Very few festivals grab your attention the second you hear their name more than New York's own Bad Theater Fest. And it did, in fact, start with just a name. "In 2010, very randomly," BTF co-founder Shawn Wickens told us, "I just decided to buy the domain name 'Bad Theater Fest.' That first year, I can say that we had no mission statement at all. We just knew it was a very eye-catching name."
This laissez-faire, "let's see what happens" attitude grew out of a long tradition of improv theater. Wickens and co-founder Starr Kendall are longtime improvisers themselves; they met in an improv class ten years ago and went on to co-host a show called the Improdome at the People's Improv Theater. That show is "an important part of the origin story of the Bad Theater Fest," Wickens says. "Because it was a really late night show, it was very BYOB. It got very drunk and ridiculous, and it looked very much like bad theater before there was a Bad Theater Fest."
Add in a theater producing workshop, a strong partnership and the curiosity of just wanting to see what would happen, and the next thing they knew, they had a theater festival. The result? Eighty submissions the first year in 2012, without a space or even the dates of the festival set. Clearly, there is an appetite out there for bad theater.
Do What You Want to Do
What most impressed me about the producers of the Bad Theater Fest is how incredibly supportive they are of their artists. “We’re still going to support you," Kendall says, "whatever idea you’re trying to get up, no matter how crazy or impossible it might be.” In fact, many of the shows submitted to the festival aren't "bad" at all. They are just theater artists experimenting with something new, and in a city where the play submission process can be endless and almost never successful, the BTF is a breath of fresh air.
The artists themselves echo the sentiment. "Starr and Shawn are great producers," says experienced playwright but new actor Liam Kuhn, "they're there if you need them, they take care of all the behind-the-scenes stuff, but they also have enough faith in the artists to give us the space and freedom to take risks and see what we can come up with. And most of the time, it's not 'bad' at all!"
Occasionally, BTF gets a show that has already won awards, or a standup act that has already toured in other cities. But everyone is still welcome. "It’s not like, this is too good, or you’re too credentialed, to get in," Kendall sagely tells us. "If you want to be cool with us, we’ll do the same back." And on the other end of the spectrum?
"I’d say every year," says Wickens, "for the past two years, one or two times while I’m watch stuff, I will think to myself, 'Maybe we shouldn’t have done this.'" But to some degree, that's the point, having both the chance to fail and the opportunity to learn from it. Kendall agrees, "Every once in a while, I think we need to see a little bad theater, to inspire us to be better and more different."
The Set List
"We set the bar low by calling it bad theater," Wickens says, "but then the shows elevate it." Indeed, the range of different sorts of shows that make Bad Theater Fest their home is astounding. As might be expected from the backgrounds of its creators, BTF does feature a lot of comedy, but that is not the only thing you will see at one of their shows.
Wickens gave us the approximate ratio of "60% comedy and 30% weird and 10% drama," with shows this year touching on everything from abortion and religion to the secret life of house plants. The team also has a relationship with Voices Inside/Out, a theater residency and playwriting workshop at a Kentucky medium security prison called Northpoint Training Center; last year, they had three plays from that program performed at the festival, the first time anything from the program had been produced on stage.
Bad Theater Fest also cultivates strong relationships with its artists, many of whom come back multiple times to try out new shows. Hope Weiner is a veteran of the festival, having participated all three years. She did theater as a young adult, before going to law school and working with the International Red Cross all over the world, and is now making her way back into the world of performance.
"I love the celebratory quality of the festival," Weiner tells us. "So many smaller festivals seem to have a cloud of desperation hanging over them as they strive to 'make it.' In this case, this is really bad art for bad art's sake!" Her piece this year, The Staten Island of Bodily Fluids, was the highlight of the first weekend of performances, an enthusiastic, vulgar and just plain absurd piece about "what it takes to make one's mark in this dog eat dog world."
What You Should See
You would be well served going to any of the performances of Bad Theater Fest, of course. Each 90-minute slot contains four or five short plays, ranging from hilarious to just plain weird, to fully immerse you in that festival atmosphere. But we did ask the producers of BTF what shows they were most excited about seeing, and they had plenty to say.
Playlab NYC's Scar Stuff (Sat 10/25 at 9pm) is a spooky show about what happens to bad little boys and girls who don’t obey the rules of Halloween safety, performed by a single actor and a variety of small puppets and props they have built and cut out. Kevin P. Hale, the actor in question, is a director by trade, and it is Playlab NYC's second go-around at BTF. He and co-founder of Playlab NYC Jennifer Linn Wilcox "like that we can try new ideas without the pressure of being perfect. This festival is truly a safe environment for a show to see what kind of life we can give it and see if there’s a future."
Also in that Saturday 9pm slot is Old Man Guns, Liam Kuhn's new piece "about a man who abandoned his wife and kid. Not merely abandoned them, but faked his death in a burning building in order to abandon them. And everything in his life since that moment has been a horrible mess and he's racked by guilt and regret. But it's a comedy, I swear!"
Wickens and Kendall were both fascinated by The Decline (Sat 10/25 at 11pm), which Wickens tells us is "a guy doing some sort of one-man version of some NOFX album," leading to the question, "Are there any NOFX fans here?" On the other hand, Hoboken Nightmare by Barry Ernst (Sat 11/25 at 5pm and 11pm) is "something about heartbreak and, you know, Jersey."
Why It All Matters
The one thing that remains constant about this festival is the love and gratitude of its participants. Like so many improv theaters, the Bad Theater Fest accepts artists of all experience and ability levels. If you have an idea, you can make it real, and that is an intoxicating feeling.
Kendall and Wickens even now in their third year seem a little dumbfounded by all the thanks they get for producing BTF. "That’s when it really becomes worth it for us," says Kendall, "the appreciation that somebody has, we know we helped that happen, and so we feel good about it. Who knows what’s going to happen next show, but that person’s inspired maybe to keep doing more."
And if it's not the best show you've ever seen? "I think sometimes," Wickens posits, "as entertainment consumers, we’re too worried that we won’t be entertained. And that’s inevitable." Bad Theater Fest embraces the journey rather than the result. If the actors, directors and playwrights have fun and learn something, the show is a success. And the audience is there to support them every step of the way.
Bad Theater Fest plays at the Treehouse Theater Friday 10/24, Saturday 10/25, Saturday 11/1 and Sunday 11/2. For more information, check out their website.
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