Two years ago, writer Rebecca Brown was walking down Broadway when director John Kazanjian yelled at her from across the street. "I was writing theater reviews for The Stranger at the time," Brown says. "I thought he was going to take me to task." Instead, he asked her to write her first play. She immediately agreed—and the result, The Toaster, is now playing at On the Boards.
Kazanjian runs New City Theater with his wife Mary Ewald. Fiercely dedicated to creating new work—and to paying artists—he has commissioned productions from a wide spectrum of talent: national names like Maria Irene Fornes, Richard Foreman (a MacArthur "Genius"), and John Jesurun (ditto), as well as locals like Todd Jefferson Moore and 33 Fainting Spells. Kazanjian says artists' salaries are always the first line of New City budgets, with publicity at the bottom, and he has taken drastic steps to ensure that the artists come first.
Ten years ago, New City was one of the few companies that owned its building, and Kazanjian convinced the board to sell it. He had watched the NEA and his other funding sources shrink year by year and knew his audience wasn't numerous nor rich enough to support an experimental theater. "We had three options: One, change the content and mission. Two, go bankrupt. Three, sell the building and use the money to do the art we're passionate about for the next 10 years." He adds, "People thought I was nuts. Arts funding was diving but Seattle theaters began a building campaign. They became enamored with buildings instead of artists."
New City sold their building—now Richard Hugo House—eight years ago and has been lean and nimble ever since, producing great work from Wallace Shawn's The Fever in Kazanjian's living room to Caryl Churchill's Far Away in a SoDo warehouse.
"John's productions are clean and intense without any glob or cutesy theatrical stuff," Brown says. "And I admire him tremendously because he doesn't have a fat fucking overhead and some board saying, 'Let's do Arsenic and Old Lace so we can do a new play.' The art always comes first."
Kazanjian is a self-described practitioner of "poor theater," famously advocated by European directors Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. Disciplined and economical, poor theater doesn't try to compete with cinema's spectacle (à la lavish musicals) but sticks to the basic elements of performance: actor, text, room, audience. "When you have money, you can add Aristotle's element of spectacle," Kazanjian says. "In commercial culture, spectacle is the dominant element. Emerging artists—because they lack mentorship—think spectacle is most important, and they spend more on sets than their artists. Always pay the artist!"
He has similarly strong opinions on "fringe theater" ("It is a politicized term that pigeonholes emerging artists as extraneous and that's bullshit"), regional theater ("Managers are full-time but the artists are part-time—regional thea-ters are not homes for artists, they're motels"), and arts real estate ("Business and government should partner to help arts organizations move into empty warehouses and reduce their overhead").
Commissioning a first play from an experimental novelist is risky. Kazanjian picked Brown on "the strength of her dialogue—and, having seen her read, she has a great performance sense." It's no surprise that The Toaster isn't perfect, but the commission is the kind of boldness we should expect from our artistic leadership. A comic memento mori about a bickering brother (Timothy Hyland) and sister (Mary Ewald) coping with the death of their mother (the fantastic Susan Corzatte), the play, like Brown's Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, emerged from Brown's experience of caring for her dying mother. At times, The Toaster is an emotional tidal wave. At others, it is oddly flat. The paradox is puzzling—Brown is unimpeachably gifted, Kazanjian is a capable director, and Hyland, Ewald, and Corzatte are all fine actors—but the production jerks between peaks of comedy and pathos and valleys of caricature.
That said, writer, director, and actors each have flashes of brilliance—the silent scene when the brother bathes his weak, naked mother is utterly heartbreaking, and the siblings occasionally deliver beautiful Brownian one-liners ("The air was kind"), dark meditations on suicide and memory, and genuinely funny passages about snot, sex, and a hated wristwatch. The Toaster is Brown's freshman effort as a playwright, and bringing her into the theater is exactly the kind of generative, unblinkingly forward-looking move we should expect from our artistic leadership.