Adapting to a changing theater industry

Man in costume on theater stage.
RJ Tabachnick co-founded the Soft Brain Theatre Company in 2022. The company aims to reduce the time spent in the auditioning process by taking the time to learn more about an actor’s influences and inspiration, instead of just having them read lines from a scene. /Photo by: Elspeth Carroll

The theater industry changed to be more individualistic after quarantine-era restrictions. Mt. Lebanon graduate RJ Tabachnick started a theater company in New York City that takes an alternative approach to the culture of the city’s theater industry.

Tabachnick graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 2016 and went on to earn a degree in theater with a minor in business from New York University’s Tisch School of Arts in 2020. He started his theater career at Mt. Lebanon High School in Cindy Schreiner’s Theater Arts 1 course. He said that her “generosity and kindness and expertise” got him interested in theater.

After graduation, he returned to his Oak Park Place home, where he stayed during the height of the pandemic, before moving back to New York City.

Tabachnick saw the pandemic change the city’s theater industry. Instead of going in person for auditions, actors create audition videos. He could sometimes spend up to four hours on one video, and receive no response.

Portrait of a man in a field.
RJ Tabachnick

“COVID presented the opportunity in a lot of industries to reassess where they were at and change and adapt to the times,” Tabachnick said. “While the theater industry did change, I don’t necessarily think it did it in the best way. There are still a lot of antiquated systems in place.

“I had a longing to make the kind of art I wanted to make with the people I wanted to make it with.”

Tabachnick shared these grievances with his friend and former NYU classmate Nicole Tsarouhas, and it led them to create the Soft Brain Theatre Company. Soft Brain approaches the audition process differently than the average theater company—instead of holding a traditional callback, they try to make sure that you’d be a good fit for the company personality-wise.

“We have a speed date, kind of, as our callback,” Tabachnick said. “Instead of a typical callback, where you would be reading scenes from the show and singing songs from the show, and then are called back, we were like, ‘What art inspires you?’ and ‘What has led you on your artistic journey in different ways?’ and ‘What pulls you different directions?’”

Soft Brain specializes in commedia dell’arte, a comedic form of theater from the Italian Renaissance that starts with a basic story concept and improvises the entire plot based on that idea. Soft Brain specifically uses camp and maximalism to make their performances unique.

The group  recently put on a production of Puss in Boots: After Dark, a raunchy rendition of the classic fairy tale that is described on their Instagram as “NOT your mama’s bedtime story.”

“All we had going into rehearsals were three words: Puss in Boots,” Tabachnick said. “We spent basically the first rehearsals in the generative phase. We do improv exercises with different prompts, and the stuff we like, we expand upon and then eventually make our way to some semblance of a script, and then put that on.”

Overall, Tabachnick says he’s happy to see his company thrive.

“Sometimes I just take a step back and have to laugh because it’s like, ‘Whoa, I did this, and we did this,’” Tabachnick said. “It’s heartwarming to know when we call auditions, we have a lot of people who show up, and it’s meaningful to know that we’re  creating a space that people want to be a part of as well.”