O'Hagan Blades: The BE Company is relatively new, right?
Ethan Matthews: Yes. We were founded about two years ago. And we’ve been producing work and developing material and championing artists for that time. We’re going into a large-scale production right now, off off Broadway, going up at Urban Stages in March, so….yeah, it’s been a great journey. It’s growing really fast, which is exciting.
OB: How do you get people involved? Was it an initial group of friends?EM: You know, It’s kind of interesting — when we first founded the company, there were two of us that decided we were going to do it, and then, from there, we had a bunch of people who just gradually come into the orbit of the company and signed on and figured out what it was they could bring to the company. The basis of all of us is that we’re all professionals in the industry in our own right and work in different facets as writers, directors, admin types, management types, actors, everything across the board. Everyone has his or her own career, and we come back to the BE Company as a home, a haven, for artists. We help support each other. We, all of us, just kept professionally coming into contact with each other, and when it was a good fit, we would say ‘yea, I’d like to be involved in this aspect of the BE Company,’ and we came together like that. It just found its footing...
OB: So is everyone donating his or her time and talents?
EM: Yep. Yep, all of us, across the board. We volunteer for the company; it’s a not-for-profit. And so, that allows us to focus on the content of the work and not really the commercial viability of it. All of us have a passion for new work, and young artists. And we all kind of felt that we were lacking that almost familial sort of artists’ home here in New York. In the city, it’s really easy to get kind of lost and not have a place that’s nurturing. So the big focus of all of us in the company is to provide that for artists, whether they’re part of the company or they come in for a project or a reading series or a developmental workshop or a production. We want to create that home environment so that it’s a safe place for artists to develop.
OB: How did it all start?
EM: It started with an impassioned idea, as most things do. And sitting down at a table and just saying ‘let’s do it.’ Right when I was in grad school, I had the fortune of getting a really kind of big commercial job as an actor, and when I got to New York, I found myself constantly being kind of submitted and getting involved in very...um, commercial theater. And I felt like I was really missing that story of humanity that made me want to be an artists when I first made that leap into studying it. And so I sat down with a friend of mine at that time, and said ‘I want to create something that’s really going to be about the stories of people. And what it means to BE, the verb.’ So we said ‘alright, let’s give it a try.’ And we did our first production, flying by the seat of our pants. And since then, we just keep learning and figuring out how to do it better. And to learn from our mistakes, and from the people who keep coming into contact with us who know more. It is keeps kind of gradually building up. So that’s how it really started — just two people sitting at a table saying ‘let’s try it,” and from there, it’s now grown to eight people sitting around a bigger table saying ‘who do we all know that we can — and we have a lot of usual suspects, I’d say we have about forty writers that are in contact with us that we either do the series Beginnings with which is about the very first stages of writing where they read their own work. It’s at a residency at Happy Ending Lounge. Every Fourth Thursday of the month we have this series called Beginnings and that provides a platform for writers and artists to try something out. Then, we also started something called Work Bench which is the connective tissue between a reading and a production where they get actors, directors, minimal design—they get to see the play up on its feet in front of an audience, but don’t have the pressure of being reviewed or needing to be production-ready. So they get to see where the play is and change and adapt it the entire time. And then we also have productions. So that’s kind of how the programming has brought people to us because — going back to the mission statement of the company, which is to court diverse voices, under-examined voices, young artists, and new work. So the more people here about us, the more people get involved, and it just keeps growing.
OB: Can you give an example of a high and a low for The BE Company?
EM: A high and a low...The high is right now, I would say. Because I am obsessed and in love with the play that we’re going into production with. We’re all in pre-production right now. The set is being built as we speak, costumes are being shopped, rehearsals have been going for a couple weeks now, and I’m in love with this play. It’s called Sex on Sunday. It’s by Chisa Hutchinson, who’s one of my favorite writers. And it’s directed by Jade King Carroll, who’s an insanely good director. And the cast is just amazing. I just go insane every time I’m in a rehearsal room because it just reinforces why I’m doing this. Which is definitely, you know, needed sometimes. Like when you’re hitting pavement doing admin stuff all the time, to see and know that there’s really great art happening. And that’s exciting. So for me, the high is right now. And I’m excited that the high is right now because it means that all the work is continuing to be good. A low…a don’t know that I can say there’s a low point...I think probably when I’m up at five in the morning fixing a contract is probably low, but it’s more of a personal low than a company low because it’s just like ‘ugh I wanna go to sleep and not deal with admin right now,’ haha. Yea, I don’t know that there is a low. I mean, it is strikingly stressful at times. I think anybody who says this isn’t stressful is lying. But I wouldn’t call that a low; I think that you just sometimes have to work a little harder, but that’s what I’ve signed on for, and I think that’s okay.
OB: Is there a moment or an aspect of the company that you’re proudest of?
EM: I think the aspect that I’m proudest of is the staff that has joined us. I am so beyond fortunate to be surrounded by the people that I’m surrounded by, in the trenches, helping this company operate. Clare Drobot is the Director of Artistic Development, and she’s a force of nature. She’s brilliant. Somebody once described her as the yenta to playwrights and directors. She supports artists in a way that — she’s like a mother to them. She combines playwrights and directors in a way that’s almost like a sixth sense. She’s just so warm and open to supporting and taking care of artists that I love working with her. And Kate Sessions is our Director of Development, and she’s just a workhorse. Like she works so hard. And Stephen Brown is our Media Coordinator, and he does all things IT and design, and it’s like when things make my head spin — I don’t understand computer things — I’m like ‘Stephen, what do I do?’ And he’s right there. And Kayla Shriner Cahn has just signed on as Associate Artistic Director, and she’s already blowing my mind in terms of her work ethic, and her professionalism. And across the board I think when people get involved with the company, they see the staff, and they want to be a part of it. And they understand the hard work, and they appreciate it. And the also see the passion, and it’s contagious. And I think without this group of people here with me, this would be impossible.
OB: Has anyone been an inspiration for The BE Company or instrumental in its success?
EM: In terms of inspiration, for me — and I don’t know him, I’ve never met him, obviously he’s not here anymore, either — Joe Papp. In terms of what he did, starting The Public, and his mission for what The Public was going to be — I look at an artistic director like that and think if I could be a fraction of what he was, I would be a lucky man. I look at what he stood for. He was tough, but he was also so smart and so, so good about new work. So he’s a big person that I look towards. He just an amazing human being. And I feel like there’s only a handful of theater companies that still hold on to that. Manhattan Theater Club in Lynne Meadow. And companies like that. I used to work for Manhattan Theater Club. I brought in funding for them; I was a fundraiser, and I learned a lot about how to do this by working at that company. In terms of how do you start a not-for-profit, how does a campaign run, how do you champion new work when you’re dealing with fundraising and foundation support and not-for-profit work, and how do you balance those things, how to look at a play and understand its merit and how to take it into your season. So I look at Manhattan Theater Club a lot for guidance. I still talk to a lot of the staff there because, without that company, I wouldn’t know anything about how to do this. And I’m still learning, obviously. There’s lots to learn. So anyway, I think those two places are big for me personally, as to why I do...and why I was able to start doing this. In terms of people who have championed the company…um, I think just across the board, all of the writers and the artists that get involved with us. I don’t know that I can just pinpoint one because there are so many that have been so generous with their art, and so generous with their time. The staff and the artists, the audiences that come to see things, the donations that come in from people who support new work and support the arts. And I think without all of these elements, it would never work.
OB: Tell me a little about the process of the development of the work. Do you actually rehearse as a company or is it more curatorial?
EM: It depends. It’s project by project. More often than not, the main element begins with an outside entity coming into the company and the staff itself providing support for it to happen. Everybody in the company is an artist, so one of the things that I’m really big on is that if you’re a member of the staff of this company, your art is taken into account. So if you’re a writer, we will do a play or a reading of something that you have written, or a production, or we will find something that is an artistic compliment for you, so you’re not just doing grunt work all the time. You still get your artistic outlet just as much as you’re giving everyone else opportunities. So actors do act in things; writers do get readings or productions of their work; directors get to direct. If someone wants to try a film script out, we just started a film wing that’s doing something called “Cheap Cheap Short Shorts” where we do a short on the budget that you would take to the grocery store, so that it’s so low stakes that everyone can just get out there and play. So company members do get involved in the artistic aspects also, but a lot of what comes into our programming is from the outside, so it does have a curatorial aspect to it as well. When we sit down and look at submissions to us and who’s in our company and what they have going on –we kind of look at everything in the great big picture. We kind of pull things out and piece things together and see what the year’s going to look like, and it kind of has a combination of both.
OB: How do you decide on the next project? Your decision? A vote?
EM: Kind of a little bit of both. It starts by committee, and then it whittles down by fewer and fewer people kind of like greenlighting. Clare Drobot and I are most involved in the artistic programming because she’s the Director of Artistic Development. She and I both sit down when we have like forty scripts, and we’ll both read all of them. We’ll sit down, we’ll look at everything, and we’ll talk about the merits of each script and how things combined together will look. But everybody on the staff reads everything and have their opinions, and they’re all taken into account, so in one sense, it is by committee. But we do tend to, after discussion, to all end up on the same page. But Claire and I do usually lead that discussion in terms of what we’re feeling. So committee slash we two.
OB: Tell me a little bit about the show you’re working on now.
EM: Oh! It’s so good! I’m so excited about it! It’s called Sex on Sunday. It’s by Chisa Hutchinson. It’s about…a lot of things. It’s about taboos; it’s about sexuality; it’s about gender; it’s about economics; it’s about race. Kind of all rolled into one. But the premise of the story is—the character’s name is Laila, and she’s a dominatrix in a very affluent neighborhood. She moves into this big beautiful apartment and has all these neighbors come knocking to see, ya know, who’s new to the neighborhood. And she’s purchased this house, this brownstone by herself and everything, and it’s kind of her, coming to understand her personal life and her work life and the taboos that come along with that, in terms of the women in the neighborhood, and what it is for a dominatrix who does this as a profession to sort of live and exist in the real world and come to grips with such a taboo profession and people knowing about it and things. So it’s very funny, and it’s got a lot of weight to it. Chisa is one of my favorite writers, and what she does really well is that she takes stories like this and makes them extremely human. You don’t look at this as the idea of a dominatrix but as a person, and it makes you understand all the layers to what’s going on.
OB: What advice would you give to someone pursuing a similar theater experience in New York City?
EM: Never give up. I know it’s very simple, just three words. Never. Give. Up. But it’s the advice I’ve gotten, and I think it’s very good advice.
(The BE Company was founded in the spring of 2008 as a collaboration between industry professionals seeking an artistic home. For more info about the company visit thebecompany.org. Ethan Matthews is Artistic Director. The production Sex on Sunday runs Thursdays through Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 7pm, March 13th through April 3rd at The Theater at 30th St, 259 West 30th Street at Urban Stages. Tickets are $18. To reserve, visit smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.)