Daniella Topol has always had a curiosity about making theatre from multiple vantage points. It’s the reason she’s made a career out of balancing directing and artistic management—and the key to both, she says, is finding empathy in the process. “Theatre asks for a kind of intimacy and empathy that I’ve always deeply loved,” says Topol. “I didn’t always know it to be empathy, but that’s what I now understand it to be.” And for the last two years in her role as artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, that idea has taken on entirely new meaning.
Founded in 1994 by Gary Bonasorte and David Van Asselt (whom Topol succeeded), Rattlestick’s mission is grounded in not only producing new work that inspires empathy, but in offering it to artists in ways that promote boldness and ambition. “The DNA of the theatre is one of courage and innovation,” says Topol. “I want to continue to stay fearless and tenacious in supporting artists with big vision.” Artists like Diana Oh, who first came through Rattlestick’s New Songs Now concert series, and whose genre-bending mainstage show My Lingerie Play received critical acclaim last year; or alumni playwright Samuel D. Hunter, whose two-play project Lewiston & Clarkson Rattlestick will produce next season as a large-scale double bill.
Throughout the theatre’s history, Rattlestick has launched the careers of playwrights Annie Baker, Adam Rapp, Martyna Majok, and Lucy Thurber, among others. The organization also continues to nurture and support its apprentice company of young theatremakers, as well as provide artists with opportunities to share space and create. Topol has long been passionate about new work development and she’s adamant that this continue to be a part of the theatre’s “vibrant, artistic heartbeat.”
As Rattlestick approaches its 25th anniversary, Topol’s vision for the company is to expand on the radical empathy it offers its artists by further being in conversation with the community—specifically its immediate West Village neighborhood. Under her leadership, the theatre is developing a new theatrical piece, written by Cusi Cram and directed by Topol, which will celebrate the life and legacy of the now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital, ground zero during New York City’s AIDS crisis. Rattlestick has partnered with community centers, a nearby church, and local artist and advocacy groups in the development of the play, set to debut in a workshop production this summer.
Leaning in to new partnerships, says Topol, is towards the ultimate goal of making theatre “more and more vital to the conversation.” For the artistic director, theatre has always been, and remains, essential; and never has this been clearer than in her position as leader of Rattlestick. “It’s about the process of the audience meeting the work and finding a conversation around the work that makes them look at the world differently.”