Off B'way playhouse brings in auds, thesps, buzz
NEW YORK — With the June 8 opening of dark comedy “The Terrorist,” the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret marks the end of an unusually successful debut season for a new Off Broadway company, attracting steady audiences and even the odd Broadway star in its nonprofit, experimental work.
Notions of community underscore the philosophy of the theater, which is headed by Gotham-based Yale School of Drama graduates and goes by the moniker UNYYC (pronounced “unique”). Founder and board member Heidi Seifert wanted to start a Yale-focused company because she knew there were countless grads struggling to succeed in theater.
“I wondered, why aren’t we helping each other and making the transition to New York easier?” she says.
For Seifert, there was no better way to galvanize grads than by re-creating the energy of the Yale Cabaret, a theater company run by Drama School students between classes.
The word “cabaret” is a misnomer, since the theater hosts every imaginable type of performance, with a different show every weekend. UNYYC co-artistic director George Tynan Crowley notes, “Our mission is (to) create risk-taking theater that re-creates (that) ephemeral, seat-of-your-pants spirit.”
To that end, UNYYC’s board chooses its season from proposals submitted by ad hoc artist groups (only one member per group is required to be a Yale Drama alum). Once selected, UNYYC provides each show with marketing support, access to a storehouse of costumes and props and a tiny budget. The company also covers fees for Equity thesps and provides a venue, currently the West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street.
Essentially, UNYYC gives artists resources and gets out of their way.
So far, it’s working well. UNYYC’s first season featured five full productions — many new companies mount only one or two — and Seifert says each perf averaged 50 patrons. The comedy “Separating the Man From the Bull” got particular attention for featuring Daniel Jenkins, star of Broadway’s “Big River.”
The best bellwether, however, may be financial. Seifert reports that in its first season, the theater earned $10,000 in ticket sales and $42,000 in grants and donations — not insubstantial for a burgeoning company.
Of course, it can’t hurt that so many Yalies, from the Drama School and beyond, are predisposed to support the theater. UNYYC board member and marketing director Pun Bandhuconcedes, “We have the advantage of a built-in audience of people familiar with the Yale School of Drama aesthetic. But it would be self-defeating to just put on shows that we only want to see ourselves.”
Bandhu is adamant that UNYYC’s connection to Yale does not make it a coterie theater, and Crowley notes that fewer than 10% of this season’s thesps were Drama School-trained.
Ultimately, Seifert believes the company’s downtown aesthetic, not its New Haven connections, will keep it afloat. She points to shows like last November’s “Three Children,” a densely lyrical drama from Malaysia, and the upcoming “The Terrorist,” billed as both a satire and a thriller, as signs of how she wants UNYYC to be known.
Crowley elaborates, “My personal vision … wants the theater to be about waking people up, without all the trappings that frequently swallow up the vitality of a play.”