There’s been a lot of turnover in theater leadership lately. Some have been drummed out of their jobs. Others have quit to do something else in the arts. Many have retired.
Daniella Topol, the artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and a career-long theater director, is leaving to become a nurse.
The unusual move arrives at a pivotal time for Rattlestick, a small Off Broadway company that, in addition to rejuvenating following the long pandemic shutdown, is about to embark on a much-needed renovation of its cozy but imperfect West Village home, located in a 19th-century church parish house.
Topol, 47, has been leading Rattlestick since 2016, succeeding David Van Asselt, who co-founded the company. Just before assuming the leadership position, she directed at Rattlestick a production of “Ironbound” by Martyna Majok, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for “Cost of Living.”
Three years later, another production Topol directed at Rattlestick altered her trajectory. While working on “Novenas for a Lost Hospital,” a play that both chronicled and mourned the demise of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village as patrons moved from location to location connected to the story, she consulted with nurses and nursing students, and something sparked.
“A seed was planted and then we continued forward — a pandemic happened six months after that, and there was a lot of reflection around, ‘Where are we as a field?’ ‘Where are we as a city?’ ‘Where are we as a country?’ ‘Where are we going?’ ‘What role do we play or not play?’ ‘How do I as white woman hold power and privilege?’ ‘How don’t I?’ ‘Where do I fit in a constellation in a way that is productive?’” she said. “I have been doing, obviously, a lot of reflection about my own personal life, and meaningful and challenging experiences that I have had, on a very personal level, and many of them have centered inside of maternal care complexities, and so it sort of felt like it was aligning with the stars.”
She said she is not sure exactly what she wants to do as a nurse, but she plans to stay in New York, and said that maternal health and birth equity — a term used to describe efforts to reduce racial and class inequities for new mothers and their infants — have become particular interests, intensified by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “I’ve been pregnant many times — I’ve had a late-term loss, early term losses, and I have a child,” said Topol, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. “I feel like it’s a way to hold the loss and let that help inform my next steps on a very personal level.”
So now, while preparing to direct a final play for Rattlestick this fall and working on other theater projects, she is taking prerequisite courses and volunteering at a hospital; Rattlestick is beginning a search for her successor, and she hopes that she will overlap with that person and then leave sometime next year, before starting nursing school next summer or fall.
“I’ve only been a theater person,” she said. “Here I am, I’m waking up at 4:30 a.m. to study science and memorize muscles and bones and I’m dissecting a pig. It’s all kinds of things I never thought I would do.”
Topol said there were other factors as well. She said that she has thought about “how long should anybody stay in any kind of leadership position,” and that the civil rights unrest of 2020 had intensified that thinking: “Part of the reckoning was about who is running companies, where does power lay, and how much power sharing is there — defining what the trajectory of the field is.”
“There are other wonderful artists who can take over Rattlestick and do a beautiful job leading it and imagine things I haven’t been able to imagine,” she added.
As the paths of Topol and Rattlestick diverge, she’s interested in highlighting the theater’s survival and growth, and its commitment to a smooth transition.
The company, founded in 1994, is small — its annual prepandemic budget was $1.2 million, of which 80 percent was raised from foundations and donors — but has consistently attracted attention for its ambitious work, including not only Majok’s early play, but also work by Annie Baker, Samuel D. Hunter, Dael Orlandersmith and Heidi Schreck. The theater describes its mission, in part, as prompting “social change,” and much of its programming reflects that; its first post-shutdown play was “Ni Mi Madre,” a much-praised autobiographical examination of culture and sexuality by Arturo Luís Soria, whom the theater has now commissioned to write a follow-up.
“What I’ve loved about Rattlestick is we’re small and scrappy and authentic and take chances and aren’t burdened by huge institutional issues of massive unaffordable space — we’re like a motorcycle, not a cruise ship,” Topol said. “You don’t get the luxury of the cruise ship — you get the scrappy ride of the motorcycle — but you get the flexibility to be able to twist and turn as things go.”
Topol said she feels comfortable leaving in part because the theater now has a fully financed plan to redo its performance space, which it rents harmoniously from St. John’s in the Village, an Episcopal church. The theater space, where it has been located since 1999, has had two serious challenges: The only way to get there is to climb a narrow stairway, which means the theater is not accessible to those who can’t navigate those stairs; and the only way to use the bathroom is to traverse the stage.
Rattlestick has now raised the $4 million — about half from the city — to finance a project that will, at its most basic, add an elevator and patron bathrooms, but will also modernize the entrance and the theater itself by relocating the front door, adding a box office and a small lobby, and removing the raised stage so that the performance and seating areas are flexible, as well as accessible. The theater will be able to seat up to 93 people — about the same as it does now. “It’s not ‘bigger is better,’” Topol said. “It feels like we are really right-sized for the work that we are doing.”
The renovation will allow Rattlestick to stay in the West Village, which has become a very pricey area, but is the neighborhood where the theater has long been located and is determined to remain. Rattlestick also shares a rehearsal space on Gansevoort Street with three other theater organizations. “It is critical to maintain places for artists in our neighborhoods,” said the renovation’s architect, Marta Sanders.
Construction, Topol hopes, will begin next summer, pending city approval, and would last a year; during construction, the theater would present work at other locations. The theater is continuing to raise money for programming and operations.
The chairman of the theater’s board, Jeff Thamkittikasem, acknowledged surprise at Topol’s move, but said he had become supportive.
“When I first heard about it, I tried to talk her out of it, but my mom is a nurse, and at some point it switched for me and I saw that connection about wanting to care for others in a much more direct, physical way,” he said. “I was shocked, but also, as I thought about it, I saw where there was a connection with who she was.”
Thamkittikasem said the organization is healthy and that the board has retained a search firm to look for Topol’s successor. He added, “Rattlestick is in a very strong place since Daniella took over — we’re stronger financially, we have good connections to foundations and funders, we have an active board and a solid staff, and our reputation has grown.”