On May 13, a sea of navy and orange blanketed Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome. It was not a sports game, but the school’s 158th Commencement, where screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivered the keynote address. Among the more than 5,000 graduating students were aspiring architects, teachers, politicians, and a handful of drama students — 60, to be exact. Some were getting ready for a post-college backpacking trip through Europe. Others were preparing resumes and cover letters, in the hopes of landing a job, and eventually paying off their student debt. But five students were bracing themselves for something else: Moving to New York City and producing an Off-Broadway show.
“I’m still waiting for my BFA in the mail,” says Phil Blechman, sitting in CAP21 studios in late July before a rehearsal of his play, “The Black Book,” a suspense thriller that he began writing in high school.
Blechman is one of a lucky handful chosen for The Araca Project, a program that offers young artists an opportunity to produce an Off-Broadway show. Launched in 2011 by The Araca Group, a production company known for the Broadway hits “Urinetown” and “Wicked,” The Araca Project is meant to promote entrepreneurship among recent theater graduates of either Syracuse University or the University of Michigan, where The Araca Group’s founders went to college.
This year, six teams were chosen from about 90 applicants. After attending a two week producing intensive, where industry professionals offered advice and suggestions, each team began production on their respective shows, which will have limited runs at the American Theater of Actors in August and September. The Araca Group provides each team with the theater, a marketing director, a production manager, an assistant production manager, and a press representative. Other than that, the young producers are left largely to their own devices.
“They give you the harness and throw you off the cliff,” says Blechman. “Then you have to figure out how to open the parachute.”
The founders of The Araca Group – Matthew Rego, Michael Rego, and Hank Unger – based the idea for The Araca Project on their own experiences. When they came to New York about 20 years ago, they came as actors, directors, and musicians — not producers. But determined and impatient for work, they decided to take matters into their own hands, putting together a production of Caryl Churchill’s play, “Cloud Nine.”
“The process by which we were entrepreneurial, took control of our career and made something happen was a very powerful experience for us,” says Rego. “Our mission is to foster that entrepreneurial spirit and the emerging artist.”
By providing theater space and guidance to Araca Project participants, The Araca Group gives each team the impetus and tools to produce a show. But by having each team raise its own funds, manage its own finances, and make creative decisions, it also presents a daunting challenge. Most of the participants have never produced a professional show before, and many studied acting, not producing.
“It’s somewhat overwhelming,” says Robbie Rescigno, who is producing and starring in “The Rescignos” with his twin brother, Paul.
“There’s like a checklist, and every time you check something off, it opens up five other checklists that you didn’t realize you had,” adds Paul Rescigno.
The Rescigno brothers both graduated from Syracuse University in 2006, and in the years since, have performed their old-fashioned variety show — which Robbie describes as “more Carol Burnett than Ed Sullivan”— around New York City. This is the first time they’ve had to raise money, though, something that The Araca Project participants have found difficult. Many of the teams have posted their projects on fundraising websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, in addition to hosting fundraiser events.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the romantic notion of putting on work, but when it comes down to it, it’s a very hard, fact-driven job,” says Alex Bisker, who is co-producing “The Man With America Skin,” an original play that combines magical realism and drama. “You need to make sure that all of that is working, or else you’re not going to achieve your beautiful artistic vision.”
“We didn’t really understand what we were getting into,” adds Stephanie Shechter, who graduated from the University of Michigan with Bisker in 2009. “It’s terrifying and nerve-racking.”
Still, the experience has been rewarding and eye-opening for the participants. Many, like Bisker and Shechter, had wanted to produce a show for years but had never gotten around to it. The Araca Project motivated them to move forward as entrepreneurs, something that The Araca Group hopes they will continue.
“The thing that we always say is, ‘Don’t wait. Do it yourself,’” says Michael Rego. “No one is going to give them that magic opportunity. You need to make it yourself.”
Article originally appeared on backstage.com. Link here.