Crystal Skillman An Indie Theater Profile by Daniel Talbott

I met Crystal about eight or nine years ago in the lobby of MCC Theater’s old space on West 28th Street and remember loving her glasses, her crazy hat, a button she had on, and a short play of hers that I had read from MCC’s Literary Manager Stephen Willems called Tooth. Crystal was a member of the Playwrights Coalition and Stephen thought we’d dig working together and knew I was looking for some short plays to direct at manhattantheatresource with my wife Addie. He said Crystal is fantastic, deeply in love with the theatre, is completely her own writer, and that I’d get her and love her. He couldn’t have been more right. Cut to January 2011—we’ve gotten to work together on countless shows, she’s a longtime member of Rising Phoenix Rep, and one of my closest friends. We’ve been published together, trudged through blizzards together, and celebrated a bunch of Halloweens and Harry Potter nights in Brooklyn together. I’ve tried to teach her to play tennis in Converse and cutoff denim shorts in the middle of summer (terrifying!), we’ve shopped together for her first award show dress (and a few others after), gone antique shopping on Atlantic Avenue together, and I’ve forced her to buy her first Marc Jacobs bag. We’ve pushed each other, fought with each other, cried and laughed together and stood by each other, and most importantly I’ve gotten to watch her grow and grow and grow as a stunning playwright.

I think Crystal’s one of the most unique, creative, and hard-working writers out there. Her collaborative spirit and work ethic are astounding, and she’s one of the most supportive and open people I’ve ever been in a room with. Her talent is honest, personal, and genuine, and this girl LOVES the theatre. She’s a playwright because she has to be and her spirit, quirkiness, and joy are infectious. I’ve never seen her give up, even when she’s had her heart broken by some rejection or personal slight, and she’s not only one of my favorite human beings on earth but also a truly exceptional theatre artist who’s always looking to go deeper, challenge herself, and collaborate to the extreme.

Her plays run the gamut from form-breaking, adventurous, experimental comedy and drama (Hack! an I.T. Spaghetti Western and 4 Edges) to linear, wonderfully quirky plays (Birthday and The Sleeping World) and everything else in between (The Vigil or the Guided Cradle, for which she just won the New York Innovative Theater Award for outstanding full length play). She loves comedy, cartoons, horror flicks, comic books (her husband is the genius comic book writer Fred Van Lente) and especially musical theatre. After getting to work together on her wonderful short play Tooth, the first plays we got the chance to do were The Telling Trilogy plays. Our artistic associate Denis Butkus had seen an ad on Playbill looking for resident theatre companies to create work for a tight, intimate back room filled with character, ghosts, and opportunity at a new restaurant in the East Village called Jimmy’s No. 43. After Denis and I got to go check out the space and had been asked to do some work there, Crystal was the first playwright to jump into our heads. I called her and asked if she wanted to take a walk around our neighborhood that night and grab some coffee or something. She was free and we met on Smith Street and started walking towards Court. It was a windy early fall night and I asked if she wanted to write a ghost play for the new space and that it could be about anything and have anything happen in it, as long as it was absolutely inspired by Jimmy’s and that the space was almost one of the characters in the play. She loved it and we talked about ghosts, the occult, dark magic, and a bunch of other things in between. A few days later we went to Jimmy’s together and Crystal, armed with a notebook and pencil, walked down the steps into the bar and began exploring and writing things down like crazy. Out of the rotting floor boards, deer antlers, beer kegs, the smell of cat piss, and the wonderful murkiness came almost three years of work together and three challenging, ambiguous, and beautiful new plays.

Crystal believes in the theatre, the theater community (especially the indie theater community), and supporting her fellow artists. If you’ve ever been jogging around Facebook during the day or in the middle of the night, chances are you’ve seen a shout-out she’s given to someone or their project or play. She believes that being in the theater isn’t about tearing people down but supporting one another and building each other up, in other words she gets that we have to be each other’s advocates first and foremost regardless of different styles, tastes, and ideas. I was bemoaning to a friend the other day the fact of how much tearing down and shit-talking and jealousy can happen in the theater, and we both immediately brought up Crystal as someone who, like most, has struggled hard for her place in the theater but I really can’t recall almost any time in the last nine years that I’ve heard her tear someone down or speak badly or unsympathetically about a fellow artist. She has opinions, like we all do, but she also understands that her opinion means about as much as the next person’s and that they all have a place inside the infinite space that theater is and should be.

I’m so proud to know her and to be able to call her a colleague and one of my best friends, and I hope we get to work together until we’re old, insanely flatulent, and gray. I want to have our teeth fall out together in rehearsal years from now and laugh, toothless, gums to the wind and smiling in some crazy-ass place somewhere deep underground in the East Village or Brooklyn or something. Some of my favorite times in life have been spent with her, Julie Kline, Denis Butkus, Sam Soule, Addie, and many other of the RPR regulars in the back room at Jimmy’s, burning up in the summer, listening to a rainstorm out the back door in fall or spring, or huddled around a space heater watching our breath fall out with her words in the winter. I’m so thankful for her belief in the theater and art and for the complicated, colorful, warp-speedy, imaginative, sassy, and extraordinary heart that makes up Crystal and her plays.

posted January 7, 2011