Axial Theatre staging success
By: Mary Shustack
When “Radiance” begins performances May 2 in Pleasantville, it will mark the latest production of Axial Theatre, a nearly 15-year-old professional company dedicated to presenting new work.
That mission is not only Axial’s distinction, but also the biggest challenge it faces every time it takes to the stage, said Howard Meyer, the group’s founder and artistic director.
Speaking recently at the company’s home of the past four years, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Meyer reflected on Axial’s carving out a niche in the face of some very real obstacles.
“Our mission is to do new plays, so we are not producing Arthur Miller. We are not producing ‘Annie,’” he said.
It might bring excitement to the local arts landscape, but also makes drawing an audience tougher.
“The tendency is to go to what you know,” Meyer said. “That’s been a challenge, the fact that we’re not going with household name recognition, whatever it be, playwright, director, star.”
But Axial is creating something unique, Meyer said, operating on what in the trade is called “a company model,” where actors, directors and playwrights are both paid and work year-round.
“This is always a coveted thing, to create an environment where there’s continuity,” he said, noting he’s committed to having each of the company’s 15 members involved in each production.
Axial also took a very practical and forward-looking step in the fall of 2011, bringing in a managing director to focus on marketing and audience development for the company with a $200,000 annual budget.
Jaki Silver, a New York theater veteran, welcomed the role.
“We’re trying to create and brand ourselves more and more,” Silver said.
To that end, she cultivates tie-ins with local businesses, from bars to restaurants, with opening nights also featuring wine-and-cheese receptions.
But, she added, there’s still a lot to be done to increase attendance.
“It’s not an easy sell,” she said of the new-play mission. “It’s so much building an audience for something they don’t know they want.”
But, Meyer added, Axial – which has earned critical and audience praise – has built a solid foundation.
“We attract people who are looking for something more edgy or unique.”
Axial’s audience members, he added, tend to be in their 30s and 40s, “which is nice because they can grow with us.”
Axial also works with a number of guest artists and has had success drawing those in the region looking for a professional environment to develop new work.
“We’re as committed to developing as we are to producing,” Meyer said. “That’s super important to us, engaging the Westchester artistic community.”
Axial started in 1998 and has presented more than 40 theatrical events, from full productions to staged readings. All is an outgrowth of Howard Meyer’s Acting Program, which began in 1994 and today trains more than 125 students of all ages each year. Student productions are presented in January and August, which complement the main Axial shows each spring and fall.
Some former students have gone on to Broadway (“Once”) and television (“Boardwalk Empire”), but the work of the students is more important than the acclaim.
As Meyer said, “We don’t have a ‘star’ graduate yet, but who cares?”
Silver, the managing director, echoed that the message is key. Those involved with Axial, she said, “strive to do work that really is a social dialogue.”
“Radiance,” written by Meyer, directed by Christopher Grabowski and featuring Obie Award-winning actor Christopher McCann, explores both toxic environments and toxic relationships against the backdrop of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Yes, it’s a play by Meyer, who said he realizes that might raise a few eyebrows. But, “Radiance,” he noted, has earned outside acclaim, a semi-finalist at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference in 2011 and 2012, among other recognition.
Meyer said it would be foolish to “put a play on the stage that’s not as good as anything else. … There’s no way this place could succeed if it were a Howard Meyer vanity production.”
At the company’s annual benefit in late March, the theater’s home – basically a church hall where the stage is designed to suit each production – was transformed from cocktail party to auction room, nightclub to theater all in the span of a few hours.
And at the end of the successful evening, it had served as yet another way to raise both Axial’s profile and funds for its future.
After all, said Silver, “It’s a small business like any other. Our business just happens to be live theater.”