays to be presented individually: Three were previously produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (Where We’re Born, Killers and Other Family, and Stay) and one premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company (Scarcity). They’ve never been produced as a whole, however.

David Van Asselt and Lucy Thurber.
David Van Asselt and Lucy Thurber.
(© Seth Walters)

That’s where Rattlestick Artistic Director David Van Asselt came in. He had been planning to organize a multi-play theater event in the West Village theaters for years and decided that Thurber’s plays were the perfect launching pad. “It felt like it was a major undertaking and it needed to have a production so that people could see the scope of the actual achievement,” he explained. So he decided to produce all five plays simultaneously, the aforementioned four and one world premiere, Ashville. “The biggest challenge was getting people over the idea that we weren’t crazy.”

Indeed, it does seem like a crazy project for a small theater company in this age of austerity, where solo plays with minimal sets are increasingly common. “Everyone gets trapped in this idea of one play, one world, one thing,” Thurber opined. “The reason everyone is reacting to this idea of big and epic is because theater was always meant to be a collaborative art form.” Of course, producing five plays costs five times as much.

“We had to come up with the money, and the production values had to be good,” said Van Asselt. Yet having so many seasoned downtown producers as partners certainly helped. In order to pull this thing off, Van Asselt allied Rattlestick with three other West Village companies: The Cherry Lane Theatre, The New Ohio Theatre, and the Axis Theatre. “The theater community really helped tremendously to put this all together.”

Verily, it takes a village to produce something like The Hill Town Plays, but who knew the playwright would be the last person invited to the party? “David’s a charming rascal. He told I don’t know how many people that he was doing this before he told me,” recounted Thurber. “People were coming up to me on the street and saying, ‘Hey, I heard what’s happening for you. That’s amazing!’ I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Once she was in on the plan, Thurber had to hit the ground running. “Rehearsals were a little intense, honestly,” she admitted. “I would run back and forth between plays. None of them came out without me moving something or writing something new.” Seeing them all together as a whole for the first time helped her to understand the flaws in the plays as written and make changes.

Van Asselt added, “In the case of Stay, there was a complete and thorough revision,” referring to the final and most problematic play in the cycle. “Lucy was able to bring them all together as a single vision.”

Not two girls: Shane McRae and Samantha Soule in <I>Killers and Other Family</I>.
Not two girls: Shane McRae and Samantha Soule in Killers and Other Family.
(© Sandra Coudert)

Given the individual nature of these plays, their unity wasn’t always assured. “I was given the ability to make them as I’d always imagined them,” Thurber explained about the value of this unique collaboration. “I learned that it wasn’t just something I made up in my head.” These plays belong together.

This “Go big or go home” approach to theater is something Van Asselt intends to continue. He’s reluctant to prescribe it as the antidote to the austere theater that seems to dominate so much of the stage these days, but Thurber is less hesitant: “I hope this model continues because I think it’s an answer to how to get around producing in this climate.”

Van Asselt is more conservative in his outlook: “Theater is a black hole for money. It’s one show in one place and very labor intensive. The chance you’re going to make money is slender, and for challenging plays you’re never going to make your money back.”

Still, by working together, these four West Village theater companies have created something enormous, and with $15 tickets available to the under-30 set at all performances, their pricing is competitive with the movies. It’s a massive achievement that Van Asselt hopes to replicate in the future. Still, as he mentioned above, it took an awful lot of pushing.

I asked Thurber if opening five plays simultaneously was an experience similar to giving birth. “It’s more like sending your kid off to college,” she retorted. “It’s like, good luck, and I hope you live.”