A Theasy Interview with company founders
Cristina Alicea and David Stallings
MTWorks was founded in 2006 by Cristina Alicea, David Stallings, Antonio Miniño and Jillian Zeman, and their mission is to birth new plays inspired by playwrights and regions outside of New York, that question the boundaries of our society, humanity, and individuality.
It’s always fun, as a producer, to sit down with fellow off-off-Broadway producers and chew the fat about the magic and mystery of puttin’ up a show. I had the fortune to meet with two of the founding members of MTWorks, Alicea and Stallings, to discuss their new show, Barrier Island.
Tzipora Kaplan: You’re marketing Barrier Island as part of the Galveston Cycle. What is the Galveston Cycle?
David Stallings: It all starts with Barrier Island, and the show took years to come to where it is now. Our first reading was just so successful - we did one about a year and a half ago. At the talkback, everyone was really interested in what happened to the characters. The storm in the play is very much a monster in the shadows, it actually really devastates the island, and it was one of the three most destructive storms ever to hit the US. Well, that was September 2008, and then the economy crashed, and all of the Gulf Coast was really suffering, and that inspired two more plays about how devastated those people were, and this regionally focused series of plays became the Galveston Cycle. Another thing that inspired me was that I grew up in Galveston, Texas with a big extended family, and now they’ve all moved away, and that kind of migration from tradition, from roots that have been there for over a hundred years…that’s so difficult, you know? Some people still can’t do that.
TK: Where have they all gone?
DS: Other parts of Texas, my mom moved along this coast, just so she could visit me. Actually, my mother moved to the same town Cristina’s parents moved to…it’s weird!
Cristina Alicea: It is very weird.
TK: Your company is about to begin its’ fifth season. How did you start?
CA: We were friends for a few years and we never talked about theatre; we would meet at bars, have some fun, and then one day, David mentioned to me that he was working on a play and would I like to take a look at it. He knew I was a director, and I knew he was a writer, but we never actually sat down and discussed theatre, and now it’s all we talk about! We had a real connection we didn’t realize we shared - our aesthetic is very similar, the way we see theatre is the same. He would write and bring it to me and we would try to figure out the next step.
DS: Cristina’s an amazing dramaturg, and just has a really specific eye. I saw a production she directed, it was so specific and that’s what I love. She really brings out a strength in her female protagonists and most of my protagonists are female…so it just seemed like the next natural step in our relationship, that we would do work together.
TK: When you say you have a similar aesthetic, you’re talking about the type of work that attracts you?
CA: That’s exactly it, we tend to enjoy the same aspects of shows, for different reasons. We come from very different places in our reasoning for what we like, but we usually like the same things.
DS: She has a director’s eye, and I have a writer’s eye. It is an aesthetic based on practicality, honesty of emotion, not too indulgent, but still has just a hint of poetry to it. Theatre needs to ask you questions, but doesn’t need to answer them. We’re really interested in that, in that gray area of theatre. Gray is our favorite color, we think.
CA: You’re asking 99 people to come to sit and watch your work for two hours, the most important question to be answered about a piece is ‘why?’ Why should we ask people to come and be with us for 2 hours or more? You should be conveying a message of some sort, it shouldn’t be just for entertainment. I’m wary of work when I feel there isn’t enough heart to it...we want the work we do to resonate.
TK: Part of your mission statement is to solicit plays that do not take place in New York City. Why?
DS: I find that we see a lot of theatre, especially in the off-off community—
TK: New York Showbiz Dating Party Plays!
DS: Exactly! I felt like five plays in a row took place in an apartment in Manhattan, and I know there are a lot more stories to be told, and we need to make sure New Yorkers are getting that. Our work that we chose to do together was always about another time, another place, nothing to do with New York, and eventually, we just incorporated that into our mission statement.
CA: We’re all New Yorkers, we’re experiencing this ‘New York’ daily, so I don’t feel its something we need to discuss, and I think its’ more interesting to tell stories of things we’re not experiencing.
DS: We try and bring in work that New Yorkers might not necessarily relate to, but hopefully they can connect to the characters’ emotions and humanity, if not their particular life experiences.
TK: Tell me about the name of your company. MTWorks stands for "Maieutic Theatre Works." The pronunciation is –
C: May-yu-tic. Maieutic is a Socratic method of teaching, which is still used in law schools, asking a series of questions to bring someone to latent truth, and that’s basically what we want to do with theatre. Asking questions, having people respond, and seeing them know something about themselves that is new. It also means ‘to act as midwife’ in Greek, and I feel as an artist, you are a midwife to your art - helping to birth the work you’re presenting. It’s a very difficult word to say, so Antonio gave us an excellent way to shorten it with ‘MTWorks’.
TK: How long have you known Antonio?
CA: Antonio came on board right at the beginning. On our first show, he was a producer. We also started our company with Jillian Zemen, who did Ragtime with APAC (she won the Stage Management NYIT award for that show). She was our Stage Manager for our first show, and the four of us started our company together!
TK: How do you fundraise for your company? I notice you have a string of concerts, like The Underworld?
DS: We do two fundraisers a year, and one of them is The Underworld, where we take Broadway understudies, and have them sing and talk about their experiences on stage, and that’s something that people really connect to. Everyone enjoys listening to them. We’ve also started Variations, which is an event where we take a classic play, and we split it into 4 sections and let 4 different directors tackle the piece, it’s the only work we do that’s not original, and it’s mostly to showcase a director’s vision and demonstrate how differently a director’s vision can affect the same text…and that’s done really well. And then there’s always the grassroots effort.
CA: It’s always a battle, Fundraising never ends - we’re always trying to come up with interesting fundraising campaigns…the last show we did, we had an adopt a prop program. We had the pics of the props on our website, and people could buy that prop, and then go to the show and then see their prop onstage, it was great! We do cute little campaigns like that to bring in money.
TK: You’ve extended this idea to your designers, I’ve noticed. You can actually buy/sponsor a designer for your next show, which is a fantastic idea. You have a festival going on now as well -
CA: The NewBorn Festival. It’s for us to seek out new work nationally, to find emerging playwrights.
DS: We’re not afraid of New York playwrights, we just don’t look at shows that take place in the city. We narrow the shows down to 5-7, bring a creative group on board and do some readings to hear the piece out loud…we try to give the writer a process. We do a Living Room Series every summer for the plays involved, we really try to give them a chance to workshop and hone in on what the play is about, if they want. It’s all about birthing the play.
CA: The NewBorn Festival has gotten bigger and bigger every year. We’ve done this for 4 yrs now, and it’s grown exponentially in terms of interest and submissions. We’re really interested in working with a playwright on a play that has a seed of an idea, rather than a finished product, and the process focuses purely on them and what they, the playwright, need/want. There are usually about 10 plays in the Living Room Series, and then we pick the 5 plays that have grown the most, and present them in the NewBorn.
TK: Has anything happened with any of these developmental workshops/readings? Have any of the plays been picked up?
DS: Actually, a play called Providence, beautiful play (and playwright is fantastic!), just got a reading at New Jersey Rep, and we just did a reading of his newest play that we’ll be producing next season. One of my plays we put up in the NewBorn has had some readings in Boston and will have some more in San Francisco soon. It makes us really happy when a play garners interest from our NewBorn Series.
TK: How long is your season?
CA: We do 2 productions a year, The Underworld, New Born, Variations, and the Living Room Series…and this is our first time working with Center Stage (for Barrier Island).
TK: What genres of plays do you favor?
DS: Oh, we like to spice it up, we like realism and magical realism, I really like us to be diverse.
CA: The work we’ve done tends towards more kitchen-sink dramas, as that is contemporary writing style, but we’re really interested in all kinds of work that is thought provoking, has something significant to say, and embraces an alternative style. It can be difficult to find work like that…but that’s what we’re after, that gray matter.
Check out Barrier Island, playing through May 22, 2010 at Center Stage NY, 48 West 21st Street. For more information and for tickets, visit mtworks.org.
Cristina Alicea is a founding member and the Executive Director of MTWorks. She has worked with theatres throughout New York City, some of which include The Ensemble Studio Theatre, The Michael Chekhov Theatre Company, The American Globe Theatre, Thirteenth Street Repertory Company, Creative Stages Theatre, and the FringeNYC Festival. Cristina is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and is an associate member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
David Stallings is a founding member of Maieutic Theatre Works, and serves as their Artistic Director. He has worked with several theater companies including The Culture Project, Intravenous Theatre, Prospect Theater Company, Early Stages and Square Peg Theater Company. David is currently working on A Song for St. Michael's, the second play in a new trilogy called The Galveston Cycle, which will be featured in MTWorks' National NewBorn Festival in January 2010. David is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.