In 2010, writer and director James Presson decided to apply to FringeNYC with his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard 3. In reality, the show wasn’t nearly ready for production; he didn’t have a finished script, nor a creative team. So when it came to filling out his application form, Presson listed the names of actors and designers he’d like to work with, mostly fellow students from Fordham University. This was his dream team, except he forgot to tell any of them about it.
When Presson’s Richard 3 was accepted into the festival, the then-19 year old approached each of the people he had included on his submission form and asked them: Did they want to be a part of the show? Among those who said yes, was Rachel B. Joyce, who took on the role of Elizabeth in the play’s epic 18-person cast. “It was chaotic in the best way,” says Joyce. “We didn’t know what we were doing but we were just so excited to be making anything in New York.”
Despite their inexperience, the production was a success and was awarded two Fringe Excellence Awards. “By the end of that summer, we were all in one piece and we thought: ‘That was fun. We should do it again,” says Joyce. “Does that mean starting a company?”
And so began Less Than Rent, a dynamic theatre company dedicated to producing work that is self-described in-your-face and unapologetic. Of the 18 actors who worked on Richard 3, ten of those make up LTR today. “We bonded over a very clear aesthetic vision of what kind of theatre we like to make: fast and loud,” says Presson, who is co-artistic director. “Explosive and bursting-at-the-seams,” adds Joyce, also at the helm. It’s ensemble-driven work filled with music and choreography, and like their very first production, a signature LTR show has a big cast.
Since 2010, the company has produced 12 full-length plays, as well as numerous readings and workshops. Their work has been seen at HERE Arts Center, La MaMa, 59E59 Theaters, Theatre Row, The Wild Project, and currently, at the New Ohio Theatre, where LTR is producing Presson’s newest work: F*ck Marry Kill. The show—which mashes up the high drama of Jacobean theatre and the pandemonium of high school—follows a group of teens in their final semester as they grapple with loyalty, lust, narcissism, and nihilism. There’s also a “20-minute long prom sequence.”
The show is currently in the middle of it’s two-and-a-half week run, almost half of which had already sold out prior to the first performance. But it’s been an uphill climb for the seven-year-old company, who held their first business meeting in a bar on the Upper West Side. After the success of their Fringe endeavor, the newly-formed LTR ambitiously pre-booked three venues for the following summer—“which was madness,” admits Joyce.
While FringeNYC had provided them with a strong framework in the way of marketing tools, press support, and producing help, they were now doing it solo, and realized they had a lot to learn. “We didn’t have institutional support anymore and had to recalibrate,” says Presson.
Their biggest hurdle was generating an audience base. Whereas the Fringe Festival more or less guarantees a certain number of ticket sales, Joyce and Presson quickly realized that they didn’t have that same luxury when producing independently. Part of overcoming that hurdle producing enough work to get noticed, but rather than rely on word of mouth, they decided to budget early on for a press agent. Like any non-profit, LTR’s budget is shoe-string, so they must allocate money where they feel it is most beneficial and they save on production costs by calling in favors and borrowing whatever they can.
“One of the realities is that there’s never enough money,” says Presson, “but [we] keep going anyway.”
Rather than try to do everything themselves, or assign company members to take on odd jobs, Joyce and Presson also learned the benefits of appointing specific roles to members: a managing director, a producing director, a development director, and so on.
Gradually, with the benefit of learning from every production—and a relentless dedication to continue producing no matter what—LTR grew from a slap-dash theatre troupe to a more serious company. Their origin story might be one of chance, but their success certainly won’t be.
F*ck Marry Kill is currently playing at the New Ohio through November 12. For tickets and more information visit LessThanRent.org/fmk.