If it was show time at any of the city’s myriad off-Broadway theaters, audience members could likely expect to see a theatrical giant in their midst — playwright Terrence McNally.
McNally had a five-night-a-week habit of stopping into small theaters far from the bright lights of Broadway to support emerging playwrights, recalled his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy.
“When we first met, I was astonished at his commitment. We would go to all sorts of hole-in-the-wall theaters all over New York just because he’d heard there was an exciting new writer,” said Kirdahy. “Every artistic director downtown likely has a story about Terrence popping up in their theater without notice and without fanfare.”
In McNally’s honor, Kirdahy on Thursday unveiled the creation of the Terrence McNally Foundation, a nonprofit which hopes to encourage “bold new voices in the American theater by providing financial and institutional support to emerging playwrights.” The foundation will also be supportive of LGBTQ+ causes. The announcement comes on what would have been McNally’s 84th birthday.
One foundation initiative is The Terrence McNally New Works Incubator, which is designed to support three emerging playwrights each year with financial support, mentorship and a one-week developmental workshop culminating in a presentation of their work. The Rattlestick Theater, which McNally championed, was chosen as the venue.
The submission process is free and open to the public. The selection panel for the inaugural group of McNally fellows includes Sheila Callaghan, Stephen Karam, MJ Kaufman, Donja R. Love, Taylor Mac, Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel and Chey Yew.
Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who teaches fledgling playwrights, said she knows how difficult it is to break through and find opportunities. She would often spy McNally offering his support simply by his presence.
“I know what it’s like to be that young artist who is immensely nervous and looks across the aisle to see someone like Terrence McNally there, who would give you a smile or thumbs up, and just feel reassured,” she said.
McNally, who died in 2020, won Tony Awards for the plays “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” and the musicals “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Late in life, despite carrying an oxygen tank, he would climb stairs and navigate over patrons to see off-Broadway plays.
“While Rattlestick is not a Broadway theater, Terrance just fundamentally believed that early career playwrights needed support, and Rattlestick feels like the right home to do that,” said Kirdahy.
“We know so many stories of writers who stopped writing because they were bartending or waiting tables or paralegals in law firms and were unable to find the time to write and get the kind of necessary mentorship that helps writers succeed. He was determined to do his piece in combating that, or at least supporting worthy writers who were risk takers.”