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Performance Space 122: How Leaving Manhattan Forced an Organization to Evolve

Major renovations to P.S. 122's East Village home have pushed their productions towards the outer boroughs, and towards more innovative programming.

Performance Space 122, on First Avenue in the East Village, is now undergoing an extensive interior renovation.
© Courtesy of P.S. 122
The staff of Performance Space 122 have taken to calling their home, at 150 First Avenue, "P.S. 122: East Village."

In part, the nickname is practical: It differentiates the not-for-profit performing arts organization's main stages, which officially closed for lengthy renovations on February 1, from its new offices in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and from the venues throughout the boroughs where P.S. 122 is now producing shows. But it also indicates something larger: a shift in the organization's identity, from that of a brick-and-mortar theater to something less tactile. The three years during which the organization is homeless (or, really, theater-less) will largely determine what that something it is.

While "P.S. 122: East Village" is under construction, funded primarily by the City of New York, P.S. 122 will work collaboratively with small Brooklyn theaters, stage performances in public parks and dive bars, to bring more innovative and site-specific work to the outer boroughs and beyond.

"Being out of the building opened up an opportunity to really think about what we do and why and how we do it," said Vallejo Gantner, P.S. 122's Artistic Director. "It's a shift, and [our approach] reflects the fact that artist-led spaces aren't in the East Village anymore. They are in Bushwick, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Long Island City. [New York] has evolved, and young emerging artists don't live in the East Village, typically, so our functioning in the New York City ecosystem has to change."

Instead of simply renting out other theaters, P.S. 122 decided to collaborate with other companies, and, in some cases, produce site-specific performances that eliminate the traditional theater altogether. When we spoke with Gantner, P.S. 122 was looking for a space to set a new piece by multimedia theater artist Reid Farrington. "It's a hypothetical staging of a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson," Gantner said. "So we are hoping it will happen in a boxing gym."

David Levine’s interactive performance Habit, which ran in September at the Essex Street Market.
© Courtesy of P.S. 122
P.S. 122 began exploring experimental spaces before the contractor took over. In September, they co-produced provocateur David Levine's Habit with FIAF's Crossing the Line Festival. The free installation ran in the middle of Essex Street Market, with a commissioned text by playwright Jason Grote (Smash). For eight hours a day, actors performed a drama on an endless loop, improvising staging to suit their needs. When they were hungry, they ate. When they were dirty, they bathed. Audiences circulated the space, watching the action through the windows, and coming and going as they pleased.

P.S. 122 hopes that similar site-specific productions in the boroughs will hook those who would not otherwise make the J-train-to-6-train trek to Manhattan, expanding their audience for when their home base re-opens in 2015 -- with two new ADA-compliant theaters, a lobby, courtyard, rooftop, and more bathrooms. (More bathrooms are very important.) Founded in 1980 in a former public school building, P.S. 122 commissions and presents artists in all disciples during an annual fall and spring season, and during their winter festival (COIL) in January. The organization's self-stated mission is to support the "creative risks taken by artists from diverse genres, cultures and perspectives." According to Gantner, planning the few years away from home has only strengthened this purpose.

"We're thinking of P.S. 122 as a state of mind, rather than a brick institution," he said. "We're trying to create links…to make a statement about the fact that the live performing arts are critical to the functioning of a whole lot of endeavors whether scientific or political or economic or mathematic. The influence of theater in these other areas has waned and we need to address that. We need to make theater that's innovative, that reaches aesthetic goals while thinking about social and political engagement, which is really just a return to our roots. We're finding that journey again."