Rattlestick Theater Focuses on Social Change in New Season

When Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, the West Village testing ground for new playwrights, reopens Aug. 14, it will be the same 99-seat, proscenium-arch venue where Heidi Schreck (“What the Constitution Means to Me”) and Jesse Eisenberg (“The Spoils”) have premiered plays. But some things are changing behind the scenes. Despite a heavier load this season, which will feature three, not just two, main-stage shows (to honor commitments to productions planned before the pandemic), rehearsals will take place exclusively during the five-day workweek, and no rehearsal or tech call will last longer than eight hours.

“It feels essential to have a healthy dynamic for everyone to do their best work and also take care of themselves,” said Daniella Topol, the theater’s artistic director. (Previously, some team members would spend as many as 18 hours at the theater.) She added that rehearsal periods would be extended by an additional week to allow for ample time to prepare for the shows.

“It’s not an inexpensive change,” she said. “But it’s an essential one we’re all so grateful for.”

When the season kicks off, with Arturo Luís Soria’s solo show “Ni Mi Madre,” social change will be at the heart of the new season. Soria’s show, which will be the actor’s first venture as a playwright, is one of two this season that will be presented both in person and livestreamed.

“I hope this is our new normal,” Topol said of the in-person and virtual options. “It’s been great to give people who don’t just live in our borough or our neighborhood the opportunity to experience the work, as well as to open it up to people who have physical restrictions and can’t access the work live.”

The one-man play, which features the music of Gloria Estefan, Cher and Maria Bethânia, explores the intersection of queerness and Latino identity in the tumultuous relationship between a larger-than-life Brazilian mother and her son. “It’s deeply personal, alive and funny,” Topol said of the show that lays bare the secrets, memories, fears and celebrations of being an immigrant and first-generation American. Rattlestick’s directing fellow, Danilo Gambini, will oversee the world premiere, which will be his first professional production in the United States after having previously worked as an opera and musical theater director in his home country, Brazil.

“It will make anyone and everyone think about their relationship with their mother,” Topol said.

The show will be followed in November by the Atlanta-based playwright Mansa Ra’s “In the Southern Breeze,” an absurdist drama that centers the Black male experience across centuries of American history as it follows five Black men who meet in the afterlife following their murders. Christopher Betts will direct.

Topol, who first got a glimpse of the play when Rattlestick produced a reading of it in 2018, said, “I couldn’t get it out of my head, particularly when everything was happening with George Floyd and the protests. It really speaks to this moment.”

In the season’s final show, and the only one to be presented exclusively online, audience members will be invited to chart their own theatrical experience in the interactive virtual game “Addressless,” which asks viewers to work together in small groups on Zoom to make choices that illustrate the challenges of homelessness. The work, written by the Hungarian artist Martin Boross and adapted by Jonathan Payne, whose day job is working in social services, will be presented virtually in January and February.

“The irony is that every choice you make as the character either costs money or years of your life,” Topol said, noting that they include whether a character will sleep on the street or in a hostel, if they will ask people for money or try to find work. “Hopefully people can move toward greater empathy and change after seeing this piece.”

Topol said the theater has also hired a venue and production manager to oversee Covid-19 health and safety protocols during the 2021-22 season, which include installing MERV-13 air filters. In line with the demands articulated by the advocacy group “We See You, White American Theater” last fall, Rattlestick has brought on a mental health professional to support artists in rehearsals for projects that involve trauma.

“These are personal pieces that dig deep into the roots and deal with inherited and generational trauma,” Topol said, “and we want to do all we can to help artists investigate that with courage, passion, care and empathy.”

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