At a time when there’s frustration and much debate around how to classify, support, and produce innovative new performance work while maintaining a loyal audience, the small downtown theater Soho Rep seems to have developed a model that works pretty well. This season marks their 35th anniversary; after starting it with the critically acclaimed Elective Affinities, which they co-produced with Rising Phoenix Repertory and piece by piece productions, they’re just opening their new show, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One. It will be the play’s New York premiere, co-produced by The Play Company and directed by former Soho Rep Artistic Director Daniel Aukin. They’ve also published The Soho Rep Book, which tracks, “warts and all,” the theater’s activities over the past three and a half decades.
In January I sat down with Sarah Benson, the current Artistic Director (third in a string of Brits who’ve run the place since American founders Marlene Swartz and Jerry Engelback passed the torch), at Soho Rep’s offices to get a better understanding of how she ended up in this particular little corner of the city and how the theater has managed to thrive at a time when many others are struggling.
Ain Gordon, in his piece in the book, says that Soho Rep’s work is “bridging performance forms and playwriting.” Do you feel like that’s accurate?
I feel like that’s accurate and it’s been really conscious in my programming, to straddle those worlds. I think it changes the way that we look at playwriting and it changes the way that we look at performance, to have those two things side by side—to have a Sarah Kane play in the same season as Nature Theatre of Oklahoma; to have John Jesurun and Dan Lefranc; and Cythnia Hopkins and Young Jean Lee. I think that including more performance forms in the programming enriches the vocabulary for an audience; it encourages a more performative way of looking at everything we do.
How do you build a season and why do you choose to focus on such a select number of shows rather than a more traditional theater season?
Well, I think that decision stems back to my predecessor Daniel. He made the choice to do fewer things better and to pay artists more. And that was a philosophy and an ethos that I really supported. You know, our budget is under $1 million, and that covers the theater rental, the office rental, all the salaries, and all the shows. So, we have a small budget. And I feel like we're supporting work that's very distinctive and has its own voice. Our job as a company is to really unify around that voice and support it to the strongest extent we can. I feel like the only way to do that is to really throw our resources behind every show we do. The other model is to spread it thin and to present a lot of stuff and there's definitely merit to that. But I think one of the things that is unique about [Soho Rep] is that we're able to support brand new artists that don't have a track record and support that work to a greater extent than companies of a similar size, because of that choice. We're able to go do a Greg Moss play or a Young Jean Lee play or a Dan Lefranc play or a Nature Theatre of Oklahoma piece—we're able to take on a project that's very distinctive, very specific, and really producorially demanding and it doesn't have to be a name.
Of course I would love to be doing sixteen shows a year. I mean we just did a strategic plan and we talked a lot in that about growth and what growth is and we would like, ultimately, to be able do more shows. But we want to be able to do them really well and support the artists as well as we can and really follow through on the vision.
What is your theater origin story?
I was a maths geek, originally. And, basically, I got into this boarding school on a math scholarship and was totally miserable at the school. It was miles and miles away from my family and it was a pretty rough experience at first. I had never been involved in school plays or anything before and the second year I was there [at the age of fourteen] I got involved in this thing called the House Play Festival, and it was amazing. I found this community of people and we just started making something together and it turned school into this brilliant experience. It really transformed my whole experience of the school. I ditched maths and just hurled myself into the theater. In that play I was acting. But it was really this community thing that changed my experience. So, then I started acting in school plays. But I was an absolutely terrible actor.
So many directors say that!
Yeah, I loved the whole experience of making this thing, but it was just excruciating. I would get so nervous before I would go on stage. I would forget the props, I would show up at the wrong entrance, I was just racked with nerves. It was terrible. And so finally, I was about seventeen at the time, my drama teacher, she took me aside one day and she was like, you know, there are other things you can do besides act. I was like, really? Like what? Just get me off the stage! It's like agony. But I loved this form. So then that year I directed the House Play. And that was it. I was like, this is amazing. So that was how it really started. And then I lived in the Czech Republic for a while. I was teaching theater and directing kids and doing all that kind of thing.
How did you end up in the Czech Republic?
I was actually going to go to Russia. I was obsessed with Russia and Russian theater and literature. I was traveling through Eastern Europe on my way to Russia and Prague was the first place I went and I just fell in love with it and never left. So I ended up being there for a year. I just read so much. That was really a very formative experience, I think. And then, back in London, I was doing an English literature degree and started a theater company. My sister's a musician, and I had a lot of friends who were in architecture and fine art and other realms, so it was really about pulling together all of these people and making work with what we had. At that point it was very scrappy, it was very ambitious, it was kinda nuts. But we made these shows that, when I look back on them, were kind of really exciting. So I did that.
And then, basically, I was directing a show at the Edinburgh Festival and the guy who was assisting me was American and we were talking about training programs and I started thinking about the U.S. So, I applied for a Fulbright and got that and that really made up my mind to come here. I'd just gotten married and so we decided to come over here for a couple of years, but we planned to move right back to London—my husband's British as well. One thing led to another and I ended up working here as part of the Fulbright fellowship and went to Brooklyn College also. Then the year after that, Daniel Aukin, my predecessor [at Soho Rep], hired me to run the Writer/Director Program—the Lab, where we commission six writers a year to develop a play from scratch and we pair them with directors and they work during the course of the year to write plays. So, I ran that program. My husband and I decided, oh, we'll stay on for one more year. And then I also started to run the Prelude Festival at the Segal Center—I did that in 2005 and 2006. And then Daniel decided to freelance. So I threw my hat in the ring [to replace Daniel], but at the time we were looking at options in Berlin and back in the U.K. and all over. And then I was hired here, and that's sort of how that came to be.
So what is with all the Brits running this place?
It's weird, everyone thinks I knew Daniel, but I didn't. It's very strange. I mean, Marlene Schwarz and Jerry Englebach—they're Americans. And, they'd worked with Julian Webber [the Artistic Director before Daniel Aukin] who had just been based here. And I don't know, it's very weird. I truly don't understand it.
One thing that's interesting to me is that, if you look at the 35th anniversary book, Soho Rep started off with a glut model, producing fifteen or sixteen plays a year. But since then it has resisted the urge to either maintain that or grow. The theater actually went in the opposite direction and got smaller, in terms of the number of productions. There's a model that exists in a lot of other theaters that survived that era that pushed always for growth. They started off as a scrappy theater, not having a physical space, running around, not having a lot of money. Then they got a physical space, which meant that had to raise more money, and do more shows. And then they fell into that a theater season model where they have slots to fill for a base of subscribers. And then they kept growing, and nowadays you hear some artistic directors say things like, well, I don't really want to do this show, but we have to do it for our subscribers.
Yeah, we've made a choice to stay small. But we are growing, we're thriving, we're adding programming, we're paying people more, we're growing our infrastructure. But we don't want to continue to just grow and grow and grow.
What does growth mean to you at this point?
I think it means doing more shows.
Which ultimately means, what? More funding?
Yeah, it means more fundraising. That's it. It means growing our capacity on the fundraising level. It's like a loop—you do the work, that gets people excited, you market that, and that is what creates momentum for development and fundraising. That's the only thing. It's not for lack of artist's shows that we're all dying to do. It's a fundraising question.
Do you rent the theater out when you're not using it for your own shows?
Yeah, we rent. That's also something that's part of the plan that we're gradually over time reducing that, extending our runs, and we have done that. Daniel did two shows, now we're consistently doing three shows a season. We're doing longer runs. We're trying to do as much of our own programming during down time as possible—with our studio program, and our lab program. I think the goal is continuous programming. And we're installing a new air conditioning system this year to make the summer a truly programmable time. We'd like to be able to have ensembles and companies be in residence during the summer—like, give Nature Theatre of Oklahoma eight weeks in the space; hand over the space to companies that we're affiliated with and that we feel really strongly about. So that's definitely a goal.
Just to play devil's advocate for a minute—why grow at all? Why is growth important?
I feel like theater is a very privileged form and a huge part of that is that the only people who can afford to make theater are the people who have the cultural capital and who practically don't need to be earning a lot of money. That's a giant problem. We have to be able to start paying people close to a real living wage. This is something we run into all the time. Designers are doing more shows than they would like to because they can't get paid enough. So they're taking on two or three shows too many a year, which just makes them spread too thin on every show that they're working on. And I think for a theater of our size, we've made a real priority to pay people as much as we can.
So that, for you, is a big reason behind the impulse for financial growth—to be able to return some of that investment to the artists.
That's giant. Absolutely. And, you know, to be able to pay our staff is huge. I feel like people in arts administration, across the board, are drastically underpaid. And I want for our audience to connect to more of our work. It's frustrating that we have all this incredible work in the pipeline and we can only produce a portion of that. And I feel passionate about more people seeing the work we do. I think it's powerful, I think it connects with the world, I think it transforms people, and I want for more people to be able to experience that. I mean, we love the small house. We looked in the strategic plan at growth in that sense and, you know, I don't think we would want to be in a much bigger house at all. Maybe we would go up a little bit, but not very much at all. The intimate experience and what that does to the live performer-audience relationship is so huge, and creating that charge and creating that powerful experience is such a big part of what we do. But I want more people to experience that. And that means more shows, longer runs, higher running costs and all that.
Do you feel like your 99 cent ticket program succeeded in getting new audiences? I mean, it's got to be hard because it's a lot of artists and existing audience members who know about it.
It's hard. We're trying something new this year. Traditionally we put them online and they sell out in minutes. So what we're trying this time is an at-the-door approach. And doing more street team marketing. We're hoping that kind of cracks it open.
Last month there was a panel discussion at the Under the Radar festival about the divisions between contemporary performance that comes out of the visual art tradition and contemporary performance that comes out of theater and dance. One thing that came up in the discussion, from the artist David Levine, was his feeling that he was unable to innovate in the theater, in part, because of the hierarchical structures it imposed on the artists involved. What do you think about that statement?
Well, I hope it's not true at Soho Rep, but I would say I definitely feel like there are institutional structures in place in some theaters that aren't necessarily encouraging innovation, because there are a lot of assumptions—that the text comes first and then the director and then the designers. And that isn't always the best way to make a play, even if the text is a central part of it.
At Soho Rep, do you take it as an assumption that you need to have a designer who is different than the playwright, for instance? When you're building the team for each show do you have a structure in mind?
Absolutely not. In Uncle Vanya, Annie Baker, the playwright, is actually designing the clothes. Or I'm working on this long-range project with the designer Louisa Thompson, who is instigating the whole project, and now we're thinking about bringing in writers. Or someone like John Jesurun does everything—he's the writer and the designer and also the director and he very much has a very holistic vision. And I even think about Young Jean Lee like that—she has a design team, but she sort of art directs her shows, I would say. She has incredible designers who realize that with her, but I feel like she really approaches it [as a kind of art director]. But I also consider her a playwright.
I look at the Soho Rep and the Foundry Theatre, for instance, as places that let a project have its own terms and I see that as providing a more successful platform for innovation than many other theaters that are clinging to a more traditional model.
I think what you just said about each project having its own terms is huge. It's almost like we reinvent the company around each show. We're producing in a 22 foot by 40 foot by 14 foot space, but within that room, the goal is to try and let the needs of the artist drive how we build the process.
I wanted to talk again for a second about fair pay for artists. I don't know if you read that book Outrageous Fortune, but it made it painfully clear that playwrights are among the least paid for their work in the theater world.
They are, totally. But I would also say, and this is something that my colleague Caleb [Hammons, Producer at Soho Rep] and I talk about all the time, that there's no commissioning and development money put into ensemble and performance-driven work. It's just expected to materialize and be production-ready. People kind of understand commissioning a playwright, but there's not very much understanding of commissioning an ensemble or a director or another lead artist.
So they're even less paid than playwrights!
Yeah. I mean, I would say there's often, unfortunately, a lot of the new-hot-person that everyone chases with their money, but I would say there are at least funding pools out there for playwrights.
I think that's actually a great point, in terms of expanding an understanding of what performance really is. As it gets back to the core question of who can be the generative artist and the ways we consistently undervalue generative artists.
I definitely feel like American theater is playwright-driven, it's text-driven, it's obsessed with story, which isn't a bad thing, but it's a fact. So it's hard for them to get a handle on what commissioning [an ensemble or a non-playwright] would mean or what development would mean. Whereas with commissioning a playwright, of course each writer has a very distinctive process, there's a product at the end, in theory. And I think more and more playwrights, at least the writers we're working with, are wanting a process closer to that you provide for an ensemble. They want time and space in a room with their team. We're working with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Sylvan Oswald this spring on their studio projects and both of those are evolving and what these writers need is time and space, the same as an ensemble would. I mean, there are still writers for whom time and space alone with their laptop is what they need, but I think that is not always the case anymore.
That kind of playwriting also presumes that you will have access to a set hierarchy when you're done—that the tableful of people will arrive from somewhere to realize your work for you. And that seems to be less and less how it works anymore.
Let's talk for a minute about your commitment to bringing people into the theater to not only see a play, but also to buy books and to have a glass of wine and chat. It's a very British model, but it's one that a few theaters here in New York are picking up on or have been working on for years. Do people stick around and drink at Soho Rep?
Unfortunately our real estate is definitely challenging. In our strategic plan we have a roof garden and we have a lobby that people can comfortably fit in. [Laughs.] It's a challenge, with such limited square footage, especially because we don't want to eat too much of the stage. Right now we're literally seeing how far we can push the stage and still leave people room to get down to the bar. But I think within those limitations, we have tried to make it more social. Robbie, our production manager, who also runs the building, has just done an incredible job of making the space more welcoming for artists, for audiences. Our FEED programming, I think, has also made a big difference cracking open these plays and encouraging them to be a social experience and not just a ducking in and ducking out.
And then with the bookshop and the fact that you can purchase the script of the show you've just seen that night—that is almost unheard of in most American theaters, particularly when it comes to new work.
That was something that Raphael [Martin, Literary and Humanities Manager] really spearheaded. To me, especially, the work that we do, the texts we do—you gain so much in being able to take it away and read it. So, we had conversations with Samuel French and we were sort of their pilot project. We sell them at cost, which is $5, and we've had a really great uptake. And now we've launched an online bookstore that's not just the plays that we've done, but also a sort of curated selection of plays. We hope it's a place where we can represent other artists' work that we think are in conversation with what we're doing.
Do you find that there are a lot of people who get the script who didn't come see the show?
I think so, definitely. And I think over time we'll have more and more seasons of them. So I think it will be a way for people to be able to, you know, prolong the life of the work. I feel like putting stuff in a book form that people take away is really important. My job, as a producer, is to connect the work and the audience as directly as possible, to create a vital context.
(Photo: Simon Kane)