By Annette Hinkle
Beyond the black curtain on the stage at the Bridgehampton Community House lies a new theatrical venue. A small wooden staircase leads up onto the stage, and a quick parting of the curtains reveals an unexpected surprise — a fully functional 60-seat black box theater, just like the kind you might see in lower Manhattan.
Theater lovers will find something both endearing and cutting edge about the space. There’s a certain unstudied casualness to the room that invites theatrical exploration. It’s the kind of place that could easily trigger an impromptu outing with friends after drinks or dinner at one of Bridgehampton’s nearby eateries — and that’s exactly how Josh Perl is hoping people will view it.
Perl is the founder and Artistic Director of The Naked Stage (TNS), a group of actors, directors and playwrights who, for the past eight years, have presented regular play readings at East Hampton’s Guild Hall.
But Last Thursday, TNS embarked on something new — a 10 day marathon of staged readings at “The Bridge,” as the black box theater is called. From seldom seen offerings like James Joyce’s “The Exiles” (ideal for St. Patrick’s Day weekend) and A.R. Gurney’s “The Perfect Party” to works by up-and-coming playwrights, TNS is offering theater professionals a chance to test drive material without committing to a full-fledged production. The pared down black box is, by definition, a theater of necessity, which fits perfectly with the mission of TNS.
“The Naked Stage has always been a place where the emphasis is on the text, actor, and performance — not on spectacular effects,” explains Perl. “We needed a place that celebrates the essence of theater. It’s partially necessity, and partially a talk Peter and I had about the ethos of putting forth productions without spectacle.”
“Peter” is Peter Zablotsky, a playwright and TNS director of development, who has been with The Naked Stage practically since the series began.
“The question was how to move from the readings, which are by definition without spectacle, to more finished productions that were still in the space but where spectacle would work against it,” explains Zablotsky. “This space seems perfectly designed for minimalist productions with emphasis on acting.”
Ironically, Zablotsky and Perl stumbled upon the theater somewhat by accident. After looking at the community house stage and its floor seating area as a possible venue, they realized the acoustics of the large room would not support the type of intimate presentations they hoped to offer.
“But on the way out the door, I thought maybe we should do it all on the stage,” says Zablotsky. “It took Josh five seconds to say yes. I was almost embarrassed to pose it.”
The performance area of The Bridge has three doorways that can be used for entrances and exits in staging, and the audience sits in chairs on easily removable wooden risers.
“Hopefully this will be a year round thing,” says Perl, who notes TNS will still have a presence at Guild Hall, usually in the off-season, but with The Bridge, will be able to offer more than simple readings. Another performance is already planned for the space for May — a production of 10 minute plays. “With these first two rental periods we’re seeing how it goes. We hope to rent it out a minimum of four times a year.”
On March 18, inaugural night at The Bridge, Perl notes that 30 people showed up to see Mary Vettel’s new play “Greetings From Hell.” He and Zablotsky feel that much of the appeal of the space has to do with its location. The Hampton Jitney stops directly in front, and the building, which is home to Danse Arts ballet school, already has a reputation for the arts. Just beyond the front doors is a full range of restaurant offerings within walking distance.
“We’ve got transportation, we’ve got food from $5 to $80 a plate and a pretty street to walk down,” says Zablotsky. “And there’s plenty of parking.”
For Perl, finding the space has been huge. It represents taking TNS to the next level. He hopes the community is ready to go along for the ride.
“This is the culmination of all the work we’ve been doing in the past years,” says Perl. “We hope this is a stepping stone, and that having this space enables us to do full productions. Just as the staged readings changed peoples’ minds about what was possible, we hope someone will say this is a great space to seat 60 people and do a full production.”
“To me, what defines a good idea is when you express it, and build it and people say ‘Why wasn’t this already here?’” says Perl.
“With good planning and a couple of donations, it’ll be dynamite,” adds Zablotsky.
TNS at The Bridge (2357 Montauk Highway) presents “The Big Dark” by Jonathan Wallace at 7:30 p.m. on March 26. Tickets are $5. On March 27 at 7:30 p.m. and March 28 at 2 p.m., TNS presents “Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn. Tickets are $10. To reserve, call 338-7226.
Top: Licia Zegar, Shashi Balooja, Josh Perl, Molly McKenna and Lisa Cory rehearse A.R. Gurney’s “The Perfect Party” at The Bridge on Saturday. Michael Heller photo.