VINEYARD THEATRE: Out of Obscurity and Unpredictability, a Steady Diet of Hits
THE VINEYARD THEATER may be the least well-known successful theater company in New York. And the artistic director, Douglas Aibel, is such a nice guy that he doesn't take offense when that's pointed out to him. In fact, he agrees. ''We ask ourselves why every day,'' he admitted.

One possible answer, he suspects, is the eclectic programming the Vineyard presents at its 125-seat theater on East 15th Street in Manhattan. The 16-year-old nonprofit company has mounted musicals that range from the biographical drama about the jazz legend Billie Holiday (''Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill'') to the arty chamber works of Polly Pen (''Goblin Market,'' ''Bed and Sofa'') to a revival of Kander and Ebb's 1965 Broadway song-and-dance show ''Flora, the Red Menace.'' Among dramatic offerings, it has produced a pair of savage comedies by Nicky Silver, ''Pterodactyls'' and ''Raised in Captivity.'' Yet its current hit, Paula Vogel's ''How I Learned to Drive,'' is a delicate memory play about the relationship between a pedophile and his niece.

Perhaps this artistic smorgasbord, Mr. Aibel said recently, makes it difficult for the Vineyard to achieve brand-name recognition.

''Or it may just come down to the fact that I'm very shy,'' he confessed somewhat sheepishly. ''I'm famous at this theater for hiding behind a pillar when anyone with any importance in the world comes down.''

It's true that when Mr. Aibel ducks around his partition to greet visitors, it's hard to be sure whether he is the artistic director or an assistant sent to lead the way. As it happens, Mr. Aibel doesn't have an assistant. The Vineyard's full-time staff numbers five people. The tall, curly-haired 39-year-old sitting in his cubicle sipping iced coffee is not only the artistic director but also the literary manager, the casting director and, apparently, the janitor. When several actors rehearsing in the theater needed someone to turn on the work lights, Mr. Aibel excused himself to handle the task.

Compared with major New York nonprofit institutions like Lincoln Center Theater, the Roundabout and Manhattan Theater Club, the Vineyard may be small potatoes. The company produces three full productions and two workshops each season on a modest annual budget of $650,000 for a mere 1,470 subscribers. The Vineyard's low profile is deceptive, however. It has the longevity and track record of a theater three times its size. Hardly a season goes by without the company's producing a popular or critical success.

''I put the Vineyard in a category with New York Theater Workshop,'' said Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. ''They both took about 10 years to hit their stride. Now that the Vineyard's work is beginning to be known, they have retained the flexibility and family atmosphere of a smaller theater, yet they're widely admired and respected by everybody. It's a very enviable position to be in.''

For all Mr. Aibel's shyness, he can shed it when he needs to. Case in point: Edward Albee's ''Three Tall Women.'' When Mr. Aibel, a self-declared ''passionate'' Albee fan, heard a few years ago that the play was receiving its American premiere at a small summer theater in Woodstock, he asked the writer's agent, the late Esther Sherman, if he could read the script. ''She didn't want to send it to me,'' he remembered. ''I was very persistent. I called her almost every day for three weeks.''

Finally, he succeeded in getting the rights to the play. The Vineyard hired the same actors (including Myra Carter and Marian Seldes) and director (Lawrence Sacharow) who had done it in Woodstock. ''I think the Vineyard was able to contribute in some way to a good production getting better,'' Mr. Aibel said. ''Three Tall Women'' became the biggest hit in the Vineyard's history, moving to a long commercial run at the Promenade Theater and in 1994 earning Mr. Albee his third Pulitzer Prize.

''One of the great things about Doug is that he's not afraid to show his love and enthusiasm,'' said Ms. Vogel. She experienced his passion when she sent him a first draft of ''How I Learned to Drive.'' He called to offer her a production, before hearing the play aloud and without requiring the months of rewrites and workshops that writers typically refer to as ''development hell.''

The Vineyard's 1997-98 season opens in October with the New York premiere of ''The Batting Cage,'' a comedy by Joan Ackermann, a Massachusetts playwright, starring Veanne Cox about two sisters on a journey to scatter the ashes of a third. That production, to be directed by Lisa Peterson, will be followed by a new Nicky Silver play, ''The Maiden's Prayer,'' which Mr. Aibel thinks will surprise a lot of people: ''It's not a farce. It has a comic voice but it's a determinedly serious play about two women.''

LATER IN THE SEASON, the theater plans to present the world premiere of a Tina Landau and Ricky Gordon musical, ''Dream True (My Life With Vernon Dexter),'' which follows two men and their friendship from Wyoming to New York over several decades.

The Vineyard's penchant for producing quirky material on a shoestring goes back to its beginnings. The company was founded in 1981 by Barbara Zinn Krieger, a former teacher and cabaret singer, in a minuscule 71-seat theater inside the Phipps Plaza houses on East 26th Street. Ms. Krieger originally envisioned a multi-arts center serving the surrounding Kips Bay neighborhood with not only plays and musicals but also opera, chamber music, jazz and art exhibits. When the theater productions started creating a stir, she realized, she said, ''if the theater was going to grow, there needed to be an inside man and an outside man.'' She handed over the artistic directorship to Mr. Aibel, then a freelance director not long out of Vassar College who had been working as a volunteer. He handled the day-to-day responsibilities of putting on the shows, while Ms. Krieger took charge of

long-range planning.

Five years off the starting block, the Vineyard found itself with two hit musicals running Off Broadway, ''Lady Day'' and ''Goblin Market.'' The company began to feel they were outgrowing their nest and needed a new home. Ms. Krieger, the daughter of a prominent real estate developer, spent two years mustering the community support it took to convince the developer William Zeckendorf to donate a raw space in the basement of what used to be the S. Klein department store in Union Square. Mr. Zeckendorf and his partners got a $750,000 tax write-off and the Vineyard got free space (though it pays maintenance fees).

As executive director, Ms. Krieger led another two-year campaign to raise $2.8 million to build the Gertrude and Irving Dimson Theater (named after her parents), which opened in May 1989. The 10,000-square-foot theater, which can be reconfigured for a proscenium or thrust stage, features risers donated by the Fox television network and seating discarded by the Minskoff Theater when it was redecorated to house ''Sunset Boulevard.''

After a few years of settling into the new space, Mr. Aibel started to worry. ''About 1992, I began to feel we were losing our way,'' he said. ''We were trying so hard to fill this huge room and fulfill everybody's expectations, and something was getting lost in the work.''

Mr. Aibel said he had stretched the company's resources to the limit to produce a revival of Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein's 1959 musical based on Sean O'Casey's ''Juno and the Paycock,'' which audiences loved and the critics panned. In addition, his best friend, Stephen Milbank, who had been the musical director on several Vineyard shows, died of AIDS that year. ''I was at the point of thinking, 'Ugh, I just want to give up,' '' the director said.

He dealt with his despair by making a list of projects he considered ''sort of crazy, that people had brought to me that I normally would have been afraid to undertake.'' One was Mr. Silver's ''Pterodactyls,'' a dark, absurdist comedy about a young man with AIDS who returns to his dysfunctional Philadelphia family. Another was ''Christina Alberta's Father,'' an ambitious musical with book, lyrics and score by Ms. Pen. Adapted from an obscure H. G. Wells novel, it followed the fantastical odyssey of a laundry man in a small English town who, convinced that he is the reincarnation of an ancient Sumerian king, moves to London, trying to attract followers and save the world.

Mr. Aibel said he had told Ms. Krieger and the theater's managing director, Jon Nakagawa: ''What I really want to do is shut down for a year and do lab productions of these projects. I don't want to have to face the press or answer to anybody else's expectations.'' With their blessing, he mounted workshop productions of the shows. Then, to the bewilderment of some subscribers, he turned around and presented full productions of the same shows the next season. The warm reviews and awards that followed were nice but not the point. More important, Mr. Aibel said, ''I felt rejuvenated; the juices were flowing.''

In retrospect, he added, the crisis of confidence in 1992 enabled him to avoid making the mistake he had watched other nonprofit theaters make: expanding staff, subscription base and annual budget until they became trapped trying to please everybody. The key to the Vineyard's survival, Mr. Aibel said, was staying small enough to take chances on projects he believed in.

The composer Ms. Pen said: ''I don't usually go around quoting Roseanne Barr. But she once said the reason she's a star is that she cares the most. That's the way Doug is. He cares the most.''

With the director Andre Ernotte, Ms. Pen has created a total of four shows at the Vineyard. ''Bed and Sofa,'' the most recent, is a three-character musical based on a 1926 Russian silent film.

''The process has been very different with each show,'' said Ms. Pen. ''Doug said almost nothing to me about 'Goblin Market.' With 'Christina Alberta's Father,' it was almost terrifying how perceptive his notes were. He helped shape the work in ways producers never do anymore.''

IT IS NO ACCIDENT THAT artists feel a kindred spirit in Mr. Aibel. He grew up ''a theater-obsessed kid'' in Roslyn on Long Island. His father took him to Broadway musicals as a child, starting with ''110 in the Shade'' when he was 5. ''I remember every minute of it,'' he said. ''I remember the fake Mylar rain coming down at the end and the leading lady, Inge Swenson, being very tall.''

At Vassar, he studied directing and design. He learned his way around the professional theater by working as an intern at the Circle Repertory Company, Playwrights Horizons and Circle in the Square. A job in the development office at Manhattan Theater Club led to his meeting Ms. Krieger and joining forces with her. While running the Vineyard Theater, Mr. Aibel has also developed a busy second career as a casting director on such films as ''Five Corners,'' ''Dead Man Walking'' and ''Little Odessa.''

He probably could not produce the kind of unpredictable work the Vineyard does if he didn't have his own streak of eccentricity. ''I have this one habit that's sort of unusual,'' Mr. Aibel admitted. ''There's a particular technical rehearsal on every show where the actors are excused, and the lighting designer sits there with the director for hours on end designing every little light cue. Usually you have an intern or an assistant stage manager who acts as a stand-in for the actors. I always volunteer for that, and I'll spend 10 hours onstage standing in the light.''

Unquestionably a weird thing for the boss at any theater to do, and designers have yelled at him for being such a nut. Still, he said: ''It's an interesting, quiet time for me. You're there, observing the props, seeing the rake of the stage, seeing the chairs in the theater. It sensitizes you to the work that lies ahead. No critic and no member of the audience has a clue how hard it is to do what the actors do up there. By literally standing in the actors' shoes, I really get a feeling for what they're going through.''

New York Times, September 7, 1997

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