Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC)
A Theasy Interview with Executive Director Taryn Drongowski and Artistic Director Tom Wojtunik
by Tzipora Kaplan
I recently had a chance to sit down with Taryn and Tom, APAC's Executive Director and Artistic Director, respectively, at an adorable bake shop in Long Island City where they graciously agreed to spend some time with me in the middle of their very busy tech schedule…
TZIP: What is the history of APAC?
TARYN: APAC was founded years ago - this is our tenth anniversary season! - by a charismatic actress here is Astoria. Her name is Susan Scannell. She’d been in Dynasty, Remington Steele, The A-Team. She lived next door to a Presbyterian church that had a gymnasium with a proscenium stage, much like the space that we’re in now, and no one was doing anything with it! She asked the church if she could put on shows there, and began flyering the neighborhood, thinking she would start an Astoria-based theatre company. She had open auditions, and something like 300-400 people showed up! She realized how much talent was in the neighborhood. She called the local businesses asking for donations of lights, set materials, etc, and designed a first season with 18 shows.
TARYN: Yeah, super ambitious. It caused quite a splash In the community, tons of people came forward to embrace it, and elected officials took notice of this, and came forward and said ‘do you need money?’ and she said ‘can you do that?’ and they said ‘yeah, and so can other people.’ They connected her with the Queens Council for the Arts where she learned about non-profit organizations and grant writing, etc. In 2003, APAC incorporated. We became a 501c3 non-profit. Brian Swasey, who was one of the founding Artistic Directors, was really committed to APAC having high quality off-off Broadway productions and Sue also wanted community programs for children and senior citizens, and slowly the APAC seasonal programming took shape. I’m skipping some things, I’m sure, but in the fourth year, Sue became ill. She began looking for a successor and at the same time I was living in Astoria, looking to lead a non-profit theatre company. I met Sue through mutual acquaintances at Queens Theatre in the Park. We had dinner, and we had dinner, and we had dinner, and she stepped aside and I became Executive Director in the summer of 2005.
TZIP: That’s awesome! And what is the history of your working relationship with Tom?
TARYN: Tom and I met during our 2006-2007 season....
TOM: I came as an NYIT Awards judge, APAC was producing out of the Boys Club at the
time, so I walked in thinking ‘this is rinky-dink, this is going be horrible,’ and it was really
good. I was really impressed with the production. I wrote an email to Taryn and before I
knew it, I was interviewing with both Brian and Taryn. They hired me to direct the next
fall mainstage [production], Proof. It was fall of 2007.
TARYN: Brian had a career that was really growing in opportunities in regional theatre, and he made the decision to step aside. I was looking for an Artistic Director, and we had an incredible experience working with Tom on Proof. It was not an experience that you would typically have with an outside director. I saw certain leadership qualities and people skills that I knew we needed in an Artistic Director, so I started stalking Tom. I went to Man of La Mancha at the Gallery Players, I made him have dinners with me and just tried to woo him and was VERY successful. This is Tom’s third Season as Artistic Director.
TZIP: In terms of your planning for the season, how do your visions work together now, as
opposed to before Tom came aboard?
TARYN: I think one of the things that Tom wanted to make sure we were committed to
was not just continuing high quality revivals and community programs, but he also
wanted to see an added commitment to new work. His first season, we added a staged
reading series. The way that it works between the two of us is that Tom really drives the
artistic part of the season. We start having conversations in the spring as to what
captures his attention. He gives me scripts to read, we talk things through, how the
whole arc of the season makes sense as a single vision, and then how each show works,
which show he’ll direct, and which we’ll hire other people for, etc.
TOM: I came at it with an added commitment to ‘thoughtful’ programming. Not that
there wasn’t a substantial commitment to it before, but I was more interested in the
dialogue with the community. The choice of what we present and when we present it
and why are we doing any particular piece. I don’t know if that was as important in the
past for APAC.
TARYN: Our shows are definitely chosen now on a seasonal basis, rather than on a show-
TOM: To Taryn’s chagrin, I’m not coming at it from a ‘safe’ point of view, but I start with
the biggest vision and look for the story I want to tell. The first show we did together
was Ragtime, which was a huge cast, the biggest in APAC’s history. Everybody thought
we couldn’t do it, but I was confident we could. And we did! Still, my processes and
goals can get me in trouble.
TARYN: That’s when I step in and say ‘Okay! Let’s think about this!’
TZIP: Do you clock him over the head and bring him back to his senses?
TARYN: It’s not exactly like that, no, we figure it out, we compromise...
TOM: I’ve produced before, I get it. We find a way. For example, the musical this spring
is going to be big, but the play we’re teching right now, MilkMilkLemonade, has only
five actors, so we create balance the best we can.
TZIP: Let’s talk about the other half of your programming. Tell me more about the youth
and senior citizens program! Is there a lot of cross-pollination? Do the kids and seniors
help out during the season?
TOM: There’s definitely an APAC family, so its not unusual for a Senior Star (that’s the
name of our Senior program) to help usher a Mainstage. The young lady who played Eve in Children of Eden, was our Assistant Stage Manager for the Senior Citizens musical. She just wanted to hang around and be a part of it. That kind of involvement is not unusual at all, we wouldn’t exist without it. The programs are separate in terms that are strictly community based, and there are no unions involved - a lot of our funding comes from that kind of programming, which allows us to pay people more to work on those things. This is great because it enables us to help our friends; people who work on our showcases for nothing can come back and draw a pretty decent stipend from doing one of our educational programs. It creates goodwill.
TZIP: Tom, do you work extensively with the community programs?
TOM: Taryn actually handles most of the coordination for the community programs. I’ll
help hire the artists, but all the nitty-gritty is dealt with by Taryn.
TARYN: We have two programs, Summer Stars for the kids, and Senior Stars for the
adults, and they both rehearse for 6 weeks and end with a performance of their musical.
TZIP: Do they get T-shirts?
TOM AND TARYN: Yes, they do.
TOM: It’s the last part of our season every year, and it’s the best way to go out. It’s fun,
because we start with the kids and end with the adults - its very cyclical.
TARYN: They are just doing it for the fun of it. Some of them can't sing, some can’t dance, some can’t learn their lines, but they bring this great energy and dedication to it. They show up with their donuts and mango juice because they can’t wait to see everyone else. So for us, at the end of our season, to be around people who are just doing it for the joy of it, we experience that with them. Really fun. We have been fortunate to have funding for that program from the Department for the Aging, and the Department of Youth and Community Development. The Department of Cultural Affairs gives us a grant that funds the whole season.
TZIP: Speaking of your funding and seasons, let’s look down the road together. Where
do you see APAC in 5 years? Tell us everything!
TARYN: That’s actually a very timely question. As a staff, we’ve been doing a lot of
talking about our mission and what our priorities are. There are a lot of different ways
that theatre companies can go. It’s difficult already for a theatre company to keep its
doors open. So one route is to appreciate that you’re still functioning, and lets hope to
still be open in 5 years. But I think that all of us want something a bit more for APAC...
TOM: ‘All of us’ takes in our staff which is Taryn, myself, Annie Jacobs, our Production
Manager, and Dave Charest, our marketing director...
TARYN: We have administrative offices, and I am full time Executive Director, but we
want to grow the theatre to the point where we’re all full time staff, there are no day
jobs involved, and we’re all able to dedicate all our working hours to APAC. We would
also like to work towards our own space. We’re lucky to have the space that we do have.
Our rent is not a huge part of our budget, and it’s a flexible space.
TOM: I get so bored with proscenium as a director, so I love that we can use that room
any old way. It’s one of my favorite things about the job.
TZIP: So, APAC does its shows out of a large church recreation hall with no fixed stage or
seating. Tell me more about the particular challenges and joys of working out of a space
TOM: We create a theatre every time we’re in there, to a degree. It gets better every
time we go through the process, as it should, but sometimes there are setbacks.
TARYN: We have to think deeply about how we’re setting up the space.
TOM: It’s exciting, because it does let the artist use the room however they want, but it
does present larger challenges. It’s more wonderful, but definitely not easier.
TARYN: We’ve had an architect come with us to look at spaces and come up with an idea
for what kind of space we need to serve our vision of what we would want to do, and
we’ve made the ‘flexible space’ a criterion of what we would need, and he warned against it. It is something that needs to be thought about, as you have to hire labor to change the seating, to change the stage, to change the grid, essentially tripling parts of your budget that would be manageable in a permanent space.
TOM: But we still want it.
TARYN: Yes we do. I think a non-theater person might say ‘you don’t have plush red-
velvet seats, you must be working towards that,’ and not realize that the other choice is
actually the harder choice.
TZIP: What is it like administratively with the venue?
TOM: Pretty great! It’s church, so you really can’t go wrong.
TARYN: Content is not part of our contract with them. We’re a separate entity there, yet
also a stakeholder in the building, a partner in keeping the building fluid and active.
TOM: It’s a good partnership. The tricky part is our changeovers, when we have to do
our Saturday night turnovers for the Sunday morning programming. With large and
complicated sets, that can be very difficult. By the same token, space is not a problem
for us. We’ve had a one-week tech process which is amazing for off-off-Broadway, you
just don’t see that all that often. And, we were building the set for three weeks before
this, and that room is almost all for our use. It’s a wonderful thing.
TARYN: It’s worth saying that they don’t need any more tenants. It’s a full house with
two congregations and APAC.
TZIP: Give us a little spoiler for next season!
TARYN: I’d like that spoiler too...
TOM: No idea yet, we’ll start working on it in the spring, I promise!
TZIP: What’s the spring musical going to be?
TOM: The Human Comedy, by William Dumaresq and music by Galt MacDermot (who
wrote the music to Hair, and I think it’s actually his best score. It’s about community and
home. It really celebrates home from an American point of view, which I adore. It ties in
to our current show MilkMilkLemonade, which is also about community and home.
This season really for us, is about looking at the American home, and one of our shows
knocks it, and one celebrates it.
TARYN: They seem like two very different shows, but Tom has found this exciting through-line, that both are coming of age stories of young men, and both shows examine the idea of the American home.
(MilkMilkLemonade plays through November 13, 2010 at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St, Astoria, NY. For tickets ($18) and more information, visit apacny.org.)
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Taryn Drongowski became the Executive Director of the Astoria
Performing Arts Center in August 2005. To APAC, she brings both theater and non-profit
experience. Taryn graduated from Kenyon College (Gambier, OH) and, in 2003, she
completed a training program at the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School. From
2002-2010, Taryn worked at the Social Science Research Council, first as a Program
Assistant for the Program on the Arts, then as a Special Projects Director
(Communications & IT). She moved to Astoria in 2002 after tasting the pizza at Sac’s
Place on Broadway. Taryn is especially excited to have the opportunity to contribute to
the arts in one of New York’s most vibrant neighborhoods – this is a place for story-telling.
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Tom Wojtunik has been in New York City since 1997, and in Astoria
for the last eight years. For APAC he has directed Children of Eden, The Pillowman,
Ragtime (NY IT Nominee, Outstanding Musical), and Proof. NY directing credits
include: Bright Lights, Big City (MMC); The Who’s Tommy (NY IT Nominee, Outstanding
Musical), Man of La Mancha, Six Degrees of Separation, Urinetown (NY IT Award,
Outstanding Musical), Take Me Out (The Gallery Players); The Play About the Naked Guy
and Edenville (NY IT Nominee – Best Director, Emerging Artists Theatre); The Miss
Education of Jenna Bush (FringeNYC, Best Solo Show & Audience Favorite); Rum and
Vodka and The Good Thief (Prospect St. Productions); I’m in Love with Your Wife
(Midtown International Theatre Festival); and workshops of David’s Play and Bella Via
(Ensemble Studio Theatre). Tom served as a 2007/2008 Resident Director at Ensemble
Studio Theatre, where he was an Associate Producer on the 2008 Marathon of One-Act
Plays. He was an Associate Casting Director at Charles Rosen Casting, produced the 2002
Festival of New Musicals for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and served as
Artistic Director of NeoPack, a theatre company focused on new work, from 2001-2004.
BFA: Marymount Manhattan College. Member: SDC, LCT Directors’ Lab, Emerging Artists