PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Douglas Aibel

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Douglas Aibel Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre recently turned 25 years old. For the majority of those years, its artistic director has been Douglas Aibel.
Doug Aibel, artistic director of The Vineyard Theatre.
Doug Aibel, artistic director of The Vineyard Theatre. Photo by Karjean Levine

Among the most noted Vineyard productions have been Paul Vogel's How I Learned to Drive and The Long Christmas Ride Home, Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls and Raised in Captivity, Edward Albee's Three Tall Woman, Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul, Becky Mode's Fully Committed, and the musicals Eli's Comin', [title of show] and Avenue Q. It's an eclectic collection, and that's how Aibel likes it. One of the New York theatre's most steadily successful, but determinedly low-profile artistic leaders took a few minutes out of his schedule to discuss his theatre, its past and its future.

Playbill.com: From July 11 to July 13, you're bringing back Voices in Conflict, the anti-Iraq-war play written by Connecticut high school students, who were banned by their school from performing. What made you want to bring this play to your theatre?
Doug Aibel: I first read about in The New York Times and followed the story. Then I read that members of the theatre community were getting behind the students, petitioning their school board about it. Simultaneously, one of my board members who knew some of the people involved called me and asked us if we'd consider being one of a triumvirate of theatres sponsoring a performance of the show. I immediately said yes. I thought it would be great. This was last month. What took me by surprise when we did it — I expected it to be an earnest, well-meaning, high-school play, [but] I was unprepared for how astonishing an experience it was. It was very powerful and beautifully acted and directed — and it was really balanced. I presented all points of view. We were blown away by its impact, and I was saddened by the fact that so few people were getting to see it. We were sold out. I had a series of conversations with the high school teacher. When you're planning things with high school students, you're running up against things like soccer camp. It was impossible to do a sustained run, but we managed to get all 19 kids together for a few performances. We're not charging admission, and we're nearly sold out.

Playbill.com: The Vineyard recently celebrated its 25th year. You've been with it nearly from its beginnings. Has your job changed much?
DA: What I've been very happy about, and one of the reasons I've stayed, is while we've expanded administratively, I think we've still maintained a personal and modest approach to making theatre. Not modest in ambition, but in the sense that I haven't lost my direct connection with the artist and the work. I work very directly with the playwright, director and the creative team from the very first idea to bringing it to creative life.

Playbill.com: What would you say the theatre's role is in the New York landscape?
DA: Well, I would leave that question to others. I'm not very good at tooting my own horn. I'd like to think we're seen by the public and artists as a theatre that continues to take risks. I think we work on a very ambitious landscape of plays and musicals, sometimes work that is really nervy and creatively distinctive. And while we've been blessed with some degree of commercial success and public awareness of our work, we've really maintained our independence and our ability to be this safe place for artists that we love to take chances.

Playbill.com: What constitutes a production that's right for the Vineyard?
DA: It's such a hard question to answer in non-general terms, because our work at its heart is very eclectic. I think when I first cut my teeth in the theatre, one thing I was determined to do when I had a theatre of my own was not to be pigeonholed. Mostly I just wanted to find artists and plays that spoke to me and took on issues of importance with some degree of daring and theatrical brio. There's that corny phrase, "I know it when I see it," and that connects with me. I often get e-mails, both pro and con, from patrons. And they often say, "This play felt very Vineyard to me." I never know what that means. Playbill.com: You've had great success with musicals, including Avenue Q, [title of show] and Goblet Market. Yet, you're often thought of as a theatre for plays.
DA: I think from the very beginning, and I must credit founder Barbara Zinn Krieger — she began the Vineyard with the idea of housing various disciplines together, including music and theatre and opera. We've had equal interest in exploring both arenas. That takes some moxie because musicals are both hard to do and often expensive. It's very easy to talk yourself out of producing a musical. There are so many factors at work as to whether they're going to come together properly. I've really made an effort every season to have a musical on the roster. But we are a playwrights' theatre and are dedicated to the writer. Again, it's that thing about not wanting to be pigeonholed.

Playbill.com: Avenue Q was your first Broadway transfer, and it's still there after a few years. Has it helped the company financially? Has it become what A Chorus Line was to the Public?
DA: No. Avenue Q has been a blessing for the company, and for The New Group, which co-produced it. But it's a small-scaled show. It's not a cash cow. We're not raking in millions every year. But it has provided a very steady piece of income to us in the last few years, which we've tried to use wisely, in particular to greenlight ambitious productions that otherwise we wouldn't have been able to do. We weren't suddenly deluged with this inheritance, which is probably a good thing, because I probably would have spent it all on a 600-character musical or something.

Playbill.com: You've done a lot of composer Polly Pen's work in the past, but nothing recently.
DA: Actually, we're working on trying to do a reunion reading of the first piece we did with Polly, which was Goblin Market, in the fall with the original cast, 20 years later. It was actually our first commercial transfer; it transferred to Circle in the Square. The original cast was Terri Klauser and Ann Morrison. Oddly enough, they're both the right age for the show now, because the show is about two mature women reliving this childhood experience. It will be interesting to look at it again. We're doing a couple of readings in celebration of the 25th anniversary, [including] a reunion reading of the Nicky Silver play Raised in Captivity, which was a huge success for us and because of cast conflicts, we could only run it for a month. We'll have Patricia Clarkson, Peter Frechette and Brian Kerwin.

Playbill.com: A lot of nonprofits in New York, as they've become more successful, have expanded to additional theatres, but you've stayed with your one stage there on E. 15th Street.
DA: We're actually actively looking for a second space. Real estate is at a premium right now. With all the artistic programming at this company, we're bursting at the seams. We're constantly facing this challenge of where to put stuff. We're definitely in the market for a second theatre. It's in our five-year plan. We're hoping to collaborate with a developer or the city in some way.