16 years ago this week I moved to New York City. I met Jennifer Conley Darling at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. We had one of our first classes together – theatre history, the only “academic” class taught at the conservatory to lend legitimacy from New York State as an accredited school. Jen and I knew each other, but we didn’t really hang out. It wasn’t until the end of our second year at The Academy, when we were in a production of Feiffer’s People, that Jen and I bonded.
A little over a year later, post AADA, several of our fellow alums, including Jen and myself, banded together as thousands of other pie-eyed conservatory graduates do to create a new theatre company. We wanted to cultivate new work and change the face of American theatre. It was from that actors’ group terraNOVA Collective was born. terraNOVA produced new plays, discovered the business of show, and lost and gained many members along the way. The one constant was Jennifer. When Ray Yates, the original artistic director moved back to Dublin, Ireland, Jen took the company’s reigns, though she’d never held a position like this before, and steered several plays to production, including one tour.
After a few years of “down time.” I approached Jen about writing a play for her, she laughed, but I did it. We tried to get backers to support the play, but when it couldn’t find financial legs, it was Jen’s idea to use terraNOVA as a fundraising organization to produce the play. That’s just what we did, and in October 2003, terraNOVA Collective produced my play Baby Steps at The Lion in Theatre Row. The success of the play re-energized the company, and I came back on board as the associate director (I’d left years earlier to pursue other opportunities), eventually helping to create its main programs: soloNOVA Arts Festival, Groundbreakers and Subterranean.
All along the way, Jennifer has been a rock and center of this company. Last night, terraNOVA Collective, which is currently in residence in Union Square at the DR2 Theatre and D-Lounge, launched its 7th consecutive season of programming (and its 13th year in existence) with Subterranean, our monthly performance party. This past season found us nominated for 17 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, which was both exciting and humbling. There’s been many bumpy roads along the way, too. Fundraising continues to be our biggest struggle, and making it through this upcoming season seems daunting during this current climate. Still, I have faith. We’ve overcome struggles in the past, and I know we’ll meet whatever obstacles are ahead with strength, creativity and perseverance.
There’s a common bit of wisdom imparted to many a young actors starting off in this business: “If you can do anything else…anything…do it.” It supposedly speaks to the brutality this business of show brings to pie-eyed actors with dreams of fame and fortune. I’d suggest the only thing with more odds against it is starting and successfully running one’s own theatre company with any sort of longevity. Jennifer Conley Darling does that with grace under pressure and intense resilience. She idealistically continues to believe in making a mark on the face of the American theatre, and humbly, I believe we’ve made a tiny imprint thus far. The artists who’s careers launched to success and sustainability from terraNOVA programs is due to Jen’s commitment of nourishing live theatre in a time at which most people would rather veg-out on couches or play on computers.
It seems like a long time ago we blew off theater history class, goofing on the unqualified substitute teacher who rambled on about Uri Geller bending spoons and keys – anything besides the history of theatre. We’ve accomplished much together since then. I look forward to the stretch ahead.
We’ve come a long way, Baby.