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.