A Short History of the WPA Theatre (Workshop of the Players Art Foundation, Inc.)

A mainstay of New York’s Off-Off-Broadway scene from 1971 to 1976 under the direction of Virginia Aquino, Dan Dietrich and Harry Orzello, WPA was legally incorporated in 1971 and closed its home at 333 Bowery in 1976. In the fall of 1977, WPA reopened at 138 Fifth Avenue with Howard Ashman and R. Stuart White as Artistic Directors, and Kyle Renick as Managing Director. The opening production was the very first NY revival of Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, adapted to the stage by Edward Albee and directed by R. Stuart White. This production was immensely successful, created WPA as a not-for-profit production company with significant artistic credibility, and contributed strongly to the late 1970s revival of lower Fifth Avenue businesses and night life. 

WPA’s mission was dedication to neglected American classics of the past and the creation of new American plays and musicals. In acting, writing and design, the focus of WPA’s work was on the detailed examination of men and women in their everyday environment, with attention to the specifics of their moral, emotional, and physical conditions. The second production of the 1977-78 season, closely supervised by Howard Ashman, was the world premiere of a chamber musical called Gorey Stories, directed by Tony Tanner, which became so successful that it achieved the distinction of WPA’s first commercial transfer to Broadway. The season concluded with a new play rooted specifically in WPA’s artistic identity, the first play by well-known Southern novelist Reynolds Price, entitled Early Dark, superbly directed by R. Stuart White.

The second season on lower Fifth Avenue cemented WPA’s mission and reputation. It opened with the first New York revival of Lillian Hellman’s second play Days to Come, directed by R. Stuart White. Michael McClure’s Josephine the Mouse Singer received the Obie Award for the Best New American Play of 1978-79. WPA initiated a lengthy relationship with Southern playwright Larry Ketron, presenting the first of many plays by this important new writer. The season concluded with Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, adapted to the stage and directed by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken, inaugurating the partnership that a few years later would result in the creation of Little Shop of Horrors. 

In the spring of 1982, R. Stuart White staged his final WPA production, Elinor Jones’ What Would Jeanne Moreau Do?  He died in 1983 of complications from AIDS.  In the fall of 1982, Howard Ashman left the WPA to work on new productions of Little Shop of Horrors, and to pursue other opportunities. Kyle Renick assumed the duties of Artistic Director. Howard Ashman died in 1991 of complications from AIDS. After seeing Michael Mayer’s production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in workshop at NYU, Kyle Renick invited him to conceive and direct a musical revue called Hundreds of Hats, based on the lyrics of Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken, Jonathan Sheffer, and Marvin Hamlisch; it was presented by WPA in the spring of 1995.

Many writers and directors made their debuts or achieved prominence during productions at WPA. A partial list includes: Anne Commire’s Put Them All Together, directed by Howard Ashman; Kevin Wade’s Key Exchange, directed by Barnet Kellman; Larry Ketron’s Fresh Horses and Asian Shade, directed by Dann Florek; Stephen Metcalfe’s The Incredibly Famous Willy Rivers, and Israel Horovitz’s North Shore Fish, directed by Steve Zuckerman; Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, directed by Pamela Berlin; Larry Kramer’s Just Say No, directed by David Esbjornson; the first New York revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, and Charles Busch’s The Lady in Question and Red Scare on Sunset, directed by Kenneth Elliott; Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey and The Naked Truth, directed by Christopher Ashley; Yoko Ono’s New York Rock, with Orchestrations, Arrangements, and Musical Direction by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Phil Oesterman; Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, directed by Daisy Prince; Oliver Goldstick’s Dinah Was, directed by David Petrarca; John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids, directed by Michael Mayer; and WPA’s final production in the spring of 2000, Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor, music and libretto by Jonathan Sheffer, directed by Jeremy Dobrish.

WPA moved to 519 West 23rd Street in 1985, participating once again in the renewal of the neighborhood, this time west of 10th Avenue, now well-known for art galleries and the High Line. During its career, WPA was honored with the publication of 50 of the 100 plays produced, 15 commercial transfers to Broadway and Off-Broadway, 9 feature films, 10 productions taped by Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts for inclusion in its Theatre on Film and Tape Collection, 4 original cast albums, and dozens of awards and nominations, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award for the Best Musical of 1982-83 to Little Shop of Horrors, as well as a Special 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Achievement.

Kyle Renick, January 9, 2018