Simon Henriques and Skylar Fox are no strangers to the Concord catalog. They are previous winners of the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival with their shows Narrators (US/UK) and A Wake for David’s Fucked Up Face (US/UK), respectively.
The two creatives are the co-artistic directors of Nightdrive, a theatre company that makes rigorously irreverent and demandingly vulnerable plays that build thrillingly personal relationships with audiences. Their most recent play, The Grown-Ups (US/UK), did that by placing small audiences around a campfire in a Brooklyn backyard to sit next to a group of camp counselors. Over the course of one summer, the counselors talk about their struggles with the campers and the encroaching horrors from the world outside.
We reached out to Simon and Skylar to talk about the play, the original production in the summer of 2021, and their recent remounts outside of New York.
What was the genesis of the idea for The Grown-Ups?
SF: Back in the spring of 2021, everyone was getting vaccinated and it was starting to get warm. After a year of not getting to make any in-person theatre, it finally seemed like there might be a way to do it safely if we took the right precautions. Rule number one was that we’d just do it with the people who lived in our house. (We had four other roommates who are all actors.) And rule number two was that we’d do it outside, for a small audience. (We’re lucky enough to have a backyard in New York!) Once we had those constraints in mind, we started thinking of ways for them to feel more like opportunities instead. What cool things could we only do because we were doing a show outside for just a few people at a time? We ended up envisioning the cast and audience all sitting around a fire pit, drinking beer and roasting marshmallows together. It felt like the kind of gathering we hadn’t been able to have for forever. It felt nostalgic. And that nostalgia made room for danger and discomfort to enter a story in surprising ways. There was something elemental about it, too: isn’t this how theatre came to be? Sitting around a fire and telling a story?
Did either of you go to sleepaway camp as kids or as young adults?
SH: I was a camper at a camp like this (swimming in the lake, meals in the mess hall, archery, etc.) for a grand total of one week when I was ten. It was not for me. I cried a bunch, got sick, did not make any friends, and briefly got lost in the woods at night. I spent my subsequent summers doing theatre, which was much more my speed.
SF: The sleepaway camp I went to was a circus training camp in rural Vermont, so it certainly wasn’t a typical camp experience. But they tried to do some normal camp things once in a while to keep us from getting too weird. We found that the wide variety of camp experiences amongst the folks creating this show allowed us to create a new camp world that felt both familiar and strange to an audience encountering it for the first time.
So much of this play is about stories that are told and then ultimately retold. Could you speak to the power that story has as entertainment vs. information?
SH: Stories are how people make sense of the world and ourselves. They’re the frame through which we see everything. So by telling stories, we actually create the world around us. How can telling the same story from a different perspective reshape our world?
Nightdrive describes the process of building a show as “hyper-collaborative playmaking.” What did hyper-collaborative playmaking look like during the pandemic?
SF: We start making most of plays with the whole team in the room before we have a script. We just start with a big crazy idea, and then collectively develop a richly textured world and a theatrical language to help build that idea into a story.
SH: In this case, “the room” was our living room, and the team was everyone who lived in our house. Everyone was wearing multiple hats, acting and designing and producing and mowing the lawn. It was our usual process, but on a hyper-intimate scale necessitated by the pandemic.
What were some up-sides as well as some challenges during the original production of The Grown-Ups during the pandemic?
SF: The biggest upside was how special it felt to gather a group of strangers to tell a story, after so long away from theatre. We walked audience members through our home to share a beer around a fire, something that Covid made feel almost foreign. This was something we thought a lot about while making the show: how do we create an experience special enough that an audience’s decision to show up felt worth it, when gathering still felt so dangerous?
SH: The challenges were more or less what you’d expect doing a show outside in New York City. We did the show through the blazing heat of summer, the wet chill of late fall, and a couple raucous parties next door. A much more fun challenge was that once Time Out New York reviewed the show, we suddenly had a five hundred person waitlist for ten seats a night. We extended three times to share it with as many people as possible, but at a certain point it was just too cold to sit outside for ninety minutes.
You recently produced The Grown-Ups with Theater with a View in Pottstown, PA and Constellation Stage in Bloomington, IN. What was it like to take this show to different theatres and different spaces?
SF: Getting to bring our original production on tour was such a delightful surprise! We got to develop a version of the show that maintained its intimacy while opening it up to fifty people at a time, and revisit the material without the pressure of making something brand spanking new.
SH: The audiences in both places were really responsive. We talk about wanting to make experimental theatre for people who don’t necessarily identify as “theatre people,” but when you’re producing work in Brooklyn it can be hard to reach outside of that bubble. It was super heartening to see our work still resonate with people who don’t spend every moment of their lives thinking about theatre.
How do you imagine the play would work in an indoor, more traditional theatre space? What advice would you give to performance groups staging the play in that setting?
SH: We think the play could work really well in a traditional theatre space. The original production was
site-specific and that’s a big part of the show’s DNA, but at the same time, part of the fun of theatre is that you get to make special environments wherever you are to best tell the story you’re trying to tell.
SF: We’d encourage people excited about producing The Grown-Ups to think of little ways they can take an audience out of their usual theatrical environment, and gently move them somewhere both familiar and strange enough that they’re uniquely susceptible to stories.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this play if they see it?
SH: We say this about all our work, but we hope it makes people feel a little less small and a little less alone. This show in particular is about how scary it is to be tasked with changing the world that shaped who you are, and why it might be worth doing it anyway. We hope it empowers people to step into the unknown with a spirit of courage and generosity.
Header Image: 2021 Nightdrive production of The Grown-Ups (Julie Fox).