|July 1999. Me outside Expanded Arts on Ludlow, the Lower East Side NYC|
The weather and my challenges with small-scale theatre enterprises has made me nostalgic today and I sit here remembering back to my younger days as a theatre artist.
In 1999 I lived in New York City. I visited the first time in late 1998 and then returned when one of my plays received a staged reading by Reverie Productions at Walker Space Theatre (the home of Soho Rep) in Tribeca. I stayed throughout 1999 and I returned to visit in the summer of 2000. I went back to live there in the spring of 2001 and stayed until September of that year. At the New York International Fringe Festival that year, where I was producing one of my own plays, I met some organizers of a festival in Austin called the M.O.M. Fest. The full name was Mind Over Money Festival. Finding out I was a fellow Texan, they invited me to participate in it, which was going up at the beginning of October. I flew out of La Guardia home to Texas the night of September 10, 2001. The intention was to rehearse a revue-style show based on thematically-linked pieces from a sketch comedy troupe I was a part of and then return to New York three weeks later. That return did not happen. The next day, some airplanes hit some buildings and I got stuck in my hometown. I started all over again.
|Lower East Side... you can see at the corner at the end of the street - at Ludlow and Houston - is the famous Katz's Deli.|
The Lower East Side was a hotbed of small-scale theatre activity in the late 1990s. Across Delancey Street, a block further north on Ludlow one was waist-deep in Aaron Beall's off-off-Broadway empire. Within rock-throwing distance of the corner of Ludlow and Stanton one could hit one of Beall's venues - all small and divey to a fault. There was the Piano Store (which I rented a basement room in for rehearsals), Collective Unconscious, the backroom at the Pink Pony Cafe and Todo Con Nada (which everyone just called Nada). I met Beall once in the offices of the Piano Store. He has at his zenith in the summer of 1999. An impresario known for taking the lion's share of the box office split for his operations, Beall and his empire imploded a short time later when his Pure Pop Fest went up against the New York International Fringe Festival (which he had helped start) and had failed horribly.
|This anonymous black basement space used to be Todo Con Nada, a semi-legendary storefront theatre space that thrived in the 1990s|
The whole scene was more grunge than Grotowski. It was filled with artists and soon-to-be-artists. All the Artistic Directors seemed to have Ahab-like intensity and fanaticism. The hundreds of shows that were put on were definitely of the experimental ilk. Ian W. Hill lived in and managed Nada. Playwrights Trav S. D., Brian Parks, Carolyn Raship and Kirk Wood Browley were some of the emerging artists at the time. Future semi-household names such as John Leguizamo, the comedian Reno, and Blue Man Group all presented at Nada. Actor James Urbaniak and Drama Dept. director Randall Curtis Rand started at that time on the Lower East Side. As did the Target Margin Theatre and the avant garde Elevator Repair Service. Eccentric elf-eared humorist Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam played weekly. The interactive docudrama Charlie Victor Romeo was a hit of the downtown scene. The modesty of the Piano Store was deceptive, but among the hits it fostered were Fun Box 2000 and The Donkey Show. I seem to remember Richard Foreman's Benita Canova playing across from the Piano Store (I don't remember what it was about, but I do remember the lead actress wore a sexy school girl outfit), but I'm not sure if I saw it there or at St. Marks. Radiohole started up around this time. Beall himself put on Faust and Hamlet festivals before his Pure Pop Fest debacle. 1999 was also the year Urinetown put the New York International Fringe Festival on the map.
All the theatres have closed by now. The area has undergone quite the gentrification/
hipsterization that is common at a lot of formerly awesome areas (think Williamsburg, Brooklyn). In neighboring areas one can still find Big Cheap Theater. Just north in the East Village, one can catch shows at the Horse Trade trifecta: the Kraine, the Red Room, and the St. Marks Theater. But on Ludlow Street, everything has changed. The area transformed into a mini-Soho during the boom years of the fin de siècle. Upscale boutiques, chic hipster bars, and nightclubs have replaced divey independent arts venues.
I look back on this time and place in my past and realize, indirectly, it has had a huge influence on me. I knew at the time I was, even peripherally, part of something special, but the residual effects are what have stuck.
I was steeped in independent theatre. Folks like producers Beall and John Clancy (over at The Present Company at the time) were obsessive about theatre. They approached it with a craftsman's diligence and a certain grubby magic. They were capitalistic, but not commercial. Individual voices and novel approaches were valued. New work was welcomed, especially high-energy, bare-bones, intellectually engaging and terrifically contemporary. The Lower East Side in those years when I was there (1998-2001) was the indiest of indie theatre, the kind that is independent to a fault. And I ate it up.
|The Present Company Theatorium at 198 Stanton Street, between Attorney and Ridge, ran from 1998 til 2003|
And here's the deal. I really barely grazed it. All told, this made up just around two years of my life, but my memories of the LES happened to me while I was young. I was just starting out on this adventure called "a career in the theatre." Everything seemed more intense and jam-packed. Back then, everything happened fast, it seemed, and the experiences were in the form of concentrate. I know this because now I am older and not in such a damn hurry.
I try to go back sometimes, but it is never and will never be the same. I have returned five times for the New York International Fringe Festival. Despite the fancy name, when I first went in 1999, I experienced it as a messy, dirty, punk-rock party. That was the epitome of the Lower East Side theatre experience in a nutshell. I went back last year to the New York International Fringe Festival with my solo show CHOP and it was nothing like that. It seemed like the word fringe should be taken out of the title. Too many rules, too much red tape, too much sprawl, too much bureaucracy, too much expense. I look at FringeNYC now and it looks like an institution. A big, unwieldy, out-of-touch, overly-commercial institution. I looked at the kids working the FringeNYC in 2012 and all I thought was, "my god it looks so dull" and "just loosen up and stop going by your damn handbook, we're making theatre here" and "poor miserable bastards, you'll never know the fun and horror of what it used to be like".
And it is not just that I'm older now. Sure I'm not the same. But neither is it. But as I write this, it occurs to me... I guess to look backwards from time to time can be, in a small way, a reminder of how we look forward.