Talking to Williamsburg Theatre Company Founder Joseph Hendel

11/01/2010 1:31 PM |

Brooklyn theater

Tonight marks the first ever theater performance at Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory (two of ’em in fact, with All in the Timing at 9:30pm preceded by Can I Really Date a Guy Who Wears a Yarmulke? at 7:30pm), part of the venue’s plan to draw some crowds on Monday nights while providing an unusually large platform for Williamsburg’s slowly emerging theater scene. We asked Joseph Hendel, founder of the Williamsburg Theatre Company and director of its inaugural production, All in the Timing, some questions about the neighborhood’s strange relationship to theater.

The L: Who or what is the Williamsburg Theatre Company?
Joseph Hendel: The Williamsburg Theatre Company is the name of the organization I created to put up theatre in Williamsburg. I knew I wanted to do theatre in Williamsburg since I moved here from the East Village, so the name seemed appropriate and it wasn’t taken yet. The organization is still in its earliest phases of development, but we are ready with a production of David Ives’ All in the Timing that is going up every Monday night [in November] at the Knitting Factory on Metropolitan.

Does the company have any plans for future productions? Will it be based exclusively at the Knitting Factory? Are there other venues in the area you’d like to work in?
Yes. I’m in the process of developing a couple of pieces for the company. One is a piece that blends 60s country music with high-powered political rhetoric and would be presented in a concert/rally environment that could eventually tour. The other is a 19th century operetta that would probably be of interest to Brooklynites if presented in the right way. Basically, after doing some straight plays I’m ready to do a musical, and with the number of music venues and good musicians who want to get involved with things, Williamsburg seems like a great place to do them. I think many people hear the word “musical” and are instantly turned off by the histrionics, but I’m not interested in flying in the cast of Glee and having them over-sing and frug their way down Bedford Avenue. I’m talking about something hip, like 19th century operetta in some warehouse with an orchestra shell.

We are not based exclusively at the Knitting Factory. In terms of other places to put up theatre, I think that Brooklyn Bowl would be a very cool place to have a concert-style theatre piece. Places like Public Assembly and Glasslands as well. Anywhere is a good space for theatre if it suits the piece and isn’t too expensive. Also, I’m interested in submitting to the festivals they have at The Brick Theater. I also like the Theatre in a Van.

What are some of the challenges/advantages for you and the actors to rehearsing and performing in an unconventional space like the Knitting Factory?
Well, it would actually be a lot easier if we were doing all six of the one-acts on the stage itself [All in the Timing is six short one-act comedies]. My production manager, Drew Vanderburg, and I had to figure out a way to light the pieces we staged on the floor space and at the bar. Also, it has been hard to get a lot of rehearsal time in the space itself with concerts going on there every night and our actors working day jobs, but we were able to get some cheap rehearsal space in Manhattan.

Other challenges? The backstage is set up for musicians instead of actors so there are more couches and fewer mirrors. That should be ok though. The advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. For example, the sound system and full bar are nice. Plus, you have a place that local people feel comfortable going to for entertainment, more so than a traditional theatre with fixed seating. So if you try to live up to the expectations that people have for a night out in Williamsburg, you can offer a theatre performance instead of a concert performance and people will still be interested in coming. And the Knitting Factory people have been very helpful and flexible with us.

Why did you choose David Ives’ All in the Timing for the inaugural production?
Reasons both artistic and practical. I remember seeing a number of the pieces done by my high school’s theatre program (I was too involved at the time with the high school jazz band and the hippie-jam-funk group my friends and I played in after school to have been in them), and they were very funny and seemed really adult at the time, despite all the silliness. They were mostly written during the Herbert Walker Bush years and I think they capture the beginning of that 90s spirit of “everything is pretty good now (and will probably stay that way), so let’s have fun with our cultural artifacts.” You know, that kind of postmodern way of looking at things, but done here with a fragile cleverness and a tentative sense of optimism. Now in 2010, with our self-conscious cultural awareness (after “memes”) and the threat of a Sarah Palin-esque ignorocracy on the horizon, it’s worth taking a look at that spirit again. The plays deal with culture in very smart ways, from the three monkeys in a room forced to write Hamlet to the made up language based entirely on words that sound like English words but are really mangled nonsense and meaningless cultural signifiers from the past. Plus, they are totally LOL.

From a practical standpoint All in the Timing is well-known and well-liked by audiences, it doesn’t require expensive sets or costumes, and its sketch-like structure allows for a workable rehearsal schedule that can accommodate the busy schedules of young actors. I’d recommend it.

This is a gross generalization, but it seems that theater is pretty far down the stereotypical Williamsburg/Bushwick resident’s list of cultural interests—well below music, visual art, film, literature, and dance—what needs to happen for the locals to be more interested in theater, and to get non-locals coming to Williamsburg for theater? Are you trying to appeal specifically to a local audience?
I think you are right in that generalization. I meet many otherwise culturally-sensitive people who have no use for the theatre, and I completely understand why. If I had not grown up around it and developed a relationship with it to the extent that I have, I certainly wouldn’t “believe” in theatre enough to start a theatre company. It is difficult to blame anyone for disregarding theatre, because there are so many reasons why it doesn’t seem relevant anymore: it can’t compete with the efficiency of TV and movies in terms of being a vehicle to tell stories about ourselves; it doesn’t offer the depth and solitude of a fine piece of literature; we can’t socialize at a play the way we can at a concert or gallery opening or a bar with a good jukebox; our country’s flagship theatre destination, Broadway, is a desolate wasteland of safe and cheesy spectacle patronized by people who actively despise good art which should be moved to Vegas to make way for more walking streets; plus the ticket prices are high. (For the record, not everything on Broadway is a safe and cheesy musical adaptation, and only about half of the patrons go out of their way to reward the shows that get the worst reviews, but go down the list of shows currently running on Broadway and count the exceptions, then subtract the star-studded revivals. Also, I was wrong about theatre ticket prices. All in the Timing at the Knitting Factory is only $10 and you can socialize and drink there, too).

Gripes aside, there is no reason to believe that theatre has no place among intelligent consumers who wish to have a good time, and there is already a lot of excellent theatre being performed in New York right now, but most of that is in Manhattan. My wish with the Williamsburg Theatre Company is to provide a good product in Williamsburg for whomever is interested, one that entertains at the same time it illuminates, one that gives like-minded people an opportunity to be together in a room. I believe that if this product is being created and offered to the public at a reasonable price in a non-stuffy setting, then people will be interested in attending, even non-locals. In terms of appealing specifically to a local audience, all I can say is that I hope my sensibilities and the sensibilities of the company connect in various ways to the ethos of the local audience. I was told that creative people in my generation were moving here to do creative things, so I have to assume that there will be some overlap between my interests and the interests of others in the community. I hope some of those people will come out and judge for themselves at my first production in the neighborhood.

The first performance of the Williamsburg Theatre Company’s production of All in the Timing is tonight at the Knitting Factory at 9:30pm. Performances continue every Monday night through November 29.