Adam Greenfield (Playwrights Associate Artistic Director) and Maria Striar (Clubbed Thumb Producing Artistic Director) discuss their mutual love for Jaclyn Backhaus, how they came to discover Men On Boats, and the unique partnership between our theaters.
Adam Greenfield: How did you first come into contact with Jaclyn Backhaus?
Maria Striar: I had read an early, intriguing play of Jaclyn’s, which led to us meeting in 2013. I sort of fell in love with her. She’s just warm and imaginative and generous and radiant and fun. Most of her experience was with devising groups — she wasn’t hooked into the usual channels. So when Clubbed Thumb was putting together our first early career writers’ group, we thought of her. How about you?
Through you. Basically since I started working at Playwrights, back in 2007, you and I have been swapping plays at a furious pace.
I’ve produced many plays and writers that you introduced me to: Kristin Newbom, Sigrid Gilmer, Jerry Lieblich…
And you introduced me to Clare Barron, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman, and I think Dipika Guha. Not to mention the long history of artists who’ve worked at both theaters, who cross back and forth, like Anne Washburn, Adam Bock, Anne Kauffman, Ken Rus Schmoll. Eventually, at some point we’d basically promised each other access to our curatorial brains.
Which led to SuperLab, our co-curated development program, within which we’ve now workshopped 31 plays. Both of us have produced SuperLabbed plays. It certainly nudged me to produce some plays I was on the fence about.
SuperLab has expanded Playwrights, too — not just the writers we know, but the range of types of plays in our programs. Today, I don’t have a pithy answer to the question, “What’s a Playwrights Horizons play?” — which I consider a massive asset for a theater dedicated to new work. There’s no “house style,” except writing which strikes us as crucial, atomic, undeniable. Anyway, so when you sent me Men On Boats, I dropped everything.
Every now and then I read something strikingly original, something that bristles with a different imagination, something with a whole bold plan — and it’s exhilarating. When Jaclyn brought the first chunk into the group, I knew within like three pages — possibly when I read the character list — that I wanted to produce it.
I fell for it instantly, too. She clearly had so much fun writing the play: the giddy anachronisms, the adrenaline of discovery, and the way she pits the petty fights between characters against the epic grandeur of their journey. I was quickly on board to develop it in SuperLab.
Around then, we got this astonishing gift from Playwrights – just a game-changer – of a multi-year residency in your downtown facility, giving us free office space and as much rehearsal space as we could lay our mitts on. The residency started just after we committed to produce Men On Boats, and the two are deeply entwined. The play is sort of deliciously impossible — we knew it was going to be a kick figuring out how to stage it, but that it would need a lot of time, space, and bodies. We started constantly workshopping, trying out staging and design ideas with the Theater School students. We had sound design workshops, readings with new drafts, different casts — a rich development process, which allowed us to accrue its creative team and find its aesthetic vocabulary. The residency was a crucial component.
I have to admit when I saw the premiere last summer, I was insanely jealous. The production was totally explosive, and the room so full of electricity and excitement — it’s the kind of energy you live for as a producer, and I wanted to be a part of it, to jump up onstage and, like, be in the show! It was inspiring, and I wanted so badly to share that experience with the Playwrights audience. I think you had a total of only 12 performances though…
…which is when the idea came up to co-produce a longer run. It feels like an apotheosis of the whole conversation between us. In 2010, when we created SuperLab, we put out a release that says our two theaters “will bridge a gap between downtown and uptown theater sensibilities, methodologies, and artist rosters, expanding the range of experience and opportunity for all.” Six years later, here we are.
Adam Greenfield photo by Zack DeZon.