With Healing in Mind, Stage Collaborators Take a Dip Together

The playwright Lynn Nottage chose to share her Signature Theater residency with other artists rocked by 2020. The immersive result: “The Watering Hole.”


By Laura Collins-Hughes

Before everything that happened happened, the playwright Lynn Nottage had a plan for wrapping up her three-show residency at Signature Theater. It would be the Off Broadway premiere of a new comedy — a play that was titled “Floyd’s” when it was first staged in Minneapolis in 2019.

But 2020 brought the pandemic and the theater shutdown; the killing of George Floyd and the challenge thrown down by the We See You, White American Theater movement. As the industry reopens, some are determined to restart from a healthier, more equitable place.

Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who didn’t get her first production on Broadway until 2017, is slated to be back there this fall with both “MJ the Musical” and “Clyde’s” — formerly known as “Floyd’s,” since renamed to take the pain-filled association away.

For her Signature residency, then, she did something quietly radical: She asked 17 other artists of color, most of whom had never worked there before, to share her slot for an immersive event called “The Watering Hole.” Starting June 22, it will guide small groups of visitors through a series of installations in the lobby, theaters and backstage spaces of the Pershing Square Signature Center. It is meant to be a welcome back to theater.

“That moment in which we first cross the threshold is going to really tell us a lot about how things have changed over the course of the year,” Nottage said. “There’s been so much lip service paid to equity and inclusion. But the real test is in the pudding. So we wanted to create a space that felt welcoming and felt inclusive and that felt safe. And that really meant sort of disrupting the notion of what a theater looks like.”

For “The Watering Hole,” that entails in part a different kind of storytelling than what the playwright-centric Signature and its audiences are accustomed to. Collaboratively devised, design-forward, highly varied works that Nottage likened to amuse-bouches, some are narrative in form, while others are more meditative. One of the 10, in some dressing rooms, asks people to participate karaoke-style.

After more than a year in which human bodies have been at the center of so much cultural discourse — because of the coronavirus, and Black Lives Matter, and attacks on people for their race or gender, or both — “The Watering Hole” is about inviting many kinds of bodies safely into a physical environment.

Made by people who have not always felt welcome as artists or audience members, it is about who gets to occupy space in the theater, and whose comfort and catharsis are attended to.

The Signature lobby is one of the great theater lobbies of New York. In ordinary times, it’s open all day — a slightly out-of-the-way spot on far West 42nd Street where theater people work and socialize. Its popularity is one reason the show is called “The Watering Hole.” On a recent Sunday afternoon, though, its couches and tables and chairs were nowhere to be seen.

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