Summer in the City
Festival season kicks into high gear with HOT!, Ice Factory, Fresh Fruit, Summer Play Festival, Midtown International Theatre Festival, and The American Living Room.
"Homoeroticism for the whole family" is the tagline of Dixon Place's annual celebration of queer culture, now in its 15th year. "I've got an understanding of 'queer' that is steeped in the tradition of direct action, and being an outsider," says Dax. "It's also informed by a progressive politics and is fairly inclusive." The festival features works by established downtown performers like Reno, Mike Albo, and Penny Arcade, as well as lesser known artists such as Seth Stewart, Dynasty Handbag, and Robb Leigh Davis.
Two Dixon Place commissions are at the center of the festival. The first is Jeffrey Essmann's Skin Deep, a new work from an artist who is making a return to New York after a 10-year absence. "Jeffrey harks back to that fertile downtown theater and performance milieu that Dixon Place emerged out of," says Dax. The other commission is Kate Rigg's Americasiana: Stories, Dreams, Reoriented. According to Dax, "Kate has a foot in a bunch of different communities -- Asian American, stand-up comedy, and traditional theater. There can be an insularity to the downtown performance community, and so it's exciting to bring in someone who may not be as familiar to the Dixon Place audience."
Now in its 13th year, Ice Factory presents six works in various stages of development. For example, Betrothed, by the company Ripe Time, is early in its process. It is a cross-cultural dance-infused adaptation of three stories exploring women's relationships to marriage and to independence. On the other hand, Aruba, by the English company People Can Run, was a hit at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is fully developed. Combining black humor and physical absurdity, it tells the tale of three desperate young urbanites whose worlds begin to unravel. Another intriguing piece is Jaded Assassin, by Tim Haskell's Big Time Action Theater, featuring over 70 minutes of fight/action choreography.
Robert Lyons, artistic director of the Soho Think Tank, which produces the festival, says that there's no set concept uniting the various pieces. However, he does note that there is "usually some sort of social engagement and heightened theatricality." Unlike some of the other summer festivals, Ice Factory presents its pieces one at a time, each one receiving four days of technical rehearsal followed by four performances. "A lot of these artists are working in multiple theatrical vocabularies," says Lyons. "They can realize the productions more fully, as opposed to having to load-in for a half hour and get out in a half hour. The production values are really high."
"I think the more festivals the better," says Arielle Tepper, founder and producer of the Summer Play Festival, now in its third year. "There are so many writers out there who need an outlet, and the truth is if they can be a part of a group event like a festival it is much better for them than just putting up a show." SPF receives roughly 1,000 play and musical submissions a year. Its focus is on playwrights, with the festival providing a line producer and a $10,000 budget for each of the 15 plays it selects.
This year's entries include works such as The Butcherhouse Chronicles by Michael P. Hidalgo, a darkly comic horror show about four students in search of their missing history teacher; Jim Knable's Spain, about a woman who encounters a 16th-century conquistador in her 21st-century living room; and A Wive's Tale, by Christina Ham, a futuristic drama about a group of barren women conspiring to create the perfect society. A number of notable Broadway and Off-Broadway names have attached themselves to individual productions, including directors Scott Schwartz and Jeremy Dobrish, as well as actors Anna Chlumsky, Lizbeth MacKay, Michael Rupert, Elizabeth Waterston, and William Youmans.
"A lot of the LGBT work that's out there now for public consumption stresses a particular part of the community," says Carol Polcovar, artistic director of Fresh Fruit. "We want to make our festival diverse." This year's fourth annual multidisciplinary celebration includes a Two Spirit evening, featuring music and poetry from Native American performers; an art exhibition entitled Ripe Fruit; and a movie night featuring a special preview of Queer Duck: The Movie followed by a Q&A with Mike Reiss, the four-time Emmy Award-winning writer and creator of Queer Duck.
Among the theater offerings at Fresh Fruit is Polcovar's own My Mother Told Me I Was Different, a docudrama on the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, based upon interviews the playwright conducted with eyewitnesses, participants, and even a beat cop who was there. "I really wasn't looking for a historic truth," says Polcovar. "I wanted to know the individual truths of why one hot night in June a bunch of gay people, queer people, and some straight people who normally didn't do such a thing caused a major riot that went on for five days."
While SPF focuses on playwrights, MITF is more interested in producers applying to its festival, now in its seventh year. "We are very clear that people who are applying should be prepared to produce and promote their plays, whether they wrote them or not," says executive director John Chatterton. This year, the festival had two artistic directors who made the selection -- one who focused on plays and another on solo shows. Next year, Chatterton hopes to also have one devoted to musicals, and another for international works.
This year's MITF boasts 45 different productions in four venues over a 21-day period. Works include The Girls of Summer, by Layon Gray, about an all-black female baseball team in 1945 whose coach is mysteriously found dead; Pie Obsessed Drunken Fatties, a collage of comic monologues and interpretive dance dealing with relationships by Julie Perkins and Marjorie Suvalle; and Jews Don't Join the Circus, Beth Bongar's autobiographical solo show that chronicles her journey from Park Avenue luxury to a traveling circus.
Now in its 17th year, The American Living Room is NYC's oldest and longest-running summer festival. "The original focus was as a directing cabaret," says Kristin Marting, artistic director of HERE Arts Center, which produces the festival. The focus has changed and expanded over the years, and now showcases multidisciplinary works.
Among the 37 pieces in this year's festival are Cause for Alarm, by Tina Goldstein, a musical theater piece in which singers embody the sound of car alarms; Thirst, designed and performed by Jil Guyon, based on the Bjork-inspired composition "Prayer of the Heart," by John Tavener; and Remote, by Sara Kraft and Ed Purver, which fuses performance with live and recorded video to illuminate how detachment can allow the grace of perspective and the capacity for violence.
"What we were looking for this year was risk-taking," says Marting. "My favorite quote about the festival is 'the best and worst theater in New York.' I totally take pride in that, because it's all about giving artists a chance to explore, and it's okay with me if they don't succeed. What's important is they have a strong vision and are pursuing that vision."