A professor once told me –”If you want to be cast in the kind of plays that you really believe in, if you want to do work that is meaningful to you, with actors trained in the same way as you, and have the same aesthetic… create your own theatre company together, the most important thing in this business is networking, and that starts NOW, in this classroom”– great advice from a very wise man. Seems to be that Rachel McPhee and Jackie LaVanway, cofounders of On The Square Productions, received the same words of wisdom.
Their company strives in non-traditional casting, and community outreach, which might give us a clue as to why their production of William Shakespeare’s A MidSummer Night’s Dream takes place in a garden in Astoria.
Here’s a Q&A with both ladies regarding their upcoming venture.
How did you guys meet?
RM: Jackie and I met while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison where we were actively involved in the undergraduate theater program together and also worked at a campus catering center (hilarious!). I graduated in 2005 and went to study in London at the Drama Studio London for a year. When Jackie graduated in 2006 she was moving to New York to attend Michael Howard Studios and I was moving to NYC as well. Jackie needed a roommate and I slipped right on in. We have been roommates and BFF’s for the past 4 years! People interchange us for one another, ask us if we are sisters, and since I am getting married next year have even assumed that Jackie and I will continue living together with my soon to be husband! HA!
JL: That would be a little too bohemian- even for us!
How did On The Square Productions come about?
JL: On the Square Productions was birthed over the stuffy kitchen table of our old apartment on 78th and York. One night, Rachel and I were hashing out our day (a common occurrence at Chez McPhee-LaVanway) and decided that we wanted to provide opportunities for our talented friends/colleagues and chose material that we felt inspiring or thought provoking. We wanted to play by our own rules. Coming from a professional theatrical environment at UW, it was really important to us maintain that structure in every project we do. Rachel and I really strive to treat our cast and crew with respect, and let them know that we couldn’t do it without their help! We are BIG believers in the collaborative process.
JL: It’s true, there are multiple productions of this piece planned for this summer, and there will continue to be for infinite summers to follow. Why MidSummer? Well, I think the nature of the piece (as for many of Shakespeare’s work) lends itself to the collaborative environment that Rachel and I love. We have a 25 person production and everyone has helped us in “getting this show on the road,” so to speak. The light, jovial nature of MidSummer celebrates the magic of theatre. A lot of our previous productions and readings have been on the darker side, so it’s nice to do something less heavy. Everyone loves a happy ending right?
Did you choose your garden because that is how you envisioned it, or did cost come into factor when making that decision?
RM: That’s a great question! Let me tell you a little bit more about the venue first. Jackie and I are fortunate enough to live in a beautiful Astoria apartment that also features a gorgeous backyard garden complete with a fig tree, peach tree, pear tree, and apple tree. We love entertaining and all our entertainment biz friends who have ever been back there always comment on how the space would be perfect for a show because it has a very special, “outside NY,” almost magical feel to it. Like other indie theatre companies, OTSP has definitely struggled since/during the recession and the thought of a FREE venue and rehearsal space (weather permitting!) was music to our ears and we thought also an exciting way to bring theatre to Astoria and create an outdoor celebration of Shakespeare and Art. Since it’s such a community based production, we have also been lucky in getting local businesses to sponsor us. Once we got the go-ahead from our landlord, neighbors, and Actors’ Equity, it was full steam ahead!
What makes your MidSummer different (aside from the garden)?
JL: That Astoria is our co star! This response we’ve had from our neighborhood has been overwhelming as Rachel previously mentioned. The independent business owners and restauranteurs have really thrown their support behind us, and that’s a wonderful feeling. We are also sponsored by some of the local bars in the area, who we will be patronizing after some of our performances. We want this particular production to be a celebration of theatre, friendship, and all things Astoria! We are in love with our neighborhood, and we want our audience to fall in love as well.
You’re both producers on the show, you’re both in the show, and you both have day jobs. Give us a glimpse into your busy days leading up to the show.
RM: Jackie and I both don’t typically take roles in our productions, but this summer the opportunity was too hard to pass up! Like most actors living in NYC, I’m a self-proclaimed “hustler” and have basically worked every “for money only job” under the sun! A typical day for me would be up at 6 to work at my restaurant where I waitress, composing email submissions for my acting career and also communicating with designers and other team members and fulfilling other OTSP duties during stolen 5 minute breaks, then hitting auditions by 3ish, rehearsal starts at 6 or 7 and if I’m not at rehearsal I can most likely be found at the theatre, following up with sponsors, attending networking events, promoting our shows/special events, talking to people at Actors’ Equity, reading scripts, line learning, or planning for future projects. I truly feel like I’m living the dream and am so proud of the work we create at On the Square.
JL: A day in the life of Jackie can be whirlwind: Get up around 8am to be at work by 10am at New World Stages. Work til 6pm, or longer (if I can’t get it all done). I am the Executive Assistant at New World and Stage Entertainment USA. In addition to managing a staff of 13, I am an administrative catch all. If I’m not at rehearsal that evening, I’m can be found at my computer coordinating things for OTSP, including blogging, facebooking, tweeting, designing the ad space for our programs, raising funds, drafting press releases, communicating with various personnel, meeting new talent, and trying to get the word out about our fabulous company! Non OTSP activities include, doing my work-study at S Factor and seeing shows around the town. Go to bed around 1am and try NOT to think about what craziness will enfold tomorrow. There are many 12-14 hour days during productions, but it’s all worth it in the end. It feels good to say we have our own company, and that we are active on the scene!
Talk to us a little about the director and cast members.
RM: We are so lucky to have a phenomenal group of people working so hard to create this piece. The cast and production team are a mixture of old standbys, new finds via auditions, and some friends of friends we have had our eye on. Michael Swartz (In Fields Where they Lay), I met on one of my first shows here in NYC. He is a talented actor and director and is doing a great job doing double duty both directing and playing the role of Puck! Michael also resides in Astoria. Through him, we have been friends and admirers of his DeSales classmate, Marnie Schulenburg (Daytime Emmy nominee for her work on As The World Turns) who plays a delightfully innocent and hilarious Hermia. Every single person in the cast is an utter joy to work with, not to mention the talents and skill of our production team!
JL: Everyone in the show has a diverse body of work. Kane Prestenback, who plays Flute, just completed the TS Eliot Exchange Program at the Old Vic in London. Colleen Harris (Peter Quince) received raved reviews for her recent cabaret show debut, This Time, at Don’t Tell Mama. We could go on and on- seriously, everyone is wonderful and worth gushing over.
Lets say I’m new to hanging out in Astoria, want dinner before the show, and drinks after… what are your favorite nearby spots?
RM: Jackie and I are obsessed with Diwine Bar which is located on 31st ave between 43rd and 44th streets (also a hop, skip, and jump away for our venue!) .Winegasm and Brick Café are also fabulous favorites of ours and also close to our performance space.
JL: Great pub food can be found at Sweet Afton (try the fried pickles!) and Bareburger has the MOST AMAZING burgers and everything on the menu is organic. Vitality and Health Natural Market is a great local organic market that you’ll see right when you get off the R at the 46th street stop. Grab some coconut water before heading to the show!
On The Square‘s production of William Shakespeare’s A MidSummer Night’s Dream will play from July 8th through the 18th. For more information and to purchase tickets visit www.OnTheSquareProductions.com.
If you are interested in donating to On The Square Productions, there is an easy and secure way to do it online, by visiting Fractured Atlas.