By Katie Palmer
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
Paul and I met in 2006, before our freshman year classes even started at NYU. We quickly became close friends and frequent collaborators, but it was the project Paul proposed for senior year that turned us into forever collaborators and catalyzed the formation of our company.
While I was studying abroad in Florence, I got a message from Paul. It felt a bit random, but he was very excited and it couldn't wait. Paul began introducing me to his latest obsession: Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky was a revolutionary choreographer working in Paris with the Ballet Russe in the early 1910s. He set the art world on fire with his revolutionarily primal and proto-modern choreography, and the reaction to his work is encapsulated in the riot that erupted during the premiere of his biggest work, The Rite of Spring. Alongside his trailblazing career, Nijinsky had tumultuous (and public) relationships with impresario Serge Diaghilev and dancer Romola Pulszky. His career was cut short in 1917, however, when he experienced a breakdown and subsequently spent the last 30 years of his life in and out of mental asylums. We were enamored with Nijinsky’s story and the diary he wrote while institutionalized. He had a difficult life, often imprisoned in an asylum. We wondered how we might be able to offer him another kind of asylum: safe haven for those with dangerous ideas, misunderstood at the time.
We began crafting a piece to tell that story with five marvelous dancer-actors who said yes to this wild, inventive ride. The piece had no words, and we sought to combine some of Nijinsky’s choreography with my own. Randall Benichak crafted an original score, combining excerpts of the music Nijinsky danced to (including The Rite of Spring, which was Paul’s ringtone for years). That first production featured a live chamber orchestra and was a fantasia of repetition, movement, and experimentation. We were breathless by the end of the process—not entirely sure of what we made, but knowing it was something exciting.
Come May 2010, we were freshly minted graduates hungry to get out into the world. We thought, let’s put on the show again—there was so much more of the story to tell. The single-act original piece became a three-act, with each act told from a different character’s point of view. Randall incorporated even more music from Nijinsky’s ballets and conducted an even bigger orchestra. We dreamed bigger and spent the summer manifesting those dreams. The production needed a no-nonsense big dreamer to step in and help manage the whole thing: enter Kathryn Appleton. Paul and Katie courted Kathryn with a pancake breakfast (which we did not make), and she was reckless enough to say yes to this ambition and talented enough to wrangle it. With the three of us shepherding the piece, we opened Nijinsky in Asylum in September 2010 at Steps on Broadway, a prominent dance studio on the Upper West Side.
A few weeks later, after the rush of it all, Paul and I met with a few others at our favorite bar, Dempsey’s (RIP), to dream of what could come next. Nijinsky in Asylum was such a success, and we loved working together. We were teeming with ideas for shows. “We should do this again,” we thought. Everyone nodded in agreement, but questions arose about all that would need to happen for us to do it again. “Well, if we were to do this again, we would need a name.” What to call ourselves, the makers of Nijinsky in Asylum? The notion of asylum as a kind of safety, a place to put the world on pause in order to explore ideas, captivated us. In a flash I said, “Theater in Asylum.” It just… felt… perfect. 10 years later and here we are!
Theater in Asylum (TIA) is a New York-based theater company founded in 2010 to challenge and empower our community. TIA joyfully pursues a rigorous research and an ensemble-driven approach to theater-making. We create performances to investigate our past, interpret our present, and imagine our future. We prize space to process, space to question—asylum—for ourselves and our community.