By Suzanne Dressler
Liz Flemming, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Out of the Box Theatrics, has never been a stranger to creativity, determination, and introspection. It is these traits that were the genesis for OOTB. The company’s mission is to provide diverse and unique casting opportunities to actors and creative teams – they give voice to underrepresented groups and gender identities, as well as those who have been silenced in the arts. Perhaps it is OOTB’s mission itself that is its greatest gift to the theatre community and to all of us who desperately need the crucial vitality and representation of art in our lives. So far, they are not only existing successfully, but are also thriving in their courage and unyielding determination to create a new dimension for diversity through creativity. Moreover, Flemming and her team hope to pave the way for other producers and directors to expand how they cast and work creatively. A perfect summation of OOTB would be Flemming’s passion for her work: “We don’t have to adhere by traditional standards and what has been done before.”
OOTB was a number of years in the making. Upon graduating early from college, Flemming jumped into the NYC theatre community with grit to pursue her dreams of being on stage. On days when she auditioned, it was common to have 4 am wake up calls to ensure she got an audition spot. However, she soon became aware of the frustration that all actors feel at various points in their careers: learning their type. “[It] was a challenge. I had to change how I thought of myself.” She was told by creatives that they didn’t know where to put her. “You’re kind of an odd type,” she recalls being told. “I was hearing that everywhere I was going. I wasn’t getting called back from much, and I started to question my path.”
After about 1.5 years of perseverance, things turned around for Flemming. She booked a children’s theatre tour, which marked the beginning of nonstop contracts at theatres throughout the country for several years. Nonetheless, the burnout started to sink in: “I spent 3 years on the road going from job to job, but it started to get really taxing. I wasn’t equity, I couldn’t be there when I got called in for an audition in the city. I started to just do jobs to do jobs and I felt like I had to get another job; I was gigging to gig. No self-reflection. I tried to maintain the perfect body, the most incredible voice, the best dance training, all these things that weren’t comfortable on the road.”
Flemming specifically remembers having an epiphany during a Christmas show: “I had antlers on my head; I was watching myself do it onstage. I was playing Mrs. Donner in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I needed to go home to NYC, identify what I wanted out of the business and what was going to truly make me happy. It wasn’t Rudolph.”
Her mission and path were to become a lot more clear after her return to New York. It was while answering phones at the reception desk for a private school that the genesis for Out of the Box Theatrics began. Flemming decided she wanted to do a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (a show she adores), an impromptu idea that basically came to her while seeing someone mention the show on social media. She asked herself, “’Why don’t I do Charlie Brown in a playground?’ I had this random thought while I was working. Sitting, answering phones at this new job, and I literally had seen somebody post something about Charlie Brown, and a friend recommended Ethan to me because he created his own Off-Broadway show.”
“Ethan” is Ethan Paulini, a gifted and astute NYC-based actor, coach, Artistic Director of Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire, and the Associate Artistic Director of OOTB. At their first session, Paulini encouraged Flemming to pursue her idea, but informed her that in order to do it as an Equity production, she would need to establish the show under a legitimate company. Luckily, she was able to exceed “the amount of money we had originally discussed, and it became bigger than we realized it would.” The name, Out of the Box Theatrics, is an organic manifestation of the missions upon which the company was formed. For example, Flemming knew she wanted a woman to play Snoopy and a Latinx performer to play Sally. She was adamant that her cast break gender and ethnic tropes and was thinking in a non-traditional fashion; thus, the name choice was obvious and natural.
Ironically, the original cast and director Flemming had in mind were not able to do the actual dates of the production and rehearsals, so she brought in a new cast and asked Paulini to direct. “Everything shifted with a new cast and Ethan. The first presentation was at 353 Studios. We did one school performance at Calhoun. It was a success. We did three on a playground. All of a sudden, we had people in the industry coming – directors, composers, etc. They all wrote me these sweet emails [afterward]. I thought, ‘Maybe I need to push this further.’ I spoke to Ethan and asked if I should do a full season and he offered to help. We looked into a transitional contract with Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), and one of the reps at Equity said that was the right fit. A friend of mine wanted to do ‘Master Harold’ and the Boys. He suggested a tea shop for the show’s location, and I thought about using a tea shop for the whole season.”
Flemming had a contact at Alice’s Tea Cup in Manhattan who loved her ideas, so OOTB set up shop at the location that was then at East 81st Street. They served tea, scones, and wine during productions and open mics, and OOTB did its entire first year at Alice’s without being charged. Flemming knew what a huge blessing this was and believes OOTB wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for their support.
One of the most unique and powerful aspects of OOTB is that all the productions are site-specific – they are produced at locations across the city: libraries, playgrounds, churches, stores, etc. that fit the theme of the piece. For instance, Into the Woods, the musical produced in their season last year, was performed at three different locations in the Manhattan. Site-specific and immersive theatre have an appeal all their own. There is a level of intimacy and connection to material that flows between the audience and the actors. As Flemming avows, “You are part of the story and more invested because it’s right in front of you and is more exciting.”
Paulini is right there with her. He supports the “commitment to letting everyone have a place,” a commitment that he believes sets OOTB apart. He believes that a site-specific production “allows us to tell the stories almost from the inside out!”
Another focus of OOTB has been their series on new works called Building the Box. This series was developed and forged with the intention to provide discourse and presentation for new artists, writers, and actors. Flemming and Paulini envisioned that the series would be a special way to grow the company “with new and unique actors and authors and collaborators. If we like something in the Building the Box series, we can pick one for our mainstage. I believe in supporting actors who support us. We find people we want to connect with someway, even if it’s not in the main stage and is still growth,” Flemming states in earnest.
Paulini echoes her sentiments regarding his role with OOTB: “It has taught me even more why inclusivity is important and can’t just be about checking boxes. It has to open up to discussion and a need and willingness to make each artist feel heard and seen.”
Behind the scenes of PINK UNICORN, left to right: Playwright Elise Forier Edie, Alice Ripley, Liz Flemming, Amy Jones. Photo courtesy of Liz Flemming.
This year, OOTB is producing three mainstage productions: ThePink Unicorn, Dance Me, and Baby. Pink Unicorn, written by playwright Elise Forier Edie and directed by Amy Jones, recently opened to rave reviews and stars Tony award winner Alice Ripley. Choosing this play for the season was no hard feat for Flemming: “I wanted to do Pink Unicorn straight off the bat. I saw it [at Urban Stages produced by Off the Wall Theatre company], and I thought it was incredible. [I] wanted to shake things up with this topic with the transgender community and the conservative views.”
The piece, a one-woman show, is about a mother whose child has come out as genderqueer. The irony is that she is a devout Christian and conservative. (Full disclosure: the show is absolutely exquisite and life-affirming. You would be a fool to miss it.)
The LGBTQ community and its representation in the arts is a subject that Flemming feels quite strongly about, and she wanted to incorporate the representation of those who identify on this spectrum, particularly those who who do not identify within traditional gender roles, into the current season.
Getting Ripley to do the show turned out to be easier than one may think. Flemming knew that, being a one-woman show, Pink Unicorn would be a hard sell without a name. “I knew I wanted to use Alice Ripley – she’s on our advisory board and is a huge fan of OOTB. She got involved because a friend of mine sent her a [Facebook] message. We were trying to find someone with a name to kick off our season at Alice’s Tea Cup. She did it because she liked our mission. It was real luck. I always wanted to use her, but I hadn’t found anything that I thought would really shine for her.”
Flemming also wanted Ripley to participate in a story that the actress herself felt compelled to tell. She emailed her the script and got a text from Ripley about four hours later saying she loved it and wanted to do the piece.
Next on their season will be Dance Me, a play written by Linda Faigao-Hall and directed by Billy Bustamante that tells the story of a Filipino family and ballroom dancing. Fleming wanted to produce this piece “to bring awareness to the family dynamic and their heritage and the women in the community.” Another reason she was drawn to the piece is because the Filipino community isn’t represented enough in the arts. “We aren’t opening and expanding enough. The playwright is an incredible woman, and I loved what Billy did with the piece.” The play was part of their Building the Box series last year.
The final mainstage show will be Baby, the 1983 Broadway musical written by David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr. Paulini will direct. It centers around three different families at different stages of fertility. While it is considered a funshow, it also touches on fragile and serious topics that couples and families face. These are themes that never stop being relevant. The striking feature that connects all three of OOTB’s main productions is the focus on family, and what is at the core of humanity more than family?
Looking ahead, the goals are clear. Fleming wants her audience to feel and be impacted by what they witness and experience. She wants her audiences to grow and to be able to relate to the pieces produced in some way. “I don’t need to be a Broadway company, but I hope we find pieces that are worthy. I want to be a stepping stone for a piece that gets propelled forward. I want these stories to expand and grow. My biggest goal is impact.”
And so far, they are pushing boundaries with elegance, fearlessness, and success.
To order tickets for THE PINK UNICORN, currently running through June 2nd, and future productions, and to learn about other exciting events in the OOTB community, including open mics and benefits, please go to ootbtheatrics.com.
Suzanne Dressler is a professional actress, singer, and freelance writer based in NYC. She runs her own tutoring agency, Skyscraper Tutoring, LLC, speaks fluent Spanish, and is obsessed with the thesaurus. She is a graduate of Barnard College/Columbia University and lives on the Upper West Side with her two kittens, Hamlet and Cressida. Follow her on Instagram at @suzannerachel13.