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From $300 Budget to Off-Off Broadway Hit How "The Navigator" got nurtured into success

By MARK PEIKERT

Welcome to the first installment of From Page to Stage, a column that explores how new plays make it to their first productions.

If a new play is going to thrive, then it needs to be nurtured from its initial draft through its first production. Playwrights need resources every step of the way to know if their script is actually working in real time with real actors and designers, but often, financial realities mean that support can be very difficult to get.

The WorkShop Theater, however, is part of a forward-looking subculture of New York City companies that offers a complete array of programs to follow a play from baby steps to graduation. Their current show, The Navigator, is what Artistic Director Scott Sickles describes as "an ideal illustration of that process."

Eddie Antar's play, an 80-minute surreal car ride with a man and his frighteningly knowledgeable GPS system, had a three-week run last year as part of WorkShop's Play-in-Progress (PIP) program. With a mere $300 budget, it was nonetheless nominated for eight New York Innovative Theatre Awards and won two, for director Leslie Kincaid Burby and lighting designer Duane Pagano. Now, Burby is reprising her work with a (slightly) larger budget at WorkShop's 60-seat mainstage theatre in midtown.

"We're at the big time here!" Burby says. "It's been a lot of fun. I think the nature of the show hasn't really changed much. I think hopefully it will look a little bit less shoestringy but keep that edgy, techy, rough feel that we had in the original production."

First brought to WorkShop two years ago, The Navigator quickly worked its way through the company's pipeline. It started out at the Monday Night Writers Night, where writers, actors, and directors collaborate on new scenes and plays, and then it moved to the Sundays@Six reading series that allows playwrights to present their work in front of an audience, followed by a moderated talkback. From there, the play received a three-day staged reading before moving to the PIP run.

In that production, Burby used a small space to create a sense of intimacy, keeping the proceedings claustrophobic enough to make the audience feel as if they were sitting in the car. In the larger theatre, she has moved the rear wall forward, creating a cave-like atmosphere that retains the sense of being trapped in the car with the passengers and driver, a choice that maximizes the stage without sacrificing what made the original production work.

"When we originally did the play, we did it using just black chairs and the play worked beautifully," Burby says. "And [this time] I considered more elaborate effects. Did we want to get a car? I guess I was thinking if there were ways to make it more impressive. And ultimately, I ended up vetoing most of that. [The] audience's imagination will fill in more things than we would be able to."

For Sickles, The Navigator's journey from page to mainstage has been particularly thrilling. "The great thing about Eddie is that he comes up with such great concepts and he's also a great person to collaborate with because he knows the story he likes to tell," he says. "Nothing anyone can say will make him change the story, but what he will change is how he tells it. He's always looking for a better way to tell that story. And he doesn't blindly take notes or criticism. Playwrights can go to either extreme."

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Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for NYPress.com. Cast photo by Ashleigh Ide