What can two DC artistic directors – separated by more than twenty years of producing experience – learn from one another? Long time producer, Martin Blank of American Ensemble Theater and Jason Schlafstein, Co-Founder of the fledgling Flying V sit down with one another to find out.
This conversation took place during the last week of the run for Flying V’s Tough! by George F. Walker. So they started there …
Jason: He’s [Walker’s] my favorite playwright. It’s a very personal piece to me. Walker excels at giving actors so much to work with.
Martin: I had the chance to see Tough!. I thought it was awesome. For people who don’t know Flying V yet, what do they need to know about your theater company?
Jason: In all honesty, the most important thing may sound flip. But it’s not meant to be. The phrase “Be Awesome” is our guiding motto. I mean that not just in our attempts to do high quality work, but projects that really excite an audience and makes them want to go on an adventure or get an adrenaline rush in their seats. We call ourselves “theater for people who don’t think they like theater,” because maybe they haven’t seen theater that hits their sweet spot yet, and we’re not going to be everybody’s sweet spot, but we may well be yours. We want to do really fun, quirky, offbeat, high-impact theatricality projects, playing a lot with genre, and at a really accessible price point.
Martin: Your tickets cost?
Jason: Ten dollars.
Martin: I think $10 tickets are exciting. AET is also at $10. We feel if people can afford to see other things that cost more, that’s great. Anytime anyone goes to see live theater that is exciting. Members of the AET ensemble, a lot of us, know so many people who just can’t afford to see theater. And who want to go. What’s that like for Flying V to, like AET, work with low budgets and make $10 tickets possible?
Jason: I think low budget doesn’t mean low creativity. And it really can’t mean low ambition. It means, more than anything, having a great support system of friends. I’ve found in this current show, we’ve built part of a playground, and we’ve done this all on a very low budget, because wonderful people out there believe in us, and have allowed us to borrow time and materials and space. Collaboration across artists and companies is really the key to making low-budget theater that is not low budget. I’d really like to get to a place where our budgets are higher, so I can compensate my artists better. Because that is where I’d like to be spending more money. How is that for AET? Does budget play in to your season selection?
Martin: We figure out exactly what we’re passionate about doing, and then we figure out a way to do it. So we work in the same way in the sense that we get people who are really passionate about putting on the shows we put on. The other thing I find really useful is something Spike Lee talked about early on in his career. He said something like, “You have to treat a thousand dollars like it is one hundred thousand dollars.” And in a way it is very liberating, because you’re forced to deal with trying to try to tell a story well, yet it doesn’t look anything less, but you’re forced to solve challenges, or try to, with creativity.
Jason: It brings me back to college, where we had a space that was off to the side and I remember us being in there late at night building the set, being more ambitious than we were told we could be. And doing it anyway. Finding ways to do it. Really taking those lessons about making your own opportunities. You have to really do the things you believe in.
Martin: So at the end of the day, we’re talking about doing the thing, theater, for the joy and the love of it.
Jason: It is. And it is good to be reminded of it. Because it is really hard to run a company. Because every day is a learning curve.
Martin: I’m still learning all the time.
Jason: Which is awesome. One day I hope to really know how to do this, and some day, I hope I know how to do this well. (laughs) Now, you’ve done this twice. You are the founder of Theater J, and now there is a decade between that and AET-
Martin: Two decades!
Jason: I knew that. I wasn’t going to let the readers in on your age. But that’s alright. (Martin laughs.) But that is so ambitious. I want to know what is like to come back, what is different now to create a theater company twenty years later than when you started?
Martin: A couple of things have changed. When I started Theater J and ran it for four seasons, I just sort of lucked into it working out. It could have easily not worked out…
But what I had figured out then, you could do theater, and it could be good, or not good. But it was not dependent on money. So what has changed, I think, is more people have figured it out, that you can do low-cost theater if you wish. The other thing that has changed is how you sell and promote shows. Of course I’m taking about the Internet. With Theater J, I was walking the streets of D.C. putting flyers out, literally, every day, for hours a day, for two or three weeks before a show opened,
Jason: I don’t think, in listening to that, we do it as well as you did it. I think with the Internet you can get lazy. Of course you can reach so many people, but they are used to being bombarded with information, with so many things there. I think going forward, we’ll have to be more innovative, pound the actual pavement a lot harder, because I want to actually reach more people. I want to build Flying V’s audience.
Martin: I find now that I’m spending, in doing theater now, an awful lot of time in front of a computer screen.
Jason: It is a fascinating moment when Facebook is work. You’re setting up an event. And you’re writing the copy. And you’re trying to get the right image. Suddenly you’ve spent two or three hours on Facebook, and it is in an effort to truly feel productive.
Martin: So now that all of us spend so much time in front of a computer, I’m hopeful that the impact of live theater can be experientially more powerful. There are people on stage. And you’re in the audience. And you can’t just click to the next thing. And it makes theater to me more exciting. And yet, people reading my words now are at a computer!
So let me ask you this: I credit Howard Shalwitz giving me my start in theater. Who gave you your start, Jason?
Jason: Well it was a lot of people, really – the University of Maryland especially, but in terms of Flying V, in my roles as an Artistic Director and as a Director, if I have to single out two it would be Howard and Jerry Whiddon. Jerry has been the most significant influence on me as theatre artist. He’s been a tremendous guiding force. Howard is someone who I really watched be an Artistic Director, and his example has led to Flying V’s focus on new work.
And Jerry is someone I learned how to be a director from. How to work with actors and designers. And how to investigate truth without losing theatricality. Everything has to be earned. And you can earn anything if you investigate it deeply enough. So between the two of them, and a number of other people…but Jerry really taught me how to direct, by being someone that directed me, then allowing me to assist him.
Martin: What I’m seeing about the next generation, which I consider you to be, are people who are starting theaters that are going to keep being in the world, is that they are going on two tracks. You work as production manager at Rep Stage, which I’m sure brings its own rewards. But with Flying V you’re not waiting ten, or fifteen, or twenty years to do the theater you want to do. You’re doing it now.
Jason: I don’t think I can afford to wait. When we started FV, I made the pitch of why we should go from a group of people who like to work with each other into an actual entity. I want this to be something we grow with. The truth is that I’m not only trying to create opportunities for myself, but it is also for my friends who are great, and to create work I believe in, and to provide what I hope will be an artistic home for us.
Someone once told me theater is like dating. You work with some people once and it is a terrible experience. And you work with some people a couple times, and it sours, or it gets even better over time. I’m very lucky to say there a few people that I already know I want to continue to make stuff with for the long haul. And I didn’t want to wait to kind of… propose to them.
Martin: So my question would be, why is that happening? When I started, I worked within a system. I went on to work in New York for two professional companies. To move up. And the next logical step was going to be to work for a Broadway producer. And I was starting to get those phone calls. But I thought, “I want more of a balanced life. I want to be able to write. And hopefully a family.” So I came back to D.C. But what I see now, it just seems to be more common, people, mid-twenties, trained, working these two tracks.
Jason: People want to do this for a living. I don’t mean this in a cynical way. They want to do what they love and pay their rent. So they take projects that are meaningful to them, even if it is not exactly what they want to be doing, because they want to be in their field and get paid in their field, and that affords the passion projects. It causes longer days. It causes more stress. But there is a fulfillment realizing my whole income comes from the theater.
Martin: We’ve both run away and joined the circus!
Jason: Yes. It’s a lifestyle. So you carve, and scratch, and peck. And occasionally ride an elephant.
Martin: So I see your generation as ahead of the game. I think of the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, that basically says, say if you were in the movie business, if you have a digital camcorder and a laptop, you are a movie studio. I think if you have a laptop, and a theater space, and the skills, I mean, you have to pay your dues-that never changes, I think, but you can be a theater company.
Jason: Money would be nice, though. (laughs)
Martin: I did work on a commercial show in New York City, and the budget was a million dollars.
Jason: So how was that, a million dollar budget, then do something like “A Walk in the Woods” that goes to Congress. Is there a different mental approach? Or is it just that the resources are different, but the work is just the same?
Martin: The scale changes radically when you’re doing a fifteen-character musical, and you’ve got to advertise that in Manhattan. But at the end of the day, good material, performers, actors, designers, a great director, a show that comes together in some lucky way-that process, I don’t think changes.
Jason: I think we need to create more reasons for people to stay in D.C. That’s part of what I want Flying V to be. For people who are really talented, who are emerging artists, who have a lot of passion. Maybe a new reason to keep them here.
We talked about Woolly, I was there for their thirtieth anniversary, which means Howard started it when he was in his twenties. That really registered to me. If I want to build something that lasts that long, and has an impact, and I have a reason, I have to try it now. It takes years. It is playing a long game. And you have to start it. If I want to be an artistic director, and one day have it be my day job, I kind of have to lay it on the line and start that now. That was a big inspiration.
Martin: I took a similar lesson away from Woolly. Howard called it, “Big picture, small picture.” And I think of it as, “Short term, long term.” But the idea being to try and hold both at the same time in your head all the time. As one is constantly informing the other. Another thing I find exciting right now is that there are so many theater companies in D.C. That whatever your cup of tea might be, you can find it. Are you seeing more variety?
Jason: I am. I think that is really important, the variety. There is a lot of theater in D.C. and that’s fantastic. I think it is important for companies to find what it is you’re adding that is different. And to be able to stake a claim to that. And not be afraid to follow that.
It’s exciting to see what people are doing. I’m part of a D.C. playwrights’ group on Facebook and just watching the discussion, people are hungry. Gwydion Suilebhan is doing a great job connecting that community. We have four local playwrights that are company members of Flying V. My goal is for a seventy/thirty split. Seventy percent new work or local work. The other thirty percent being off-kilter fun things that highlight our actors or our designers. I think, “What do we want to do from the ground up?” I’m interested in seeing a better pipeline for D.C. writers and directors.
Martin: I know what you mean. I think of myself as a playwright. But a playwright who loves to produce plays. To put on a play, what to you really need: a play, some actors, and…
Martin/Jason (overlapping) …and an audience.
Martin: I’m a playwright who knows how to run a theater company. Or learned the hard way over a long period of time.
Martin: And it is true, Jason, some D.C. theater companies are moving toward producing more local playwrights. And that’s fantastic. At the same time I think some playwrights are going to think about putting on the producing hat. If they wish to. I taught a class at The Writer’s Center for playwrights who want to produce their own plays. And several of my students are now doing just that. I mean, Shakespeare and Molière – to me, beyond intimidating how good they are as playwrights. I remind myself they also had to start and run companies and put on their own plays.
Jason: Flying V works on a ‘slate’ model. We have a list of projects in development. So projects are always evolving, and when they’re ready, we’ll get them scheduled. Our meetings are always ‘here’s what we’re working on.’ There’s this slate we have that we’re trying to develop. Right now we have a horror show on it, a big epic fantasy piece, a new play by Seamus Sullivan called ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ we’re getting ready for a staged reading in January. For me, once I commit to an idea, we’re going to produce it. It’ll take as long as it takes until it’s ready, but we’ll get it there.
Martin Blank is currently Artistic Director for American Ensemble Theater. He is the author of ten plays and is published by Smith & Kraus. He has served as Artistic Associate for the American Jewish Theatre and American Place Theatre, New York City, as well as Literary Manager, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Founding Artistic Director, Theater J.
American Ensemble Theater’s next production will be Bobby Gould in Hell by David Mamet, May 24 – June 9, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC.
Jason Schlafstein is the Producing Artistic Director and Co-Founder (with Colin Grube) of Flying V. He is also the Production Manager at Rep Stage. He is a local area director who’s most recent credits include Tough! and Become What You Are with Flying V and Spacebar for the 2011 Source Festival.
Check back with Flying V to see what comes off the slate and onto the stage next.