The New York Times
Troupe Still Evolving as 10th Season Opens

by Cynthia Magriel Wetzler
October 17, 2008

DALE FURNIA crouched under a table pulling a blanket over his head. Gail Greenstein wandered about the room clutching a cloth doll to her chest and face. The actors were working on their roles as mentally ill, homeless souls in “The Shroud of Turin,” a one-act play written by Linda Giuliano, a member of the Axial Theater company.

Howard Meyer, founder and artistic director of Axial Theater, was directing the scene. “Allow yourselves to cultivate something from your own life — a wound, mental hauntings,” he told the actors. “Create your little world from areas of your own.”

Mr. Meyer has appeared off Broadway and regionally at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan Theater Club and other theaters and directed the well-received Off Broadway premiere of Athol Fugard’s “Hello and Goodbye.” His acting program — classes are taught by Mr. Meyer and members of Axial — is now in its 15th year.

The theater’s 10th season opens this week with “Inside/Out,” an evening of four short plays: two past favorites (including “The Shroud of Turin”) and two new ones. Performances begin on Thursday and run through Nov. 2 at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Sunnyside Avenue in Pleasantville, where Axial stages performances, workshops and rehearsals.

New plays are developed in year-round workshops based on raw scripts from company members and outside writers. After readings of early drafts the company typically explores its casting options.

“Different members tried out reading parts from an early draft of my play ‘AngelBeast,’ ” Mr. Meyer said, “and when the right actors emerged I could then go back for rewrites with more vigor. The characters were now fueled by the actor playing the part.”

Audience “talkbacks” after performances are also an integral part of the process and help the company fine-tune projects.

At a rehearsal in August the company began creating a play solely through improvisation. Instead of a script it started with a general theme: how technology has altered communication. Armed with cellphones, the actors were directed by Mr. Meyer to avoid working from any preconceived idea. “Find out what your relationship to this way of communicating is,” he told them. “Hate it? Love it? Are you avoiding person-to-person discomfort?” This core idea continues to evolve, Mr. Meyer said, and may even turn into something else altogether in the course of their discoveries.

“As a company we are always percolating,” he said.

Mr. Meyer started Axial with three other theater artists: an actor and two playwrights. They charged expenses to their credit cards, hoping to make money at the box office. “Remarkably we have never been in debt,” he said. “Out of New York City this is a rare achievement.”

Axial is partially funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Westchester Arts Council and the William T. Morris Foundation. The theater company now has 15 members — 5 of them Equity actors — as well as a manager and a technical director. All have day jobs.

Ryan Mallon was 15 years old when he took his first class at Axial 10 years ago. In 2004 he became a company member, and now he acts and writes. His play “The Tunnel” was produced by Axial last January.

Rachel Jones, an Equity actor and a company member from the onset, acts, directs and teaches in the acting program. After moving to Westchester from New York City, she was happy to find what she described as “a vibrant group of theater people” who respected the demands of her life with young children.

“We all treasure Axial,” she said. “We nurture it, and it bears fruit. And Howard’s passion is contagious.”

At the heart of the theater is collaboration; an actor may write, a director may act.

“It’s about the company and not the ego of the individual,” said Stephen Palgon, a company member. “We’re harsh in respect to what’s going to tell the story best. At times it’s not fun — feelings are hurt. But if, for example, something needs to be cut, we’ll get it out.”

“The gift of it all,” he said. “You get so surprised.

“Inside/Out,” a series of four plays, Oct. 23 to Nov. 2 (benefit dinner and auction, Oct. 18). Information:(914) 286-7680. For acting classes: (914) 962-8828 or