Less Than Rent is only two and a half years old. Its three co-artistic directors—James Presson, Rachel Buethe, and Charlie Polinger—are all in their very early 20s. But do not confuse all this youthfulness for inexperience; far from it! LTR already has five NYC productions behind them, and a brand new show, Desire! [A Varsouviana], slated to premiere at Under St. Marks in the East Village on November 29. Their very first production won two awards at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival and their terrific 2011 show Friends Don’t Let Friends was recently published on Indie Theater Now. These remarkable young artists are headed for great things, make no mistake about it. I advise you to catch up with them now, so that you can brag to your friends in ten years that you knew about them before the other 300 million people in America did.
James Presson, the company’s founder, is one of those rare individuals whose talent and energy radiate from him, drawing other talented people to him. I met him as he was preparing to launch LTR at FringeNYC two summers ago, with the punk rock musical Richard 3 that he co-created with actor Jake Ahlquist. The show was already getting some pre-festival buzz because its director/co-writer (James) was just 19 years old, a rising junior at Fordham University, and the entire cast was comprised of college students. On one action-packed August evening, I moderated a discussion at the (sadly gone!) Borders Books at Time Warner Center featuring several FringeNYC participants who had adapted classic works for the festival, and James was on that panel, holding his own with artists twice or three times his age. And then he and I shot off in a taxi down the West Side Highway to do a second appearance at the Brecht Forum: I was the Emcee of a preview of FringeNYC shows, and James and his LTR colleagues brought the house down with a raucous, rockin’ excerpt from Richard 3.
Along with everybody else in the room, I was impressed. I vowed to keep my eye on this young man, and I haven’t stopped watching.
James is from Fairfield County, Connecticut, and he didn’t have any particular interest in theater until his sophomore year in high school. The following year he and several classmates wrote and appeared in a play about Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans called Voices in Conflict—which became something of a cause celebre when the school’s principal canceled the production after objections to its content surfaced. There was a New York Times story (with James prominently featured in the lead photo), coverage on CNN, and eventually a production at the Vineyard Theatre. “I got to see what it was like to perform with people who care desperately,” he says. The 16-year-old learned about media and the theater from the inside-out—and found his calling.
Three years later, James—in love with the plays of William Shakespeare—submitted an application to the New York International Fringe Festival for Richard 3. To make it look impressive, he made up a company name (which stuck; it was derived from the fact that the show’s minuscule production budget was smaller than his monthly rent) and included a full cast list with 20 names on it. When R3 got accepted—“the best day of my life,” James says—he realized that he had to now tell those 20 actors about the show and actually form a company. Colleagues Rachel Buethe (another Fordham student) and Charlie Polinger (who will graduate from Yale next spring) signed on as co-artistic directors. Most of the 20 actors agreed to appear in the show. Jake Ahlquist, who played Richard, won an acting award from FringeNYC and James won a directing award.
And so, LTR took hold. The company’s aesthetic is rooted in the notion of the mashup, taking classic work from the canon and finding a way to retell it in a way that’s engaging and compelling in this first decade of the 21st century. Richard 3 is mostly Shakespeare, remixed. Their next show, Little Town Blues (co-written with Buethe) translates Chekhov’s Three Sisters to an Iowa girls’ boarding school and the military school across the way. Friends Don’t Let Friends (which premiered at Walkerspace in December 2011) morphs Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler into the tale of a young sitcom star who feels trapped in work that doesn’t feel artistically fulfilling to her. And the current Desire! [A Varsouviana] blends A Streetcar Named Desire with Tennessee Williams’ own notebooks and journals to explore what James calls the “masochistic autobiographical nature” of the play.
“Less Than Rent addresses the way in which people read classics,” James explains. With Desire!, the company is juxtaposing a great American play--all the famous lines are sampled—with Williams’ own internal struggle over whether to lobotomize his sister Rose. “Our play is Williams’ fever dream about this situation,” he says. James takes the role of the playwright, with Buethe as Blanche and Patrick Fleury as Stanley. The three are co-authors of the piece, and Jenna Grossano, who played a key role in Friends Don’t Let Friends, directs. The show kicks off a three-play season at Under St. Marks, where LTR is a resident company with Horse Trade Theater Group; coming up in April is Words, Razors, and the Wounded Heart, a Jacobean tragedy written by James, set in present-day Connecticut.
What I’ve learned, as I’ve tracked the progress of James Presson and his extraordinary young company, is to expect invention, passion, and authentic theater know-how from these artists. It’s not just wisdom that comes from the mouths of babes, but also—in this case—a level of professionalism that belies their youth. I’m already a lifelong fan of LTR and if you care about the future of American theater, you need to become one too.Published on November 25, 2012