It is with a heavy heart and deep sadness that we share the passing of Flea co-founder and aesthetic visionary, Kyle Chepulis. He poured his heart and tenacity into every project he took on, often finding elegant, delightful and distinctly affordable “downtown” scenic solutions to even the most challenging plays. The Flea and so many great productions have made their mark because of his excellent artistry.
Over 25 years, Kyle designed eighteen shows with The Flea including the breakout hit Benton Kozo and The Guys, an ode to 9/11 firefighters. He oversaw the design of our first home on 41 White Street, installing an intimate stage house in our downstairs theater that allowed artists to take risks without having to incur the expense of building an original set. This singular stroke of genius was the home to countless first productions, world premieres and where over 35 cycles of Serials were staged and celebrated.
He brought the same deft thinking to the conceptualization of our current home on 20 Thomas Street ensuring that each space has a distinct personality that inspires artists and serves the diversity of disciplines that call downtown theater home. Although, we may no longer get to live in the presence of his thrilling creativity, pointed advice or steadfast friendship, his indelible mark will live on in our hearts and in the theaters he helped dream into being.
In the midst of this horrific moment when the emergency of the Coronavirus pandemic intersects with the continual injustice and dehumanization of black lives, I am reminded of the words of James Baldwin, one of America’s greatest literary artists: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Here we are sixty years later still provoked to that same rage. George Floyd faced cops who regarded his life with little value. Christian Cooper could not bird watch without his race being used to escalate police violence against him. Ahmaud Arbery could not run in his community. Every black person in America is staring at the fact that because of a history of social injustice ranging from housing to wealth creation, we are disproportionately infected with and die from Covid-19. Black folks in America are reminded every day that we are oppressed. That despite our shared humanity, the dominant power structures formed and ingrained by white supremacy seek to devalue our lives.
Even though I have lived my life dedicated to reminding America of its promise, I’m tired from the past few days of feeling sorrow, rage, fear and impotence. I have once again needed to lean on those close to me, to reaffirm that the younger members of my family hold tight in this moment, and to imagine how our society will get through this time and emerge in solidarity.
Some of us are funneling our response toward creating culture to provoke empathy and change. Carol and I turned to our past work to find some guidance. Geraldine Inoa, whose brilliant play Scraps opened our Color Brave Season, began with these words from the character of Jean Baptiste:
How are you supposed to win when you don’t even know the rules?
They don’t teach this shit in schools
These muthafucka, they stealin’ our family jewels
Our sons and fathers, nigga
You bettah recognize that they changin’ history
An entire generation of black men who were never allowed to be
Yo, they might have stopped hangin’ us from trees
But a century later, they still cuttin’ black people at the knees
At the Flea, we stand with our Black artists, staff, board, audiences, and supporters who bring their bravery and zeal to create a more just world. We stand with our POC and white allies who call out injustice, who engage all with respect and who help us to create an environment of equity and inclusion. In this trying time we wish that we could gather to make culture with our community, to rally the mind and spirit to envision and make the society we all deserve. When we re-emerge from this pandemic, we hope you will join us to help make that change happen.
Until that time, we stand in solidarity and encourage donations to Black Lives Matter.
Niegel Smith, Artistic Director
The Flea Staff
High Five Back to You!
Thank you for making our #GivingTuesdayNow so special. Your support not only helped The Flea, but three other worthy organizations. Especially in times like these, we keep learning how communities can step up and help each other out.
While our GIMME FIVE! Campaign is closed, it’s never too late to donate to The Flea or give to the three charities:
Don’t have the means to financially give 5, but still want to show your support?Spread Joy Volunteer …or just say “Hello!”
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, The Flea will be closed and all performances canceled until further notice. The safety and security of our audiences, artists, and staff is our highest priority.
We are following the lead of our city, state, and federal elected officials as well as the recommendations of the Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control.
Current ticket holders have been sent an email with details on their canceled performances. If you have questions or concerns please contact our box office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrons who have tickets to any of these performances will have the option to be credited their tickets by rescheduling tickets to a Flea performance for a later date, donating the value of a ticket as a tax-deductible contribution, or by requesting a full refund of the original method of payment.
The Flea does not take this change in calendar lightly and deeply appreciates the impact this has on its community — the artists who have made inspired work, the staff that has tirelessly supported the work and the audience who have planned to join us in the coming weeks.
The Flea will be back and looks forward to welcoming audiences back to The Flea.
By Aurie Ceylon Satterthwaite
February 4, 2020
Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-nominee Taylor Mac is no stranger to The Flea. Taylor and Flea Artistic Director Niegel Smith have collaborated on a number of creative projects, most notably Taylor’s radical Pulitzer Finalist, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. In this exclusive Flea Chat, Taylor & Niegel discuss The Fre, The Flea, and what it means to get in the mud!
Niegel Smith: Here we are – in workshop! The Fre is finally happening!
Taylor Mac: It’s finally happening! I’m so happy.
NS: So, can you tell us what The Fre is about?
TM: The Fre has a lot to do with our polarization. I’ve taken two different worlds: a world of intellectual pursuit and a world of base sensuality and humanity, and I’ve squished them together! So, they’re trying to figure out how to exist with each other in this very rambunctious, filthy world. And, the entire play is set in a mud pit! It was really an opportunity for me to write a play that would have been useful to me to see as a kid, which I never got to see. It’s a Queer All-Ages Play!
NS: Where did you first start writing The Fre? Were you really in a mud pit?
TM: I was on a silent retreat in the middle of dry Texas, near San Antonio. It was on a beautiful ranch, and there was this swimming hole – it was a little like a quarry, with fish and lily pods. It wasn’t pristine, but it was the most gorgeous swimming hole I’ve ever been to in my life! There was something so healing; it felt like communing with the earth. I just found that by being quiet, I could listen to the writing and not the chatter of the world. So, I wrote the entire first draft in ten days.
NS: Why a mud pit? Why is the audience in the mud with us?
TM: I actually think it goes back to the ACT UP movement, and the idea that you do not need to ask permission to participate in the creativity of your own survival. I didn’t want to just comment on the world that is, or wish for a different world. I wanted to manifest a better world through the work I’m making. We have to rely on each other and we have to use our radical imaginations. Because we are all in the mud together and we have to find our way out.
NS: So, who are The Fre? What is The Fre?
TM: The Fre are Americans, but that particular part of America that is tied down to the narrative of anti-intellectualism.
NS: And you’re asking us to jump in the mud pit with them?!
TM: YES! Well, I guess what I’m saying is we are in the mud with them, already. Right now, you can’t turn on the news without feeling like the leading narrative is anti-intellectualism. I don’t think there has ever been a time in this country in which we fully embraced the idea of asking questions; there is too much assuredness here. I want to manifest a world in which people of all ages can participate in intellectual pursuits with total wild abandon. This play asks the audience to disobey all rules, and everyone is in the awkward position of having to participate in this strange universe we’re making.
NS: And we’re going to a ball pit tomorrow!
TM: YES! The play is written to have mud everywhere, but we’ve changed that to a ball pit. I think that’s really fun! It’s less messy, but also more accessible. A lot of people won’t go to see something where they get dirty. So, I thought, well that’s a nice creative solution: Metaphorical Mud! Everyone loves a ball pit.
NS: I want to take us to some Flea roots. You were a Bat!
TM: I was! I came to The Flea about sixteen years ago, and it opened up my brain. You can be conscious about social justice and the pain people are dealing with, and that can be part of theater! As a kid, it was the first time I had that thought. My time at The Flea was transformative.
NS: And now, you do it all! You direct, you act, you write.
TM: I do a lot. I think that’s the Act Up in me. I feel like I don’t need to apologize for surviving. I can chisel space for myself, and I learned that from the Flea artists that make the thing, rather than just commenting on the thing. We make theater.
NS: Our mission at The Flea – given to us by Mac Wellman – is to raise a joyful hell. I think about how it feels so right for The Fre to be at The Flea, in the bodies of The Bats. They are the kind of performers who will go anywhere.
TM: YES! The Bats are always ready to JUMP! I love working with people who are game to go BIG and find the intimacy within that, rather than starting small and trying to get them to jump.
NS: Your art has been downtown, it’s been in cabarets, it’s been on Broadway, it’s been in Opera Houses in Berlin! Why does it make sense for The Fre to be downtown?
TM: You know, I’m in it for the hang. I want to be where the artists and ideas and collaborators are. You were here, The Bats are here – and I wanted to hang out! I think it’s almost that simple, and that’s the authentic experience for me, in this play. The Bats are always going to say YES; they’re always going to try. I like working with people who want to say YES! There’s a youthful spirit in this play, and it needs young people to make it. I feel like the people here are genuinely passionate and excited to make work.
On Thursday, December 5, 2019, The Flea Theater unveiled the donor wall and revealed the naming plaques throughout the three theater performing arts complex, in an intimate ceremony to thank the donors who helped make the capital campaign possible and to mark the completion of a distinctive 10 year journey to build a new space.
The 23 year old Off-Off-Broadway theater known for “raising a joyful hell in a small space”, opened the complex in the fall of 2017. The new performing arts center was designed by ARO, Architectural Research Office and built by Westerman Construction Company, and features three small theaters under one roof, each space with a unique design and multiple uses.
Niegel Smith, The Flea’s Artistic Director, welcomed invited guests that included Flea board members, resident artists as well as special donors. In attendance were government representatives including City Council Member Margaret Chin, members of the staff of City Comptroller Scott Stringer and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation staff, all early contributors to the campaign to build a new Flea. The Flea was also happy to welcome the families of Sam Cohen, and A.R. “Pete” Gurney, both of whom have theaters named for them.
Says Smith, “Our theaters have been in constant action for the past two seasons, showcasing the emerging talents of The Bats, our resident actors, a team of Resident Directors and playwrights as well as invited artists who have all brought their diverse stories and myriad talents to our stages. Our theaters are infused not only with the memories of our founders but with a new generation of theater artists. “
Carol Ostrow, The Flea’s Producing Director, thanked supporters that included many foundations, among them Prospect Hill, Howard Gilman and the Ford Foundation as well as the individuals who stepped up early to help The Flea leverage larger contributions.
Says Ostrow, “To the many munificent, magnanimous, bounteous, big-hearted, generous and kind individual donors with us here today. Thank you for your giving spirit and please accept our gratitude for everything in this building including the box office, the lobby downstairs and upstairs, The Flea staff office, the green room, the stage door, the costume shop, the lobby benches and the dressing rooms. We simply could not have done any of this without your generosity. The Flea’s contribution to the cultural landscape of New York City has become permanent and rent-free.”
The morning included bagels and cream cheese as well as donut holes and apple cider and lots of holiday cheer for The Flea.
Last Monday evening, The Flea celebrated Flea Founder Mac Wellman and Flea board member Michael Graff at our 2019 gala! We enjoyed sweeping views of the city’s skyline and celebrated two of our favorite Fleaple. Thanks to everyone who celebrated with us
The Flea Theater hosted a Mac Wellman Symposium: THE ART OF STACKING THE DECK October 4-6, 2019. The three-day symposium was a rare opportunity for Wellman enthusiasts to gather to share stories and dig deep into the mysteries of Wellman’s writing.
Anne Washburn, Young Jean Lee, and David Lang were among over twenty artists from the fields of theater, dance, opera, and new media who gathered to celebrate mischievous master writer Mac Wellman.
Playwright Kate Benson said his writing, “exists to overwhelm you and provoke you into different states of being”, adding that acting in his plays, “is like trying to surf on a dolphin”.
Wellman is an OBIE-winning playwright whose body of work includes more than forty plays, texts for dance, an opera, a novel, and seminal essays on the state of theater. This fall, The Flea is producing five of Wellman’s plays as part of PERFECT CATASTROPHES, a festival of iconic works and two world premieres.
The Symposium featured four panels on Wellman’s writing and teaching, and a rare interview with Mac Wellman conducted by Helen Shaw. Guests were treated to a revival of Terminal Hip, showcasing the iconic OBIE-winning performance by Steve Mellor, one of the foremost living interpreters of Wellman’s work in addition to the opportunity to see, Bad Penny, Sincerity Forever, The Invention of Tragedy, The Sandalwood Box and The Fez, all five productions playing in repertory at The Flea.
The first day of the Symposium featured panels on approaching Wellman’s dense and free-flowing text. Lively discussions traced the agony and ecstasy of working with a writer who challenges his collaborators to tackle the impossible. Directors Meghan Finn, Paul Lazar, and Elena Aroaz compared strategies for making each moment in a Wellman play legible. Producer Annie Hamburger and performer Jan Leslie Harding shared memories from the original production of Bad Penny in Central Park. Composer David Lang explained how Wellman changed his writing style to fit the demands of opera. And Maria Striar, Artistic Director of Clubbed Thumb, remembered a poignant moment of Wellman’s generosity as a collaborator and friend.
Other panels featured writers who had studied with Wellman. Young Jean Lee credited Wellman with making her a playwright with a mission to constantly subvert and suggested that Wellman’s teaching has seeded the next generation of theatrical revolutionaries. Sibyl Kempson shared that Wellman’s biggest gift to her was to take her own playwriting seriously. Eliza Bent and Kristine Haruna Lee recounted cherished Wellman assignments that they include in their own teaching practice. Karinne Keithley Syers traced her path from being a choreographer to a writer, lead by Wellman’s unique approach to dimensionality and physicality. Alongside Wellman, Erin Courtney was celebrated for her invaluable contributions to the MFA Playwriting program at Brooklyn College.
Anne Washburn began the Symposium by expounding on the specific techniques and rigor required to succeed in a Wellman play. Audiences saw that rigor in action when Steve Mellor took the stage for two nights in Terminal Hip, Wellman calls it, “A spectral history of America through the medium of Bad Language”. In a virtuosic performance that hadn’t been seen in New York in nearly twenty years, Mellor uproariously made his way through an hour of found language, overhead conversation, and stand-up comedy.
As fits a writer whose work resists being pinned down, Wellman was hesitant to be interviewed. Drawing upon Wellman’s method of writing, interviewer Helen Shaw mischievously structured their conversation to cajole and provoke Wellman, enlisting the full audience as her co-conspirators in asking him questions. With the support of his community – and a glass of white wine – Wellman opened up, sharing stories of his maturation as a playwright and offering a glimpse into his writing process.
The Flea continues to honor Mac Wellman’s work with Perfect Catastrophes, A Festival of Plays running now through November 1, Thursdays through Mondays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets start at $37. Perfect Catastrophes features plays Sincerity Forever, Bad Penny, the world premiere of The Invention of Tragedy, The Sandalwood Box and the world premiere of The Fez.
Photo Credit: Timothy Park
If you look at theater in the U.S. today, you’ll notice that a lot of it is weird. Annie Baker’s John, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, Will Arbery’s Plano, Amina Henry’s The Great Novel: All of them contain eerie, restless, Lovecraftian energies. Before them came the influential playwright Mac Wellman, a fixture of downtown experimentalism since 1979 and the longtime head of the Brooklyn College playwriting program, where his students included Baker, Barron and Henry. (He retired this year.) Wellman’s linguistically complex comedies, pitch-black at their hearts, worked out how to put that uncanny throb of horror onstage, and a Wellmanian sense of unease pulses through American theater even now.
To celebrate Wellman’s contributions, the Flea Theater—which he cofounded in 1996—is throwing a festival called Mac Wellman: Perfect Catastrophes. Cast with the Flea’s non-Equity company the Bats, the plays run the gamut from absurdist adventure to political satire and back, with detours into sheer, language-drunk, poetic nonsense. Which ones are right for you? Here is our easy-to-use guide to the series, with a Mac-derived ratings system to help you find your algorithmically determined match.