As theaters and other entertainment venues reopen for live performances, I’ve been curious about the behind-the-scenes preparation being undertaken right now. To take a deeper dive, I spoke recently with Ali Kennedy Scott, the creative producer of Repulsing the Monkey. Originally from Australia, she is Vice-Chair of the Board of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company and a member of the Board of the Broadway Women’s Fund. Her credits as a creator and performer include The Day the Sky Turned Black and Just Not That Woman.
Repulsing the Monkey is an immersive show that is not only set in a bar, but performed at an actual bar: the historic White Horse Tavern in Lower Manhattan. It focuses on the debacle of Janey (Kim Katzberg) and Danny (Sergey Nagorny), who are visited by would-be gentrifiers (Emily Elizabeth Bennett, Kalia Wooten, Samuel Barnes Jaffe, and Asha Devi) hoping to purchase their parents’ bar. There are 15 performances scheduled for September 15-26.
Do you find that your acting experience informs your approach as a producer?
Absolutely. I started producing my own work early in my acting career. I went to drama school for acting and I have since studied producing. I developed both skill sets. I always try to put myself in the shoes of the actor. What would they be feeling about a particular directive? How will the contracts be fair for all parties?
Theater is a business with people at the center of it. I think that’s why actors make great producers because they understand and put humans at the center of the business, rather than humans being expendable. Not that everyone is like that, but certainly if you’ve been an actor, you want to make everything as good as possible for your cast, creatives, and everyone involved. That will make long-lasting relationships and connections. Hopefully you’ll even be working together for decades if things are successful.
How do you mount theatrical productions in this time while balancing accountability, safety, and financial considerations?
We’re really lucky in our creative team. Daniel Leeman Smith, our director, has also been an actor and educator. Michael Eichler, the playwright, has been a community organizer. Everybody has a heart and an incredibly empathetic way of behaving. Consequently, it is about how to take care of us all: audience, performers, as well as the creatives to get our show on.
How has that played out with the auditions?
Starting off, we held our first round of auditions via Zoom. Cast and crew did not need to be in-person for that, which allows for reduced possibility of COVID infection. There were also lower costs for people. It has been a pandemic where particularly the arts and artists have had their incomes decimated.
Then we did callbacks in-person, but we made sure that all of the information for a sign-up sheet was done digitally. Instead of having a hall monitor and people filing in and out through the day, we made discrete groups of six people who auditioned at the same time. That way we would know if there was any COVID contact.
We also picked out spaces very carefully as we’ve worked with A.R.T./New York. They have strict COVID guidelines with HEPA purifiers and windows needing to be opened. There’s half an hour between bookings, to make sure there’s time for the air to clear. Everyone has to check in about COVID exposure before any spaces are used. We also had discussions up front about whether people were vaccinated, mask use, and when it was prudent to take off masks. This was all done before Delta was so pervasive. We modified constantly for that time.
Do you feel like you’re on a steep learning curve with the unpredictability and new situations throughout the year?
Yes, it’s a learning curve. Theater artists, particularly off-Broadway or experimental, are used to having to be agile. We have budgets that we’re used to working within as creatives. Anne Bogart, who is a wonderful teacher, director, and mentor of mine, talks about constraints making great theater. We try to look at it as glass half full as much as possible while we work within these constraints. We’re so grateful that we’re finally able to put on a show.
Tell us about rehearsals.
We’ve done rehearsals over Zoom. Also, everyone is tested for COVID once a week. If a cast member has the slightest tickle in their throat, they don’t come to rehearsals and they Zoom in. We’ve made sure that there is slack in the rehearsal schedule, so that if anyone has to miss rehearsal because of illness, we’re not sunk. We have to be agile and more careful than we ever have been.
What are some lessons you’ve learned and can take away from this experience?
The gift of this new paradigm is that it insists we care about each other. The people involved in this show would be doing that anyway, but it insists on that way of behavior. We have to check in with how everybody is doing because we are in a time of stress. There is time at the beginning of every rehearsal for that.
We have to make sure that people who are ill do not come to rehearsal. When I went to drama school, there was an idea of “Don’t miss theater.” You came to rehearsal or performance no matter what. Once you played your character, you didn’t feel as sick as you did before, but you’d be infecting the rest of the cast and certainly you won’t get well faster.
The new paradigm does away with that because we can’t simply demand that people push on. We must meet people where they are and care for their health both physically and mentally. That is one lesson I hope we always move forward and act on.[There are] silly little things that theaters used to demand. Actors have to bring a headshot and resume. We said don’t bring that in. Why make actors pay for those printing expenses while on a lower income, when we can have those [submitted] digitally?
There are so many small things. We had a cast member who was going to Florida last weekend. I gave her N95 masks for her [to use] in the airplane and the airport in particular, because I want her to be well taken care of. There’s a refocusing here. We have to value the opportunity all of us have with theater and every single person involved in it.
How is it dealing with the threat of COVID and how things can change week-to-week?
When we first started producing the show, we thought we were going to be in a very low-COVID environment because it was before Delta came to the U.S. and to New York City. That situation changed. I look at the case numbers and the vaccination numbers in NYC every single day. I make sure that I am on top of what’s going on every day and with working out what that means.
We are not an Equity production, but I know those Equity guidelines. We’re following as many of them as we can, with the exception of—Equity asks that if anyone gets COVID, you have to pay for their food, income, and reaccommodate them. Obviously as a non-Equity production, we can’t afford that, but we are doing our darnedest to make sure that everybody doesn’t get sick.
People know that they have to wear masks whenever they are indoors. Everybody involved is vaccinated. Everybody who comes into the venue will be vaccinated. New York [City] has mandated that anyway. Our audience will also be masked except while eating and drinking. Our cast will take COVID tests every day.
The other thing we are doing is opening up the windows because our space has a wall of windows. That is fantastic for us to make sure up until the show starts that there is fresh air. [After that] it will be too noisy. Then there are extra HEPA air purifiers we’re putting in. As soon as the show finishes, windows will be opened up again. Hopefully it will be the best possible quality air we can get for everyone.
If the situation changes or there is more information on how we can better make the space safe for everybody, we will do that. I wake up every morning, look at what’s new, and then I adjust accordingly.
What do you like about this production?
I love immersive theater. I love theater that gets people out of the proscenium. This is that show in a non-traditional space. We’re in a bar space, which makes it really accessible for both theater people and non-theater people alike. It casts an invitation wide to the audience. The show itself is a humorous look at gentrification. It doesn’t lecture or hit you with hard facts, but it poses questions about what we’re doing about gentrification and our history and what we’re losing. I’m Australian and I think this question is near and dear to my heart about the legacy and history, not losing the stories and culture of what came before. It’s about what people before contributed and [how to] honor them.
It’s in a fun environment where people can have a drink, be in a bar, and remember what it’s like to connect in this space that has a connection of hundreds of years through history. That’s a special experience. I hope the audience feels the same way.
Repulsing the Monkey runs Sept. 15 – 26. Tickets are on sale now.