Long Island Playwrights
Pave Path to Manhattan
(chief theater critic and arts columnist)
“It’s news!,” declares Claude Solnik with the headline instincts of a journalist and the heart of a playwright. “I know it’s news — and it’s a good story.”
And he is right on both observations. Solnik — a reporter by day with Long Island Business News — is practically shaking me to notice that his
Long Island theater troupe, the Textile Company, has been named the resident company at the historic Theater for the New City in Manhattan’s East Village.
I saw Textile in Solnik’s “The Caretaker of Corofin,” at his urging, last summer in one of TNC’s tiny (read: unairconditioned) black-box spaces upstairs of the funky complex that has been producing the famous (Sam Shepard) and the promising since 1971. I didn’t review the dark, sprawling Irish drama, which had a short run in a bare-bones production.
But I was impressed enough to tell Solnik — Roslyn raised, living with his family in Plainview — to let me know when/if something else happened with Textile.
So here’s what happened.After unofficially presenting five of Solnik’s plays, TNC Executive Director Crystal Field has made Textile, which rehearses and mostly works on Long Island, its latest in-house group.
This means that, although his “Year of the Iguana” will have its premiere next summer at the Studio Theatre in Lindenhurst, “Pedro Castillo Is Innocent,” a fact-based drama about an exonerated prisoner, opens at TNC Feb. 4 — in a bigger space this time. Textile also has a commitment for at least two other productions at the theater.
What the partnership also means, in the language of struggling playwrights everywhere, “I have . . . a place.” What’s different is that an entire company has been adopted by a New York theater. “They’re NYC. We’re L.I. An interesting match.”
In fact, interesting matches are happening beyond Solnik and Textile. Two other Long Island-bred playwrights will open New York productions next month. And, though neither comes with that kind of institutional hookup, both represent an interesting bridge between the busy Long Island theater scene and the inevitable seductions across the river.
This is not the first Manhattan rodeo for Nick Gandiello, 29, who, last year at this time was awarded the 2015 P73 Playwriting Fellowship. P73 (short for Page 73) concentrates on work by early-career playwrights. Gandiello, raised in Baldwin and now in Harlem, was chosen from more than 450 applicants to get a $10,000 grant and another $10,000 for developing new plays.
Previews begin Friday for the premiere of “The Wedge Horse,” described as a drama about “the long-term consequences of grief, vengeance and forgiveness.” Like “The Blameless,” about the murderer of a son, and much of his other work, this one is set in Baldwin and violence is never far from the surface.
“I think one of the biggest concerns of our culture is violence,” says Gandiello, who, rather than feeling boxed in by geographical labels, says he appreciates being referred to as a Long Island playwright. “Almost all my plays take place in Long Island,” he continues, explaining, amusingly, that a dialect coach for “Wedge Horse” spent time in Baldwin to get the flavor of the language.
The diversity of the town was formative to his work. “When I grew up, I didn’t know that diversity was even an issue in America,” he says. “I assumed it was normal.” And it’s not just violence that interests him. “I’m also interested in the aftermath of the violence.” He writes about situations in the world that upset him, but “the characters come from my marrow.”
In stark contrast is Steven Carl McCasland — raised in Dix Hills, living in Queens — whose “The Halls of Importance” will have three performances as part of the Venus/Adonis Theater Festival in Chelsea. The play, inspired by an old photo of two men, imagines their relationship from 1949 through 2000.
Like most of his work, Long Island can be found in the “language . . . the rhythm and the banter.” But he primarily writes about “historical figures, either imagined or real,” including the Kennedys in “28 Marchant Avenue” and Lillian Hellman in “Little Wars” (which is about to have be produced in, no kidding, Bermuda).
Asked if growing up on Long Island was an advantage, McCasland, 29, thinks a minute and thoughtfully says, “I actually think not. I think I lack the experiences that a lot of other Americans bring to writing . . . I think we live in a bubble. Sometimes I feel almost like a foreigner when I see the news from my own country.”
New York offered great theatrical riches, but he thinks he was “born too late. Things interesting to me as a little boy were totally separate . . . I learned a lot about the theater, which was very helpful,” he continues, “but I didn’t learn about life.”
Like most playwrights in this country, these writers can’t be in it for the money. Gandiello says the last few “fortunate” years have helped him get by, but he moonlights in his brother-in-law’s Kettle Corn business during down times. McCasland works at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan and Solnik, 54, despite going to New York University drama school, has journalism to pay the bills.
But reporting also feeds his writing. Years ago, when he worked at downtown weeklies, he helped turn around the conviction of a prisoner. “I helped get him out of jail,” he says in retrospect. “Now it’s helping me.”
Looking ahead, Solnik would love to have his work seen by a wider audience. For McCasland, who values his years at the Nassau BOCES Long Island High School for the Arts, the dream is to have “New York City’s community theater, modeled on the kind I grew up with on Long Island. I am very grateful to community theater, which was a safe space where I could meet other people like me.”
For Gandiello, growing up in Baldwin, “New York City was like this really cool older cousin you’re desperate to be around. Now that I live here, I get to see the older cousin’s wounds, its vulnerability.”
Solnik fondly remembers growing up on Teakwood Lane in Roslyn, across the street from a kid named Howard Gordon. “We both wanted to be writers. Howard moved to L.A., wrote for TV and became the showrunner for 24 and co-creator of ‘Homeland.’ We’ve had very different paths . . . But Howard named his production company Teakwood Lane . . . I called my group Textile Company” after the textile company his father ran.
“I don’t know why we both got so interested in writing and stories,” he concludes with a nice theatrical flair. “But we did.” And more still are.
To See The Shows
“Pedro Castillo is Innocent,” by Claude Solnik, Feb. 4-14, Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave.theaterforthenewcity.net or at SmartTix, $15.
“The Halls of Importance,” by Steven Carl McCasland, Feb. 2, 6 and 7, Hudson Guild Theater, 441 W. 25th St.venusnytheaterfestival.com $23.50
“The Wedge Horse,” by Nick Gandiello, Feb. 3-21, IATI Theater, 64 E. Fourth St.; faultlinetheatre.org, tickets are $29 after Feb. 4, $9 during previews