The New and Old of It: Interview with BCKSEET’s Gregory DeCandia

BCKSEET Productions has staged more than thirty plays in their eleven-year history, about half of those in Philadelphia, the city the company has called home since 2005. BCKSEET’s current production, Losing the Shore, is the company’s first commissioned work. The play runs from March 16 to April 2  at UpStairs @ The Adrienne (2030 Sansom Street). Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority talked to Gregory DeCandia, BCKSEET’s producing artistic director, about the group’s history, this new work, and his thoughts on the Philly theatre scene.

Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority: First, what’s the story behind your name and its unusual spelling: BCKSEET?

Gregory DeCandia: Since our inception in 2000 our logo has been a novelty license plate with the spelling BCKSEET. Dave Cutter designed this logo to signify that you can’t always get what you want, even the spelling of you novelty plate, but you must venture on and sacrifice for your art. Recently, to help with branding (and to correct misspellings) I have used the following as an explanation: We want you to come BCKto-SEETheatre. But, the actual reasoning of the name is an ode to all those who continue to pursue their passion while working a day job, remaining true to the dreams we keep in the backseat.

PPAABCKSEET was started in Boston in 2000 and moved around a bit, including to Guatemala, before settling in Philadelphia in 2005. Talk a little about this journey.

GD: We started at Emerson College in Boston and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Brooklyn, to Guatemala, and back to Portsmouth before heading to Philly for the last six seasons. We went to Guatemala because BCKSEET was commissioned to develop a pilot theatre program for Colegio Interamericano [a progressive pre-K through high school, er, school]. During this 18-month commission BCKSEET additionally produced David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, William Shakespeare’s Othello, and James McClure’s PVT. Wars, and presented a student production of The Breakfast Club to raise funds for BCKSEET’s first arts scholarship.

PPAAWhat attracted you to Philly as a theater city?

GD: Philly was chosen over Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Seattle, and Atlanta due to its accessibility, diversity, and budding theatre community. The Philadelphia theatre scene was just big enough to garner national attention and small enough to obtain local recognition. When BCKSEET arrived in 2005 there were nearly 80 participating companies with Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia; that has since ballooned to over 120. This expansion shows a supportive community. However, those companies vie for the same audience and grant funding—both of which have become extremely elusive in the current economy.

PPAABCKSEET stands out to me for its willingness to stage challenging work, both new and old. [I’ve seen BCKSEET productions of Patrick Marber’s Closer, Manuel Puig’sKiss of the Spider Woman, Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.] Even your Christmas shows [Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues] handled intense issues. Those are all emotionally draining and challenging works and require faith in the local audience. What attracts you to this type of show?

GD: We firmly believe in art as a means of social change, therefore we choose works that address social issues. With each production we partner with a fellow non-profit to help raise funds and awareness for the social work they provide. For example for Angels In America we partnered with Action AIDS and for Losing the Shore we have partnered up with CHOP’s Diabetes Center for Children, reflecting one of the character’s affliction of juvenile diabetes. $1 from all full price admissions is donated directly to the Diabetes Center and a special talkBCK (again using our unique spelling) with the cast and playwright follows the March 31 performance to help promote the work of the DCC and the process of this newly commissioned play.

PPAAYou were the resident company in the Red Room at the Society Hill Playhousefor five years. Your choice of plays contrasts starkly with those on Society Hill’s main stage. You obviously think there is room in Philadelphia for both types of work?

GD: Absolutely. The productions on the main stage I have termed “Sitcom Theatre”—pure entertainment for entertainment sake. There is certainly an audience that just wants to unplug and laugh, let’s face it. Two and a Half Men (not high art) was a #1 sitcom, andMenopause the Musical ran for four years to sold-out audiences, proving just that. Theatres like the Playhouse need mainstream shows to keep their doors open year round—not an easy thing in this business. That being said there is a yin and yang to everything, and BCKSEET would be the yin to the Playhouse’s yang in the sense that our productions challenge our patrons to think, and to be moved to tears or even to action. These audiences may not be as large, but they are certainly more supportive and have a higher appreciation of the craft. Many of the patrons venturing to a main stage production at the Playhouse have never been to a play before, whereas those who seek out socially conscious works are lifelong supporters of the arts and see a lot of theatre throughout the city.

PPAAYour residency came to an end last summer and you’ve since hosted events in venues across Philadelphia. What are some benefits and challenges of this new freedom?

GD: Being in the Red Room for five years and over 20 productions, we knew the space inside and out. We were intimately aware of the strengths and limitations of the space and that was an asset but also had drawbacks. Our residency allowed us to provide as much programming as many of the larger theatres in town, producing four productions and three benefits annually. But while producing in the Red Room we fit the show to the space, now we are able to find the space that fits the show. For example with our Sunday Concert Series this fall we toured actual concert venues on South Street. Currently Losing the Shore is loaded in and built Upstairs @ The Adrienne. That being said now at each location we must discover the little details and limitations of the venue, which can be both challenging and disappointing.

PPAAWhat are your thoughts on the available spaces for small theater production in the city?

GD: There are not many, and the few that exist are not well kept, due to the variety of different artists of varying levels of experience renting the space. Constant load-ins and outs, set construction, and the occasional rowdy audience leads to equipment abuse and dust . . . you would be amazed at the amount of dust—an arch nemesis of performers—a venue can acquire. Also many spaces lack the versatility of a real black box theater, where you can make the world of the play anywhere in the room. Upstairs @ The Adrienne is the closest to that ideal in the city today.

PPAABCKSEET has produced a couple original works by company members, including your excellent musical Hung on a Blonde Ponytail, but Losing the Shore is the company’s first commissioned work. How did that come about?

GD: The two musicals were written by company members and therefore not officially commissioned; we just wrote them. In the case of Losing the Shore we asked Catherine Rush to create a piece using some of the cast for our production of Angels in America last season (she was in the cast as well). In addition we asked Andrew Borthwick-Leslie to return and helm this show as he did with Angels, with the thought of trying to replicate the strong elements of that production in a new work. So the cast members used are Kate Brennan, Michael Byrneand Catherine Palfenier, and each has roles written just for them.

PPAAWhy do you think there are so few companies commissioning new works in the city?

GD: Commercial viability. As people become more and more frugal they become very selective of how they spend their money and what they spend it on. They seek name recognition; they want to be sure they will like what they see. Broadway is the perfect example of this and the main cause as well. Desperate for the name recognition that will bring the people in, they continuously present shows that are revivals or remakes of movies and have a cast of movie stars. I believe this formula is severely flawed and could lead to the demise of theatre. It trains an audience to see what they know and not be willing to venture into a theatre for an unknown play by an unknown playwright, with a cast of actors they have never seen. In my experience it has been these “unknown” productions that have had a longer lasting effect on me than the numerous productions ofRENT and Les Mis I have seen. My advice: broaden your heart and your mind with a new work of art in any form!

PPAAWhat appeals to you about Losing the Shore? What resonance do you think the period in which the play is set (mid-1950s) and its central character, Adlai Stevenson, have today?

GD: The importance of new works is to have the ability to reflect on events of the past through a modern lens. This piece focuses on the beginning of the beat generation, life after the bomb, the youth beginning to find its voice, and an eloquent politician from Illinois calling for change on the presidential campaign trail. Sound familiar? Like any well crafted play, the issues that this cast of affluent characters face are timeless: mortality, abortions, sickness, infidelity, divorce, despair. The work allows the audience to contemplate the change (or lack thereof) in social attitudes and dynamics from the 1950s to today.

PPAAWhat can we expect from you and from BCKSEET in the future?

GD: We are abandoning the typical season structure and adopting a “cycle of Classic, Contemporary, and Cutting Edge works of Art”—to quote our mission statement—to be preformed over the next three years. We are looking to expand both our education and outreach programs, which now includes an 8-week youth improvisation workshop with the Free Libraries of Philadelphia. March 15 concludes our lease at 535 South Street, which has served as the BCKSEET Creative CO-OP since July, serving as a gallery, rehearsal hall, and discount box office, and we are actively looking for a new space to continue this type of project in the South Street/Headhouse District.

PPAAThanks Greg, good luck with Losing the Shore.

GD: Cheers.

Losing the Shore by Catherine Rush, directed by Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, featuring Kate Brennan, Michael Byrne, Nathan Edmondson, Catherine Palfenier, and Megan Slater. A BCKSEET Productions ( production.
March 16 to April 2 (opening night is March 18) / $10–$21 / Online Tickets Here
UpStairs @ The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority.


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