While still students in NYU’s MFA acting program, Jeff Wise, Matt Harrington, David Kenner, Michael Schantz, and Chris Bolan devised BACK, a show inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, the success of which led to further ensemble-led collaborations. First there was Hamlet, followed by Henry IV, Part II. Less than a decade later, they formed Wheelhouse Theater Company. Since its official launch in 2016, the company has produced two world premieres, three classics, and one revival.
“We found something together in that [first collaboration]; a way of working,” says Wise, artistic director of Wheelhouse. “It was this little glimmer of an idea about how we work.” What that turned out to be was a culmination of the things they valued most in their training: a sense of play, a love of improvisation, a collective curiosity, and an emphasis on exploration.
“We built [BACK] in flight. The only thing that got us to a place of production was a deadline,” says Wise. This is the overall approach to each Wheelhouse show, a philosophy that’s also translated to the company’s producing model. Wheelhouse’s latest production, the Off-Broadway premiere of Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks (a loose adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya) first came about after Wise booked a last-minute opening at the Wild Project. Though the team didn’t know Posner personally, they approached the playwright in January about producing his play in March. Posner had heard of their successful production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. That show more or less put Wheelhouse on the map—and so with less than two months to spare, he agreed to Wise directing the play downtown. Looks like it was the right idea since the production earned two Drama Desk nominations, including one for Outstanding Direction of a Play for Wise.
Come spring, Life Sucks transferred to Off-Broadway’s Theatre Row in midtown following sold-out performances and widespread critical acclaim and runs through August 31. “You create the problem, and then you find the solution,” says Wise. “There’s no season planned, but there’s something about that that I really like… I think it complements our process, which is that we approach the work not knowing anything.”
For Wise and the other founding company members, what’s most important is maintaining a deep appreciation of theatre and all that it has to offer. “We believe that [each] piece of theatre [we make] will make a difference. That it’s something that will contribute to society,” says Wise. “We feel that theatre is absolutely essential… storytelling is vital and a shared experience in the room is one of our core values at Wheelhouse. The absolute necessity of a shared experience.”