The night that Off-Broadway opened its most recent gift from Penguin Rep Theatre—a moving new play by Michael McKeever called Daniel’s Husband at the Cherry Lane—the play’s director and Penguin’s artistic director, Joe Brancato, was crowing a bit.
“We’re celebrating our 40th season of new plays,” he says, “and I may be one of the longest-serving artistic directors of a professional theatre in the country.”
Three hours earlier, I’d met another 40-year founding artistic director—Tisa Chang of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, the subject of last month’s column—and Brancato meekly bagged the braggadocio. “Oh, of course,” he concedes. “I’ve known her for years. We used to get together and cry on each other’s shoulder.”
Brancato was teaching high school English and drama in North Rockland County when he first peeked into a vacant hay barn on the property of the Stony Point Center and saw “a swell place to put on a show.” After a few seasons, he realized he wanted more than a community theatre. “I wanted to move it into a professional theatre where professional artists, designers, actors, directors, and writers had a voice,” he says.
His specialty is finding “new works that elevate the human experience and stir the gray matter while they entertain.” Then, as director, he gets them up on their feet and marches them toward New York, Los Angeles, and any theatrical Mecca in-between.
Among the Penguin premieres to replay New York are the Drama Desk–nominated The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, the Everett Quinton antic Drop Dead Perfect, and (currently in revival at Penguin) Lee Blessing’s bio play Cobb.
He commissioned and directed Allan Knee’s The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which was the basis for the 2004 Johnny Depp movie and the 2015 Broadway musical Finding Neverland. Ever the loyalist, Brancato saved a slot (Aug. 11–Sept. 3) for Knee’s latest, Syncopation, about the romance of a Jewish butcher and an Italian garment worker.
The season concludes with Frederick Stroppel’s take on Lizzie Borden, Fall River (Oct. 13–Nov. 5). Plus, in September, Brancato will bring in—to 59 East 59th Theatres—a Stroppel play done last season, Small World, about the creative head-butting between Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski that went into 1940’s Fantasia.
Brancato fancies himself the guardian for a final frontier. “Years ago we would have flea markets and now we have eBay, or we went to the movies and now we have Netflix,” he points out. “All that’s left now are schools and churches and theatres—and my pick is theatre. It’s a beautiful ritual that I’m so glad to be a part of.”