Elysabeth Kleinhans Stages a Play in the House She Built — 59E59 Theaters
By Kenneth Jones
The U.S. premiere of Take No Survivors by Gerard Bagardie at 59E59 Theaters is part of the New York City-wide "Act French" festival celebrating contemporary French theatre, but it also marks another milestone.
Produced by Kleinhans' not-for-profit company Animated Theaterworks, Take No Survivors, began Oct. 27 and plays to Nov. 13 in the flexible 50-to-70-seat Theater C in the three-venue hive known for being a home to lesser-known playwrights, international troupes, emerging plays and fledgling not-for-profit American companies.
In addition to housing Theater C and the 99-seat Theater B, the building — which opened its doors Feb. 1, 2004 — provides a seasonal home to Off-Broadway's Primary Stages in the 199-seat Theater A.
"I have a little production company I started in 1999 and we've done five plays around town, and most of them I've directed," Kleinhans told Playbill.com. "We had a show in February that I did not direct — I was too busy, but I'm happy to be getting back to directing."
Being "too busy" is common for Kleinhans, who not only oversees the operation and programming of the East 59th Street edifice, which is run by The Elysabeth Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation, but seeks and develops new scripts for her Animated Theaterworks, Inc.
Her current jobs — running the 59E59 operation with executive producer Peter Tear and running a separate not-for-profit Off-Off-Broadway troupe — represent two of many hats she has worn in a varied life in progress.
"I've done a lot of stuff," she admitted. "I had a gallery for a little while, I was a real estate person, I was a librarian, I was an attorney, I did a lot of things. What got me into this was I dated an actor for a while — terrible mistake that is! He was involved in some little group, and I saw the process. During the time I was dating him he was involved in a play, they put on a play, so I saw it from start to finish. I thought, this is great. This is fun. This is different. I realized it was something I was interested in."
Pulled in several directions, she admits with a laugh, "I'm changing hats every five minutes. Running the theatre is much more like real estate. What concerns me when I run the theatre is that the roof doesn't leak."
What was the goal of 59E59 Theaters?
"I wanted people to have a nice clean place to work and not go bankrupt doing it," she said. "That was the goal. And to allow smaller companies who don't have a lot of money to be able to get noticed. And they're not sitting with 20 people piled into a two-person dressing room. I wanted people to be happy here."
She and her executive producer Peter Tear seek out plays and not-for-profit producers, but troupes also come to them. (The 59E59.org website has contact information.)
"We don't rent to just anybody," Kleinhans explained. "Frequently people inquire about renting the space and then we say, 'What is it?' and 'Send us a script.'"
59E59 offers space to people with some kind of production track record, "but not necessarily big things," Kleinhans said. "We do small companies. When I was producing before I had the theatre, I was at several different venues and uniformly they 'didn't appeal,' shall we say? When I started designing this with my architect I said, 'I know exactly what I want. I want a place that I would want to be in.'"
That meant, among other things, bathrooms and plumbing that worked and dressing rooms that were not overcrowded and filthy.
Jammed in between other buildings on East 59th Street between Madison and Park, the new construction came with some restrictions.
"We were very constrained," she said. "We couldn't build up. Within the confines of the space — we only have 36 feet wide and 100 feet deep, and that's it — we did our best. If it was a choice of sacrificing my office or the dressing room, well, my office got smaller."
Kleinhans said the rental rates at her place "are probably about the same as a lot of the smaller venues, but we offer everything: the box office is there, the ushers are there, the lighting and sound package is there. We don't [provide] any funding. That's not what we're about. We provide a lot of marketing, we send out the postcards and brochures and the email blasts. We do our best to get the reviewers in here."
Kleinhans said that it will gratify her one day to receive a letter from a playwright telling her that 59E59 Theaters provided a safe, affordable early space for an emerging work prior to it becoming a wider hit.
"I would be thrilled," Kleinhans said. "To me, that is exactly what it should be: Something gets a little showcase here and gets picked up and moved somewhere. That's exactly what we want."
Meanwhile, Kleinhans has her hands full this month with Take No Survivors, a play that, like other works presented by her Animated Theaterworks company, went through a unique development process before production. The U.S. premiere staging features actresses Ruthanne Gereghty and Corey Tazmania.
Arnold Slater, the American who translated the work by French writer Gerard Bagardie, sent Kleinhans the script and she arranged for two readings of it.
"We usually work with playwrights," she said. "Animated Theaterworks is geared to give a playwright an opportunity to hear his play and then get criticism. This one's a little different in that this time I worked with a translator. The playwright was here in May, too, and we had two readings."
Those who attend informal readings in Kleinhans' capacious living room are not theatre industry people, but friends and people who have attended past shows — average theatregoers, you might say.
"That's the whole point," she said. "I invite people who have shown interest, or friends. But not theatre people, mostly. We try to avoid that because then you're not getting a real opinion. I say to them, 'you'd rather hear it from my group than The New York Times.' Usually I have two readings with two different casts and two different groups. One on a Tuesday and one on a Thursday. It's kind of like a control group. The poor playwright gets to listen to two different groups. It's really interesting: If the two groups say the same thing, it's the play. If they say different things, then maybe it's the actors."
Did the May readings of Take No Survivors prompt any changes in the script?
"We cut a whole lot out of the play," she said. "And we changed the ending. The playwright and translator and I sat around, and the playwright came up with this concept — because there were a lot of questions about the ending. Essentially, we now have three endings that we present one after the other. It's more or less 'take your pick.'"
Since its founding in 1999, Animated Theaterworks has produced five plays, all started in living room readings.
Take No Survivors is a politically-charged drama set in 2050 Paris. According to production notes, "The Youth Brigades have stormed the barricades and are facing off with the Government troops. Civil War is imminent. The President has agreed to meet the young revolutionary leader, who demands control of the Government. In a tense and suspenseful pas de deux, these two ruthless, ambitious and ideological women spar for advantage throughout the night, determining the fate of Europe."
International work is nothing new for this young operation. 59E59 Theaters is where the Brits Off Broadway Festival of new plays from the U.K. was held in 2004 and 2005.
Primary Stages is the resident professional company there. Is there room to have another resident company at 59E59 Theaters?
"There is certainly no room in the big theatre," Kleinhans said. "I am rather loathe to do that with the other two theatres. We may be booked in Theater B through October of next year. I'm a little hesitant to give anybody any commitment for time because there's so many interesting things out there. There's always something new happening here. We want to be a local place. We want to be the equivalent of a movie theatre. You don't know what you're doing that night? So you go around the corner and see what's playing."
Take No Survivors plays Wednesday-Friday at 8:30 PM, Saturday at 2:30 PM and 8:30 PM and Sunday at 3:30 PM. Single tickets are $15 ($10.50 for 59E59 members) and are available by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or online at www.ticketcentral.com.
For more information visit www.59e59.org.
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