How Off-Broadway’s The Flea Theater Creates Unforgettable Work

Interview   How Off-Broadway’s The Flea Theater Creates Unforgettable Work
 
Artistic director Niegel Smith cultivates a hotbed of young talent at the downtown theatre.
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Niegel Smith Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The Flea may have just undergone a major renovation and acquired a new three-theatre complex in Tribeca, but its identity is still firmly rooted in its decades-old mission statement: To raise a joyful hell in a small space.

“We’re a downtown theatre, which means we can be aesthetically ambitious and push form,” says artistic director Niegel Smith, who took the helm in 2015. “The project is to support art for art’s sake. It’s about a community of people revealing rough truths and showing us ecstatic delights.”

Community is at the heart of The Flea Theater, which is home to a vibrant and large collective of resident actors known as The Bats; resident directors; and playwrights (members of the theatre’s SERIALS writers’ room). “It’s so inspiring to work here,” says Smith. “We are that unique place in the ecology of New York theatre that is a hotbed of young talent.”

Such an environment ensures that the concerns and energy of young artists are at the forefront of the theatre’s programming. The Flea’s current season, aptly named the Color Brave season (landed upon by producing director Carol Ostrow), is rich with works that explore race, racism, colorism, intersectional feminism, and gun violence.

“I’m attracted to plays and performances that have an urgent social question that they’re wrestling with,” says Smith. Under his leadership, the season showcases early-career artists like Geraldine Inoa and Kristiana Rae Colón, playwrights who are fiercely questioning the status quo and imagining different landscapes through their storytelling.

Alongside its support of emerging talent, The Flea remains dedicated to its more established artists too; theatremakers such as Thomas Bradshaw, Adam Rapp, and Liz Swados have returned to the Off-Off-Broadway theatre time and time again. This month, Smith directs Bradshaw’s 2008 play Southern Promises, an examination of the disturbing and corrupting power of American slavery, which runs March 11 through April 14.

Perhaps owing to his background in educational theatre, Smith is driven by a “deep desire to really impact the next generation of theatregoers.” As The Flea continues to expand, both in its programming and company of resident artists, the artistic director is dedicated to upholding the theatre’s mission of joyful artistry, while continuing to further wrestle with the important cultural conversations of our time, however uncomfortable. His theatre, after all, is called The Flea: “We’ll get underneath your skin.”

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