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BY TRAV S.D. | Much change of an ostensibly positive sort has been taking place at major Off-Off Broadway institutions in recent months. As we have reported here, La MaMa is now beginning a major renovation project, and Performance Space New York (formerly PS122) has just reopened, with a new artistic director at the helm. Similar transformations have been taking place at The Flea Theater, which has gotten a new artistic director, moved from their longtime home on White St. to a new one at nearby 20 Thomas St., and announced a series of innovative artistic partnerships with smaller organizations.
The Flea was founded in 1996 by Jim Simpson and actress Sigourney Weaver (his wife), along with playwright Mac Wellman and lighting and stage technology professional Kyle Chepulis. It was originally intended to be a “five year experiment,” but in 2001 the company had a major hit with Anne Nelson’s “The Guys,” The Flea’s response to the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center, which occurred only four blocks away from their theater. The Flea then made a long-term commitment to serving the Downtown community.
Over the years, they have commissioned dozens of timely works by the likes of Christopher Durang, Elizabeth Swados, José Rivera, Qui Nguyen, Adam Rapp, and Thomas Bradshaw, and presented 10 world premiere productions by A.R. Gurney. They are also known for The Bats — their resident acting company, selected from thousands of applicants annually.
After nearly two decades of leading the organization, in 2015 Simpson stepped down as artistic director, handing the reigns to Niegel Smith, a director and performance artist with a track record at such venues as The Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons, PS122, and Abrons Arts Center.
“Off-Off Broadway needs to keep reinventing itself,” said Carol Ostrow, who has been the Flea’s producing director since 2001. “Jim and Sigourney are in a different place now. Their daughter is all grown up. They decided it was time to do something new. They are based out of LA now, although they are still on our board, and still very much involved with the company. Niegel was brought on prior to the move to the new space. He oversaw the final stages of the transition and planned the recent fall season and the one now coming up.”
After 15 years on White St., The Flea unveiled its new home at 20 Thomas St. (btw. Broadway & Church) in September 2017. The new facility has three separate theaters: The Sam, named after the theatrical agent Sam Cohn; The Pete, named to honor the late playwright A.R. Gurney, who passed away last June; and The Siggy, named for Sigourney Weaver. The theaters have flexible seating, but are normally configured to under 99 seats.
“[The new location] is the same, but better!” Ostrow gushed. “It’s very reminiscent of the old Flea, very much Off-Off Broadway. Small, and with affordable tickets. It’s just a little bigger and nicer. The seats have been refurbished. But when you walk in, it totally takes you back to downstairs at the [old] Flea.”
To maximize the new space, The Flea has inaugurated a formal program of what they call Anchor Partnerships, season-long residencies by smaller companies with a track record of producing on The Flea’s small scale. The Flea’s current Anchor Partners include LAVA (which has been in residence at the Flea since 1999), New Georges, EPIC Players, ARTEK, and The Bang Group.
Their current and upcoming programming couldn’t be more appropriate for our times. Billed as “The Season of Womyn” (their spelling), it spotlights work largely by and about women. “It’s serendipity that we’re presenting this work now,” Ostrow noted. “We had been planning these shows for some time and noticed a common thread that went through the work and went ‘A-ha!’ But that’s what The Flea and Off-Off Broadway are supposed to do: respond quickly.”
The Flea’s Season of Womyn kicks off with the premiere of Steph Del Rosso’s drama “Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill,” in which a woman tries to fill the various physical holes she feels after a painful breakup. Resident director Marina McClure helms a cast comprising members of The Bats (now through Feb. 25).
Upcoming productions in the Season of Womyn include “Locked up B*tches” (Feb. 21–April 28), a “hip-hop musical parody of a certain Netflix women’s prison drama” in which the characters are all dogs, written by Catya McMullen with music by Scott Klopfenstein, choreographed and directed by Michael Raine; and “ms. Estrada” (March 22-April 22) is a hip-hop version of “Lysistrata” written and performed by Q Brothers Collective, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, and choreographed by Ana “Rokafella” Garcia.
In addition, from Feb. 14 through March 4, Flea Anchor Partner New Georges (which has been producing work exclusively by women since 1992) will be presenting two sound-design oriented plays in repertory: “Sound House,” inspired by the work of British composer Daphne Oram, written by Stephanie Fleischmann and directed by Debbie Saivetz; and “This is the Color Described by the Time” by Lily Whitsitt and Door 10, based on the writings of Gertrude Stein.
Also on their calendar, a return of their late night series “Serials,” a children’s theater series called “Cereals,” and “Flea Fridays,” an immersive weekend cabaret. For more information, visit theflea.org.