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A CurtainUp Interview

A Talk With Carl Forsman, Artistic Director of the Keen Company by Elyse Sommer

Most people who had just been let go from a job would wallow, or at least unwind, for a few weeks. Not Carl Forsman. Days after his amicable departure from the now defunct Blue Light Theatre Company, Carl sat down and wrote a letter to every person he'd ever met. He was starting a theatre company and he needed money. Within months, he'd raised enough to produce two plays. Forsman's company, the Keen Company, had almost immediate success, notably with The Good Thiefwhich won an Obie for its star Brian d'Arcy James and transferred to another venue for an extended run

The director, now 32, was not at all surprised by the rapid response to his first letter. He explains, "you have to understand, I've been telling people since I was eighteen that I was going to start my own theatre company. So I'd been preparing for this for twelve years."

I caught up with Forsman after a rehearsal for his current project, Keith Reddin's Can't Let Go, the company's first World Premiere. Over a tall glass of post-rehearsal ale in the theatre district, Forsman talked animatedly about starting his own company, working with a playwright in the room, and the growing pains that a new theatre company inevitably faces. -- Susan Pourfar, interviewer for CurtainUp-- May 15, 2003.

Editor's Note: Susan took time out from her short but noteworthy appearance as the only woman in The Last Sunday In June. The CU below stands for CurtainUp via Susan; Carl Forsman's answers are preceded by a CF.

CU: Your company's mission is to produce "sincere"plays. Can you talk about what that means and how the mission statement came about?

CF: While I was at the Blue Light, I was putting forward a lot of early 20th century American plays, like John van Druten's Voice of the Turtle, which the Keen eventually produced; it transferred to the Mint Theatre for an extended run (See CurtainUp review). I was making an argument for those plays because I was entranced by the way the characters had an emotional availability and vulnerability that was missing from a lot new work. It was a moment, pre-September 11th, when there was a lot of cynicism in New York theatre. We were introduced to Neil La Bute's work, Shopping and **cking was at New York Theatre Workshop, Closer came over from England. A lot of plays that were very cynical about the nature of human interaction. And their point of view didn't reflect my own life experience.

At a certain point in our culture -- and God Bless James Dean, but he didn't help any -- cynicism became linked with sophistication. People who believed the world was a bad, ugly place were considered in the know. And people who thought the world was filled with acts of charity and kindness were considered naïve.

I took very personally the rejection of plays like Voice of the Turtle based on the grounds that they were simplistic and that I was being naive. With the Keen Company, I set out to prove that plays which are emotionally generous can also be sophisticated, and complicated, and present a real, multidimensional picture of humanity.

CU: In less than three years, the Keen Company has garnered an Obie and two Drama Desk nominations. As Artistic Director of the company, how much do you find yourself trying to live up to those kinds of accolades?

CF: Boy if I were to do some soul searching, I guess I'd say a lot. (He takes a swig of ale.) But, not really. There's a part of me that thinks everything that's happened is the result of things that are important to me. Those things are simple: working with people I care about, creating an environment that's nurturing, picking projects that move me, asking people to make sacrifices that are fair.

CU: What kind of sacrifices?

CF: Doing a play for us! (Forsman laughs.) Every actor that's worked for us has made a huge sacrifice. It's four hundred bucks for seven weeks of work. We get the kind of talent we get -- Rebecca Luker, a two-time Tony nominee, is working with us right now -- because actors are so hungry for opportunities to do plays that are important to them.

CU: Ms. Luker is starring in your the Keen's first World Premiere. How did you decide to move from revivals to a brand new play?

CF: I was excited by this play right away. It exemplifies what I've always loved about Keith Reddin's writing and it captures the spirit of some of his best work. It's so emotionally wide open. And it's a little absurd. Much like Tina Howe's Museum (which Forsman directed last year and CurtainUp reviewed). In fact, Tina and Keith share a kind of manic sensibility.

CU: How long have you been a fan of Keith Reddin's work?

CF: In college I directed a play of his called Desperadoesand I read everything he wrote. Then, he came to see Museum and this past winter he gave me a copy of Can't Let Go. It was all very fast. He wrote the play in January and here we are doing it in May!

CU: Did you ever consider reviving a Reddin play?

CF: Absolutely. I want to do the revival of Life During Wartime when it's old enough. When people have totally forgotten about that play, we'll revive it. I don't think it ever got the kind of reception it deserved.

CU: For the first time, you're working with the playwright in the room. What's that like for you?

CU: (Forsman leans into the recorder and speaks with clarity, mocking his own desire to do good publicity: 'It's great, it's all great.') Seriously, Keith's way more open than I expected him to be about changing things. In some ways it's like working on any play: the scenes that work really well are easy; and the scenes that don't work as well are really hard. But we've got Keith struggling along with the rest of us to figure out how to make things work. I find it exciting that things are in flux. We're really pushing and pulling at the play.

CU: Can't Let Go will be presented at the Connelly Theatre. How much do you worry about getting people to East 4th Street to see a play?

CF: The Connelly is where we presented Tina Howe's Museum. Initially, its location was a definite concern, but Museum sold more tickets than anything we've ever done. There were a lot of reasons for that. The [Michael] Feingold review in The Village Voice certainly dropped a large rock in the pond, and the ripples went out from there.

CU: Critical acclaim, which you've had your share of, can be instrumental in giving a company visibility and getting people in seats. How much would you say you rely on reviews to keep The Keen alive?

CF: The truth is it's really about a very small group of people who believe in what we do. That number is about two hundred. Those are our funders. If Feingold and Brantley were to come and hate something, but those two hundred people got it, it wouldn't matter they, or any other critics , said. Now, certainly, if we got smacked around four or five times in a row, that would be trouble.

CU:But you're allowed a smack or two.

CF:Sure. And we've had some. The hardest thing about a bad review is that it changes the quality of the audience. They come in doubtful or dubious as opposed to optimistic and excited. And that's scary. Because you can't really fight that. But either way, I try not to think about it too much. Even after our successes, I say to my company, "OK, let's not expect that again. Let's just go back to our hole in the wall and get to work on something".

CU: So you're getting to work on a World Premiere. What else can we expect from the Keen Company? Any future dreams?

CF: I'd love to be in a place where we're doing exactly what we're doing now, and everybody's getting paid more! And I'd love to have a permanent home. The company currently moves from place. We'll be at the Connelly with Keith's play. But we've also done several shows at the Blue Heron. If we could grow to be half the size of The Vineyard Theatre, I'd be thrilled.

You know, when I sat down and started the company, I made a five year plan. And I'm almost exactly on schedule with it. But, I don't know how year six works. I still can't tell you how it works. . The financial jump to being on contract, to paying actors a real salary, LOA, etcetera, is so big that it will mean a drastic scale back. We'll be growing steadily, and then, all of a sudden we'll have a year where we'll do one play and maybe a co-production. So people may be saying, "whatever happened to the Keen Company?" But the truth is we'll be growing up, taking the next step. To get bigger we'll have to get smaller. I'm sure those growing pains will be tough.

CU: I think your supporters will stick around through the growing pains.

CF: Let's hope so.

CAN'T LET GO starts previews Friday, May 30th for a limited engagement through Sunday, June 22nd at the Connelly Theatre (220 East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B). The performance schedule is Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. There is an additional performance on Wednesday, June 18th at 8pm.

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