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.
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.
By Paul Bedard
Learn more about our 10 year commemoration here
¡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.
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!
We are thrilled and honored to reach this milestone, and grateful for the conversations, rehearsals, donations, volunteer hours, and heartfelt performances that made it possible.
We founded the company to “provide asylum to characters and subjects in need. With ensemble-driven performance we investigate to inspire curiosity, empathy, and action.” In our first 10 years we’ve offered asylum to artists like Vaslav Nijinsky, Federico García Lorca, and the Brontë sisters, as well as to subjects like revolution and democratic debate. We’ve offered our stage to guest artists at our cabarets, and our love of play-reading to our community in our Cold Reading series. We’ve traveled to Chicago and Prague, and performed at theaters all over New York City.
When we decided to formally organize as a company, we set out to create a space to play, explore, and learn with friends and collaborators who challenge and inspire us. We cannot thank you and this vibrant community enough for all the work and growth you’ve made possible.
10 years after our first piece––Nijinsky in Asylum––premiered, we pause to reflect on our past and imagine our future. We hope you enjoy this retrospective and are as eager for what’s next as we are. Onwards!
Peace, power, and love to you,
Paul Bedard, Katie Palmer, Kathryn Appleton, and Hilarie Spangler
Thank you to everyone who made this milestone possible.
Thank you to our friends, families, and supporters who were there at the beginning, including the Appletons, Andrew Balmer, the Bedards, Judy “Cuz” Berger, Bailey Carr, Mark Costello, Rick Fudge, Kate Gazzaniga, Elizabeth Hess, Marilyn Lawson, Maggie Low, Eric Mercado, the Palmers, Greg Redlawsk, Jacob Marx Rice, Mandy Robbins, Abby Schreer, Bessie Taliaferro, Valeska von Schirmeister, Stephanie Warren, and the Wohlers.
Thank you to those early and frequent collaborators Frankie Alicea, Laura Aristovulos, Jessie Atkinson, Christian Avíla, Ariella Axelbank, Jake Beckhard, Adrian Bridges, Theresa Burns, Matt Clemons, Kelly Colburn, Calandra Daby, Christopher DeSantis, Nadia Diamond, Lawrence Dreyfuss, Yonit Friedman, Amanda Ghosh, Linnea Gregg, Arielle Hader, Kara Hankard, Gethsemane Herron-Coward, Willie Johnson, Meghan Kennedy, Samantha Keogh, Esther Yumi Ko, Jacob Lasser, Amelia Lembeck, Julia Levine, Diana Levy, Sofia Lund, Andrea Marks, Hogan McLaughlin, the Miliones, Makha Mthembu, Lucy Myrtue, Patricia Noonan, Ben Otto, Lizzy Palmer, Russell Peck, Alice Pencavel, Katie Polin, Zac Porter, Jonelle Robinson, Ramsey Scott, Zach Stephens, Dani Stompor, Blake Sugarman, Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed, Jen Tash, Slats Toole, Alison Walter, Kelly Webb, Ran Xia, and Sarah Ziegler.
Thank you Theater in Asylum company members, past and present, who have defined the work and culture of the company: Randall Benichak, Samantha Keogh, Jacob Lasser, Hilarie Spangler, and Dan Stearns.
Thank you to the Playwrights Horizons Theater School for bringing us together and prompting our very first piece. Thank you to Erez Ziv and everyone at the Horse Trade Theater Group for taking a chance on us and pushing us to become a company. Thank you to Piper Theatre, The Episcopal Actors’ Guild, the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, and all the groups who have given us opportunities since.
Thank you to the League of Independent Theater, Fractured Atlas, A.R.T./New York, and The Artist Co-op for supporting and advocating for us.
Thank you to everyone who has worked on or attended a Theater in Asylum project. We are so grateful for the love and support and ideas and energy you give. You make this company.
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.
Copyright © 2020 THEATER IN ASYLUM. All rights reserved.