Sam Buggeln got the impulse to start Cherry Arts theater company while he was in Argentina. His partner, now husband Nick, was on sabbatical, and Buggeln took the opportunity to explore the theater community of Buenos Aires, which he found to be as large as that of New York City, but to run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.
“Non-English-speaking theater communities speak to each other across language groups,” said Buggeln. “English speakers are in another silo.”
In Argentina, he said, economic structures steer the making of art. He saw more variety on stage, partly as a result of their being more state support for the arts.
The downside was that there were fewer actors actually making a living from the stage and there were no itinerant actors working in regional theaters, as we have in this country.
“Shows run in repertory with many othe shows,” he said of Buenos Aires, “which allows for different types of creativity.”
Buggeln has been visiting Ithaca regularly for almost 10 years. “I’ve been a freelance director,” he said, “but I decided to make a shift in how I do my work, and I realized that I was falling for Ithaca.”
Originally from Newfoundland, he moved to Toronto to attend high school and migrated south to New York City in 1997.
“As of five years ago,” he said, “I had my eye on the exit. It’s hard to be free and creative in New York and in the network of regional theaters that surround it.”
In Ithaca he saw some similarities to the Argentinian theater. Many of the actors where artists who taught, and people with jobs and health insurance.
“We can keep it small,” the director said. “You can rehearse for a long time, a bit like the European model.”
Cherry Arts first production was Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which made its New York debut in Ithaca in early December 2015 and was staged again during the Ithaca Festival in June.
Soleimanpour stipulates that the actor open the script on stage and read it there for the first time as he or she performs it. Cherry Arts asked several Ithaca thespians to rise to this challenge.
“It was challenging to give up control,” Buggeln said, “and take the dare that the playwright gave you. But we filled the seats; it was really heartening because this is something that the audience had never seen before.”
In December the play was staged in the Circus Culture space on Press Alley and in June at Acting Out New York, an acting studio in Center Ithaca. One part of the mission of Cherry Arts is to utilize unconventional spaces to mount productions. This fall they will be eschewing an enclosed space entirely and making the entire West End into the stage, for an audience of one person at a time.
The “headphone play” is a emerging genre in the theatre world. Storm Country is an immersion in the world of 17-year-old Tess Skinner, a fictional resident of Ithaca invented by Grace Miller White in her 1922 novel Tess of the Storm Country. White examined class structure in early 20th century Ithaca from the perspective of a proud Rhiner. The headphone version was cowritten by Aoise Stratford and Nick Salvato.
“You’ll meet at a place and be given an mp3 player,” said Buggeln, “and a packet of objects. You press ‘play’ and go. There is a dense soundtrack of writing, music, and language. The set is the world you are walking through. The actors are the people in that world; they don’t know they’re actors.”
This approach will characterize Cherry Arts; for now they are a company without a theater, but are viewing that as an opportunity, not an obstacle.
“We’ve got a super-educated, super-sophisticated population,” Buggeln said, “which makes it a great town for friendly avante garde. We can get outside the norms without offending middle-class people.”
The mission of Cherry Arts is summed up as “Formally innovative, radically local, and radically international.”
“We’re making theatre that we don’t know how to make,” said the director of the headphone play. “It’s a fascinating process, like an invisible sculpture. The artwork is right there, and it’s not as evanescent as theatre because we have the recording.”
Long-term, the company will build a theatre on Cherry Street by the Cayuga Inlet. It will be a flexible space. How big will it be? “We own 80 chairs,” said Buggeln. §