New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Dramatic Writing Professor Brings Blockchain to Theater

Sofia Alvarez, a Tisch professor and the screenwriter of Netflix’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” is the co-founder of the Blockchain Theater Project, which draws on blockchain’s peer-to-peer model to dismantle the institutional barriers of the theater world.
Sofia Alvarez, a playwright, screenwriter and professor in Tisch’s Department of Dramatic Writing. She co-founded the Blockchain Theater Project, a theater company that seeks to dismantle institutional barriers in theater. (Photo by Min Ji Kim)

It was late 2017, the height of the bitcoin boom, and Sofia Alvarez, playwright, screenwriter and professor in Tisch’s Department of Dramatic Writing, was looking for a way to fund her next play.

The 34-year-old Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based writer’s work “NYLON” had already been through a dozen readings, and Alvarez was ready to see it on the stage. Wondering how feasible it would be to finance the production by investing in cryptocurrency, Alvarez quickly saw an opportunity to expand her focus.

“It could not just be my play, but all of these amazing plays that I’ve wanted to champion,” Alvarez said.

This germ of an idea, to bring blockchain into the theater world, eventually developed into the Blockchain Theater Project, a theater company Alvarez co-founded with her friend Nicola Korzenko. Alvarez and Korzenko, the Founding Artistic Director and the Executive Director respectively, started BTP to help dismantle institutional barriers and to diversify theater audiences.

Unlike a traditional theater company, which has to budget for the costs of a literary and development staff, BTP uses a peer-to-peer model inspired by blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. BTP produces one work a year; that year’s playwright then nominates three works, each from a different playwright. Alvarez and Korzenko select the next year’s production from these nominees.

“It’s a way to have organic diversity of productions,” Alvarez said.

Although the role of blockchain for the project is smaller and more conceptual than Alvarez originally envisioned, BTP also accepts donations in both USD and selected cryptocurrencies.

So what exactly is blockchain? Basically, cryptocurrencies operate on a decentralized peer-to-peer model, unlike traditional currencies, which are issued by a central authority — like the Federal Reserve, in the case of USD. A blockchain is itself an unbroken chain of transactions, to which each successive transaction is tied, like BTP’s chain of playwrights.

BTP also doesn’t have an artistic director like traditional theater companies. People in this role are usually the final word on any creative decisions, which means it can be difficult for playwrights to get their works produced on their own terms; some see artistic directors as gatekeepers.

“One of the goals of our theater is to disrupt the way that theater is produced in terms of who gets to decide what theater is produced,” Alvarez said.

“NYLON,” Alvarez’s play, will be the first link of the chain — Korzenko will pick next year’s piece from Alvarez’s nominations. “NYLON” is a portrait of an estranged couple starring Sheila Vand and Cesar J. Rosado and directed by Knud Adams; the show is co-presented by Theaterlab, and runs March 6-24 at Theaterlab’s Midtown space.

The blockchain angle is also designed to attract an audience — and donors — from outside the relatively insular theater world.

“How do you get people from different communities [like tech] to come to see plays?” Alvarez said. “One of the goals [of BTP] is to sort of merge those two communities and say, ‘We’re not as different as we might think.’”

Another aspect of BTP’s model that allows for more creative freedom is their lack of a space, allowing them to tailor the theatrical space of each production to the needs of that piece.

“Theaterlab is the perfect home for [“NYLON”],” Alvarez said. “But that’s what this play wants, that’s not what every play is going to want.”

Besides her work for the stage, Alvarez is also a successful writer for television and film. After stints writing for the USA series “Sirens” and FX’s “Man Seeking Woman,” Alvarez was chosen to write the screenplay for the Netflix teen rom-com “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

The film, based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name by Jenny Han, was a smash hit for Netflix when it was released August of last year; Alvarez is currently finishing up adapting Han’s sequel, “P.S. I Still Love You,” a movie version which Netflix greenlit after the success of “To All the Boys…”

After graduating from Bennington College in 2007, Alvarez worked in the theater department at Creative Artists Agency in New York City for two years before entering the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard; she received an Artist Diploma from Juilliard in 2011.

“It was very important for me to have a quote-on-quote ‘real job’” when she moved to New York, she said about working at CAA. But her time there was significant for her future in theater, and for starting BTP.

“Part of my job was to go to plays, read plays, go to readings, and so it was like a crash course in the business of theater,” Alvarez said.

The connections she made while at CAA, and while writing and directing on the side, were invaluable to her future endeavors. Alvarez and Korzenko also met when they were both working at CAA after college.

“She has always been the arty-est of the business people and the most business-y of the art people,” Alvarez said about Korzenko, who is now a Senior Project Manager at Amazon Prime Video.

Alvarez has a busy year ahead of her. In addition to producing “NYLON,” selecting and producing BTP’s next piece and finishing writing “P.S. I Still Love You,” she’s at work on another rom-com screenplay for Netflix. She and her husband also welcomed their first child late last year.

“We’re both so tired, but so happy,” Alvarez said. “It’s been an insane time.”

NYLON” runs at Theaterlab, 357 W. 36th St., third floor, from March 6 to 24.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, March 4, 2019, print edition. Email Alex Cullina at [email protected].

About the Contributor
Alex Cullina, Theatre & Books Editor
Alex Cullina is the Theatre & Books Editor for WSN. A native Clevelander, he is a junior studying English and History in CAS. Growing up in Ohio before coming to New York, he's very defensive of the Midwest, despite its many (many) flaws. Beside keeping up with the best in new film and TV, you can often find him curled up with a good book or the latest issue of The New Yorker.
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