Justin #ONSCENE with Matt Stango @ The Flea

The first time I saw Matt Stango was in The Flea’s production of The Mysteries in 2014. That particular show really helped me during a hard time in my life. Not only was it the uplifting thing I needed at that point on my way out of high school, but it made me a fan of The Flea and of the strange, weird productions that they always put on.

I encountered Serials @ The Flea not too long after. I went absolutely whenever I could and, as of mid-2016, I haven’t missed a single week, and I’ve never missed a Flea-produced show in the last four and a half years. I had thought about approaching Matt for an interview not long after he stepped into the role of producing Serials. Mostly, he just seemed like a real cool dude, and I enjoyed my brief chats with him. But also, I really wanted to know what made Serials tick, what was the process every few months that brought this little hellscape of short plays together? I wanted to grasp a little more about why Serials is absolutely the highlight of my month every single time I attend.

I was very happy to roll up to a little coffee shop in tourist-central Manhattan to find out more about Serials, and more about this man I’ve seen at The Flea for the last four years.

Here it is.

Introduce yourself?

My name is Matt Stango. I’m the producer for Serials @ The Flea. Uhhh, how deep do you want me to go here?

However deep you wanna go.

Oh, I’m an actor, first and foremost. I’ve been a member of The Flea’s acting company, the Bats, going on five years now.

What got you interested in working in theater in the first place? 

When I was in fifth grade, my older brother was going to LaGuardia High School in the city for acting. He’s seven years older than me, so he had his senior show, and I went to see it. And there were like, three performances. I went to the first one, and I decided to go to the second one, and then I decided to go to the third one. I enjoyed watching them so much that, a week later, when my teacher was holding auditions for our class show in the fifth grade, even though I had never even considered doing it before, I decided to audition. Turned out I had a pretty good singing voice, which I didn’t realize. I was cast as Chief, uh, somebody in Pocahontas — Pocahontas’s father. Got the lead in that and just sorta been going on ever since. 

Turned out there’s sorta a big demand for, uh, boys in musical theatre when you’re young. I guess I had that advantage, joining the Staten Island Children’s Theatre, and the ratio was generally six girls to one guy, so that really resulted in my getting the lead every single year. Regardless of talent level! 

How did you find out about The Flea Theater? 

In 2012 I saw an open call in Backstage and I went on the last day — and I got shut out. There were so many people who had already signed up, I was coming from Staten Island and I didn’t realize it was gonna be get-there-early, you know what I mean?

Then I think, a year or maybe two years later, I saw an open call again. I went there three days in a row. After getting shut out for two days, on the last day I had decided I just wasn’t gonna go. I had work until four o’clock in the morning the night before. So, I decided I’d pass, whatever, wait until next year. But my friend, who was a Bat at the time, was like “just get up early and go, you gotta go.” So I wound up getting there at 7 am. They weren’t starting auditions until 10, and already the line was around the block. And I was the last of four people to get into the auditions for The Mysteries. And that’s how I got in. 

What’s involved in being a Bat? 

It’s largely what you wanna make of it yourself. What they require is three volunteer hours a week. And that could be anything from helping the costume designer sew stuff, or doing the front of house shifts and handing out tickets. They just need help from their company of actors. To stay a Bat, you’re supposed to do three hours a week, but you can also bunch them up! Do 12 in one week and then be good for a couple weeks, you know? And then there are workshops, readings, and mainstage productions they’ll announce auditions for. And then there are Serials, which is the one thing that, as a Bat, you can sign up to do. Everything else you might get asked by Resident Directors if you wanna be in their readings, or you have to audition for mainstage shows. The thing that’s unique about Serials is that I’ll send out the sign-ups and people just decide if they can do it in those time slots. But, I guess we’ll get more into that.

That’s actually the very next question I had. 

Oh, yeah, yeah. Cool.

For those who don't know, can you explain what Serials are? 

Sure. Serials is a late-night episode play competition where the audience votes on their favorite plays. It’s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. At the end of the week, we count up the votes. The three winning plays receive a new episode of their story the next time we do Serials, and the two losing plays are gone forever, and the two losing groups will find a new playwright and start a new play the next time. 

Had you done any production work before signing on to Serials

Well, I was in Serials for years as an actor before I started producing and hosting. As for production work, I produced and directed my own play as my senior project in college, and that was sort of a good taste of what it takes to be a producer, but I hadn’t really done anything like that. Producing isn’t really my passion, but it is something that I’m good at doing. So being able to do that for a job and have it be some sort of income and do it for something that is a GREAT thing and get to act in it as well — it’s sorta like the best of both worlds for me. 

How did you actually become the producer for Serials?

That happened when Rachel Lin and Colin Waitt were the producers. Colin decided to leave, and Rachel asked me if I wanted to join her. And that was a decision for me too. It wasn’t like I was like “absolutely, 100 percent.” I had to think if it was something I wanted to do, it was a big responsibility. Because you just want to make sure that the spirit of the show is staying the same. You can make changes, as I have, but it’s a staple for a lot of people, and it’s important that it remains good.

Can you take me through the actual production process for something like Serials? How does it differ, if at all, from more standard productions? 

There are so many moving pieces… that [pause] I can’t even really explain it.

I mean, it starts probably three weeks before the first rehearsal when you send out the sign-ups. The sign-ups are open for a week, then you get the actors into groups depending on their availability when they can rehearse. After that, you assign team captains for each group, link them to writers, then link them to directors, and sorta say, “Okay, Captains, take it from here.” And they sort of become mini-producers for their group and their play. And then, you’re pretty much putting out fires and answering questions for them. 

In regards to putting out fires and linking groups to writers, has that gotten easier since the Serials Writer’s Room became a thing? 

Yes, absolutely. That was my plan with the Serials Writer’s Room. When I took the job with Rachel, I found the hardest part of the job was finding good writers on short notice. 

Cause before that it was just the fucking wild west. 

It was a free-for-all.

You would say, “Okay groups, go out and find a writer” and hope they found somebody that knew what they were doing. And then, if they couldn’t find anybody, it would’ve been up to me and Rachel to scramble and find somebody who had written before, or hadn’t written before, or told us in the past that they would be interested in writing — especially when you’re going into the second week of a cycle because you don’t know which teams are gonna need a new writer. So, essentially, you would find out on Saturday night that a team needed a new writer, and you would need to find a writer that could produce a script in two days. You had Sunday to figure it out, and maybe Monday, to produce a script by Tuesday, for the next week of rehearsal. In the mayhem that that was, I figured there’s gotta be an easier way to figure this out. Actually, this was Maddie Mahoney's idea, who is now one of my associate producers, to have a room. I presented it to the people at The Flea and they got on board with it. I just knew that the process would be so much easier if we had a pool of writers that we sifted through and handpicked ourselves. You know, if five of them are writing, that means five of them aren’t writing. It’s all a process, but it’s worth it when it happens.

You’re also going to be in The Flea’s next big production, Hype Man. Anything you want to say about that? 

It is an incredible play. World premiered in Boston in February, got great reviews, and then The Flea found it and decided to produce it. I’m honored to be in it. It’s a three-person play, me and two very new Bats are in it. It’s exciting for all of us for different reasons. It’s gonna be in The Pete Theater on the first floor of The Flea, it’s the first, full mainstage production that they’re doing in that theater. It’s also being done in the round. The whole thing takes place in a recording studio and the audience is set around everyone, which has been a really interesting thing to rehearse for. It’s a very important play, a very close-to-home play for me. It’s very socially relevant and I think a lot of people should come and see it! 

So, when is Hype Man running and when can people expect the next cycle of Serials

Hype Man previews start November 10, opens November 20 and runs to December 10 with a possible extension to December 20. 

Serials will be back the second and third weeks of December. Those two weekends early in December. 

Anything else you want to shout out while you’re here? 

I guess I just wanna say that, if you haven’t seen Serials, you should come and see Serials! I am blown away by this company weekly, and what they do in such a short amount of time. I personally think that the writing is better than what you’ll see anywhere else in New York City and I think the acting is better than anything you’ll see in New York City. I think that we are more entertaining than Saturday Night Live, but still on par with that quality. If you wanna call this a sketch show, which it’s not really, people call it a sketch show because it’s short, funny plays, BUT, if it’s a sketch show, it’s a sketch show that has heart and has a lot of very talented actors in it, not just comedians. And it can really catch you and draw you in because it’s episodic, it’s different every week, you’re never gonna see the same show. Actually, it’s different every night. 

Thursday shows are a shit show, in the best possible way, because all of the actors on Thursday night have never had the opportunity to run the play with lights and sound and their full cast until they’re doing it in front of a sold-out house. And there’s no thrill like that that I’ve ever experienced.