“Burning” for the New Group
Provocative playwright Thomas Bradshaw makes his Off-Broadway debut
Thomas Bradshaw’s plays always get a reaction. He doesn’t shy away from taboo subjects like incest, rape, racism, pedophilia, and prostitution, and the downtown theatre community has embraced him as a rebel hero. But even though his work is frequently produced off-Off-Broadway, it has never graduated to an Off Broadway venue. Until now.
Scott Elliott—the founding artistic director of the New Group—sees emotion and heart under the provocative surface of Bradshaw’s writing, and that’s partly why the company is presenting his new play Burning.
“I always made a promise with myself personally that when the New Group got in a place where I could really take the risks that I wanted, then I would bring voices that I was fond of—that were maybe more on the fringe—to a larger audience,” Elliott says.
Meanwhile, Bradshaw assumed that if an Off-Broadway company ever did come calling, it would be New Group. He calls Elliott a “bold and unafraid” artistic director, and that’s not a compliment he gives lightly: He has turned down major productions because theatre companies wanted to soften his material. “As a playwright, I have to feel comfortable with what my name is being attached to,” he says. “I have to be able to stand by that and say, ‘Yes, that’s my work, that’s what I wrote, and I’m proud of it.’ If I can’t do that, I’ll say no to a production even if it is at a major institution.”
Burning is an epic play, with three intersecting stories in two eras: the 1980s and the modern day. A 14-year-old boy whose mother has died of a drug overdose moves to New York to become an actor, and he ends up living with a gay couple in the industry. A brother and sister in Germany are also dealing with the death of their parents after a car accident that leaves the sister in a wheelchair. A black artist is on his way to Berlin for a gallery show, and his cousin has also lost his mother to a drug overdose. All these stories are punctuated by graphic sex scenes, like when the 14-year-old walks in on his new “parents” having sex and they ask if he wants to join.
But for all the shock value, Bradshaw and Elliott both see small, family stories in the material. “The New Group does a lot of family plays,” Elliott says. “We try and reveal just what we feel is going on in the world through family stories, and this is about three very, very modern families.”
Bradshaw and Elliott have been refining the play since a summer workshop. “I really feel like Scott and I discovered the play together,” Bradshaw says. “It’s hard to know exactly what a play is until it’s really up on its feet, until you have actors in a room saying the lines out loud. Scott was able to provide me with ideas that I would have never had on my own.”
One of the most ambitious revisions came in the final moments of the first act, when all the stories collide. Originally three separate scenes, Elliott had the idea to merge the moments together, so during the workshop, he and Bradshaw cut up the script with scissors. They placed the pieces on the floor and arranged them in a new order.
Though the process isn’t finished—the show is still being developed until its official opening next Monday—it’s now in the hands of the audience. “I have this view of my work that it’s meant to be interpreted, and pretty much any conclusion that you come to is a valid one, which often makes people very angry,” Bradshaw says. “Am I trying to make people angry? No. But I prefer anger to boredom.”