Boro’s theater scene where everything old is new again

By Ron Hellman

The Broadway revival of “This is Our Youth,” by Kenneth Lonergan, brings back memories of The Outrageous Fortune Co., my theater company which produced 50 contemporary plays of significance over 17 years (1993-2010) at what was then called Queens Theatre in the Park. For those of you who remember those good-old-not-so-long-ago days, you can’t remember “This is Our Youth.” We wanted to do it but never got the rights.

Most plays, going back more or less to the 1920s are under copyright protection, so if you want to perform them, you have to get permission. Paying a fee — a royalty — usually is enough to get you a contract. Non-professionals, that is those who do without members of Actors’ Equity, apply to such places as Dramatists Play Service or Samuel French. However, if your company is in New York City or a couple of other major cities, the agent for the playwright gets to make the final decision. In this instance, Lonergan’s agent turned us down. Don’t ask me why, but it’s easy for an agent to say no when it’s not a money-making project.

The works of William Shakespeare, however, are performed all the time — this year in NYC there were at least three major productions of “King Lear” — as well as those by Anton Chekhov and other classic old timers. No copyright stands in your way and no payment is required to the playwrights’ heirs. Perhaps they didn’t have the right lawyer.

Which brings me to two of my constant themes — hey, I’ve been writing this column since 2007 and sometimes I have the urge to repeat myself in the hope that someone will pay attention. One theme is the surprising lack of contemporary plays regularly produced in Queens and on Long Island. There seems to be a reluctance to choose these plays, either due to the title’s unfamiliarity, the use of “adult” language or the provocative material itself. Many companies claim that their audiences want to see only those plays they are familiar with. I disagree.

The fact is that lots of good plays are produced in Manhattan, generally Off Broadway, and are well-acted and well-reviewed. But most of them have a limited run — without a “celebrity” star, it’s tough to make a buck. Bringing them across the river to Queens, with our lower production costs, venues easier to get to at a much lower ticket price, and a younger and more diverse audience eager for something new, makes a lot of sense.

I am often asked to name my favorite Outrageous Fortune Company choices, an imposing task, but let me mention two from my 16th season, “Yellow Face,” by David Henry Hwang and “Our Lady of 121st Street,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Both are by prominent playwrights, are dramas with much comedy, have something to say as well as entertain, and in reflection of our city’s demographics, have roles for non-white actors. I recently saw the latest Guirgis play, “Between Riverside and Crazy,” at the Atlantic Theatre — don’t miss it if it gets renewed.

Another play I recommend is “Clybourne Park,” a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner by Bruce Norris. According to American Theatre Magazine, it’s one of the most produced plays in America — just not here. It’s a followup, sort of, to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” in two acts set 50 years apart, about a changing neighborhood. I’m sure you’d rather see that than more of the same old stuff.

One of our very few daring companies, my favorite in Long Island City, is the Variations Theatre Group at the Chain Theatre. From Sept. 12 – 27, they will perform “Talk Radio,” by Eric Bogosian, about a controversial shock jock. If you made it this far, you’ll want to know my other consistent theme. Yes, it’s the lack of real theater space in Queens. And I have had no response from on high to my plea, along with an editorial, for more theater venues. The quest continues.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBHOF‌C@gma‌il.com

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