The fascinating thing about Broom Street Theater is that you never know what you're going to get. The frustrating thing about Broom Street Theater is that you never know what you're going to get.
"We have produced major duds," said Callen Harty, artistic director of the east side theater company. "And I think most of the writers here would agree with that. But you also get major gems, unexpected delights."
Broom Street turned 40 this spring. The experimental, close-knit company is part of the landscape of the Williamson neighborhood, a legend, an institution, and a source of community pride. Plays in the works for this upcoming season include Harty's "McBeth," which moves Shakespeare's drama to a corporate boardroom, and "Multiple O: The Second Coming," the sequel to John Sable's sexually explicit 2008 play about a couple pursuing an "open" arrangement.
Now in its middle age, the group hues to a deliberately improvisatory artistic process while continually opening itself to new talent, acting as an artistic incubator for new performers.
Broom Street was founded by Stuart Gordon, a now-famous film producer/director ("Re-Animator," "Stuck") who left after one show to found Organic Theater in Chicago. For most of its 40 years, Broom Street shared an identity with its artistic director, the irascible, larger-than-life Joel Gersmann.
Gersmann came in to direct the second show, and from then on Broom Street was "Joel's theater," Harty said. It was "his stamp, his imprint, run the way he wanted it."
Gersmann's reputation for creating controversy earned him a national profile. When he died unexpectedly in 2005, his obituary in The New York Times noted that he attacked topics like "the AIDS crisis, McCarthyism, pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church and the student murders in Columbine, Colo."
"He produced over 100 plays, wrote at least 100," Harty said. "Virtually every one of them was written during the rehearsal process. He started out with concept only. He cast, and then he created the play around who he had cast."
Many Broom Street playwrights still use this method. It's a challenging one for several reasons - sometimes, an actor's audition is misleading about his or her ability, for better or for worse. Playwrights might not get the cast they need for the show in their head, and sometimes, concepts just don't work.
Authors lean on the actors to help create characters not yet written, which sometimes devolve into stereotypes as a result.
But while very few plays have a life beyond Broom Street, nearly every production is a world premiere. Each character is a new creation, never seen on stage before. That can be attractive to performers.
Brian Wild is the author of the upcoming "Tales from the Dork Side" (a sequel to his successful 2007 "Dork Side of the Moon"), a "Scooby-Doo"-like haunted mansion story with a sci-fi twist. He completed a final draft of "Tales" well into rehearsal, just two weeks before the show is set to open.
Wild remembers one colleague at another theater commenting that she wished "everyone could be Broom Street Theater-trained."
"For whatever reason, Broom Street gets people to get over their inhibitions and let it go," Wild said. Actors "become bigger, bold with the characters. It allows them to be big."
Is it harder to convince actors to perform in a play that exists only in an author's mind? Definitely, Wild said. But those who've done it, love it, and they keep coming back.
Actors have a lot of time to dig in, too. While most shows at the Bartell Theatre run for two or three weekends, Broom Street shows play for six solid weeks, sometimes to miniscule audiences.
"By the end of the run, I have a deeper feeling for the character than I did at the beginning," actor Matt Kenyon said.
Since Gersmann's passing, the company has begun doing more dramatic works, like Sol Kelley-Jones' politically charged "the birds that are your hands" and Wild's "Run, Faggot, Run," about a closeted gay man who runs for president.
"We tend to have a reputation of being the black sheep of the family," Kenyon said. "There's a long-standing reputation of Broom Street being the partiers, the druggies ... and really most of that died in the '70s."
Many local companies have their roots in the tiny black box on Willy Street, from Mercury Players Theatre and TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater to the improv-based Monkey Business Institute and Proud Theater, a company for LGBT and questioning teens.
While Broom Street has been a jumping-off point for theater artists, others continue to call it home, season after season. It's camaraderie that keeps them coming back.
The draw is "the family, the feeling of working toward a common goal," Kenyon said. "They're my family. I took the summer off, but before that I was here for 20 months, doing play after play after play."
IF YOU GO
Broom Street Theater presents "Tales from the Dork Side," written and directed by Brian Wild, Sept. 25-Nov. 1 at 1119 Williamson St. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $9 for evening shows and $6 for the Sunday matinee. Season samplers (pick 4 or 7 shows) and other ticket combinations offer reduced rates.
For more information, visit broomstreet.org or call 244-8338.