"It was the first time I've ever heard an entire theater gasp in unison," said John Clancy, artistic director of The Present Company, over a telephone call from his Lower East Side home. The horrifying event that elicited this gasp was the announcement at a recent benefit that the doors to The Present Company's storied Theatorium are in danger of closing forever.
The Theatorium is not only home to The Present Company's regular season, but also serves as the headquarters of The New York International Fringe Festival, an event which over the last three summers has virtually redefined the Off-Off Broadway world. Now heading into its fourth year, the Fringe Festival has emerged as one of the most important testing grounds anywhere for new work by independent theater artists. The treasured Theatorium felt the distinct rumble of distress under its feet when The Present Company received a landlord's notice demanding what Clancy describes as "unwarranted and unreasonable fees."
By the end of their benefit that night, The Present Company had already raised $20,000 toward the estimated $100,000 needed to stave off closure and calamity. Part of the fundraising effort is to cover expenses - to settle with the landlord, meet monthly overhead, and continue to present and produce new work - but part of the fundraising effort is also earmarked for ensuring the next Fringe Festival, scheduled for August 2000. Sadly, if the rest of the necessary funds don't find their way to 196 Stanton Street by January 31, hundreds of artists around the world who are preparing for the Fringe may find themselves without a festival, and The Present Company without a home.
In the Fringe, not only do artists have a greater chance of seeing each others' work and discussing it after the show, but one value-added bonus is an almost unlimited networking opportunity between artists.
Consider, for example, Julia Lee Barclay. A playwright and director, Barclay taught a class in last summer's "Fringe U," an adjunct series that is a hybrid of symposium, colloquium, and meet-and-greet. In the class, Barclay worked with performers to develop their skills in improvisation, creation, and simply listening to each other in their work.
The workshop then caught the attention of choreographer Sophia Lycouris, herself in attendance at the Fringe with her dance piece, Stories in D. A professor at a university outside London, Lycouris took an interest in Barclay's political work and invited her to do a "webcast" in England. A dialogue between the two women developed and Lycouris subsequently invited Barclay to travel to England this May to teach her technique at the Chisenhale Dance Space.
Another positive result of the Fringe is the economic and cultural revitalization of the Lower East Side. Since the Fringe's spectacular debut in 1997, the area has seen an explosion of new restaurants and boutiques. One could argue that this growth is also the inevitable result of an overall economic expansion in New York, but there is no doubt that the influx of artists living and working in the area has accelerated the process.
Amid all this good will, the problem still remains that small organizations like The Present Company face frequent financial crises. Faced with producing theater on a limited budget, these relatively underfunded non-profits typically squeeze in their rehearsal periods between working day jobs or saving coffee money in order to buy postcards for advertising. Chiefly reliant upon a faithful audience base, little energy is usually left for the exhaustive task of fundraising and grant writing, activities which usually keep other non-profits afloat.
"You don't come to New York saying, I'm going to fundraise for theater. You come to New York saying I'm going to do theater," Clancy says, adding that theater should ideally operate like any other small business. "You don't see the bakery down the street asking for individual donations," he points out.
Clancy also stresses the fact that theater isn't seen to be much of a social necessity, culturally speaking, anyway. As a result, Clancy perceives a general malaise when it comes to chasing grant money among companies like his, a feeling that the effort required to obtain funding is outweighed by the overwhelming odds against actually receiving it, whatever the source. While The Present Company's grant prospects look good - in their four attempts at applying for grants, they've scored 4-for-4 - there's great trepidation that their streak may not necessarily continue.
Meanwhile, the downtown community recognizes the enormity of the task undertaken by the The Present Company in producing the Fringe Festival - its clearly in evidence by the generosity already in hand. Yet The Present Company has also had a realization: the revenue needed to maintain one of the largest theater spaces for unknown artists in New York cannot come from box office alone.
For this reason, The Present Company has now taken their "$100,000 or Bust" campaign to the print media and would like it soon to hit the radio waves as well. Clancy is also excited about the limitless fundraising possibilities of the Web. Ironically, he expresses a reluctance to take his message to the greatest mass media source, television. There, Clancy fears, The Present Company's situation might be simplified into a good-guy vs. bad-guy story, serving only to jeopardize their already rocky relationship with their landlord. "It's not an issue of evil landlord vs. great young theater company," Clancy says. "It's about whether or not this theater company is worth supporting. Theater and the arts are a civilizing influence. Without them, we lose something beyond value."
For more information on The Present Company and the 2000 Fringe, check out their website at www.fringenyc.com