By CLAUDIO MARTINO
Dominic Spillane chuckled as he recalled the story of The Flea’s founding.
The Flea is a small theater located at 41 White St. in SoHo. Lacking any form of advertisement (save for a simple blackboard that reads “The Flea Theater Presents” in chalk), it could deceive a passerby into thinking the building was just another apartment complex. Despite its unassuming appearance, what it holds inside is a space ripe with imagination and experimentation.
When Jim Simpson founded the theater in 1996, he staunchly believed that the work created should stand for itself and not rely on associations built by names or titles. Owing to that belief, he named the theater The Flea and his actors The Furballs.
“You can’t make any assumptions based on that. Like if you call yourself ‘The Playwrights Theater,’ then we better see some good plays, you know?“ explained Spillane, the audience development associate at The Flea. “You call yourself ‘The Furballs,’ you’re like ‘what the hell?”
Eventually, Simpson would settle on calling his actors The Bats. “Apparently there was some review where somebody said something like, ‘You’d have to be batty to do work like this,’ and so Jim was like, ‘we are batty, so we’re The Bats.’ ” Spillane ends the story in a fit of amusement.
The Bats form The Flea’s residential acting company. free run 5.0 It is unique in that theaters often don’t have a repertoire of actors on hand, let alone 144 as The Flea currently boasts.
They specialize in producing high-risk and experimental theater in a professional fashion through two production series called “The Shakes” and “#Serials @ The Flea.” Both of these retain a unique episodic nature in their performances.
“The Shakes is somewhat of an experiment,” Spillane said. “When you have that many actors in the company you want to make sure that they have something substantial to do. Otherwise, they’re just sitting around and waiting to audition for one of the main stage shows.”
The idea of “The Shakes” grew out of The Pyramid Club’s rendition of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” in the 1980s, a production praised for its episodic nature and experimental adaptation of a classic. Keeping in tone, The Flea presented Thomas Dekker’s and Thomas Middleton’s five-act play “The Honest Whore” episodically last fall.
David Sernick, the marketing associate for The Flea, lamented that “The Honest Whore” was done in a more “traditional” fashion due to its obscurity. By comparison, when The Flea re-created “Romeo and Juliet” in Shakes style earlier this year, it was able to push the envelope farther and truly experiment.
“I felt that there was more artistic liberty with `Romeo and Juliet’ because more people knew it. For instance, in the balcony scene the lighting was all crowd sourced meaning they all had flashlights,” Sernick said. “But I don’t think, if you have a balcony scene in The Honest Whore that someone goes, ‘let’s do that,’ because no we just have to show the story of the ‘balcony scene.”
Though influenced by the Pyramid Club, The Shakes is a production that originally evolved from “#Serials @ The Flea,” a form of late night episodic theater. The audience watches five 10-minute productions, then votes for three favorites that return the next week with a new scene. The actors from the two that were dropped then return with entirely new productions.
The Serials series are based on original works by current playwrights while the Shakes adapts theatrical sources of the past.
The process of turning out Serials is quite lengthy, as Spillane revealed. Spillane spearheaded the Serials as its co-creator over two years ago. Since then The Flea has had 12 cycles and is currently in the 13th, which will last until March 30.
Although plays are traditionally written first and then cast, The Flea does things in reverse due to having an in-house cast of actors. Rather than cast the actors, it casts plays by calling upon scriptwriters and having them pitch ideas. “That was sort of a logistical trick to sort of manage that because it’s just not how the industry generally works,” Spillane said. “What we do is when we reach out to a writer, we say ‘submit this idea, you may never hear from us again.”
In the event the casts likes an idea, the writer is then told to write the script. free run 5.0 +3 femmes At the same time, two other ideas are chosen and called upon by the cast as back-ups for subsequent weeks. Thus in an ideal situation the actors will have three plays: one to premiere with and two extras for subsequent weeks, should the first play fail.
Serials are performed Thursday through Saturday. By Saturday, the audience’s votes are tallied via playbills that double as ballots. On Sunday the writers are contacted to prepare their scripts, which are submitted by Tuesday at the latest. The show is then rehearsed on Tuesday and Wednesday, and finally the stage is set for Thursday night when the process renews itself again for the next three weeks.
“The reason we came down to three weeks as being the limit of a cycle is because it’s just such a grueling process going on that you can push it to four weeks but by then people are so burnt out that they can’t do it,” Spillane said.
Even so, the idea of the creating experimental late-night theater seems to be a great success, both financial and artistic. Serials ran 225 plays across 45 weeks in the past two years, in collaboration with 69 playwrights and 48 directors.
The low-budget nature of late night theater allows The Flea to take drastic risks in a risk-free environment. It can experiment and use each night as a field test for various experiments and modifications, allowing the cast and crew to learn with every experience.
“But whatever we find that works in that setting, we can apply to our bigger shows as well,” Sernick said. “We also get to see what the artists and directors can do and handle. It’s the Vandal’s [the current main stage show] job to pay for the space. So we have other shows that are our main stage shows and they do have a higher responsibility to make back our investment on them.”