May 30th, 2019
It’s embarrassing to admit, but up until a few years ago, I had not heard of Clubbed Thumb, the downtown theatre company that has produced an impressive amount of playwrights and directors that you have definitely heard of—or will soon hear of—often giving them their first New York City production. I first encountered Clubbed Thumb in 2016 when I profiled Leigh Silverman as she directed Ethan Lipton’s Tumacho as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks. It was one of the most delightful experiences I’ve had—and, at times, one of the most delightfully deranged (I mean, there were singing cacti). The following summer, Clubbed Thumb produced their most successful, high-profile show to date: Heidi Schreck’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Tony-nominated What the Constitution Means to Me.
The woman behind all of this is Maria Striar, founder and Producing Artistic Director of Clubbed Thumb. Maria started the company in 1996, with the mission of doing “funny, strange, and provocative new plays by living American writers,” and has been with it ever since as it has continued to grow and evolve. I recently spoke with Maria about the history of Clubbed Thumb, producing What the Constitution Means to Me, the company’s development programs, and more.
What led you to founding Clubbed Thumb?
It was a number of things, although it was not an intentional founding. I had really loved doing new plays at Brown University. It was a time when there was a graduate playwriting program in the creative writing program, but there was virtually no graduate school [for theatre]. It was before this Brown/Trinity Rep program. They had a couple of PhD students, and when those playwrights wanted their plays mounted, they had the undergraduates, which meant we had their plays. So there was this fantastic new play festival. They were really wild and fun and funny and very strange, and really different from the kinds of plays that department put on and very different from the kinds of theatre that I, for the most part, encountered. I really fell for that whole experience.
[It was] a bunch of actors and friends from graduate school, newly arrived in New York, who were doing some work but also had lots of quiet time. We were just sort of like, “Let’s throw something up there.” We rented a theatre and found ourselves with a lot of time, only some of which was possibly going to be eaten up by our pretty short equity showcase production. We had a month for a 24/7 rental, so we invited friends from graduate school and from college and people we’d run into [to put on a shows]. It was only loosely curated, but we had 8 o’clock shows, 10 o’clock shows, midnight shows. It was such a confirmation that it is a lot more fun to make things happen than to wait around and to be given opportunities selected by other people, and it kind of stuck.
That was the first Summerworks, and that model has been honed and honed and honed every single year, and is much more supported and much more heavily curated and thoughtfully put together now. But it really did start in what is still a very core Clubbed Thumb value, which is leveraging your resources to maximum effect, and also having a community of work. It’s always been action first, then infrastructure followed what we seemed to be doing and trying to do it better and more thoughtfully.
What were the challenges the first few years and what do you consider to be the biggest turning points for the company?
That first year we were at a theatre that doesn’t exist anymore called the House of Candles, which is now Stanton Social, although I wonder if that didn’t close recently too. We didn’t know what we were doing and that was great, because we could be doing anything. And then, you do a little bit more and you should know a little bit more about what you’re doing. We had very, very limited resources, so we did the next few seasons at HERE and we worked off a lot of our rent by hanging drywall and grouting and tiling the bathroom floors—work that we were probably quite unqualified to do (just in case anybody’s panicking, it’s since been redone by professionals). I think the challenges were mostly not having any money and also not knowing what we were doing, but that’s also part of the fun. I think it was a few years before we could pay anybody. But you stick around. I look around sometimes with great delight at what people are doing and what they were doing then.
I think one of our first big breaks was when we got one of those first Obie grants. That felt like an invitation to the club, in a way. That was in 2000. I also feel like when we settled into the old Ohio theatre where we produced for more or less a decade, that was also a sort of staple residency of sorts.
Certainly the last decade has also been really, really strong, but Clubbed Thumb has always kind of had incremental growth, and we’ve been pretty smart about reflecting on what resources we have that we didn’t have and what interests we have that we didn’t have and what’s not working anymore, and really trying to calibrate within that. Sometimes that’s meant pulling back on certain kinds of programming. About nine or so years ago, we started adding a lot of incubation programs. We started doing much more development. We started working with Playwrights Horizons, running a development program, and that led to us getting a space residency with them, which we’ve had now for five years. Free office space and free development space is a complete game changer for us. Not just in the money that it saved us, but being able to do administrative work and artistic work in the same place is a real luxury that is not afforded small companies very much. Companies like mine, we raise most of our budget from scratch every single year. From the same sources, but very little of the resources we have are continued resources. You want to think big, but you have to be cautious.
A few years ago, after pulling back for a lot of years, we remounted a show of ours with Playwrights Horizons, and that went really, really well, much better than either of us expected. That meant that we had a lot of extra money that year. Then last year, we had a gala for the first time. We had extra money, so now we have this little cash reserve that we call an opportunity fund. We’re not using it like, “Oh, this is rainy day.” We’re like, “This can stake us while we find other money so that we can do more things and think bigger and make bigger gestures like increasing remuneration or return to producing outside of Summerworks more regularly.” That feels like one of the most recent big jumps, and a big deal.
When it switched over from being something you were just doing to being something very professional, did that feel like a different ball game? Was there a learning curve with that?
Most of our growth has been pretty incremental, and every now and then something will come in and generally kick it up and sometimes kick it down a little bit. There was a period of time just before the last nice wave of growth started where we were overextended. We were doing a second show on a Broadway contract. We couldn’t really afford it. We thought we could afford it, but then various things happened that were recession-related mostly, but we had a little perfect storm of a crunch. That led to a lot of recalibrating that was ultimately for the good, but it was pretty painful at the time. When you do have a setback, you have to look very, very hard at what you’re doing and what you’re doing just because you’ve been doing it, and what you’re doing that’s working, and what you’re doing really well, and what you’re not doing that you should be doing. Those are always good questions, but especially when something’s got to go because you’re overextended, those questions are really strong.
For the most part, we were super conservative in terms of not getting ourselves into a situation where we were carrying debt. I think it’s one of the reasons we have some longevity, because we never put ourselves at a point of financial crisis, but also sometimes I think that was a retardant. That maybe we could have accelerated more quickly if we had been a little more like, “Fuck it. Let’s go for it and see how it goes.” But I don’t know. I think because Clubbed Thumb was started by actors, who are very often on the lowest part of totem pole power-wise, we’ve always tried [to pay people] even when the fee was 50 bucks total, or 100. We’re not talking big money when we first started paying people. Nor are we really talking big money now, frankly.
We’re always going, “Given what we have and given what we think we could have next year, what’s one more thing we could do better?” I’m always wary of the term professional because I feel like that’s sort of loaded and doesn’t mean the same thing to people. I feel like respectful, nurturing, thoughtful [are the better terms]. How can we make people best able to do their work? That can mean things that are outside of the norm of professional. That can mean acknowledging that people’s lives are complicated, and they have children, so trying to make rehearsal schedules where they can pick up their kids. It can mean a lot of different things.
For Summerworks, it’s a wide range of people who are involved. You have some people who are very emerging, and you also have Tony winners and Tony nominees. How do you curate that?
There are a few things. One, Summerworks is a time-limited proposition, and that works in its favor. There’s four weeks of rehearsal, and then there’s two weeks of tech/previews/performances. So it’s a six week commitment. For the first chunk of time, people are in rehearsal during the day, so they have their nights. For the last week of performance, they have an hour and a half play, so they’re free all the time except for that little bit of time. There’s basically one week where they kind of can’t do other things, and even with that, we maneuver. It is a really condensed experience, which means that even though it’s not financially maybe the most lucrative gig to pick, you can contain its impact. It’s a really high impact. It’s pretty pure. It’s a really pure art-making experience. You’re not doing it for any reason other than the piece speaks to you and you want to collaborate with these people. A huge amount of relationships are born out of it. I would say that we tend toward early career people, but we always have a place for pieces that need a very particular environment. For artists who want to make something and they don’t want to throw it into a huge theatre setting initially, or they have something that’s a weird little beast that they’re not sure belongs in a big theatre setting.
So Leigh and Anne [Kauffman] and Ken [Schmoll] come back and do things in that context. And Heidi’s play, that was the perfect place for that play to be born, because it needed something small and flexible, and we don’t know how many people will be in this play, because we don’t know what the end of this play is. We don’t know whether it will be open to the press. “No, it won’t be.” We don’t know all these things, and that’s a harder thing for a larger theatre to pivot around. You can’t be like, “We’re not going to tell the audience about what this is.” We have a lot of flexibility.
It’s really important for us that it’s ambitious, but low stakes. There’s a calibration of shoot for the moon, don’t be lazy, don’t be unambitious, but also don’t be scared, don’t hedge your bets. You can try something out and if it doesn’t quite work, we’re all going to be okay. I think that makes it a really special place for a wide range of artists. I think it’s fun. I do think that we are good at making people feel seen and taken care of. We do as best as we can with the money, but I think we do better than most in terms of the other stuff. And there are a lot of snacks. People feel loved when they’re fed.
When I was writing about Leigh, I was in the rehearsal room for Tumacho for most of that process. I think I wouldn’t necessarily have known that the budget was what it was. I probably would have thought it was more.
We were once told, years ago, by our program officer at the Mellon Foundation, that we punch above our weight. We are very good at doing a lot with a little. We have an insane amount of programming for a company with three full-time employees. It’s creative leveraging. You know what you can beg, borrow and steal. You can take somebody else’s leftover set parts, and you repurpose your own set parts, and you do all kinds of clever, thrifty things that require a little bit more scheming and engagement. That is not standard operating procedure in a larger theatre, probably because that would be an exhausting thing to have to do seven times, and harder to do when you’re doing a run that’s eight weeks long. I don’t know that the production managers of a big theatre would want to be like, “Whose show is being struck? Let me see. I saw that. They had really cool wood walls.” But that’s sort of how we do it. I sort of like that. There is part of me that is so deeply downtown-y and scroungy and really hates waste. So I like that back and forth of using resources, as long as within the parameters of not wasting people’s time and not clipping people’s wings. The set budgets for Clubbed Thumb can’t cost more than the artistic. People first, stuff second or third, down the line. I think we’re pretty clever about that. I think we think it’s a little tiny bit fun. I mean, it’s stressful but it’s a little bit fun.
I wanted to talk a little about the emerging programs that Clubbed Thumb has.
They all kind of happened one by one. We’ve had a mid-career writer’s group for a long time, which was basically a lovely opportunity for me to hang out with people who are my age who aren’t being produced by Clubbed Thumb so much anymore. They read their plays and work on them in my living room. Like most writers’ groups, there’s some structure. It helps when you’re no longer a new dramatist to have some deadlines, have some structure, but also some communion. A few years after doing that, it felt a little like, “Gosh, given that what we mostly produce are early career writers, we should probably have some group for that.” But there are so many [early career writer groups], so we were like, “How do we do this with authenticity?” We don’t want to do it if we can’t do it authentically.
There are two things that make that writer’s group a little peculiar. One is that it’s mostly made up of people who have been suggested by other writers—mostly people who are in our mid-career group or our mid-career adjacent community—and sometimes the people get into it for really random reasons. For example, Will Arbery. Aaron Carter, who at the time was the literary manager at Steppenwolf and a professor at Northwestern said, “Hey, I’ve got this student who’s graduating, he’s moving to the city, he doesn’t know that many people. Will you have coffee with him?” I was like, “What if we put him in a writers’ group?” We hadn’t read anything by him. I was like, “I don’t care,” because the new-to-town energy is so fantastic for those things. It’s a really great dynamic to have in a group, somebody who doesn’t know all the rules and all the places. It’s generally people who are nominated by other writers. We like the idea of giving people who are already a part of our community a little bit of a seat at the table, because most people have people under their wing, and they’ll also vet them a little bit. We try really hard to not have people in the group who are already in other groups. There is a little bit of notching of the belt that can happen, and we like the weirdos and we want to spread the wealth, and we do not know who’s going to turn out to be a person that we really want to work with. You can hedge your bets and you can curate and be like, “I like this play, I’m going to pick all these people.” You do some of that. But sometimes you vet people and you’re like, “I think this person might really benefit from this thing.” It’s worked out really well to have it not come from straight-up curation. We have a lot of programs that come from that straight-up, I’ve read that play or I’ve met that person and yes, this seems like the right profile, but it’s great to shake that up sometimes. I think it’s very okay if there are lots of people in that group who are never really going to write something that’s especially Clubbed Thumb. That’s not what the name of that game is. The name of that particular game is for them to form a community together and for us to try and support them. We bring in guests. We pair them with mentors who are not the same people who suggested them, because they want another perspective, so they have somebody else to ask questions. You should have somebody who knows what it’s like to be in your position, I think.
When we moved into the space at 440 [Lafayette], we sort of noticed the presence of the students, and also when it was really quiet. We were like, “Hmm, there seems to be some opportunity in here.” At the same time, I’d have these conversation with Anne and Ken bemoaning the lack of opportunities for career development for directors. So many early career programs were observerships or assistantships, that there were very few practica around. Because that evil loop of you don’t want to hire somebody until you’ve seen their work, how does somebody see your work unless somebody’s hired you? So we came up with a program in which young directors work with students developing a new play for a semester and then there’s a short, very truncated period with professional actors in the same room, using the bones of blocking and the use of space, and a very bare bones production where they transfer some of that exploration onto people who are more appropriately cast. Then there are two weeks of rehearsal and then this professional showing. All throughout that, Anne and Ken and Michael and I are interacting, giving people feedback, giving them support, giving them ideas. Anne and Ken meet with them regularly and impart directorial wisdoms. So they get some craft and honing and hands-on experience, and they also get a showcase at the end, and it’s worked out really well. We’ve also ended up producing a couple of those plays and hiring some of those directors much more quickly than I thought.
Our producing fellowship is the same way. We have two a year. Sometimes one person will continue for a second year, if there is sort of more to be gained. That’s always at least one, sometimes two people of color. That also allows us a flexible staff relationship, too. Depending on who they are, they might be more interested in casting or directing and observing, assisting artistic processes, or management or grant writing. Creative producing can hold a lot of things. But they’ve been helpful to us and sometimes people come back, and we hire in limited capacities and we give back to them.
All of the programs now interact with each other really well. Now, the early career writer’s group, those writers can submit proposals for the scripts that are worked on in the directing fellowship. With all of these programs, they started infecting our main programming, which is really great. And one of the things we did very deliberately with all of them is very strong diversity benchmarks. As an organization, we’re way too white. If we make sure there’s really a much bigger range of people who are coming in young, some of that’s going to come back to us, and it has, and it’s been great.
Let’s talk a little about Heidi’s show because that’s your first production to go to Broadway.
And I’m going to guess the last, but who knows? Who knows? Maybe the world is changing.
How has that been for the company to have?
I don’t know yet. The most palpable effect, other than going to a lot of really weird events that we never went to before, is really frankly the pride of our community. The Clubbed Thumb community is a big one, and some of them are uptown and some of them are downtown, but I think there’s a real feeling of like, “Hey, look at that!” We’re all up there a little bit and really proud of us, and that’s a piece of all of us, and that’s a really lovely thing to behold. It’s intense. I read the press summaries. I can barely keep up with them every day. It’s really humbling how many people this play is rolling over and how much they’re chewing on it.
I can’t say there are lots of Broadway producers knocking down our doors saying, “What else have you got?” That’s not happening in any way. There haven’t been any of those types of effects. I don’t know that people came to see Plano or will come to see Summerworks because of Constitution. I hope so. I hope the story is, “Hey, this thing started in this little run. Wouldn’t you love to have seen it for 25 bucks, in a room of very few people? Wouldn’t you have loved to be there at the beginning?” But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too.
I’m really proud of Heidi. She was quite scared, and I was quite sure for a lot of that process that it was maybe not going to happen. I had a lot of crazy back-up plans, and was just crossing my fingers. It’s very understandable that it was scary, not just because it wasn’t finished, but because it was coming out of her bones, and she had been working on it for a really long time. She could’ve perhaps continued that way, but there was something about in the weeks after that election feeling like, “What the fuck do we talk about now? What conversation can we responsibly invite people to take part in? And authentically go, yeah, let’s all gather.” So that definitely was a big aspect of the curation of that particular season and that particular play. For the most part, I don’t think it’s a great idea to book a lot of plays that aren’t in any way finished, because people are going to be stressed out. They’re going to be nervous. It puts a lot of stress on everybody to hold off. Hold off on those design deadlines, hold off on that budgeting, hold off on casting. It’s exciting, but it’s also scary, and it’s scary for the person who’s in the biggest position of responsibility, which is arguably the playwright. But doing it every now and then is good.
I was going to ask you about that, because, obviously, I’ve talked to Heidi a lot about the show, and we just did an interview with Rachel Hauck, where she was saying that she tried to wait as long as possible with the set so Heidi would have as much time as possible to figure out what the show was.
Everybody was on those instructions. We hired a composer. At one point, there was a song, because there was maybe going to be a song. We hired a choreographer, but there ended up not being a dance. That was before he started working on it, so that was great. But the song had been written. We looked at a bunch of different types of young actresses, and we found Rosdely because of Susan Bernfield, who runs New Georges. I’ve read Heidi say a few times that the play became [itself] with the things. It’s like you go toward the light. There was a lot of development time built in. We sent them to the O’Neill at one point, and because of our relationship with 440 [rehearsal studios], we also booked a lot of rooms to sit and talk and write. [Sometimes she was like] “What if everyone decides what’s here sucks?” [And I’d say] “Then we’ll do that part.” I sound very calm. I wasn’t always. I was like, “Then we’ll do that part, I guess!” But that was given a lot of space. Sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes there’s wild maneuvering and changing happening, really aggressively, because for the most part, they’re very new plays that are not so set. But sometimes, just small changes are happening. You never quite know. Or sometimes you know. Sometimes you know you’re in for a little bit of a ride.
Over the last 25 years there have been a lot of changes in the industry and a lot of economic changes in New York. Going forward, what do you see as being the biggest challenges to maintain what you want the company to be?
I think the most important thing is striving to pay people. It is so expensive. The city is so expensive to live in. Everything you can do to put money in the hands of young artists or other types of theatre practitioners is allowing the presence of this form in this city to continue. I feel like that is my highest priority.
I also feel like it’s really, really important to keep ticket prices low. I can’t tell you how many people showed up for the 25 dollar rush tickets. And how many people tell you they don’t have money for a 20 dollar ticket. If that’s the case with our low, low ticket prices that are not much above the price of a movie, you can imagine how completely inaccessible most Off-Broadway theatres are, that even their low 30 under 30 ticket is probably too much money for most, especially when you add the fees and what the ticket really ends up being.
Those things are really, really important. I think whatever other forces can do to protect spaces [is also important]. Rehearsal space is out of reach for so many young artists. It’s crazy. [For us] it’s all in-kind from 440. If we were actually giving people cash for those rooms, I don’t know what would happen. We couldn’t do that. It’s bonkers. We try to spread the wealth but stick to our agreement with Playwrights Horizons. We were pretty profligate in the first few years, we just gave everybody space, and now we have to rein that in a little bit. It’s money and space, which is money, and time, which is money.
Theatre is insanely inefficient. It involves a bazillion people to make something. They all have to be there more or less at the same time, and then everybody has to show up at the same time to see it. It’s nuts. I keep thinking Netflix and all the streaming platforms are such a sign that there is a much wider, passionate audience for the kind of material we do. It’s very often our artists participating in it, and thank God for it all because it’s propping up the American theatre. We’re limited by physics in a way, of bodies having to be in the same place at the same time. I keep thinking, “How can we Netflix-ize? How can we find the people that we know now are out there, and get at them?” I sometimes think the way is to really take a look at how theatre is marketed and framed and understood and walk far away from it. I think it’s really unappealing to a lot of people who would actually like things that are actually theatre, but what they think that is, is so old-fashioned and staid and boring and stilted, that they don’t want any part of it.
What are your goals for the company over the next five years?
I would like to be able to continue to be producing outside of Summerworks, and in a way that doesn’t feel panic-inducing. I really want to grow. I want to grow a really solid core of audiences who will take on faith what we’re offering, and be like, “I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to go.” So that we don’t have to hustle so much in such a micro, micro way, because we hustle too in like a put-our-ass-in-the-seat way sometimes. It’s one of the things we’re willing to do, but it’s exhausting. I would like to really build a robust, young audience for weird work, and I would like to put on more of it, and I would like to keep on striving to make it possible to be somebody who makes that kind of work and live in New York City.