Off-Broadway Interview: TOM WOJTUNIK, director of IT IS DONE

by Gregory Fletcher on November 17, 2011

in Interviews,Theater-New York

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TOM WOJTUNIK IS FAR FROM DONE

You’re in Times Square for a night of theater.  You turn down 47th Street and pass the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where An Evening With Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin is playing.  Then you pass the old Biltmore Theatre, now owned and operated by Manhattan Theatre Club, where Venus In Fur is playing.  Then you reach your performance venue:  266 W. 47th Street.  However, there’s no theater marquee; there’s not even a theater.  The entrance signs reads, “The Mean Fiddler Bar and Grille.”

I haven’t heard of theater being produced in a bar since Charles Busch took over the Limbo Lounge in the early 1980s.  As I reached the downstairs bar and was given a free drink coupon, I found a room with tables, chairs, a jukebox, and…well, a bar.  Food and liquor were being served and, for the life of me, I saw no sign of a stage or anything that would lend a clue that a theatrical performance would be taking place.  I sat at a side table with my back to a wall of curtains.  I pressed against the curtain to confirm that there was indeed a wall.  (I didn’t want the curtain to open and surprise me with a stage behind it.)  I ordered a glass of wine and was enjoying the atmosphere, with or without “the thrilling new play by Alex Goldberg” that was printed on the program–the sole reminder that I was here to see theater.

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherAnd then the play began simply by a man entering the room and asking, “Hello?  Is anybody here?”  Clearly, he wasn’t making eye contact with me or the other sixty people sitting around the room, so I immediately understood this as a theatrical agreement and the performance began.

Later, I had the opportunity to sit down with its director, Tom Wojtunik, and discuss this thrilling experience of It Is Done.

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Have you ever directed site-specific theater before?

No, but at APAC [Astoria Performing Arts Center, where Tom is artistic director], I directed environmental stagings of the musicals Ragtime and Children Of Eden

Which won Outstanding Production of a Musical at the 2010 NY IT Awards [celebrating Off-Off-Broadway]; it was a terrific production that used the entire room.  How do you define the difference between site-specific theater and environmental?

To me, environmental theater connotes a designated theater space being used in a non-traditional way; i.e., instead of a proscenium-style staging, the action is staged all around the audience.  It Is Done is definitely more site-specific as it is being presented in a venue that is not traditionally used as a performance space.

Did It Is Done come out of APAC?

The playwright Alex Goldberg is an old friend of mine, and not only have I directed his work before, but also APAC has done readings of his plays.  Last year when he brought me It Is Done, I put it into our reading series.  Alex and leading lady Catia Ojeda were very excited about moving it to the next step.  And rightly so; the cast was terrific and hand picked by the playwright.  Actually, he wrote the roles with them in mind.

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherSo there was a strong sense of family.

Literally, because not only was Catia a good friend of mine – I’ve known her since college – but also I introduced her to Alex and married them.

You married them?  Can an artistic director do that?

After they asked me to marry them, I applied for a license–it’s not that hard, actually.  You have to be approved by a church, but there’s an online church that everybody uses, which really comes down to paying a fee.  So I’m officially an “Ordained Minister.”  Then you send in your certificate to New York State and fill out their paper work, which then makes my signature on their marriage certificate official.

Isn’t APAC located inside a church?  Maybe you could be an artistic director who officiates over marriages.

I don’t think so, though a friend did ask me to marry her next summer!  So anyway, I married the leading actress and the playwright of It Is Done, we did a reading at APAC, Alex and Catia were anxious to see the play produced, and I think one of the guys in the cast suggested we do it in a bar.  So Alex and Catia partnered up with 22Q Entertainment, a producing organization, and they started looking at bars.

In Queens?

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherNo, they wanted to find one in the theater district.

What were the qualities they were looking for?

The play describes the setting as a bar in the middle of the country that’s desolate, with license plates on the wall, grungy, old, creepy, and ninety-five miles from the nearest Interstate.  Most of the bars in New York do not fit that description; they’re too hip and trendy.  They must’ve looked at fifteen or so bars.  When they took me to their top five favorites, the Mean Fiddler stood out as number one – not because it was creepy or grungy because it’s not – but it does capture the right “mood” for the play.  Also, since we’re only performing two nights a week [Mondays and Tuesdays], we couldn’t change the space too drastically.

Were there any changes you had to make to the Mean Fiddler?

We had to cover up some of the TV screens that hang throughout the room.

I didn’t even notice one of them.

And there was some dressing behind the bar we needed to hide, like the fancy computer cash register.

The old cash register used in the play was a prop?

No, it was the real thing but it wasn’t used anymore once they went computerized.  Another reason we ended up at the Mean Fiddler was because the producers at 22Q Entertainment had a friend who works as a manager/bartender at the Mean Fiddler, and when he [Joe Coots] was made an associate producer, he became our representative with the bar.  He pulled the old cash register out from storage–the list is endless how helpful he’s been.  You probably saw him serving drinks before and after the performance?

Yeah, a very outgoing, personable guy.

He’s also a terrific actor.  So between Joe and finding the Mean Fiddler, we really lucked out.

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherDoes the bar have any history of producing theater?

Not that I’m aware of.  I think they do Karaoke from time to time and stand up comedy, but never theatre.  So It Is Done is a big experiment for them.  And I think we all have hopes that this production might extend.  I can’t imagine if we’re doing good business and the bar is making money on its off nights, why wouldn’t they welcome a theater crowd that’s eating and drinking, right?  But, of course, it depends on how audiences respond.

So far, so good?

For our first two performances, the audiences seemed very into it.  Part of the fun for me is watching the audience experience this event, because not only do they not know what to expect, but also the actors are only inches away.  For me, watching those three actors work, it’s like watching athletes.  I certainly couldn’t do what they do.  Once those actors step on stage, or rather step into the room, there’s nowhere to hide.

It seems like the hardest thing about performing only on Mondays and Tuesdays is what happens to the lack of momentum, especially in these beginning weeks.  How do the actors keep it together after having five nights off?

We will definitely do a line through before the Monday performance, but it’s not feasible to do a pick-up rehearsal because of everybody’s schedule.  But they’re very invested in this project, so I’m sure they’ll do their homework.

What kind of contract are they on?

It’s an Actors Equity Cabaret contract, which is akin to the Showcase contract, but it allows you to produce in non-traditional venues.  There are still rules about how many performances you can do, but you have a longer length of time to do them.  We get six or seven weeks instead of the usual four if we were in a theater.

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherHow much time did you get to work in the bar before you opened?

We had a weekend for tech, prior to opening, and believe it or not, we were allowed to rehearse there whenever the space wasn’t booked.  Which turned out to be a lot more than what you might expect, like maybe fifty percent of our time.  The frustrating thing, however, was we had to keep moving out, and the bar is such a character in the play that it was hard to replicate it in a rehearsal space.

Was it challenging having the large column in the middle of the room?

The thing about site-specific theater like this, there’s always going to be a moment where someone in the audience won’t have the perfect view.  So I just kept trying to move the actors around.

Oddly enough, you don’t walk into the space and see all the theatrical stage lighting, and yet there are quite a few lighting effects.  Was the stage lighting already in place?

Because we needed to control the lighting through a light board, all of the light fixtures they had in place were unusable.  We had to bring in all of the lights as well as the light board, dimmers, and cabling.

I see there was at least a jukebox for your use.

It’s a prop that our producers found.  Only the shell of the jukebox is real; it’s been hollowed out.  We also brought in the deer antlers.

What about the beer faucet at the bar when the actor pours himself a beer and drinks it?  Is that fake, too?

That was real.  We got permission; there was no way to fake that.  The liquor was fake, however–not the liquor served to the audience, just to the actors.

What was it?

Iced tea.

They drink a lot, and except for the bartender, they never get to leave the stage.  I guess they have to be careful not to drink too much.  Has the play changed much since its original reading at APAC?  What kinds of discoveries were made in rehearsal?

A lot, actually.  Several special effects were added, which the designers had a lot of fun with.  Some things added to make it spookier, lots of fine-tuning.  Alex continued rewriting, and the play grew a lot.  But that’s part of the process of developing new plays.  Everyone involved is influential in his or her own way.

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherAny big surprises directing theater in a bar?

We’re doing theater in a venue that doesn’t always understand what we’re doing, so until the first performance for an audience, we didn’t have a time in the space that wasn’t interrupted by someone cutting through or coming in for the ice machine.  The ice machine was a big problem because it’s very noisy.  We finally got permission to shut it off during the performance, but it takes the first twenty minutes of the play to completely shut down.  It’s a sound that comes from the space and makes sense, so I don’t mind it terribly.  In rehearsal, the lighting in the room was completely opposite of what we needed.  The areas we wanted dark were very bright, and the acting areas where we wanted light were never lit.  Much of the time, I couldn’t see the actor’s eyes.  Certainly, the natural lighting of a bar isn’t what was needed for a rehearsal.  But once our lighting designer [Christopher Thielking] did his thing, it was nice to see actors step in and out of darker shadowy areas.  He gave the bar the perfect moodiness, which also comes from the restraints we had, but in the end it works.

I take it no dressing rooms?

None.  Just a little hallway around the corner from the bathroom.  Far from ideal, but they’re all friends, and everyone’s on board with it, trying to make things work.

I’m guessing you’ll be happy to get back to a real theater building.  What do you have planned for the spring?

Two things:  a workshop of a new musical in February called Love Trapezoid by Matt Schatz.  And then in May, I’m directing a revival of the musical version of The Secret Garden.

It Is Done by Alex Goldberg – directed by Tom Wojtunik – off broadway theater interview by Gregory FletcherSounds great, I can’t wait to see it.  You’re doing exciting work, and you’re succeeding by throwing yourself into real world experiences and making your own opportunities.  It’s very different than the norm of putting yourself through an MFA graduate school program.

Sometimes, the universe makes those decisions for you, and you have to listen to the clues.  For me, getting hired at APAC was certainly a loud and clear clue.

APAC has turned out to be your grad school and more.  They’re lucky to have you.

Our reputation is growing–our design elements are growing, the quality of actors that we are attracting is growing, it’s a very exciting time.

The bar is raising, and I’m happy to witness your raising the bar.  And of course, I don’t just mean the Mean Fiddler.

photos by Jen Maufrais Kelly

It Is Done
The Mean Fiddler Bar and Grille
scheduled to end on December 5
for tickets, visit http://www.itisdonetheplay.com

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