The Debates has been, by far, our biggest project. It’s been through many iterations, encompassing dozens of public events, hundreds of people, and nearly a thousand footnotes in the published scripts.
The project began in Ithaca, NY, where I was serving as a Drama League Directing Fellow at the Hangar Theatre. It was Summer 2015: Obama was president, Bernie Sanders was a relative unknown, and our current clown-in-chief was still a harmless sideshow. The 2016 presidential campaign was just beginning in earnest, and I was curious to explore previous presidential debates. With an eager company of young actors, I began digging into excerpts of the infamous 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. We sought to explore what was specific to the very first televised debate, the debate that literally invented the genre. During this exploration, however, we discovered that the process—analyzing a debate transcript, having different people “try on” the candidates, and experimenting with candidates’ projected images—was more compelling and empowering than the show we initially set out to make. By the time my fellowship ended and I returned to New York, the Kennedy/Nixon idea was scrapped and we dove full steam ahead into what became The Debates 2016.
Between October 2015 and April 2016, we presented nine Watch Parties and Political Analysis Meetings; expanded our team of actors and researchers; and presented six distinct workshops, clarifying our newfound process along the way. By the time the field of candidates had dwindled to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, we had a show we were proud of. We presented The Debates 2016: Democratic Primary Edition in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, before each state’s primary, and the response was thrilling. NY City Lens wrote, "Not only was The Debates… about politics. It was politics." The Hartford Courant wrote, "[The Debates] was the way to spend the nervous hours before voting... Forthright, in-your-face, up-to-the-minute..."
That September, we began the process again with the general election. We watched and analyzed the debates, crafted a script and performed at the beloved Under St. Marks theater the night before Hillary Clinton’s assured victory. And… we all know how that election turned out. We learned, however, that our Debates work is strongest when it shines a light on challenging questions and complicated candidates. The problem with the 2016 general election was that, for our community, the decision was crystal clear. The notion of stepping into that particular Republican nominee’s shoes and words, with empathy, was just… not possible for us.
We believe there is an audience for a Debates show that includes our 45th president, and a company who can make it, but Theater in Asylum is not it. We do our best work when there is a diversity of political opinion in the room and when there’s something to debate. With the general election, we didn’t have those things. The choice was clear for our community, and this led to a production that didn’t expose choices or the debate we assumed was needed.
In the last four years, the country has changed in ways we never thought imaginable. The urgency around the 2020 election couldn’t be higher, and when the Democratic primary debates started in June 2019, it was clear that we needed to mount another Debates show. The Debates 2020 roared with excitement, following over 20 candidates with 12 Watch Parties, 10 Political Analysis Meetings, 5 Cabarets, and a much-needed debate about the candidates and issues. We had political diversity in the room, with a left contingent split between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and a moderate contingent that split and shifted throughout the year. When the pandemic struck and the production was cancelled, we were again at a loss. What do we do with this work?
With the country facing both a raging virus and an urgent reckoning with race, we moved online and reframed much of the show. The Debates 2020 performed on Zoom just before New York’s rescheduled primary on June 21, 2020, and while the race for the Democratic nomination was largely already decided, the piece bloomed and provoked an incredible conversation about our country that reverberated in our community for weeks. Who were we and who are we, really, as a country? What does it mean to rally behind a candidate –– which parts of their and your own identity are you connecting to? And which parts are you disconnecting from?
I am immensely proud of The Debates and the team who followed its evolving raison d'être. I’m so grateful to these people for their bravery and curiosity. Our scripts are still online, available to all. I don’t know how they’ll age and I'll be curious to revisit them in a few months or a few years, after we’ve hopefully begun healing and growing as a nation. I know that the work we did on the 2016 and 2020 primary contests was relevant and useful to the team and our community. I look forward, with hope, to future debates and the chance to ask again: who are we, and who do we want to be?
Early in 2015, while preparing to apply to be a Drama League Directing Fellow, I was devouring scripts and trying to come up with brilliant production ideas to include in my application. Daunted by the amount of reading and the often-dispiriting notion of having brilliant ideas alone, some friends and I began meeting to read and discuss plays together. This was in the basement of the indoor kids playground where I worked at the time, and the casual gathering quickly grew into one of Theater in Asylum’s most successful and enduring programs.
Six years and 90 plays later, the Cold Reading series remains one of my favorite things. For those who have never been, we gather with no preparation to read and then discuss a play. For years, Katie or I facilitated each Cold Reading, but about a year ago we started commissioning guest facilitators, which opened up the curation of plays and has been so wonderful. This year our playwrights Gethsemane Herron-Coward and Willie Johnson, playwright and director Ran Xia, and actors Kara Hankard, Jonas Cohen, and Manuela Sosa all facilitated. Our Community Engagement Manager Hilarie Spangler has also been facilitating. We’ve assembled quite the team to pick plays and run readings!
Looking back on all the plays we’ve read, however, some interesting trends emerge. The two eras we’ve read from the most are the 1990s and the 1930s. After the United States, the country whose plays we’ve read the most is Germany, followed by the UK. Our most repeated playwrights are Bertolt Brecht and Caryl Churchill. The oldest plays we read are by Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, who lived from 935-1001. The newest plays we’ve read are from this year, written in quarantine by dozens of playwrights, commissioned by the Play at Home series.
When New York went into quarantine earlier this year, we shifted our monthly in-person gatherings to weekly online gatherings. Our community grew both in number and geographical reach, with people outside of New York newly able to participate. We now regularly have readers from multiple states, countries, and even continents. The discussions have also grown. While we nearly always discuss questions like, “What stood out?” and “What challenges would arise in producing this today?”, the pandemic, the uprising for Black lives, and the upcoming election have brought tremendous urgency to the issues of societal responsibility, equity, representation, power, and protest. These have supercharged our discussions recently and brought necessary lenses to work new and old.
Looking ahead, we’ll reach our 100th Cold Reading this December and I couldn’t be more proud and grateful. Cold Readings began as a place to share an overwhelming stack of plays to read for an application (which succeeded, by the way), but has since grown to something so much more valuable. I cherish my Wednesday nights and look forward to the plays, the completely unprepared performances, and the thrilling discussions with friends.
By Katie Palmer
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
By 2015 Paul and I had created five original shows. Being the lead creative forces behind shows was exhausting! But it was also limiting the stories we could tell and how we could tell them. Relatedly, I had always wanted to write a musical. I had performed in them for twenty years and I wanted to add my voice to this canon I loved so much. And I found the most incredible partners to write it with, who I knew were special right away. You know those spark moments when you just know the event or the person is important? Meeting Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed and then Sarah Ziegler was just like that.
The idea for creating a show around the Brontë sisters was Lucas’ idea. At the very end of a 2-hour lunch at AppleJack Diner on Broadway and 55th Street, after Lucas had pitched every idea he’d ever had for a musical, he tossed out “What about Charlotte and Emily Brontë, who wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights?” It was a giant lightbulb moment: here were misunderstood artistic geniuses who railed against their society to prove their worth—the perfect TIA subjects.
We met with Sarah a few weeks later at a Starbucks in Tribeca, and the rest is history. Well, the rest was actually an incredible amount of research, drafting, workshopping, and dreaming. Lucas composed, Sarah wrote the lyrics, and the three of us collaborated on the book. The process culminated in a glorious three-night run outdoors, behind the Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn. While there are many things to be proud of from that production, I think I am most proud of how mesmerizing the experience of the show was: the simple set, evocative costumes, bold lighting outdoors, top-notch orchestra, and stunning performances against a backdrop of an 18th century house on a magical New York summer night. It doesn’t get any better than that.
At this time, Paul was also expanding his crew of collaborators, finding himself drawn to the political and the zany. After directing a few shows by the incredible playwright Alice Pencavel, the perfect show arose for a Theater in Asylum collaboration: Totally Wholesome Foods. The piece, a satire about well-meaning Brooklynites who face a choice between their “woke” values and their livelihoods, won a residency to be produced at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild. It was our first out-right comedy and our first production where neither Paul nor I had a writing credit, and the show was utterly, totally awesome.
Earlier this year, we collaborated with another playwright, the amazing Willie Johnson. Anyone who knows Willie can tell you that he brings playfulness, deep rigor, and a political emphasis to his work. He studies the theories behind his work and Hephaestus was no exception. Epic in scale, the piece wove multiple Greek myths together, exploring ancient and modern notions of work, beauty, class, and dis/ability. With an incredible team of actors and designers, and the support of the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, we shared three exciting performances of Hephaestus just before New York City shut down in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
We are so grateful to these collaborating lead artists for entrusting us with their stories and expanding the scope of what a TIA show could be. Thank you for your inspiration, generosity, and passion.
By Katie Palmer
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
While Nijinsky in Asylum was our first show, I have a theory that The Death/Memory Project, TIA’s first cabaret, is what made us an actual company with staying power.
The prompt was simple: create a piece that responds to the correlation of death and memory. TIA created what might be our favorite piece to date (or at least, we’ve forgotten so much of it that what is left holds the dearest place in our memory): “The Persistence of Annabel Lee,” inspired by the paintings “The Persistence of Time” and “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Time” by Salvador Dalí, and the poem “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe. It was an abstract movement piece with evocative music, an eerie choreographic style, and otherworldly costumes by Ramsey Scott.
We reached out with our prompt to every artist we knew—college friends, new friends, musicians—and they all came ready to play with beautiful short pieces. It was, like all things we do, wildly ambitious: 3-plus hours long, 20-some-odd acts, the room packed to the gills. It was an explosion of joy and community unlike anything I had experienced in theater before. I couldn’t believe we had brought together all these factions of our lives to make work on a single theme and ponder the art together.
We got such positive feedback, and we were really proud of ourselves. So we thought, we have to keep doing this. We have to keep making spaces for this work and this community.
My other theory is: things have to be really good the first time you try it in order for you to ever try doing it again.
We settled into this format and have produced 17 cabarets in 10 years. They have been a tremendous amount of work: wrangling—and inspiring—upwards of 50 artists for one-night-only events, securing venues, enticing audiences. We’ve performed in the back rooms of bars, on carpeted floors, and in beautiful theaters. We’ve had full houses and audiences of just ten. The themes have ranged from huge spiritual questions to granular political issues.
But the same core has been there every single time: people sharing, learning, and communing through art. The exuberance each cabaret brings is a feeling we will continue to chase time and time again.
¡Olé! was a labor of love and pain and obsession. It explores the role of the artist, the spirit, shame, responsibility, and, ultimately, death. Personally, the piece is yet one more place for me to ask questions about my art, whether I make it to move forward or to hide; questions about love and sex, whether it’s good and worthy of some sort of “pride”; and questions about the places that made me, whether “American” or “New Yorker” really mean anything, and if I have a responsibility to these places. Should we, like poet Federico García Lorca believed, create art to confront our fears, love with proud intensity, and stay true to our homes, life or death? Or should we, as painter Salvador Dalí believed, strive to free ourselves from perceived responsibilities and constraints, create art to assist others doing the same, and seek to lead people towards complete “social emancipation”?
Dalí and Lorca’s story has long obsessed and troubled me. In making the show, we sought to chronicle their meeting, their semi-secret affair, and the years-long correspondence they kept, debating art and love and Spain and death. When Francisco Franco rose to power and Spain descended into war, it was clear that socialists and homosexuals like Lorca were not safe in Spain. Dalí, already making a splash in Paris, pleaded with Lorca to flee to Paris—or anywhere—and write in safety. But Lorca stayed.
Lorca spoke and wrote frequently during his life of “el duende,” a sort of life-force animated in those who, like the bullfighter or the flamenco dancer, bravely stare down and face what may kill them. After a brief stint in the United States, he returned—despite knowing Spain was unsafe for him—to his native Granada, where Franco’s forces could easily find him. There’s no doubt in my mind that Federico García Lorca knew what he was doing and what would happen. On August 19, 1936, he was assassinated. His body was never found.
Salvador Dalí survived. He moved around, fleeing Europe entirely when war swept the continent soon after Lorca’s death. Dalí’s career was long and notorious. His melting clocks and iconic moustache can be found on t-shirts and mugs around the world. He did what he had to and survived. He went where he could work, shot commercials for chocolate bars and Alka-Seltzer, denied the more controversial aspects of his life, and leaned into a popular eccentricity. All of this made his career and influence possible.
I wonder all the time, do I owe something to the United States or to New York, even as I rail against their oppressive systems and structures that make art so constrained and a dignified life impossible for so many? What aspects of my life still lie beyond reach because I’m not willing to face what frightens me, what may kill me? What aspects of my love still lie beyond reach for reasons of my own shame? I’m asking these questions all over again as our nation convulses with pain and death, incited by forces old and new. Withstand it? Fight the good fight within it? Or flee? Repress? Survive? Try to go somewhere else, somewhere with better support for the arts and for people? Make my work in struggle or in peace?
Creating, producing, and touring ¡Olé! was an incredible experience. It started with a visit Katie and I made to Spain in 2011. After a year of obsessing, researching, and writing, we had the opportunity to produce the piece with the support of a residency in New York before touring it to Hartford, Chicago, Rochester, and Prague.
We’ve remounted ¡Olé! more times than any of our other productions, giving me –– and I hope others –– the chance to ask all these questions again and again, in different places and at different times. Ten years into Theater in Asylum and seven years since ¡Olé!’s first staging, I’m as stuck as ever on these questions.
I’ll leave you with a final thought from that survivor Dalí: “The personality of Federico Garcia Lorca produced an immense impression on me. The poetic phenomenon presented itself before me suddenly in flesh and bone, confused, blood-red, vicious and sublime, quivering with a thousand fires of darkness. When I felt the incendiary and communicative fire of the poetry of the great Federico rise in wild, disheveled flames, I tried to beat them down, while already preparing the grill on which, when the day came, when only glowing embers remained of Lorca’s initial fire, I would come and fry the mushrooms, the chops and the sardines of my thought…”
By Kathryn Appleton
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
We were young. Hungry. Super ambitious. In need of accomplices.
With two full productions under our belt, we were looking for our next endeavor and someone to help us produce. We were extremely fortunate to be awarded a year-long residency at Horse Trade Theater, a small, longstanding East Village theatrical producing company, now known as FRIGID New York. During this residency, we produced three full-length shows in ten months--Revolution in 1, ¡Olé!, and #Coriolanus—as well as multiple cabarets and many fundraising events. Looking back now, it’s wild that we did it all!
It was at Horse Trade that we got our footing as a company. We learned how to produce multiple events at one time, we grew an audience and a following, we met people who would become some of our closest collaborators, and we became much more embedded in the East Village theater scene. We honed our creative process and laid the groundwork for the future of our company. We became closer (literally and figuratively) as a team, spending each Sunday evening together cramped in a tiny office at Horse Trade.
Horse Trade was the first of many organizations who would help drive our success and continued existence these past 10 years. Since our time at Horse Trade, we’ve worked with three other New York companies to present our work. In summer 2017, we partnered with Piper Theatre to present our new musical The Brontës at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. Two years later, we worked with the Episcopal Actors’ Guild to present the world premiere production of Alice Pencavel’s Totally Wholesome Foods. Most recently, we partnered with the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center to present Willie Johnson’s Hephaestus in the Rough Draft Festival.
Theaters haven’t been the only organizations to open doors for us. Our fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, has guided us in seeking grants and donations, while the Alliance of Resident Theaters New York (A.R.T./New York) made multiple grants (space and money) available to us. In fact, we were able to hire our first Community Engagement Manager through the support of the Nancy Quinn Fund, administered by A.R.T./New York.
In May 2017, we were so fortunate to find our home in a newly opened space called The Artist Co-op, putting an end to years of battling for tables (and quiet) in cafes around New York City. The Artist Co-op provided us with a cost-efficient co-working space where we could hold meetings, rehearsals, and... just do the work.
Producing theater takes time, space, money, patience, legal know-how, and… allies. We’re so grateful for all of the companies and friends who have allied with us and supported our work along the way. We’ve missed you, and we can’t wait to get back in the theater when it's safe to gather again.
Theater in Asylum (TIA) is a New York-based theater company founded in 2010 to joyfully pursues a theater of learning, empathy, and growth. With rigorous research and an ensemble-driven approach, we create performances to investigate our past, interpret our present, and imagine our future. We strive to offer space to question, space to process –asylum– for theater and conversation that challenges and empowers ourselves and our community.
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