Clurman, Kazan, Quintero … Aukin; Restless Brit saves broke theater company; directs, wins prizes, drops age of theatergoers; only $4 million to go
The 74-seat Soho Repertory Theatre, on Walker Street in Tribeca, a stone’s throw from Ground Zero, could easily have been a casualty of the World Trade Center attacks. After 9/11, the theater’s financial prospects “looked incredibly grim,” said 33-year-old Daniel Aukin, the company’s lanky, salt-and-pepper-haired artistic director. “We contemplated closing the theater.”
Six weeks later-and against the wishes of several board members-sic, a comedy by Melissa James Gibson, an unknown playwright, opened to the best reviews in the theater’s history. It won three Obies, including the directing award for Mr. Aukin. “There didn’t really seem to be an alternative to me,” said Mr. Aukin, sitting in Soho Rep’s new office space, a renovated loft on Franklin Street with cushy furniture and exposed air ducts. “We could sit around for a year, which just seemed depressing. Or we could just make a show.”
With his calm, can-do attitude and uncanny ability to make avant-garde, “experimental” theater thrillingly articulate and comprehensible, Mr. Aukin has established Soho Rep as the repertory company du jour. To the envy of many, 78 percent of its audience is that much-sought-after 18-to-35-year-old demographic. “Dan’s made Soho Rep one of the places that you have to watch,” said Mark Russell, executive director of P.S. 122 in the East Village. “People respond to his vision.”
What’s more, Mr. Aukin has-along with the company’s executive director, Alexandra Conley-turned Soho Rep into that rare thing, a small nonprofit theater company that has a long-term financial plan and a little bit of money to play with. They may soon be playing to even more expectant crowds: In June, when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation invited arts organizations to apply to be a part of the new World Trade Center site, Mr. Aukin and Ms. Conley came up with a plan to raise $4 million and build 10,000 square feet of theater, rehearsal and office space for Soho Rep at Ground Zero-which, considering their proximity, they have a decent shot at getting.
A North London native-he’s the oldest son of theater heavyweight David Aukin, a former executive director of the Royal National Theatre in London-Mr. Aukin graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in comparative religion. Studying abroad in the United States, he said, “was a whimsical, last-minute decision.” He had a brief stint in Austin, Texas, where he co-founded an experimental theater company, Physical Plant. At 24, Mr. Aukin found himself in a “minuscule” Chelsea apartment with his future wife, author Emily Jenkins, the daughter of playwright Len Jenkin, several of whose plays have been produced by Soho Rep. He and Ms. Jenkins now have a 22-month-old daughter, Ivy.
While directing Lower East Side plays that were never reviewed, Mr. Aukin read scripts for Miramax and HBO and juggled temp jobs. “I was very stuck,” he said. “I was fiercely ambitious and very angry that nobody was giving me an opportunity to work.” Finally, in 1998, the job materialized at Soho Rep, and he jumped on it despite the company’s bleak financial picture.
Even if Soho Rep finds a new home at Ground Zero, Mr. Aukin has no intention of increasing the theater’s size. “Soho Rep is an important institution because there are so few companies that can produce such unusual work,” he said. Theater people imagine him at Lincoln Center Theater or Manhattan Theatre Club in 10 years, but the creative freedom he has at Soho Rep keeps Mr. Aukin from thinking about his next perch.
“Financially, it’s not my dream job,” he said. “But in terms of the richness of my creative life, it is quite dreamy.”