Indie Theatre Week celebrates independent theatre in New York July 23 through 29, 2012 and includes the New York Innovative Theatre Awards Nominations Announcement Ceremony on July 23rd and the 4th Annual Indie Softball Classic, a community-building game in Central Park.
There is no greater champion of indie theatre -- all theatre, actually -- than Rochelle Denton (and her son Martin Denton), who founded and runs The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. (NYTE). Their groundbreaking web site NYTheatre.com has chronicled New York theatre from Broadway shows to productions off the beaten path since 1996, in essence becoming the encyclopedia for a generation of theater practitioners and audience members. The duo also has a publishing arm, which gives greater access to compelling theatre work through anthologies and e-books.
Read on for an in-depth conversation with Rochelle Denton about indie theatre, her dedication to community building and what's next for NYTE.
Lanie: How did you become interested in theater?
Rochelle Denton: I never really "became interested in theater" -- it just always was there. I was born and brought up in New York City. As a young child my grandparents took me to the Yiddish theatre (it was walking distance from where they lived in Brooklyn). As a young teen I met friends in Manhattan for a Saturday matinee. During college years the theatre was a nice date. I spent many summers at camp and couldn't catch a ball, make a basket, row, run or dive with any skill, but I found I could write the parodies, direct the short skits and help run lights for our weekend shows.
Lanie: How did you introduce theater to your children? Were you excited that they also embraced it?
Rochelle Denton: Again it was just always there. My husband was also born and raised in New York City and after grad school we moved to Washington, D.C. As New York snobs, theatre to us was synonymous with Broadway musicals -- and there weren't any. But lo and behold within a few years when the children were quite young, theatre in the round opened in Shady Grove, Maryland (about an hour north of where we lived). So just about every summer we saw every show they put on -- excellent productions with A+ casts. The kids loved it especially when just about everyone else raced out of the amphitheater to try to be the first one on the road, we would walk around to the back entrance and meet the stars (Eartha Kitt, Jane Mansfield, John Raitt, to name a few), most of whom were delighted to relax with a cute small child, talk a bit and sign an autograph. As the years progressed theatre became more sophisticated, and we frequented Kennedy Center and National Theatre. Both children attended college in D.C. and going to the theater was something they continued to enjoy.
Lanie: In the more than a decade you have chronicled New York theatre, what are the changes that have surprised you? What do you miss that is no longer?
Rochelle Denton: When Martin (Denton, my son) began the NYTheatre.com website in 1996 the Internet was brand new, very few other theater-related websites existed and the site grew based on our thoughts of what was interesting to write about. Amtrak was our weekend home, press agents like Ron Lasko respected the well written reviews Martin wrote and we gradually found our way into the theatre community. The New York International Fringe Festival was just beginning and John Clancy recognized that Martin, through his ever growing website, was helping to promote this new endeavor. So two out-of-towners went from humming Broadway musicals to tramping the streets of the Lower East Side to see everything from a new experimental work by Julia Lee Barclay or a solo performance by Matt Maher that blew our minds to myriad productions of Brecht, Shaw, Albee and so many others. My mind was stretched beyond anything I had ever envisioned. New thoughts, new ways of expression came my way every weekend and it continues to this day -- but today no Amtrak, and it's most days of the week. The most important change I have noticed is the growth of the indie theatre community; the dedication of each to doing their own thing was always there, but today their numbers have increased and they are ever less fearful of taking chances, embracing change, reworking, listening to their colleagues and learning from the world they live in.
I am a great believer in the newness of today, that we learn by experiencing the moment and so, although many things have changed mostly due to economic conditions and technological advances, the basic creativity, talent and dedication of the indie theatrical community only grows and moves in wonderful ways. I can't wait to see what's next on the horizon.
Lanie: What are your hopes for New York Theatre Experience? What are the challenges you face in getting there?
Rochelle Denton: Our nonprofit corporation has accomplished many things over the years. We have always believed in leveling the playing field by giving the same coverage to a bonanza of a Broadway show as to a new Kirk Wood Bromley site specific piece. We have always been at the forefront of new web technology and have tried to think of new ways to promote the work of the community. Our newest website, www.indietheaternow.com is an example of how we have morphed from publishing anthologies to publishing e-books to publishing masses of plays by hundreds of playwrights whose work just hasn't yet reached the audience it should. So currently my hope is to make this new website more prominent and the go-to place for students looking for audition-monologues, for teachers needing new material for their classes, for readers who enjoy drama, for theaters looking for new playwrights and new productions and many others that I probably don't know about yet.
The biggest challenge getting there is time. Anyone know how I can stretch the hours so more can be accomplished? We constantly plan what we would like to do next, what we want to incorporate into the websites, but it all takes time. Oh well, we just keep plugging along and somehow it does get done.
Lanie: What's something no one knows about you?
Rochelle Denton: I wanted to be a math major but Queens College in those days offered only one course in advanced math and I took it as a freshman, so I became an English major. I used to paint mugs with Snoopy on them saying "Happiness is (fill in the blank)" and sold them for $1. Made good pocket money. When the public school my kids went to had to close the library due to lack of funding, I organized and ran a committee of mothers to run the library every day. Kept lots of ladies busy and the kids got to read.
Lanie: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
Rochelle Denton: I really don't like generalizations. What might be a challenge for one woman could just as well be nonexistent for another. I like to think that a challenge is something to overcome -- sometimes you can ignore it and go on, other times you might have to sidestep it to reach your goal but a challenge should rarely be the reason you don't achieve. A positive attitude, knowing your own limitations and strengths will put you way ahead of many of your competitors, male or female. Do what gives you satisfaction and surround yourself with people that you enjoy. If you don't concentrate on the biases and obstacles that exist it is much easier to work around them and make them go away. The example you can set for the theatrical community by doing as good a job/working as hard as/producing a finished product as good as or better than any competitor and being a nice person at the same time will do away with many of the obstacles others might put in the way of success. Set realistic goals that you can achieve and never be afraid of reaching for the stars -- that's what they're there for.
Lanie: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
Rochelle Denton: I am an optimist by nature. I firmly believe the "glass is half full" and that tomorrow will be worth living for. If we treat all our colleagues fairly and work for the common good, this will be returned. There are, unfortunately many men (and women too) who believe a 'woman's place is in the home.' Succeeding without denigrating these people and their beliefs will go a long way to opening the door for others to fulfill their dreams.
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