Upper West Side
Growing up in the Upper West Side dramaturg, Anika Chapin, had a lot of access to things that fueled her love of the theatre. Now she works in New Jersey as a literary manager of a local theatre and works to bring in inspiring performances every season.
How did you get to where you are today?
Going to a lot of theater to start, but also by just letting things happen. I grew up in New York and always had a sense of where I wanted to be, but I’ve never been someone who had a plan. I feel like I’ve followed this path of things kind of happening. I’m very happy with where I am right now.
I work for a theater in New Jersey as a literary manager, which means I choose their plays in development and help choose the seasons. I am a creature of the theater, so I have to be in New York quite a lot as well, for readings and to keep up with what’s going on. I actually live this double existence where I work out in Jersey, but I also live here.
Are those lives quite different from each other?
They are. The theater in New Jersey is in a suburban area, which is the first time I’ve ever lived in the suburbs. When I first moved out there it was so odd, because I just wasn’t used to being that alone. I like having time to be myself, I’m not one of those people who constantly needs to have people around except that I realised that I am one of those people! There were times when I lived there that I’d stick my head out the window just to make sure the rest of the world hadn’t died. Now I live in Asbury Park, which is a funky little town and I have an apartment downtown. I’m right by the ocean and it’s much quieter than New York.
What was it like growing up in New York?
It’s funny because I don’t have anything to compare it to, so for me things like malls and backyards are fascinating. I went to a school that was on the east side and we would go to The Metropolitan Museum for art history class, and we’d go to Wollman Rink to go skating on Wednesdays in winter. In a way I completely took it for granted, until I went to college and I realized that New York is the place that people move to for this great adventure. For me, it’s my home base.
I have conversations with people who say ‘oh, I would never raise my kids in New York’ and I always ask why? They would say ‘it’s so dangerous, you never know where your kids are’. I don’t think that’s any more or less true anywhere else. You either know where your kids are or you don’t.
Has New York changed as much as people say it has in the last 20 years?
I don’t know exactly, because there was a lot I wasn’t paying attention to growing up. I would never really leave my neighborhood at that time. I would go to Soho sometimes but I didn’t really know where that was in relation to other things. It wasn’t until I was older and I would go exploring.
When I graduated from college, my friend got a place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, which was a borough I pretty much did not go to growing up. It was this weird area where there was only one bar, so if that was full you had to walk ten blocks to another bar. I just thought this area is kind of weird and now there’s a bar, and an artisanal mayonnaise shop … That change I can see very clearly. But the Upper East Side and Upper West Side are kind of in a constant state of stasis.
Do your parents work in theater?
My dad works in theater, and my mom is an artist who used to be an interior designer.
So you’ve been going to the theater since you were really little?
According to family lore my dad took me to my first show when I was six months old. He said that when the lights went up on stage I was transfixed.
He works for the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s organization, which is a licensing house. They were doing a production at the time called ‘On Your Toes’, which is the one he took me to.
So I grew up going to the theatre. A lot of people have that seminal show they saw that made them know they were a theatre person. It’s so infused with my life that I have no starting point really.
What is it about the theater that you love?
I just love stories, and storytelling. There was a time in my life when I thought that maybe theatre wasn’t what I loved, that maybe it’s was just what I know. So I took a break and went to Sydney, Australia while I was in high school, and studied abroad for six months. But I was still on broadway.com all the time! Then I came back to New York, and I had to drop off something at a theatre during a matinee. I could hear the music coming through the door and I just thought ‘this is it. This is my thing.’
So I eventually went to grad school for dramaturgy …
Dramaturgy. I was just talking to someone who asked me what is dramaturgy and I thought, "I still don’t believe I don’t have a good answer for this." Dramaturgs come in a lot of different forms, but basically it’s someone who is the protector of the text for theater. What I usually end up doing is working with a new playwright, and helping them figure out the story they want to tell and how to tell it. Sort of like an ‘editor therapist’ for a play.
There was a joke in grad school that you can ask ten dramaturgs what a dramaturg is and you’ll get fifteen different answers. A lot of times they’re more research oriented and sometimes they’re more active on the directing side.
So you can adjust as you go?
Yeah. I think one of my favorite descriptions was by my friend who is a playwright, he said ‘it’s sort of like The Godfather, and the dramaturg is the consiglieri.’
What did you study at university?
Anthropology. At that point I knew I didn’t want to be an actor and I didn’t want to be a director. I had already started working in theatre ... I knew I had a foot in that world. So I just took the classes that sounded really fun to me and anthropology was awesome. That’s also a big part of what I do. I like observing things and finding the patterns and narrative in everything. So anthropology, theatre and dramaturgy are not very separate in my mind.
How long have you been doing your current role in New Jersey?
A little over a year. The theater I work for is really fantastic and I work for an old professor of mine. Although I didn't get the job through him, I got the job through social media.
It was funny because I ended classes at Columbia and I still had a year to finish my thesis. I thought again, "Oh no, I don’t know what to do with my life." So I joked to my friends that I was going to put it on social media that I was ready to be hired and someone was going to offer me the perfect job. I didn’t think this was really going to happen. I put on Facebook and Twitter that it was ‘hire-a-paloosa’, and I got a direct message from a guy I know in theatre who said he had a job lead for me. I called him and he said ‘my friend John Dias (who is the artistic director at Two River Theater) is looking for a literary manager that specializes in musicals.’ Musicals are sort of my thing. John had remembered that I was a student of his. I met with him and I had no idea if he was considering me but he ended up hiring me.
Some people think Facebook and Twitter are stupid, but I don’t know. I have a friend who I met on Twitter, and now she’s one of my best friends.
You tweet quite a lot and you’re quite popular on twitter.
Yeah I guess. I seem to have accrued a very small following in the grand scheme of Twitter …
Well, there’s Beyonce and then there’s …
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s become a fun little thing. One of my friend’s said, "Thank god Twitter exists because you think in 140 characters."
I like the community of it too. Timeout New York named me one of their top theatre tweeters.
Really? That’s impressive!
There’s not a ton of us. We know each other pretty well.
Are you working on a play at the moment?
Well, my theater in New Jersey has a season that has started. My role shifts according to the projects. I’m more involved in a new play and I’m helping them get to the place that they can be on stage. We just did Molière. In that case we’re not going to change the script obviously, so it’s more about doing research and finding out what people need.
It’s interesting because you do that and then you go to a rehearsal and say ‘oh, I don’t know if this character’s arc is coming out clearly’ or ‘I don’t know if this joke has landed’ etc. So, you’re sort of a bit in both worlds, which I like a lot.
I used to do a lot of assisted directing. I’m not really a director but I loved assisting because you had the ear of the person directing, and you could share your thoughts on the piece with them. So, I was a dramaturg before I was a dramaturg, I just didn’t know it.
What are some of your favorite shows?
I’m a big Stephen Sondheim nerd, he’s one of the bigger figures in musical theater. He wrote Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. I think my favorite is Assassins, which is a show he wrote that’s very dark and interesting. It’s about all the attempted presidential assassinations. It sounds like a crazy idea for a musical but it’s so smart. The last scene manages to almost convince you of something horrific, something you never thought you’d have the capacity to understand and you suddenly understand. There was such a moment of appreciating what theater could be for me when this piece actually made you empathize with people you never thought you would empathize with. I love that piece so much. I keep writing about it, I just wrote my thesis largely about it.
I’ve never heard of it before.
It’s not done very often. When people see musicals they tend to want to see happy ones with lots of dancing.
It’s such a good piece. They did a revival of it in 2004 and I was studying abroad in New Zealand, but I cut my study abroad short because I was afraid I was going to miss the run.
Is there anything on right now that you would recommend?
There’s a lot of great stuff happening right now. Of the bigger shows, Pippin is fantastic, The Book of Mormon is fantastic. I really liked Mathilda. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime just opened.
That’s such a good book.
It’s such a good play. I haven’t seen it here, I saw it London. It seems like a hard thing to adapt but they’ve done an incredible job.
There’s always so much happening here. I just saw Found, this new musical which is down at The Atlantic. It’s based on this magazine where people just find things on the street. They turned this into a musical which is so charming and adorable.
It’s absurd in New York, you could go out every single night and see something, and you’d still miss 80% of what was available.
Where else have you lived?
I lived in Sydney again after college. I was there because I was working on a tour of Cats that was Australian and then went to Asia. I was based in Sydney for 16 months, but I toured a lot of that time. We went to Taiwan, Korea and Thailand.
It was funny because Cats isn’t a show I’m particularly fond of, but watching people respond to Cats in these different cultures was totally fascinating.
You’re a 12th generation New Yorker. I feel like we should talk about that.
I think twelve is the right amount of generations, I’ll have to double check with my uncle who’s the family genealogist. My family on my father’s side are descended from the pilgrims, we have a lot of pilgrim ancestry. Some long ago generation came down to New York and we just never left. We still have a home base in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Yep. We have a WASP-y tendency to pronounce certain words in a weird way. Also, on my father’s side, Steinway is in our family.
Like the pianos?
Yeah. That’s a little bit later, because that’s obviously German immigrants coming to America, but that’s in our blood too. It’s hard to describe because it feels like our relationship with New York is so intertwined, especially since I work in the arts, my sister works in the arts and my dad works in the arts, his dad worked in the arts.
We actually have this weird throughline of not only being New Yorkers, but also being these arts administrators, basically, in New York City. We’re not artists ourselves, but we all have this draw to art. So that’s hard to separate from our New York history, I think.
What are some of your favorite places in New York?
I think my favorite place in New York is Lincoln Center. There’s something about it that makes it the heart of New York for me. It’s funny because when I’m away from New York for too long, I come back and am hit with this energy and passing Lincoln Center will always give me that excitement.
My favorite restaurants are always changing but at the moment it’s Torrisi Italian Specialties. It’s downtown, it’s so good! It’s a set menu and not that expensive, everything’s really fresh and good.
El Centro on 9th Ave is a Mexican place I like a lot. Vynl, which is a restaurant with a diner theme. They just changed and I walked past it the other day and had a little bit of anxiety because they used to have bathrooms that were themed to different artists. One of them was Cher, and there was a big mosaic of her and an inset Cher barbie. They would play her music too. There was a Dolly Parton bathroom and that was the best bathroom. I always joked that I was going to do an interview show and it was going to be in the Dolly Parton bathroom. But now they just moved so I don’t know if they kept the themed bathrooms. I am not interested in Vinyl if they didn’t keep the Dolly Parton bathroom (laughs).
What about in the Upper West Side?
Zabar’s is always fantastic for takeaway. Jacob’s Pickles is new, that’s like biscuits and fried chicken. There’s a beautiful italian place called Celeste, cash only. Then I like 5 Napkin Burgers.
You can’t bypass a good burger.
Yeah! But we don’t have good delivery pizza in this area. There’s good pizza, there’s Patsy’s on Columbus but they don’t deliver. It’s surprising because this is such a family area.
And everywhere delivers in New York! Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Oh, I have so many. It’s funny because part of my job is reading new scripts so I always have about 10 scripts I should be reading which has made a lot of thing go into the guilty pleasure category.
I could watch a million hours of House Hunters International. It is weirdly addictive. I’m a huge TV fan so I watch a lot of television but I’m not too guilty about that because I can put that in the category of “research”.
I will eat any given cheese product at anytime of the day. That’s a big one. I love Pinterest. It leads down so many rabbit holes, like ‘look at this beautiful gold dress … I wonder how many other gold dresses there are out there ...’ An hour and half later you’re at the ends of the internet. I can go down a Google rabbit hole very quickly.
Oh I can do that. All of sudden it’s ‘why am I watching my 40th YouTube video of Titanic survivors?’
Me too. Especially when it’s that kind of thing, random pieces of history. ‘Who is Jack the Ripper? I’m going to find out!’
I can solve it! Tonight!
I love giant squids. Here’s my thing, I love it when weird mythology combines with something real. So, I got into giant squids because of sea monster mythology.
Real or Sea Monster is now a new section on Bird. But we digress .... Ok, so what do you think of when you think of New York?
When I think of New York it’s seeing that skyline. It’s also that feeling, that hit of energy that you just don’t get in the same way as anywhere else. All those people from all those places with all those stories just passing each other on the street everyday.
It blows my mind sometimes, the amount of stuff that’s going on here on any given day. It’s crazy when you see the same person on the subway at the beginning of the day and then at the end of the day. It’s concentrated human existence. Just here.