OTTY Honoree 2020 Val Day: Bringing New Voices to the Stage

As artistic director of 59E59, she seeks out original plays and works to build trust with the audience

02 Mar 2020 | 10:37

For creatives trying to make it in New York, a time often comes when you realize that things aren’t quite working out as you had imagined, and, inexplicably, the rent is due.

Val Day had to confront this predicament about two years into working as a freelance director. By that time, she was 36 and had already lived several different lives as a bookstore owner and theater director in Florida. But over the course of her graduate studies at the University of California at San Diego, she was inspired by shows like the "X Files" and "Six Feet Under," and she realized she wanted to direct for television. But the debt she accrued from her degree was making it impossible to live without a study income.

“I had $28 in the bank,” said Day.

She advises anyone saddled with student loans to do what she did then, in the late 90s: make a list of all of the jobs associated with your interests that pay actual money.

It worked out for Day. She leveraged a job as an assistant at William Morris into a long and successful career as a top agent in their theatrical literary department. Those 20 years of reading scripts and representing talent turned out to be the perfect preparation for her current role as the artistic director of 59E59 Theaters, a nonprofit foundation on the Upper East Side.

In 2004, 59E59 opened as a space for both emerging and established theater companies to reach New York audiences. The foundation partners with these companies by offering highly subsidized rental rates, as well as support with production, marketing and press. The theater companies still receive 100 percent of their net box office sales.

The founder of the theater, Elysabeth Kleinhans, envisioned the space as an affordable place for playwrights and companies to show their new stuff in New York. Subsequently, 59E59 only hosts off Broadway productions, meaning no revivals, adaptations of stage classics or stage classics.

It’s now Day’s job to curate the 30 plays 59E59 presents each year. She reads scripts and travels to see shows being staged that could be presented at the theater. What she’s had to learn over her three-year tenure at the theater is how to choose productions that are doing something different, and will also sell tickets.

“I might see a show and think it’s awesome, but I can’t sell tickets to that,” said Day.

So, slowly, she’s been trying to expand the comfort zone of the theater’s traditional audience, and offer them new or unusual storytelling.

“I'm really trying to bring in things that are satisfying on the linear story level that also push our typical audience into understanding that there are different forms of storytelling that aren't scary,” said Day. “It's just incrementally building that trust with them.”

In doing so, Day hopes to elevate 59E59 beyond its reputation as simply a rental house. She thinks the uptick in quality is already evident, especially with the upcoming shows. On March 12, the theater will present the Off-Broadway premiere of Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s musical "Whisper House," produced by The Civilians.

Additionally, Day is working on a showcase that she said has never been done before in the city. Starting in the fall of 2020, the theater will be presenting the Off-Broadway debut of three separate works from the same playwright. The writer, who has yet to be announced, is a woman who comes from a group with an underrepresented voice in the industry, according to Day, and has mostly been produced regionally.

“The idea here was there are so many amazing writers who get pooh-poohed and aren’t allowed to be done in New York,” said Day, adding that this kind of showcase would give that writer an opportunity to make a splash.

And that’s really what the founding mission of 59E59 Theaters is all about.

She’s slowly been trying to expand the comfort zone of the theater’s traditional audience.