Atlantic Theater Co. Champions Great Plays, Truthfully Told
BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | In early 1988, a young theater company got its first big break: a show at Lincoln Center.
“We got very lucky,” Neil Pepe told Chelsea Now. “It really put us on the map.”
Pepe was talking about “Boys’ Life,” the first of many milestones in the Atlantic Theater Company’s evolution, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala.
Another production had been cancelled, explained Pepe, who has been the company’s artistic director since 1992, and “Boys’ Life” took the spot. The play got get excellent reviews, was extended and “publicly launched us.”
The Atlantic Theater Company was the outgrowth of a series of workshops famed playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy taught at New York University. The company was founded in 1985, said Pepe, who joined as an actor in 1986.
“I found them to be the hardest working group I’d ever met,” he recalled.
After the success of “Boys’ Life,” the next landmark moment, said Pepe, was creating a permanent home in Chelsea in the early ’90s.
They had been looking for spaces throughout the city, when they happened upon the former Parish house at 336 W. 20th St. between Eighth and Ninth Aves. It is now the company’s Linda Gross Theater (their Atlantic Stage 2 space is located at 330 W. 16th St.).
Pepe said that the space in Chelsea was just what they needed, and the fact that it used to be part of a church with arched windows, high ceilings and brick seemed right.
“But at that time, Chelsea was very different,” recalled Pepe. “It was an edgier neighborhood.”
There was a wonderful mix of people with art galleries and restaurants starting to flourish. It was a Downtown space that matched what the young company was trying to do: edgy work that pushed boundaries, said Pepe.
They renovated the Parish house, which has a beautiful, historic feel to it, said Pepe. They opened up the space and added more seats. In 1991, the company moved in.
“It just seemed like a vibrant neighborhood that was willing to embrace change,” he said. “We loved that community feeling that Chelsea has. I really feel like Chelsea was a big part of who we became.”
Pepe said that the company’s mission is to produce “great plays simply and truthfully, utilizing an artistic ensemble. Our approach to theater became very attractive, especially to writers,” explained Pepe, who noted that the company has long and strong relationships with Mamet, Jez Butterworth and Ethan Coen — names that stand among those Pepe was referencing when he described Atlantic’s commitment to serve the story of the play, and choose works by writers who have a command of their voice and language.
In turn, writers enjoy the culture at the Atlantic, which is one of high-quality productions with an atmosphere of honesty and fun that is, at the same time, incredibly professional, he said.
The company exercises “practical aesthetics,” a reaction to method acting, which “could feel abstract at times.” Practical aesthetics is a “hands-on approach” to plays, he said, helping an actor to get to the essential action of a scene — a set of tools that an actor can call upon at anytime, he said.
The company has great foundational principles that have served it well throughout the years, said Pepe. There is a “certain amount of democracy in our work,” meaning that the theater has a culture that is trying to produce great plays and one that is transparent — not about power or hierarchy.
“One of the early reason we did well is we have these amazing mentors, Mamet and Macy,” he said.
There are also certain prescriptions that the company follows, such as do your job and do only your job, explained Pepe. This means focus on your task. So, for instance, if you are an actor, you act, not direct. The company also has an acting school, and if you are late to class, you will not be admitted, he said.
The Atlantic has several current and upcoming productions that continue the tradition of working with great playwrights, said Pepe.
Written and directed by Doug Wright, “Posterity,” was commissioned around four years ago. Wright had seen a bust of Henrik Ibsen and started to wonder about the relationship between the sculptor and the playwright, explained Pepe.
Wright, who has won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play “I Am My Own Wife,” explores themes of fame and posterity as the sculptor and playwright “wage war over both [Isben’s] legacy and his likeness,” according to a press release. “Posterity” is at the Linda Gross Theater through April 5.
Directly following at the Linda Gross Theater is “Guards at the Taj,” from May 20 to June 28th. Written by Rajiv Joseph, a “wonderful writer that we’ve been watching for a long time,” said Pepe, the play takes place in 1648 India, when two imperial guards are “ordered to perform an unthinkable task,” according to the press release.
Joseph also wrote “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Amy Morton will direct “Guards at the Taj.”
It has been a great season so far, said Pepe.
“It’s a nice combination of world premieres and the revival of our founder,” said Pepe, referring to Mamet’s “Ghost Stories: The Shawl & Prairie du Chien,” playing from May 27 through June 28th at the Atlantic Stage 2.
Pepe said that the company wants stories that are vital and compelling (regardless if it is a comedy or tragedy) and shed light on the times we live in.
The longevity of the company is also attributed to its incredibly loyal staff, board and ensemble members, said Pepe.
Over 500 people attended the company’s 30th anniversary gala — its most successful to date — and Pepe called it an amazing celebration.
“It’s been an exciting 30 years,” he said.
For more information, visit atlantictheater.org.