Christopher Diercksen and Secrets in Queens

THE UNLIKELY ASCENT OF SYBIL STEVENS by Kari Bentley-Quinn directed by Christopher Diercksen produced by Leta Tremblay in Long Island City, February 6-23, 2014
by Kari Bentley-Quinn
directed by Christopher Diercksen
produced by Leta Tremblay
in Long Island City, February 6-23, 2014

Artists have spread out all over NYC. I’ve read some articles suggesting that this presents a fracturing of the NYC arts scene, and that without a common hub, artists will be like so many atoms sucked into a vacuum, never to be heard from again. Other articles suggest that it’s time for artists to leave NYC, that the focus of the City is money, not culture, that young artists should go somewhere else. Patti Smith, David Byrne, The NY Times, and so many other artists and outlets lament the demise of NYC art.

But what they’re missing, in this real estate fracture, is that every hood where an artist lives becomes a hub for creation. Every single corner in this vast, great city is ripe for genesis. Art happens where artists live. We’ve seen what happened in Brooklyn, artists fleeing the Manhattan rents in the 1990’s spawned Williamsburg, then Greenpoint, now Bushwick. The flood of kids to Queens made LIC what it is, and what it is becoming.

When director Christopher Diercksen sent me a very intriguing email about a show he’s getting together in Queens, I realized how many times I’d made the trek on the N from south Brooklyn in the past year or so, never mind how many times I’d been tempted. I asked him to talk to me about Queens, the show, and making theater happen.

Tell me about making art in Queens. What stands out for you about this experience? Were there any surprises to the response to theater in the outer boroughs?

Haha, it’s hard to define anything as surprising when producing plays because every project has its own circumstances and its own set of challenges and strengths. The challenge that producing in Queens presents is most often at the box office: “will the audience come from other boroughs?” I’ve found it’s more a mental barrier than a physical one. Most New Yorkers I know are used to traveling up to an hour to get places anyway and if they actually take the time to look up the theater they’d find its incredibly accessible. The truth is that if someone blames their absense on the show being in Queens then they probably weren’t going to come anyway. The answer to the box office is: “yes, of course they will.” Brooklyn overcame that barrier and now it’s Queens’ turn.  As for the benefits of doing a show in Queens… they’re truly marvelous. There is a community of theater companies, venues, and people in Queens that have been incredibly supportive. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. This is perhaps best exemplified by the new space The Sandbox in LIC. Look it up. It seems as if something is happening right now, something that’s too young to be named but feels good; feels right.

So there’s a local audience as well as a commuting one, that makes for a great community foundation. What kind of feedback, anecdotal or otherwise, do you hear back from the local audience base?

Mostly what you’d expect, “it’s so nice to have theater so close to home” etc. I gotta be honest though the majority of people I see at shows are other theater folk who run in overlapping circles. Many of them live in queens, I mean they don’t call Astoria “Actoria” for nothin. We (theater artists) are our own audience in many ways and I think that’s got a lot to do with the surge in the arts scene.

There seems to be a pervasive feeling among artists that their career is like this ladder, or like a carousel where once they spear enough gold rings they can move onto the next level. What does success mean to you?

That’s dangerous. I try not to think about it unless it’s in hindsight. I just do the best job I can with the best resources I can get and I recognize that my best can always be better. It keeps me present with whatever project I’m working on and drives me to begin again when I find myself with nothing to do. The goal for me is “direct plays until I’m dead.” I have to trust that as long as people want to work with me again and audiences want to see the work I present then whatever leveling up is required to take me closer to my aforementioned goal will happen. Looking back, and recognizing a natural progression of quality in my collaborators I’m just crazy grateful for having worked with all of them. And one job leads to another. So maybe it’s more like puddle jumping for me… That being said, yeah I should probably finish that personal website. 🙂

What drew you to The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens? It seems like the play makes a real comment on fame, the nature of tragedy, and the struggle between wanting to be known and wanting to be left alone. Is this a conversation you’d like to see more of in theater?

When Kari brought the play to me initially over a year ago I don’t know that I really knew how special a story I was holding.  There was a lot going on in that draft and in hindsight it’s safe to say the action needed to be economized but there were two moments in particular that had my heart pounding. No spoilers here cuz the play will tell the story better than I can but any script that can elicit a physical reaction while reading it on a crowded subway has got enough inherent theatricality to move a room. So that. As far as the conversation… yes I think it’s a necessary one in that it moves me. Even after a year of knowing these characters and their story I still find myself feeling empowered to face the unique challenges our current common reality presents. And I think it’s accessible. It’s my mother’s favorite play she’s ever seen me do. She saw the workshop twice in the same weekend. So, ya know… if my Mom and I both like it that much then it’s definitely got wide appeal.

What is the role of a director on production of a new play?

Let me preface this by saying that I have a lot of opinions about the development life of new plays and that a directors role changes throughout that progression but it is always a position of service. Production is decidedly at the end of that timeline so hopefully the playwright already understands why the play is important to them and has been able to rectify that “why” with the “why” an audience needs to see it (something a director/dramaturg, as representative for the audience can help a lot with earlier in development). Oh god I’ve started rambling BUT STAY WITH ME. The directors job is to ensure that the story is communicated in the most effective manner to the audience. In service to the audience one must operate in service to the actors, to the designers by trusting the text. You do that and sometimes you fail at communicating a moment so consistently that it’s clear the text cannot be trusted there and needs a little tweak so you call the locksmith (playwright). But by the time we’re producing the full thing this process has largely been completed.

I’ve had varied experiences, as the playwright, being in the room during rehearsals, with directors. Some directors want the playwright to sit there and say nothing to the actors, or even to the director unless it’s in a whisper. Others are perfectly happy— or say so, anyway— for me to interact with the actors, dig into lines with them, and be as involved in the process as anyone else in the room. What’s your take on playwright behavior at rehearsals?

A playwright absolutely belongs in the rehearsal room! I’m of the opinion that if we’re in rehearsal for production we’ve all (playwright, director, actor, stage manager, designer, producer…) got a shared stake in both the story and how well it’s communicated to the audience.  We all have our roles and our roles carry primary responsibilities but that doesn’t mean we need to work in a vacuum. But look, I’m speaking really generally here; there are situations where it’s best to have one voice in the room at a time and there have been times when someone, (playwright or otherwise) has overstepped themselves. But these are the exception, not the rule and so you deal with those times as they come with forgiveness and clearly defined expectations. People are different and work in different ways and it’s the directors job to ensure that the rehearsal room is a place where everyone can do good work. It comes down to trust, right? As director I trust the actor to do what the text suggests they do. The actor trusts that the director understands the text and is giving them sound guidance. So too must the director trust that a living breathing playwright will have extremely valid opinions when it comes to defining the still living breathing story that they wrote in the first place. Maybe that’s it… we spend a lot of our formative years performing plays that are rigid on the page; our experience as students is so often limited to published scripts with no access to its creators and the circumstances surrounding its creation! So when a director is confronted with a text that is a bit more maleable it would behoove them to treat it not as an object of permanence. Woah that got pretentious real fast. I guess what I’m saying is even the smallest improvement to the play that comes from another person in the room is still an improvement so I want to be a director who can encourage that kind of environment.

Why crowd sourcing? Why is this the funding model chosen for this play?

Because my/our resources are limited. The best we can do is to ask for help from our community and so we do that as best we can. It’s a vulnerable thing to do because it admits our personal limitations. It’s a humbling thing to do because it succeeds or fails based on how willing and able our community is to support us right now. And it galvanizes us because it implies a greater responsibility to put on a worth-while show. But if anyone knows of any independently wealthy benefactors out there who’d be into just covering the bill next time then we’ll do the best we can with that as well.

I know that your indigo go campaign has ended. Are there other ways that people can support the show? Would you consider doing extreme advance sales to bring in that ticket revenue sooner rather than later?

The indie go go campaign has indeed ended (hooray we made it! hooray we’re not posting about it on social media ad nauseum anymore! thank you! i’m sorry!) but tax deductible donations are still being accepted by Fractured Atlas on behalf of The Secret Theatre (here’s the website: ). Be sure to let someone from either the production team or The Secret Theatre know that the donation is intended for The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens. All proceeds go to making the show happen as best it can and further subsidizing the meager monetary compensation for artists involved.

But most importantly, tickets are available here.
That’s most important. I wanna share this with folks. I think it’s worth sharing.

Me too. Thanks.

Jennifer Gordon Thomas is Sybil Stevens. Photo credit Kacey Stamats photographer.
Jennifer Gordon Thomas is Sybil Stevens. Photo credit Kacey Stamats.

4 thoughts on “Christopher Diercksen and Secrets in Queens

  1. I have a special place in my heart for Queens. I started doing theatre in 2006 out there at The New York Irish Center and The Chocolate Factory. Thanks for the trip down memory lane:) There’s definitely an arts scene in Queens and has been for some time. Great interview, I’m definitely going to check out the play!

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