During the long months since the Broadway shut down last March, New York theater groups have been scrambling to generate online content to keep their mission alive.
The Off-Broadway Keen Company, now in its 21st season, has been assiduously successful in producing fare for the socially distanced minded. Last fall they presented “1993 by finkle,” an episodic, queer musical journey set in Alphabet City, as part of its Hear/Now radio play initiative. On Monday nights they host Keen After Hours, a series of live-streamed interviews with theater luminaries proven to be wildly popular. From time to time, they produce benefit broadcasts like “War of the Worlds” and the upcoming “Sorry Wrong Number” (February 15 at 7 pm ET).
During a recent chat with Gay City News, the Keen Company’s impassioned artistic director Jonathan Silverstein detailed the extraordinary challenges of soldiering on during the age of COVID.
“While of course we would rather be performing in front of a live audience, Keen Company has found creative ways to pay artists and connect with our audiences in manners we never dreamed of,” Silverstein said. “Personally, I have been grateful for the work, both as an artist and producer.”
Silverstein, who has directed nearly all their events since the pandemic hit, said the aim of Keen After Hours is to foster meaningful bonds between the theater community and their supporters, both old and new. Plus, he and his plucky Keen cohorts, Ashley DiGiorgi and Billy Recce, have a blast spending an hour each week with some truly gifted people. The Zoom-style format lends itself well to these intimate group chats, often punctuated by pregnant pauses and bursts of laughter.
Because Keen is part of a generous community of theater makers, there are plenty of guests to choose from.
“We seek out diverse voices, whether they be alumni artists, other theater companies, or professionals from the field,” Silverstein explained. “We also like to choose people who we think would enjoy sitting in our office for an hour. Indeed, many of our guests have!”
Highlights from past programs include Marsha Mason recounting her days as a race car driver and George Salazar’s inspirational tales of doing “Little Shop of Horrors” with MJ Rodriguez.
A couple of weeks ago they sat down with dramatist Chisa Hutchinson, who certainly fits the bill for diverse voices. Hutchinson, who wrote “Surely Goodness and Mercy” that the Keen mounted in 2019 to warm acclaim, is a woman of color who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. It was the Keen’s first production written by a playwright of color.
Hutchinson described the hurdles faced breaking into theater as a Black girl growing up poor in Newark, New Jersey. When she was a teen, she took her first acting class but couldn’t find any monologues that spoke to her. She had scant interest in doing yet another rendition of “Antigone.”
“This whole ‘Let’s shoehorn some Black and Brown people into these traditionally white roles’ was not gonna cut it,” she said. So she started writing her own scenes to tell stories about people of color, mirroring the real world.
“When you’re a person of color in a white role, you are a political statement, you’re not a person. And that’s not fair,” she asserted. Her goal is to tell smaller, intimate stories to “get more young kids who look like me in the audience.”
She worked hard and got into Vassar College, where she was the sole Black drama major, and later got her MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Since then, she’s had more than 10 plays produced, including “She Like Girls,” which won a GLAAD award. She wrote a play as part of the Keen Teens program, but production was halted due to the pandemic.
On February 1 the Keen gang chatted with the furiously prolific Michael Urie, who wowed audiences in the Broadway revival of “Torch Song” a couple of years back. Silverstein directed Urie in “The Temperamentals” in 2009-10 and he’s has been a cherished collaborator ever since. The out-and-proud actor even did a star turn in their benefit reading of “Arsenic and Old Lace” right before the shutdown.
Urie regaled viewers with anecdotes from his career and how he got bitten by the acting bug. In high school he wanted to be a director, inspired by Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg. But since so few boys were willing to try out for productions, he was recruited to perform on stage. One day he improvised a line and the audience roared with laughter. He had an epiphany that he craved the spotlight.
“That was the moment,” he said. “It was a choice that I had made, not in the script. I thought, this laugh thing is so great. It felt so unique to theater. I owe my career to a couple of big laughs in high school.”
After a year at community college, he studied drama at Julliard. “Going to Julliard is the best ticket to show business you can get,” he enthused. “Of course there are no guarantees, it’s such a fickle business.”
After his breakout turn as the flamboyant assistant in “Ugly Betty,” where he parlayed a brief stint into a regular role for the entire run of the TV show (2006-2010), many acting gigs followed, including the solo show “Buyer & Cellar,” a big hit Off Broadway in 2014.
It wasn’t long before he tried his hand at directing again, coming full circle. One of his favorite turns as director was for “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” Drew Droege’s 2016 solo show about a gay wedding gone wrong. He had seen an early version where it was simply Droege on a stool riffing about a funny story.
“When I saw it I thought, this is not just a comedy routine, this is a whole play. And I know a thing or two about solo plays. I can help [Drew] flesh out this world.”
Coming soon on Keen After Hours is Jonathan McCrory, the Harlem-based director, producer, and “creative doula” who currently serves as artistic director of the National Black Theatre. Later in the hot seat is Jennifer Ashley Tepper, producer of such hits as “Be More Chill” and “Broadway Bounty Hunter,” and creative director at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
While many theater companies have begun monetizing their online programming, Keen After Hours is free of charge, and that’s by design.
“We felt it was important to remove the barrier of money so that all can join in on the conversation,” Silverstein said. And if you miss the Monday livestream, you can access past interviews and other Keen programs on KeenCompany.org.
Silverstein, ever the optimist, sees a bright side to this harrowing period.
“Gosh, I cannot say this is a good time, but a lot of good has come out of it,” Silverstein explained. “The way the community has stepped up to support one another, the creative means theaters have employed to innovate and reduce the barriers of entry, the extra time spent to reckon with racial inequality in the theater community. And on a personal level, the depths of gratitude I have found for the simple things like health, family, and friends.”
KEEN AFTER HOURS | Livestream Interview Series | For schedule and access, visit KeenCompany.org
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