By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It's a rare and terrifying honor to direct the first play in a new theatre. Just ask Anne Kauffman, who's helming Slowgirl, the inaugural play at Lincoln Center Theater's new Claire Tow space.
"You hear that ninety percent of the work on a show is casting, but the space itself is just as big of a deal," Kauffman says, and she's right. Everything about a theatre---from the acoustics to the size of the stage to the amount of storage in the wings---can impact a production. In fact, directors and designers often build their vision around the assets and limitations of the room they're working in.
But when Kauffman and her team started on Slowgirl, Greg Pierce's gently devastating drama about a troubled teen visiting her uncle in Costa Rica, their theatre was still being built.
Located on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the Claire Tow Theater is the permanent home of LCT3, a Lincoln Center program that presents new plays by rising playwrights. It's a small, elegant room with just over a hundred seats, and now that it's finished, it's obviously a good place to mount a show.
But nothing was obvious when the Tow (pronounced "tau") was under construction. "We had their plans, but even when you have that, it feels a little bit like you're stepping off a cliff," Kauffman says. "You can't call anyone up to say, 'Hey, what's it like to work in this space?' It was a little bit mysterious."
Among other variables, Kauffman was concerned about the theatre's "fixed proscenium," which will frame every production with a built-in proscenium arch. "Working in a proscenium, the thing I will often have a problem with is that it feels like there's a hard division between the playing space and the audience," she says. "A lot of people, myself included, were thinking, 'Well, if [the Tow] is truly a space for new plays, why isn't it flexible?"
Once she got into the room, however, Kauffman discovered it's "quite fluid and flexible," and she realized that because the Tow is so small, the proscenium isn't distracting. "Once you start getting above [a hundred seats], you start to 'feel the frame,' because you're placed further back from it. You actually see more of the theatre, and seeing the theatre and other audience members becomes part of the experience. But I think here the size is perfect because you're not aware of the theatre itself."
Now that Slowgirl is on the boards, Kauffman feels the production has the intimacy it needs. (The show recently extended to late July, and like all LCT3 productions, tickets are $20.)
So what's next? Paige Evans, Artistic Director of LCT3, thinks the theatre itself will dictate her programming choices. "This is not a scrappy black box venue," she says. "It's a very polished venue, and I think that will impact the work that we do." In other words, while LCT3 supports new artists, it won't be appropriate for productions that are trying out a hundred ideas and seeing what works.
That might have made sense in previous seasons, when LCT3 was renting a theatre in Times Square, but the elegance of the Tow feels more suited to new plays that are further along in their development.
That sophistication echoes in the spaces around the theatre. The sleek café serves organic food, and an outdoor terrace invites audiences to sit on benches, soak in the landscaping, and watch the bustling city.
Both the café and the terrace are open an hour before and after every performance, and Davis hopes they become part of LCT3's identity. "We want audiences of all stripes, and part of that means audiences of all ages," she says. "We have found that with younger audiences, a big part of it is not just going to see a play, but the entire experience of it, making the evening into an event."
And of course, having LCT3 on the actual grounds of Lincoln Center means newcomers might feel more welcome at a major cultural institution. Discussing LCT3's artists, Davis says, "They're being brought into the fold here. They're part of a life of this theatre in a different way when they're physically here."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Erin Baiano