THE PRIVATE THEATRE was founded in 1980 by a group of theater artists, some from the Yale School of Drama, and others who had met in East Europe in pursuit of the Grotowsky/Kantor revolution taking place in Poland and who were determined to absorb those progressive influences as well as others like Handke, Kroetz and Brook. Those among other European influences, along with adventurous Americans such as Akalaitis, Breuer, LeCompte, Wilson and Forman were for us in these early years, inspirational to further advance what we viewed at the time as a rebellion against a stultified and overly commercial American theater. The name of the company emerged from a combination of impulses; one, a somewhat loose interpretation of a Strindberg notion of respect for the private experience of each individual audience member, and also a somewhat whimsical desire to thumb our noses at the big institution across the street from our first show, The Public Theater.
In the 80’s we experimented with devised and site-specific works, as well as unusual plays emerging from those traditions.
We premiered Heiner Müeller in the United States with Philoktet, his version of the Philoctetes story, at the Second Avenue Theater which no longer exists. Heiner Müeller, we learned, was delighted to hear that audiences had to come up in small groups in a very slow elevator and that the temperature in the theater replicated the island of Lemnos in August, where the story took place.
We spent two years devising The Last American in Paris (before the term “devising” existed), a theatrical conflation of the films An American in Paris and Last Tango in Paris, examining the uprooted American identity in tandem with the cooptation of the artistic impulse. We began this with a residency at The University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and premiered it at Theater D of the Purchase Performing Arts Center, busing audiences from NYC.
In fidelity to Genet’s expressed desire, we developed an all male site-specific version of The Maids in a 4th floor walk-up apartment for twelve audience members each night, which we ran for six weeks. Towards the end of the run we brought down the ceiling of the apartment below.
We premiered Michael Stephens’ Our Father at The Colonnades Theater Lab, across the street from The Public Theatre. Our production of that play subsequently ran for four years at The West Bank Café and then toured to London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it won a Fringe First Award.
Unseen Energy Swallows Space, another devised work we developed, in a later version of its production, premiered at The Kitchen.
We produced the New York premiere of Bob Auletta’s Rundown which we transferred to Judson’s Church Theater in the Village from A.R.T. in Boston.
In the latter 90’s and 2000’s, the company re-grouped to produce the European premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ original LAByrinth Theater production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at The Edinburgh Festival (Fringe First Award, later at the Donmar Warehouse and on the West End at The Arts Theatre).
We followed with The Fartiste at the New York Fringe Festival (Fringe First Award, later produced commercially, off-Broadway), and with a radical adaptation of Hedda Gabbler produced in a radically intimate, site-specific setting in a 19th c townhouse in the lower east side for 25 audience members per show. This production was sold out throughout its run.
Our site-specific proclivity took a further step with our deconstruction of Strindberg’s one-act Playing With Fire about voyeurism, exhibitionism and wife-swapping, with music and movement which we mounted in a multi-media production with four live video crews and five video monitors at The Box, the notorious downtown sexual cabaret. Playing With Fire was entirely sold out for all performances.
In addition, The Private Theatre is also a producer of Turn Me Loose, the dramatization of Dick Gregory’s life and career, starring Joe Morton, which performed in New York at The West Side Theater and then at The Wallis Annenberg Center in Los Angeles. Turn Me Loose will open at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2018.