Supporting creative work by women
Nicola Korzenko and Sofia Alvarez (pictured left) founded Blockchain Theater Project “to empower artists to produce the work they create, funded in part by cryptocurrency donations.” The company’s initial production, NYLON, written by Alvarez and starring Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) will run March 6 through 24 at Theaterlab in New York City. Then, Alvarez, who adapted the screenplay for Netflix’s huge hit rom com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and is tapped to write its sequel, will select the next playwright that the project will produce.
Korzenko and Alvarez spoke to Works by Women about how they met, how they were influenced by 13P, and what’s inspiring them right now.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You’re shaking up the theater world in two ways–funding and production. Tell me about Blockchain Theater Project. Why is a new model in theater needed?
SOFIA ALVAREZ: A couple of years ago, Sheila Vand did a reading of my play, NYLON in a UTA conference room when a small theater company was considering it. Sheila and I had lunch a few days after the reading. At that point we had both been working steadily in TV and film for a number of years and found a fair amount of success. Regardless, theater remained both of our first loves and one of the reasons that even though it would make more career sense for both of us to live in Los Angeles – we were having lunch in Brooklyn – we were committed New Yorkers. We made a commitment to one another that one way or another we would make NYLON happen, even if we had to produce it ourselves.
Not long after my lunch with Sheila, I went to LA for work. This was November 2017 – prime Bitcoin time! While in LA I had lunch with another friend who started telling me all about his crypto investments. My conversation about the play with Sheila ringing in my ears, I asked him if I could turn $5000 into $30,000 in eight months. He said “absolutely.” That day I bought $1500 in ETH, BTC and LTC. In two days it had doubled. This kind of growth got me thinking that a theater company funded by cryptocurrency could be bigger than just NYLON.
NYLON was a play of mine that had had many readings at major theaters and yet was never produced. Almost every playwright I knew had a play like this – one that was developed, tested and ready to go but had fallen through the cracks on the road to production. I started thinking about what I would change in the theater if it were up to me, what I wanted to address with a theater company beyond where the funding was coming from. The key problem in my mind was that at the major theaters the artistic directors rarely change – so you have the same “gatekeeper” choosing the plays that will be produced for 30+ years. With BTP, I was inspired by the artists at 13P (one of the most successful independent playwright-led theater companies), where the playwrights served as the Artistic Director for their own play. With BTP, we could address this issue of the “monolithic institution” and make a self-sustaining producing model while getting rid of unneeded infrastructure (just like blockchain). We would achieve this by having the outgoing playwright of each production nominate the next play to be produced.
WBW: Tell me about NYLON. What was the impulse to write it?
SA: I started the first draft of NYLON almost a decade ago when I was a student at Juilliard. At the time I was reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. There is a section in the book where she lists one-sentence ideas for stories that she is not going to write. I challenged myself to write a one-sentence story and then write a play based off of it. The sentence I came up with was, “A woman has coffee with a man she used to love after marrying a man she doesn’t.” Though you can still see this in the initial set-up of the play, it very quickly ceased to be an accurate description. I wrote the first act very quickly and then it took me years to write the second act. I’ve always loved Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In March of 2014, just before my own wedding, I had a reading of NYLON with The Amoralists and also saw The Young Vic’s production of A Doll’s House at BAM. Though it hadn’t occurred to me before, seeing this production at the same time I was working on the reading, made me realize how inspired by A Doll’s House, NYLON was. While this is not an autobiographical play, one of the biggest changes that’s taken place for me personally since the first draft was written is my understanding of marriage and the deep, stable love it can provide as opposed to the frantic, frenetic love of youth. That new perspective has made its way into the play in my rewrites. Looking back, through the writing process one of the main things I was grappling with in this play was women’s choice and women’s power. The main character, Anna, is someone who starts the play with a lot of power and slowly loses all of it. And how even though she is judged harshly from the outside for some of her choices, no one is harder on her than she is on herself.
WBW: You will select the next playwright BTP supports. Talk to me about playwrights supporting each other and when you’ll announce who’s been selected.
SA: We won’t start the selection process for the next play until NYLON finishes its run. Nicola and I both work full-time jobs (me as a screenwriter, she as a product manager at Amazon Video) in addition to running BTP and so we need to focus on one thing at a time!
One of the reasons we came up with this model for the company is that there are so many plays I’ve heard in writers’ groups, at readings and in classrooms that I love and wish had been produced. There is a lot of talk with the insidiousness of social media about how jealous and competitive playwrights are with one another. And of course this can be true – it’s always painful to see someone else’s post about getting into the O’Neill the same day you get your rejection letter – but what’s rarely discussed is what champions of our peers most of us become. The feedback and support I’ve received in writers’ groups is one of the bolsters that has kept me in New York writing plays years after it would have made sense for me to move to Los Angeles to focus solely on screenwriting. Because there are so few production opportunities, we need each other to help us keep going when it feels too hard. I’ve been built up by my peers when I’ve needed it and helped build up others when they did. BTP’s model gives artists the power not only to produce their own work, but also to produce and celebrate work they care about, that they didn‘t write. In addition this model does not require a literary staff and ensures a diverse group of voices by changing the gatekeeper with every production.
WBW: How did you and Nicola become collaborators? What brought you together for BTP?
SA: Nicola and I met when we were both assistants in theater department at Creative Artists Agency in 2007. We started within two weeks of one another. It was both of our first real job out of college and we received a crash course in the business of theater. I left after a year to pursue playwriting but Nicola stayed on and became an agent trainee. She eventually left to pursue her other passion, tech. She worked at start-ups and at Lerer Hippeau, a VC firm, before attending Harvard Business School. After Harvard, Nicola was hired as a product manager for Amazon Prime Video. Nicola’s unique combination of expertise in both tech and theater meant there was no one better to partner with on starting a theater company that combined her two passions. It’s almost as if she had been training for it. Plus, we have a deep friendship from our days in the assistant trenches at the world’s largest talent agency.
WBW: Why theater? What inspired your life-long love of it? Is there one theater production that is still seared in your heart and mind?
NICOLA KORZENKO: My parents actually met studying theater in college, and I was surrounded by performers and artists growing up. I loved playing make-believe as a kid and have been doing theater since I was 13, mainly as an actor but also as a director, producer and writer. I’ve always been fascinated by the power to make people laugh or cry or transport them to another world, and the magic of a story unfolding in real time with a physical audience. A couple of shows stand out in my mind. I starred in a college production of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, which was extremely challenging and made me think differently about what a play can be. I also was lucky enough to see Le Dernier Caravansérail at La Cartoucherie in Paris many years ago. The actors’ physicality, the gorgeous imagery, the crucial message, and the communitas of sharing a meal with the audience and company in between the two parts — it was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
WBW: What’s a podcast, show, or book that you are recommending right now? Why?
SA: Since I read it in the Summer of 2017, I have not stopped recommending Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. It’s my favorite novel in recent memory. I have never read anything that described dating in college so accurately (my experience of it, anyway). Batuman’s dry humor is meticulously crafted. I giggled while reading The Idiot in bed from start to finish. Batuman’s article for the New Yorker on Japan’s Rent-a-Family industry is another must read.
NK: I just binged the first season of the Bodies podcast by Allison Behringer. Each episode explores a medical mystery told through one woman’s story, analyzing the physical symptoms, socio/political/cultural context, and emotional journey. It’s heartbreaking, enlightening, well-researched, and personal. I also loved The Favourite. It was refreshing to watch a movie about women vying for the attention of a powerful woman, and the way they played with language and inserted subtle anachronisms was hilarious and delicious.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given or most important lesson you’ve learned?
NK: Life is too short to do something you hate. Find a way to align your work with your passion, or make time for side projects that give you fulfillment.
Get tickets to NYLON, running March 6–24 at Theaterlab in NYC, HERE.