Jan 14, 2012
I Interview Artistic Directors Part 6: Jim Simpson
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Current Town: New York City
Q: Tell me about The Flea.
A: I started the Flea with my wife and friends. Acknowledging that most Off Off Broadway performing artists and their colleagues in design fields receive inadequate pay (a result of the small venue) for their efforts, at least the conditions in which they are essentially volunteering their time and artistry should be excellent. For audiences, a comfortable enough venue so that the adventure occurs in the work- not in the conditions you encounter it in. We’ve run a 2 theater venue for 15 years on White Street in Tribeca.
Q: How do you create your season?
A: I deliberately don’t plan too far in advance. I place a big value on “being of our time”- and reflecting what’s going on in the real world. So I like to find a relationship between our immediate lives and the work we do. What we do might not be strictly topical- but it should feel right- for right now. Or at least that’s the challenge that I’ve set for us. In our large theatrical community I also look for what is not going on- if there is a different game to play. To plan a year or two in advance guarantees irrelevancy. Typical institutional theater finds many values in advance planning- but I think that favors the institutional experience, not necessarily what happens between performer and spectator, which is what we’re focused on. As I write this it is early January- and I’m looking for something for the end of this month. (And yes, I am very, very picky.) We have a large young company of resident actors, The Bats, they change throughout a season, and our work often reflects what’s possible (and what’s going on) with them. Some of our best work has resulted from their insights, inspirations and proposals. I believe in young people and place a high value on them. We don’t “develop” work other than actually doing it- so when I read a piece or get interested in something we often chase it down on the spot. Why wait? Although Playwriting is a challenging form, we concentrate on realizing the work, rather than the development of the writing of it. That’s the Playwrights job after all, not ours. In the theater, we learn more by doing, in meeting our audiences than in a closed system. Nuts and bolts wise- I do a lot of reading, a lot of thinking and I hope a fair amount of listening in arriving at what we do. I realize that as an Artistic Director, I’m in a very privileged position with a working venue- so at the Flea, we feel that a dark theater is a shameful one. We do a lot. As a younger man, I spent a lot of time outside looking in at the stalwarts of New York Theater and wondered why they didn’t do more, or offer more opportunity- why so many performing spaces were deliberately kept dark. It bugged me.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as an artist or as a person.
A: I was 4 or 5 and coming home from my first Choir Rehearsal at Church, proudly proclaimed to my mother, “I’m a monotone!” Although I developed my musical abilities beyond that early assessment, I realize that many of my values of theatrical performance come from my missionary Church upbringing in Honolulu as much as working with John Raitt, Grotowski or the Yale School of Drama. Although I’m a spiritual atheist New Yorker, I’m also very much a Keiki o ka Aina Congregationalist who favors Spartan settings and the congregation more than the minister’s sermon. This Haole grew up immersed in a Nisei neighborhood with Run Run Shaw movies and Samurai Flicks, surfing and eating Saimin. He's a strange duck who could only come out of that miracle chain of islands in the Pacific.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I’d get Equity to value and even more- support what we do Off Off Broadway and to realize their adversarial stance is mystifying and counterproductive. Without our community developing the theater artist of tomorrow, we’ll all be left with just tourist trade work.
Q: If you could change one thing about your theater, what would it be?
A: I’d like to take all money out of the equation. Well, with a 72 and 40 seat venue there’s not much here anyway- so we’re close to that goal.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Good smoking acting- physicality, strength, terrific voices able to ring out and vibrate your soul, smart text, people onstage who look like our New York community- plays which offer me a chance to think about how I’m living my life, the world I’m living in and the possibilities of other worlds.
Q: What plays or playwrights are you excited about right now?
A: Right now? Plays written by actors: Greg Keller, Hamish Linklater, Donaldo Preston, Seth Moore. They really, really cook.
Q: What do you aspire to in your work?
A: My aspiration/inspiration is to be a theater artist as per Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s example and instructions. I’d like the Flea to be a tiny reflection of Minton’s Playhouse, when Teddy Hill ran it.
Q: Has your practice changed in the last ten years? Do you see changes in technology and culture changing how you work in the next ten years?
A: Lately my practice has veered into more literary realistic work- I hope to break back out into more physically exuberant theatrical work in the future. Kabuki is my porn. I’m predisposed against high tech. Usually it means they are hiding something- or not really able to get the human thing going on. I’m also a stone cold Grotowski acolyte- via negativa- Theater is what happens between spectator and actor- sets, lights, projections, video, whatever are extra- rich theater- and often get in the way. It’s not “Green” either. (what a geezer!)
Q: What advice do you have for theater artists wishing to work at your theater?
A: If you are an young actor- audition for the Bats- usually in Summer and Fall. If you are a young director- apply for our residency- it’s awesome. If you are a young playwright- come to the serials and insinuate yourself into our community- If you are a young designer apply for a residency. If you have a group- I want at least to meet/correspond with you- I have theaters to fill. If you are a established artist- and have something no one wants to do because it is too “out there” e-mail me.