NEW YORK • These are heady days at New York Theater Workshop, a small non-profit in the East Village that has long championed challenging but often also difficult new work.
On Tuesday, rehearsals began for Lazarus, a hallucinatory sequel to the novel The Man Who Fell To Earth that is the fastest-selling production in the company's 36-year history, largely because it features new music by David Bowie, who starred in the movie version.
On Monday, the company announced that its next season would include a production of Othello that is sure to be another hit because it will feature film stars Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo.
At the same time, the company is home to the most polarising show of the moment, Fondly, Collette Richland.
Despite some critical praise, it has proved incomprehensible to a significant number of theatregoers.
At the start of its run, many ticketbuyers were walking out. As word spread, people more open to ambiguity began to dominate the audiences, walkouts declined and the run was actually extended.
"We have a membership which is regularly put through their paces," Mr James C. Nicola, the theatre's longtime artistic director, said.
"They may or may not like what they see on any given night here, but they never leave here and talk about their laundry. They talk about what they saw and the issues that it raised."
He said the company's three much-talked-about new shows were the result of its commitment to continuing relationships that require directors and playwrights to stretch.
Lazarus will be the eighth show at New York Theater Workshop led by the experimental Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove, who also has his first two shows on Broadway this season.
Fondly, which features a script by the experimental playwright Sibyl Kempson, is the fourth show the company has presented by the theatre collective Elevator Repair Service, which wowed critics and audiences with its verbatim dramatisations of American novels of the 1920s. And Othello will be directed by Sam Gold, one of the theatre company's periodic collaborators, who won the Tony Award for best direction of a musical this year.
The company's two performance spaces are small - its largest theatre is 199 seats - and its runs are short. Lazarus will play for nine weeks, and Othello for an undetermined but limited period.
Hunger for Lazarus tickets - the initial run sold out in three hours - and the expected demand for Othello have prompted the theatre to try to limit scalping and resales by secondary brokers.
Tickets will be sold through normal channels, but will be distributed only in person, during a two-hour period before the performance, to the buyer whose name was on the credit card used for initial purchase.
Neither the discomfort prompted by Fondly, about a couple's life-changing journey through a mysterious door, nor the enthusiasm occasioned by Lazarus and Othello, are new to the theatre, which has had its share of avant-garde head-scratchers as well as the periodic popular success over the years.
The company owes much of its reputation to collaborations with playwrights including Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner. However, it owes much of its financial stability to a handful of musical hits, particularly Rent, which spun off enough royalties after transferring to Broadway to enable the company to pay off mortgages on the two buildings that house its stages and offices, but also including Once and Peter And The Starcatcher, which generated a reserve fund.
Lazarus, which will have 18 actors and musicians and will cost more than US$1 million (S$1.39 million) to stage, is being financed partly by a commercial producer, Robert Fox. That kind of relationship is now common for non-profit theatres presenting costly shows they could otherwise not afford.
The show is still being written by Bowie and the Irish playwright Enda Walsh, but Mr Nicola said that it would be set in the East Village and in the protagonist's mind, includes "a hallucinatory journey about choosing to live or yearning to be set free from this plane of existence", and would be "emotional and powerful, exceptionally distinctive, not a happy, feel-good kind of thing and very Zen".
Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Cristin Milioti (Once) are among its stars.
Mr Nicola and managing director Jeremy Blocker make no apologies for work that tests audiences or thrills them. They say both have a place in their theatre, which has an annual budget of about US$5 million and 3,000 members.
"We do understand the upside of attracting new members or new ticket-buyers or being on the radar of other artists who might be interested in doing something exciting and we don't want to pretend like we're ignorant of that upside," said Mr Blocker.
"But we're also not out there saying, 'Well, what movie star can we get to be in this play?' or 'What's the next musical that's going to transfer to Broadway that's going to make us a lot of money?' because ultimately, that would feel like us being unmoored from our mission. That's not what we do."
NEW YORK TIMES