This May, Clubbed Thumb was set to celebrate the 25th season of Summerworks, its annual festival of new plays showcasing the "funny, strange, and provocative” aesthetic the company has become known for. While technically billed as a festival, founder and artistic director Maria Striar describes it as "more of a hyper condensed season," with each production receiving full development, design and rehearsal unique to each show.
Kicking off each year in the spring, the six-week event showcases new work by playwrights at all stages of their careers, while also serving as a launching pad for longer Off-Broadway, Broadway, and regional runs. Heidi Schreck's Tony-nominated What the Constitution Means to Me, Will Arbery's Plano, Sarah Einspanier’s Lunch Bunch, and Jaclyn Backhaus' Men on Boats all debuted at Summerworks. Other festival alums include Erin Courtney, Sarah Ruhl, Jordan Harrison, and Clare Barron.
This year's Summerworks, scheduled for May 15–July 1 at The Wild Project, was set to feature new works by Gab Reisman, Angela Hanks, and Rinne Groff. While the festival is postponed to later in the year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we asked Clubbed Thumb to dig into its archives for a look back at its 25 years of productions, and chat to Striar about the festival's origins, its growth, and the things she's most proud of.
Playbill: What was your goal in launching Summerworks 25 years ago?
Maria Striar: At the time, my cohorts and I were relatively newly in the city, relatively newly out of graduate school, and not thriving on waiting for others to give us opportunities. We wanted to do a play, so we put on a play, and then it grew. Our play was an hour ten, and we could only do it 16 times, but we had a theatre for a month, so… you know.
Summerworks was a name put on something that was being done once to give it a container of intention, curation, and resources that it did not have. I guess that’s why it’s such a generic name (obviously we went in a different direction naming Clubbed Thumb). And it was in July that first year. Since then, it’s mostly been in the late spring, though as is expands, it spreads a bit more into summer.
Was there a moment when you felt that the festival had real longevity?
I knew we wanted to do it again the next year and when we reached the 10-year-mark. But also, when every adaptation made it better—we tinker with it constantly, adding resources and reorganizing and addressing oversights and opportunities, incorporating the ideas of the people we work with on it. It’s still a very lean beast, but the fact that we are always honing the model keeps it live for us.
The multiplicity of the work might amplify the curatorial statement, more so than one single show or a season stretched out over months, and I think that has been effective for us. It compensates—or does now finally, since we’ve been doing it for some time—for the fact that the shows have short runs and we have small budgets and our work happens at the end of the usual season, and thus hasn’t always gotten the attention we’ve wanted for it.
After 25 years, what's something you're really proud of?
Of course I’m delighted that shows from Summerworks have gone as far as Broadway— in the past 12 months, had things been able to go forth as planned, four shows from recent Summerworks would have run at different times in New York alone.
I think we’ve charismatically championed alternative ideas about what a season is, and what a play is, and who should be in the story and on stage, and done so with enough regularity that we’ve moved the needle a little. I think we’ve done it with authenticity and integrity, always thoughtfully, resourcefully, and responsively.
We’ve got a much more diverse profile than we did in our first half. I love the mix of alumni and new artists we have each year, the blend of Broadway vet and professional debut. It’s most important to me that people have good time making good art—we can’t promise either, but everything we do is our best attempt equally prioritize the quality of the work experience and the quality of the work.