Nothing common about this theatre

An interview with Robert Haufrecht

By Andrès J. Wrath

After entering their space on the fifth floor of 750 Eighth Avenue, you may feel that the Common Basis Theater is yet other company amongst the dozens of Off-Off-Broadway theatres in midtown Manhattan. Their mission statement is noble: "The Common Basis is committed to bring a basis of truth to all theatrical experience, be it realistic or avant-garde. We are so named because we have a common way of working." Also in the program is a request for donations for money for new lights. Although you may think you've seen it all before, somewhere between the house lights' going off and the curtain call you may find yourself blown away through the sheer integrity and power of the acting, directing, and writing of this 10-year-old company.

The night after the successful opening of Larry Myers's evening of theatre The Devil's Home Movies, the play's director (also the managing director of Common Basis Theater Company) came out to chat about the Common Basis. He looked amazingly alert and attentive the day after his opening. Most of us would have still been in a coma after the rigorous demands of doing a production in New York.

Andres J. Wrath: How did the company start?

Robert Haufrecht: It really came out of my sister's acting class. Marcia Haufrecht, who is the artistic director of Common Basis, has been a member of the Actor's Studio for a long time and has been on Broadway and in films. Well, out of the class work that was happening we thought why not do a production: we have very good actors who are (a) very talented or (b) have been around for awhile. She actually already had the space for her classes. I built the risers and the dressing rooms. Our first name was originally the Common Ground Theatre. Which I think we changed it because it had a similar name to another company. We basically used Method work and we all had the same approach to acting. We were dedicated to being truthful, whether it was avant-garde pieces or kitchen-sink dramas.

AJW: Do you find using the method different with less naturalistic pieces that with kitchen-sink dramas?

RH: You try to make it as real as possible. When you have something that takes place on a subway platform you have an easier base to deal with than Larry Myers's Devil's Home Movies, which is presentational. In the Meyers piece you say a few lines to the audience, then you step back and it's a different reality. In a way that is more difficult.

AJW: How many shows a year do you do?

RH: In the last few years around five to eight. It's been very fruitful and very hectic. We also use the space for acting classes, as well as a playwrights' group. We have to take down the sets on Sunday for the classes and put them back up. This year we may have a few less productions and rent out the space for someone else's productions. Devil's Home Movies is actually a coproduction with Common Basis and Larry Myers's own company, RWM Playwrights Lab.

AJW: How are your productions funded?

RH: Mostly through private donations, and lately we've been applying for grants. We don't have expert grantwriters at the moment. But we have people looking into that. Since Marcia uses the space for classes, in essence, the space is paid for and we accumulated flats and props. For the most part, production costs are relatively low. We don't have the greatest lighting setup as we'd like. We are able to put together complex sets when we have to. So often, our costs come down to, "Do we need a costume?" and "How much paint do we need?" Then there is the expense of putting together a good flyer and mailings. Stuff like that.

AJW: What do you think that Off-Off-Broadway needs?

RH: The easy answer is more money. For groups that don't have a home base, the costs are astronomical. There are some theatres that are going to cost $1000 to $2000 a week to rent, then the cost of production. The hope is to move your production to another venue. Let's face it - what gets picked up are musicals and a few dramatic pieces. Most of the dramatic pieces that are picked up are usually from more established places with a star attached. It would be great if there were some kind of city funding. The city really needs a theatre community: the actors get their starts, plays get developed, and screenplays come out of plays that have run. It would be great if film companies gave money to Off-Off-Broadway. What would a million dollars do for all the Off-Off-Broadway companies around? Each company can get a few thousand dollars to operate on. Money would allow companies to do more exploration. You can do more stretching artistically.

AJW: What advice would you give someone starting a theatre company?

RH: You really have to know what you want to do. It's too easy to say, let's do a bunch of plays. The other thing is, and we've had this problem, get a group of actors who are willing to do work like running the lights. Basically, you have to get a group who is willing to put in the elbow grease. Then you have to build a mailing list. Find an affordable space, and these days, given the market this is a trick. There are theatres in various parts of town people don't want to go to. If you are in those parts of town it's going to take a while before you build an audience.

(Call 340-1112 for more information about classes and for show times of the Common Basis Theatre Co.)

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Copyright 1999 Andrès J. Wrath