All the World's A-Staging
The art and excitement of alternative theater spaces.
Theater dead in New York? Not quite. If there's a place drawing a crowd--speakeasies, churches, parking lots, libraries, public parks, wrestling matches, museum gardens--count on its transformation into a dramatized zone before too long.
Take the southwest corner of Washington Square Park--host to the furiously athletic Gorilla Rep production of A Midsummer Night's Dream--which has long since abandoned its identity as a paradise solely for skateboarders and dogs. These days, in the ever-competitive and costly world of producing plays in New York City, many local directors and producers are finding the city's nooks and crannies which speak to them, and are developing, liberating, and coaxing theater into existence.
For many directors, the drive to create an outdoor production stems from a desire to create a certain rapport between audiences and actors. "Every night we take audiences and actors and we create one larger thing, a new connection. It's so palpable, you can feel it," says Christopher Carter Sanderson, founder and artistic director of Gorilla Rep. For him, the four to five rows of audience members circling the performers creates "a perfect acoustic bowl." The actors in his productions frequently address audience members as if they were participating characters. "We break the fourth wall," Sanderson says cheerfully, "And audiences love it. You can see it on their faces."
At the end of his senior year at New York University, Sanderson was strolling across the big rocks in Washington Square Park when a vision of a set instantly occurred to him. "I blocked the whole play in ten minutes," he recalls. Gorilla Rep, which also performs in traditional venues, has a mission to bring the highest quality of free theater to people in their immediate locale. Sanderson directs his actors to "blaze through Shakespeare, since it's poetry"--his Midsummer Night's Dream runs just under two hours. This summer, Gorilla Rep will bring Macbeth back to the Cloisters, where last summer they drew large crowds, including many from the museum's neighborhood. They will also stage The Tempest this summer--on a pier.
Brooklyn resident Matt Daniels is an actor who first got involved with Gorilla Rep in the summer of 1997 when he played the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. "I was encouraged to play everything out to the audience, thus breaking all the conventions I had just learned at Juilliard," Daniels says. "There's a feeling of euphoria, like riding the edge of never knowing what's going to happen. You see audiences' faces lighting up. Though you lose some subtlety acting outdoors, you do get to know the audience better."
Jerry McAllister, producing director of Expanded Arts, known for their wildly successful "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" series, attests to the power of theater taking place on the street. "We get kids and gang members who come by to make fun of everyone," he says, "but then stay and watch the play, and come back to watch." Performing Shakespeare's plays on a Ludlow St. parking lot since the summer of 1995, the company keeps the set minimal, the acting intensely clear, and the flow of lines "like jazz. We play with the poetry's rhythms," says McAllister. The lot holds 100 chairs and the shows start at 8 pm. "Last year we got everyone from Shakespeare scholars, neighbors who spoke only Chinese, and tourists from everywhere," McAllister adds.
Last summer, actor/director Erica Schmidt coordinated with The Present Company to produce her version of Romeo and Juliet in a Stanton Street lot. "Metal cans were on one side and a brick wall was the other side," describes Schmidt. "I saw two worlds. The space created the show." The run lasted a month and drew large crowds. One night helicopters circled overhead just when Romeo was banished from Verona. "We started at six, when it was still light, and ended at eight, when it was dark," Schmidt says. The visible sky and stars suggested fate and the fast-paced production, along with Schmidt's use of fire escapes and balconies, gave audience members a lot to look at.
Site-specific theater in New York does not just contain itself to the hectic New Yorker with short attention spans. At a less-frantic pace, the Marionette Theater in Central Park performs classic puppetry in every neighborhood and playground in the city during warmer months. Bruce Cannon has been the artistic director for four years, but has been working there for 25, ever since his college graduation. "Our puppet shows use stories, like Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk. Almost all the time we are kids' first introduction to theater," he says. "We reach all children. You often see the awe, concern, and happiness on kids' faces when they're watching puppet shows."
Daphne Richards, founder of the Brooklyn-based Underhill 190 and theater program director of the Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts in East Harlem, says she was inspired to do site-specific work from a workshop she took with Tina Landau, a director who frequently worked with En Garde Arts, a company lead by Anne Hamburger which specialized in site-specific performance (En Garde Arts folded in late 1998). Richards is planning to produce a play she wrote called Jus' Married, explaining, "The plan is that the audience will follow the two main characters as the gun-packing fiancée chases her groom, who has just jilted her at the altar." For Richards, the excitement of such a production rests not only in the thrill of seeing a street corner come alive with the force of a play, but also in the relatively low costs of production.
But there's nothing exceptionally new in the story of independent directors and producers conjuring theatrical victories out of a place that some might name a "slum." For audience members, the pleasure in seeing a good show is surely reward enough for attendance, no matter where the production. But who's to say that the history of a venue doesn't throw its own shadows onto a performance? The Public Theater is housed in the old Astor Library, built in 1853. The Public's press director, Carol Fineman, says that "in 1966, [Joseph] Papp saved the library from demolition, and in 1967 he staged his production of Hair there."
Innovating use of both space and audience expectations is extending to a dramatic use of the Internet. The Gertrude Stein Theater, founded in 1990, focuses on encouraging and supporting innovation in the performing arts, promoting such developments, and working internationally. John Reeves, co-director with Cheryl Faver, says, "We hope for a richer experience sensually, dramatically, and conceptually, and to find new ways to hold audiences' attention." Stylized movements from such diverse sources as Chinese opera, Indonesian dance, and Russian theater from the 1920s inform the aesthetics of the company, whose next production involves an adaptation from Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of the Americans. They also do work with arts education and recently coordinated, via the Internet, rehearsals of The Crucible which took place between students in the Bronx and students in northern England.
For John Clancy, the artistic director of The Present Company, producers of the annual New York International Fringe Festival, finding an old garage on Stanton Street two years ago to become their Theatorium was sheer luck. The rehearsal space and dressing room occupy what was once a speakeasy. Clancy opens a drawer in the rehearsal room wall and says, "Here's where there was a secret compartment to hide drugs during police raids." When he's not directing plays that explore language and/or the relationship between audiences and actors, Clancy's sweeping and cleaning the 75-seat house.
For director/writer/actor Sergio Cacciotti and his three partners, cleaning, fireproofing, and completely renovating a former pornography auditorium on 42nd Street four years ago was worth the $4,000 investment. Formerly Show World, now named The Pantheon, the place has lured even larger crowds since the changes have taken place in and around Times Square. "It's a dream come true," says Cacciotti, "being able to produce the kind of work we love."
Director Justine Lambert found a space for The Looking Glass Theatre in the basement of Trinity Presbyterian Church (113 years old and still very active) on West 57th Street. "In the beginning the space was very rough," according to Lambert. "There were no pipes from which to hang the lights, which were nonexistent anyway. There were no risers either. We hung up cheap flood lights and used regular household dimmers." The Looking Glass is dedicated to exploring and expanding the role of women in theater. Their upcoming production of Laodamia, Queen of Epyrus was first produced in 1689 at the Comedie Francaise, where it was the first full-length play produced by a woman.
Currently moored among the ice floes of the Hudson off of Chelsea Pier is The Frying Pan, a lightship boat built in North Carolina in 1929, which owners John and Angela Krevey rent to party givers and theater companies. The generator room has been emptied of its engines and was recently the site of a production of Daniel Pelican. "Since the generator room is beneath the water, it's cool there in the summer," Krevey explains. And with a large heater warming the boat, its also theater-worthy in the winter. The rust edging the boat's interiors and exteriors recall its years buried under the Atlantic Ocean, and certainly qualify it as an extra-special location for that certain piece of site-specific theater. "Someone was going to do Dracula here awhile ago," says Krevey. "That would have been really great."