Downtown Dramatics IV: New York Theatre Workshop

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Emma Gold is a Highlighter staff columnist.

It’s hard to make out the New York Theatre Workshop from the surrounding architecture with its minimalist exterior and unassuming glass doors. Within this downtown institution, however, history has been made since its founding in 1979. Its main theatre is a 198-seat proscenium stage, but instead of the polished walls and sconces you’d normally see even in an off-Broadway space, you’re greeted with exposed brick, pipes, and wires. It seems modest, but it’s impossible to forget the shows that have graced that stage in its past. With over 500 affiliated artists referred to as the “Usual Suspects,” it’s difficult to find a limit to the renowned directors and playwrights that have both workshopped in its 75-seat blackbox and led productions on the mainstage.

NYTW’s first seasonal venue was the Perry Street Theatre in the West Village, and its current 79 E 4th Street address wasn’t purchased until 1992. New York Theatre Workshop’s newer location also became included in the rich history of the Fourth Arts Block. Founded in 2001 as an extension of the East 4th Street Cultural District, this organization acquired eight city-owned buildings with the purposes of fostering art in the area, and is now home to 12 art groups and 17 performance and rehearsal venues. New York Theatre Workshop stands prominently among the other cultural institutions in the East Village as one that has, in their words, become a “laboratory for theatrical exploration.”

One of the most significant alums of NYTW is Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” which premiered there after two years of workshops just blocks away from the 11th Street and Avenue B lot referenced in the musical. “Rent” was an utterly revolutionary rock musical, finding commercial success for over a decade after catapulting from East 4th Street to Broadway. Tony-Award-winning productions that have originated here also include “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a popular show from the 2010-11 season that featured Celia Keenan-Bolger and Christian Borle, and “Once,” a long-running, minimalist, and gorgeous musical based on the 2007 movie of the same name.

This season has shined a spotlight once again on New York Theatre Workshop, most significantly with “Lazarus,” the impenetrably sold out and ultimately memorializing David Bowie musical. Directed by Ivo Van Hove who has also helmed “A View From The Bridge” and “The Crucible” uptown, this production was vehemently sought after by David Bowie die-hards and theatre patrons alike. Theatre critic Ben Brantley called it a “sci-fi pageant of extraterrestrial angst,” a strange and often indescribable foray into David Bowie’s alien universe. Although due to its oddities the show wasn’t initially planning on transferring uptown, it suddenly (and unfortunately) became a foreseeable option after Bowie’s death.

“Red Speedo,” written by Lucas Hnath and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, opened this past week at NYTW. Hnath’s play “The Christians” was well-received at Playwrights Horizons earlier this season, and “Red Speedo” is surprisingly contrasting. Written with characters tripping over their own language, this play depicts the rocky relationships between brothers, a swimmer, and his performance enhancing drugs. One of the most intriguing aspects of this production is the full pool onstage. Its glass walls allow the audience to see the main character do laps, and provides a fascinating setting for the dramatic action. After “Red Speedo” shutters, “Hadestown” will take its place in May. Rachel Chavkin will direct the production, who has directed the past and future iterations of “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” Written by folk singer Anaïs Mitchell and based off of her 2010 concept album of the same name, this likely unconventional folk opera will tell the tale of Orpheus’ quest and an industrial, post-apocalyptic world called Hadestown. A production of “Othello” is already set for next season, directed by Sam Gold and featuring film stars Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. Although no other productions have been announced yet, the future of New York Theatre Workshop will undoubtedly be game-changing.

Bonus Fun Fact: On Friday, the upcoming film “Collateral Beauty” happened to be shooting a scene with Keira Knightley and Edward Norton directly in front of New York Theatre Workshop’s doors.

Rush tickets are available when the box office opens (normally at noon) for $25.

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