The Kitchen Theatre hits the silver milestone this year: their 25th season.
That’s no small achievement for an artistic institution. “It’s amazing,” Artistic Director Rachel Lampert said. “It’s amazing because of how hard it is for any theater to survive, and it’s amazing in such a small town. I know we think we’re such a metropolitan center—everyone’s so smart and bright and urbane and everything—but it’s a very small community. So it’s amazing.”
The Kitchen began in the old Ithaca Theatre, which had been converted by Tsvi Bokaer into a performance space, with a stunning all Ithaca College student production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Artistic Director Matt Tauber was unable to get the IC theatre department to let him stage the play, so he dropped out and founded his own theater with IC BFA Actor Tim O’Brien. (They were later joined by a small ensemble including IC BFA Sarah K. Chalmers [now of Civic Ensemble] and Webster University (St. Louis) grad Danny McCarthy. The theater was named for innumerable dreams made at their kitchen table.] They went on to produce a season through that summer, and a second season highlighted by The Gingham Dog and Cloud 9 before getting too behind on the rent.
Season 3 began with a move into the Clinton House, just being renovated. “I saw [a] production…under Matt, which was Danny and the Deep Blue Sea…just after they moved …” remembered Lampert. “There was plastic on the walls and the door to get in, and folding chairs, and David [Squires, her husband] said, ‘You can come live here, look at this production,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but look there are two people on stage and five people in the audience, but yes the art is really good.’”
Under Matt, the fare was young, straight male and generally “in yer face.” One exception was a gorgeous production of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, starring a luminous Laverne Light, Susannah Berryman, and Earl McCarroll, directed by IC faculty Norm Johnson. Johnson took over the reigns for seasons 4 to 6; his tenure involved greater theatricality, the addition of queer plays, and plays by African-Americans. He was generous in nurturing young directors, especially Joe Calarco and Jesse Bush. With managing director Rachel Hogencamp, Johnson also managed to retire accumulated debts.
Rachel Lampert was choreographing and directing at the Hangar (under Robert Moss) then, and had acted in a couple of Kitchen shows. Having seen a dance-theater piece of her (“E-ghosts”), Norm asked her to pen a show for the next season, a season Rachel would end up inheriting as the third artistic director.
That summer Rachel traveled to China to choreograph the first production there of West Side Story. Her hilarious and moving story became the basis of her play, The Soup Comes Last, which will be reprised this December.
“I had been offered the job before I went to China, and then I spent a lot of time in China worried about taking it .… My partner in China, Joanne, was completely against my taking the job at the Kitchen. She just said, ‘Why would you lock yourself up in Ithaca, New York, making it your whole career? You know what it is to be an artistic director, it’s a killer. It’s like running a restaurant. You have a chance to be somebody. You’re not going to be anybody if you go there and do that …’ She just thought I was insane. First of all insane for even moving to Ithaca, New York, but then to think I would put down those kinds of roots. But it was really that trip to China that made taking on the Kitchen seem okay.”
Lampert’s dance background led to several ensemble shows over the years featuring movement, while also featuring contemporary plays and generally one classic per year. Every couple years would come an original musical or adaptation, as well as a Family Fare series (some co-written with the Kitchen’s Assoc. Producer, Lesley Greene.) Three years in, Lampert also started engaging solo performance artists, in what came to be the Counter Culture series.
In addition to dance and music, she was determined to increase the number of women directors, bringing in Sara Lampert Hoover, Michelle Minnick, Barb Geary and Wendy Dann to direct early on (Minnick was back the last two seasons, and Hoover and Dann return this season.) Margarett Perry has served as resident director for the past few years while continuing her freelance career and her work with New York City’s Lark Play Development Center. Most recently Emily Jackman jumped from intern to staff and director. This is telling when the national conversation is about the lack of gender diversity in both writers and directors being produced.
“It’s become so clear to me that women directors have a much harder time getting jobs. Still. It doesn’t make much sense to me; I don’t get it. So I think it is one little area I have some control in, so why not make more opportunities for women?” Lampert said.
Of the seven plays next season, four are by women, and all will be helmed by women directors (as is the case this season.) They’ve won a passel of awards: London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play (The Mountaintop), the 2014 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award (awarded by the American Theatre Critics Association for the best play premiered outside of NYC, to I and You); a Lucille Lortel award for best Off-Broadway solo show (Buyer & Cellar; an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award (Grand Concourse); and a passel of Tonys, Obies and Drama Desk nominations and awards for the creators and performers of Peter and the Starcatcher.
This week, Buyer & Cellar opens. “We’re bringing back Wendy [Dann] and Karl [Gregory],” said Lampert. “Wendy brought Karl to the Kitchen with The Cripple of Inishman. They haven’t worked together since then [at the Kitchen]. …Karl is by far the most popular actor we’ve had at the Kitchen. And it’s his 25th show with us!”
With Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, about an imagined meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and a “mysterious” hotel maid on the night before his assassination, the Kitchen is bringing in a new team, headed by Nicole A. Watson, who helmed Darian Dauchan’s last two solo shows at the Kitchen (Oct. 11-25). “I think it’s just a gorgeous play,” said Lampert. “And it challenges us to take responsibility for bringing forward the agenda … The play is about what is the hope.”
Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, “an ode to youth, life, love, and the strange beauty of human connectedness” which brings high school basketball star together with a homebound girl over a school assignment on Walt Whitman. “A very sweet play…it’s in a wonderful teenage vernacular.”(Nov 8–22)
Then there’s The Soup Comes Last. “Putting Soup on for the 25th anniversary season makes a little bit of sense, you now, it was built for the Kitchen Theatre, it was written for the Kitchen Theatre, it’s about me becoming the artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre, and we haven’t done it for a while,” said Lampert, adding that “the actress is very cheap and so are the royalties.”
Peter and the Starcatcher warms up February. This theatrical tour-de-force, about the early beginnings of Peter Pan, requires a cast of one dozen actors playing nearly 100 characters. The Lampert sisters will co-direct. It’s a chance to do a large ensemble play, which she misses, “and it’s the quintessential story about finding home .… And the theatre will get used in a whole new way.”
In Dancing Lessons a Broadway dancer who is sidelined by a leg injury and a scientist with Asperger’s come together for some lessons. This will be co-production with Geva in Rochester.
Wrapping up the season is Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck, and directed by Perry. Shelly is a nun running a soup kitchen who finds her match in Emma, a young drop-out. “It’s about faith, optimism, forgiveness, and a soup kitchen. So we have this wonderful tactile thing …We’re going to smell it … it’s a very kind of super-real (play) which is a nice contrast to Peter and the Starcatcher.”