On Producing: Aisling Arts Works a 12 Step Method


Independently producing theatre in New York is no easy task, ask anyone who’s done it. When Culturebot heard that Aisling Arts was staging Force, a six-plus hour play trilogy that’s been compared to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in terms of size and scope, we begged them to tell us how, how they managed to tackle the project and still maintain their sanity (if that’s possible). This is what Bryn Manion, writer/director of Force and co-founder of Aisling Arts, had to say.

My theater company, Aisling Arts, has just opened a work of staggering staggering-ness called FORCE (a trilogy) at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City which I am ostensibly writing this epistle to promote. It’s an original play told in three segments (Wanderlust, Threshold, Convergence) and is about six hours long, although you can see it in more humane stretches if you so desire. It’s been called “the best new American play of the season” which is mighty flattering, especially given its grand scope. But setting out to make over six hours of theater isn’t exactly something I went into the project knowing how to do.

So here’s the fundamental question: how does a theater company run by two women (one of whom is due to give birth five days after we close) make six hours of theater on a budget of about $2500?

In no particular order are some of the things we did and are doing to make FORCE successful. Some of it is how we deal with collaborators and some is practical.

1. Ideas. Start with big colorful, juicy, transcendent, obsessive ideas and questions that are at core impossible to answer. If questions are answerable or opinions about ideas sound finite, then they’re no good. The bigger and more daunting the better. For example, in FORCE our big question is who causes more trouble Man or Nature and is it all controlled by some universal power or by sheer coincidence?

2. Ask for help, but don’t waste your favors. If you have to ask the same person or group of people for help more than once, make sure you are really pathetic about it and offer to do their laundry or watch their kids or cook them food or buy them alcohol. It works and it’s a fair way of doing things. Also, don’t expect people to respond on your timeline if they are helping you. That kind of response requires money. We’ve asked for help so many times on this project, but hope we always provided a good food and craic and beer and a positive place to be. People will do almost anything if they are well fed and kept amused or mentally agitated.

3. When you need something huge, like rehearsal space, don’t look inside the theater industry (or even dance or music industries). Look for places that will benefit from having you as part of their community. We used to work out of a church in Astoria, and now are nestled in our home at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City. Instead of hourly rates, we make seasonal donations, move furniture, clean stuff and hang out with people fifty years older than us. It’s not everybody’s bag, but actors need to work in the same space in an unrushed atmosphere in order to feel safe enough to make their work. And we like baking for people who remind us of our grandparents. Again, it tends to come down to food.

4. Make art urgent. Make making art an obsession. You will need items 1-3 in order to do so.

5. Have the good sense to know when something you’ve made is rotten. And have the even better sense to get rid of it when it is.

6. Seduce people (audience, actors, collaborators) with the nobility of our work as theater artists and as human beings. Seduction leads to consummation. If people feel sexy and electric, they’ll make better art.

7. Appeal to a general sense of goodness and faith in humanity. We go into every situation assuming that people want to be happy, think deeply, live passionately, help each other and that all they need in order to do so is an environment conducive to making good stuff.

8. Be tough and have standards that can never be met. We’re revising two scenes from the play tonight and I’m going back and forth via email as I write this about how to fix things we didn’t know needed fixing until about twelve hours ago. When you’re working in large scale, you can’t look at the minutiae early on.

9. Don’t over rehearse and keep a sharp eye on the physical wellness of the people who are working with you. Over-rehearsal makes things bland. Sick people can’t make six hours of theater.

10. Materials for the Arts and flea markets are responsible for 100% of our set and prop needs.

11. Let the skills you acquire at your day job enhance what you’re able to do with your artistic world. For example, knowing how to a mail merge in one’s sleep is crucial to you not losing your stride when it’s time to get word out about your work.

12. Pay attention. This is the central tenant of our work on FORCE. Pay attention. To everything. If you pay attention you will remember that email you filed away offering free this, or wonder why exactly you found six lone mittens in three days. It all goes back into the work.

And that is how two people (well, two and a half if we include the baby) make a six hour dramatic extravaganza with $2500 in the most glutted theatrical market on the planet.

FORCE is currently running at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City. You can purchase tickets here. If you need further convincing, read Martin Denton’s rave at nytheatre.com. For additional information on Aisling Arts, visit their website.

In our next post, we’ll find out more on Convergence, part of the FORCE trilogy which is published in Plays and Playwrights 2007.

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