John Clancy An Indie Theater Profile by Martin Denton

John Clancy is probably best known as one of the founders of the New York International Fringe Festival (with Elena K. Holy, Aaron Beall, and Jonathan Harris; until 2001, he was its artistic director). Theater-makers in their 20s and 30s regard him as one of indie theater's elder statesmen (though he's not yet 50), as co-founder and executive director of the League of Independent Theater, and as a teacher and advisor who has offered counsel and support to countless emerging companies and artists.

But John is also, first and foremost, an artist himself: a Renaissance man of theater, in fact. His directing credits include THE seminal indie show Americana Absurdum, Brian Parks's manic but clear-eyed comic view of life in America near the end of the millennium, as well as works by C.J. Hopkins such as Horse Country and screwmachine/eyecandy. Working with a corps of excellent actors that has included Nancy Walsh, David Calvitto, Paul Urcioli, Matt Oberg, and many others, John created a style of fast-fast-fast relentless and razor-sharp brutal satire that's as distinctive as it is piercingly effective.

The first John Clancy play I ever saw was Horse Country, at the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival. I caught a 10pm performance at the old Present Company Theatorium, after a full day of Fringe-going (it was my sixth show of the day). Though I was pretty tired, John's galvanizing production of Hopkins's sly, brilliant script woke me right up: John's work demands attention, the way that, say, Yul Brynner did as the King of Siam.

Horse Country made me a fan not only of the Clancy style but more importantly of his aesthetic: theater that doesn't so much jolt or shock the audience as slap them silly (and silly is very deliberately chosen in this context); theater that not only makes you think but may well prompt you to some overt and/or subversive action.

Perhaps no John Clancy work exemplifies this idea more than his solo show, Notice of Default and Opportunity to Cure, which he performed for a few weeks in March, 2000. The show was inspired by a legal document (whose title was the same as this play's) sent by the Present Company's landlord regarding some owed funds. John shaped his own reaction to this notice, and his deeper and larger thoughts about the nature of money and art and the uncomfortable ways the two are made to intersect in contemporary society, into an unforgettable show. Director Margarett Perry recently said on Facebook about this piece: "Still one of my favorite nights in the theatre! When he burned that $20 bill after going thru the finances I was beside myself"

Notice of Default showed me two aspects of John's talent I had not heretofore witnessed--his charismatic acting ability, and his incisive, insightful playwriting style. Since then, John has had significant success as a playwright with Fatboy, which reworks Jarry's Ubu the King as a grotesque latter-day Punch-and-Judy show, and with The Event, a solo piece that explores the very nature of performance itself, in a manner that might best be described as part postmodern deconstruction and part Our Town. He is also the author of an amazing and scary comedy called Captain Overlord's Folly, or The Fool's Revenge, in which a group of anarchic rogue clowns hijack a traditional theater performance, which was commissioned at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007 but has thus far not had an American production.

Most recently, John revived a triptych of his earliest plays, from 1991. I got this wonderful scene-setting email from Nancy Walsh, John's frequent collaborator, business partner, and wife: "Remember the old Piano Store back when it was an illegal speakeasy? Before there was a Present Company or a New York Fringe? Back when we were performing at midnight on the Lower East Side when the Lower East Side was the Lower East Side?"

The Piano Store Plays is comprised of "Anyone," a love story on stage; "Falling Out," in which a marriage ends on stage; and "Solo for Spoon and Birdcage," a meta-theatrical ballet of ineptitude with singing and loud noises. John writes, "These three plays were first performed on the Lower East Side in the early '90s, what was then the epicenter of the independent theater world. In a weird way, they are blueprints for all of the work we've done with Present Company and Clancy Productions ever since. Back then, Nancy was working Off-Broadway and doing some soap opera work. I was writing crazy shit that no one wanted to produce and auditioning for roles I didn't want in shows that sucked and getting a few callbacks but no gigs. Nancy recognized the larger implications and said, 'Let's do it ourselves. Let's just put up these shows. Why not?"

I'm excited that The Piano Store Plays--which are really wonderful in their own right, not dated at all; and also are important indie theater history--will join other John Clancy plays online at Indie Theater Now.

posted February 4, 2012