Jim Simpson, artistic director of Tribecas The Flea Theater. He is pictured at the Guys premiere at the 27th Toronto International Film Festival.
Jim Simpson, the two-time Obie award-winning artistic director of the Flea Theater, is a pretty cool guy. This rugged, sun-tanned surfer from Hawaii became an actor almost by accident, went on to Yale Drama, and now directs and produces some of the most exciting avant-garde theater in New York. And along the way he met and married a movie star Sigourney Weaver.
I interviewed Simpson last week in his office at the Flea, and the first thing that struck me about the theater was it physical transformation. Long-time residents of Tribeca or connoisseurs of off-off Broadway might remember the space in its previous incarnation as the Workhouse Theater. For those who performed there (like yours truly), the most memorable drawback was the lack of toilet facilities backstage. Performers either had to hold it in until intermission or use a chamber pot discreetly placed in a corner of the communal dressing room.
My wife had just done a movie, and we had a bunch of money that was just going to go to the tax man, so we thought of something better to do with it, says Simpson.
After looking at a lot of places for a theater, he finally settled on the space at 41 White Street. He opened the theater in 1997 and has been staging compelling performances ever since. During most of that time he was also renovating. The result is a glorious tribute to downtown theater done right. There are three full floors with two performance spacesone big, that can seat up to 99 people comfortably, and one littleadministrative offices, a fully-equipped backstage area.
As I got older, I didnt think it was okay to ask people to work in awful conditions anymore, says the 48-year-old Simpson. Unfortunately you cant pay people a lot of money to work in off-off Broadway, but you shouldnt ask them to work in a dump. The challenge should not be the physical space they have to work in, it should be the work itself.
And there is no doubt the work is exciting. A long-time collaboration with Obie award-winning playwright Mac Wellman, has been especially rich.
I was at Ensemble Studio Theater and I was given a play of his to read and I thought it was the most pretentious thing I had ever read I even got mad reading it, recalls Simpson of his first exposure to Wellmans rhythmic, language-conscious style.
Then it was performed on the same night my piece was, and it was brilliant when you heard it. On the page it looked too poetic you had to hear it.
Wellmans wife was sitting behind Simpson in the audience that night and suggested that, since he liked it so much, the two should meet. Five months later Simpson found himself directing Wellmans play Cellophane at the BACA theater in Brooklyn. Cellophane, a dizzying mix of absurdist humor and inventive narratives, has brought Wellman considerable praise and Simpson has done several revivals of it the latest of which just closed at the Flea.
The new production opening this week is Like I say, by the three-time Obie winning playwright and director, Len Jenkin. Simpson is absolutely thrilled he has been trying to get Jenkin to work at the Flea since it opened. Simpson describes the current Jenkin production as gorgeous, and says it is not the typical one-act Flea theater play.
Its a full, huge, beautiful play about a hotel at the end of the world and how were all there.
The resident acting troupe at the Flea, known as the Bats, will be performing the piece.
Simpson places both Wellman and Jenkin in the school of language playwrights acutely conscious about the language they use, and incredibly skillful at crafting it.
One of the more recent successes at the Flea was the one-act play, The Guys, by Anne Nelson. Performed by a rotating cast of stars (which included Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Anthony LaPaglia) the play depicted a journalist and a fire captain struggling to write eulogies for his men that perished in 9/11. In the process this unlikely pair help each other deal with the devastating loss. (The Guys was recently made into a film starring Weaver and LaPaglia and directed by Simpson.)
Simpson got his start as a child actor in musicals with bus and truck companies that came through his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. When he was 8-years-old his older brother dragged him along to an audition for Bye, Bye Birdie.
They asked me to sing Happy Birthday, and I got the job. Simpson was hooked. He eventually moved onto guest starring on episodes of Hawaii 5-0.
At 17 he became interested in directing, and at 19 came east to attend Boston University School of the Arts, followed by Yale Drama School. Simpson and his future wife, Sigourney Weaver, were at Yale at the same time but were just acquaintances. It wasnt until years later at the Williamstown Theater Festival that a romance bloomed. The couple now reside on the Upper East Side with their 13 year-old daughter.
Theater is not the sole focus of the Flea Simpson has presented concerts and the work of over 25 choreographers. Judging from the Fleas website, Simpsons broad interests in the performing arts range from Karen Finley to Irene Worth, from Kabuki to Flaubert, from Jaki Byard to Schubert, from Brecht to Wellman, and all this is reflected in the theaters varied programming.
I really feel that off-off Broadway is extremely important to the New York theater scene, to the cultural scene in New York in general, says Simpson. For the past six, seven years Ive put a lot of work into it, and now my focus is the Flea.
For that, Tribeca residents and New York theater lovers alike, can be grateful.