Arts & Culture · Theater

Days of Their Lives: Carol Ostrow, Producing Director

1397244047Act 1 of “The Mysteries” at The Flea Theater (Images courtesy of The Flea Theater)


Carol Ostrow.

Carol Ostrow.

A theater called “The Flea”? The name trumpets attitude. At least, that’s what I hear in the jocular label, I tell Carol Ostrow.

She is the theater’s producing director. She is not put off. In fact, what she says is, “Great! You said ‘The Flea’ says to you ‘downtown, experimental, crazy.’ We say that we want to go places artistically that you might not feel comfortable going. Our work can be very transgressive and in your face. We exist on a playing field where we want to get in front of you.”

We are sitting in her office in the sub-basement of a Spartan warehouse building in Tribeca. To get inside, we have to interrupt a hallway meeting. On the floor above us, several young actors (“Bats”)  are rehearsing a futuristic fantasy in the 40-seat little theater. Above them, outside the big house (74 seats), more Bats are pacing around, concentrating deeply on the parts they’re auditioning for.

This is Off-Off Broadway in every sense: the theaters are tiny (fewer than 100 seats), run by a nonprofit organization, and a-churn with new plays and new ideas for staging plays.

 “Off-Off Broadway doesn’t necessarily mean ‘experimental,’” Ostrow says, “but the genesis of the mojo, the juice, of Off-Off Broadway is new works . . .  transgressive works . . . reinterpretations of existing works. When established stars or directors or writers come to Off-Off-Broadway, they usually want to reinvent themselves, to explore something that the commercial arena will not allow them to do, where they won’t be judged in the same way. They want to try something new, and Off-Off Broadway embraces that notion.”

“Trying something new” is what the Flea does. “Part of our mission is to ‘create a joyful hell in a small space.’” Ostrow says. “We reach out to artists in three different strata. One, the emerging artists . . . we give them a platform to enter. (These are the 173 young actors the Flea calls “Bats.”) Two, we reach out to struggling mid-career artists . . . they’re no longer young, they need that arena to increase their audience, their identity. And three, we attract the established artist who is looking to take risks that the commercial area just won’t allow, because the commercial area’s purpose is to make money.” (Those established artists have included playwrights A.R. Gurney, Elizabeth Swados, Will Eno, and Edward Albee, among many others, and actors Sigourney Weaver, Bill Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Bill Irwin, Amy Irving, Marisa Tomei Bebe Neuwirth, Reg E. Cathey, Danny Burstein . . .

By “commercial arena” she means “Broadway”—those 40 houses, on and off the avenue, that are designated as Broadway theaters and are profitmaking enterprises. “They exist to make a killing,” Ostrow says. “You don’t make a living, but you can make a killing, on Broadway.”

And what is Off-Broadway? These are nonprofit (and new-ideas-welcoming) theaters that have 100 or more seats.

The Flea produces dozens of new works a year, at modest ticket prices ($15 to $50), and lets other small companies share its performance spaces. Therefore, each Flea stage might present four shows a day— new theater, music, dance, and cross-disciplinary inventions. In rehearsal currently is The Cut Throat Series— “Grand Guignol Duels” that hark back to the French theater of the 1800s: hot (sexy) and cold (horror) plays, “presented in 4 unique bundles: Gore, Cruelty, Night Terror, and Lust.”

Ostrow came to her life in the theater easily. No opposition from her parents. Her great-aunt was Molly Picon, star of the Yiddish stage. “When I showed tendencies toward acting when I was very young, I was fully encouraged,” she says. “Pushed, in fact. My mother was not happy when I announced my engagement. She thought I was not doing my career a service.”  Carol is still married to that same guy, and they have four grown children.  Sadly, none have pursued a life in the theater.  “Maybe one in the family is enough.” 

And so Ostrow went to drama school at Vassar and then, after graduation, to Yale Drama School. She has taught theater at Vassar; she established the Powerhouse Theater there (still going strong after 28 years); and she has been the OBIE Award–winning producing director of the Classic Theater Company. In 2001, the Flea’s artistic director, Jim Simpson, who co-founded the company in 1996, brought Ostrow on as producing director.

What does an Off-Off Broadway producer do?

“Everything a production needs in order to flourish,” Ostrow says. “It’s being a hands-on and strategic CEO and it’s being the janitor. So for me in my three roles as a nonprofit producer, it means putting the initiative together—whether it’s for a program or a show or a theater—putting together the budget, raising the necessary funding or identifying the people who can contribute, choosing shows, hiring the people to do it, attending rehearsals, giving notes to the playwright and director and actors if it’s a world premiere and the play is still forming, helping the designers to fulfill their vision, and just seeing the show up to the point where it freezes. And then fostering it beyond that to see that there are butts in seats, because a large part of my job is making sure that every seat in the theater is filled.”

Her latest task (accomplished): raising $18.8 million and purchasing a building to hold a three-theater performing-arts complex in lower Manhattan. It’s on track to open in the fall of 2015 or early 2016. (She won’t miss the Flea’s current cramped quarters.)

So much continuous creativity, so much daily interaction with talented actors and writers! I say that it sounds like a dream job. “It is,” she says, “until the toilets clog and the air-conditioning breaks down.”

Then she has to find an instant solution, as she did at a recent performance of The Mysteries, a world-premiere theatrical event that tells the story of man’s salvation, from the Creation through Judgment Day, in six hours, with the actors serving the audience dinner in their seats. (It’s part of the Flea’s “Immersion” series of plays-with-dinner that last from four to six hours.) “The air conditioning broke down and we taped the duct and poured more Freon into the unit.  Thankfully, our Technical Director could follow the instructions of our AC guy until he could come the next day and fix the unit.” 

1397244029The Egyptian princess finds Moses amid the bulrushes.

I ask Ostrow about the theater’s transgressive plays. Transgressive, she cautions, doesn’t mean “bad.” “Transgressive plays are good plays. They can make you think about how you’re living and what you’re doing in your life.” She immediately names The Guys, which opened twelve weeks after 9/11 closed down her neighborhood (the Flea is seven blocks from ground zero.) “It made an impact on the city in a very positive way. That’s what I want art to be—like a great book, it changes the way you think.

2EAE9A8E5-DF3C-50D5-75D98BBDA7328EF8“We were the first theater in Manhattan—certainly in Lower Manhattan, because we were closed on September 12—that actually did a play about the unfathomable tragedy that befell our city and our nation and the world, but really our city truly, our neighborhood.

“Jim was sitting at a dinner party next to a woman, making conversation. What did you say right after 911? ‘Where were you? Did you lose someone?’ This woman was a professor of journalism at Columbia, in the graduate program. Her sister was a masseuse in Brooklyn. Her sister voluntarily massaged the first responders. And she met, while she was massaging, a fire captain who had lost everyone on duty, and he had to write the eulogies. He said, ‘I didn’t have to write a eulogy of even one of my guys in 20 years, and now I have to write 8. And they’re not just guys, they’re heroes. I don’t know how to do that.’

“The masseuse said, ‘I do. My sister is a journalism professor.’ She got this fire captain and her sister—an Upper West Side journalist—together. The play we did was the story about the healing that took place in the wake of this massive tragedy and how two people who led totally disparate lives came together.  We opened that play in early December of 2001 with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray playing the leads, and we got people to come downtown for a reason. This play was pretty shocking to people who were in mourning. It was all true and very hard to take. There were often firefighters and first responders in the audience.

“We did the show at 7 o’clock, and it was over at 8:30. And we said, “Now go across the street and eat dinner.” Because the restaurant across the street was struggling. We filled that restaurant every night for 13 months.”

There’s more adventurous stuff coming up—so much more. The fall season begins on August 22 with Smoke, “a re-imaging of Miss Julie set in the bondage-dominant sadomasochistic world; she’s an entitled college student, he’s a jaded wannabe artist . . . it’s about how far they’re willing to go to humiliate each other.”

Sounds transgressive to me—in a good way, of course.


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  • Lisa Daria August 19, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Enjoyable profile – I’m discovering your site this evening.

  • Susanna Gaertner August 19, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Ditto to all of the above…almost makes me miss NYC, certainly lets me remember what was so electrifying about my years there.
    Another terrific profile!

  • Margery Stein August 19, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Bravo, Debbie! Another fascinating piece. I remember reading about the theater’s post-9/11 production with Sigourney Weaver. The play got a lot of positive attention. This theater is truly a cherished resource.

  • Roz Warren August 19, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    GREAT profile.

  • Mister Wonderful August 19, 2014 at 11:22 am