Contributed by Tanya O'Debra
Working in theater is for crazy people. Only the truly disturbed would hear the word “no” repeatedly, but decide that what they actually heard was “yes”. That’s doubly true for the Off-Off-Broadway community, which is made up of people who don’t have commercial looks or commercial ideas and who simply refuse to stop making work that doesn’t fit into the mainstream. This is an area where women are definitely crazier than men, because plays written by women are not produced even close to the rates of their male counterparts, and there are far fewer roles available to female actors (especially if you want to wear all your clothes and not cry to make up for a playwright’s lack of character development). And yet, here we all are. I’ve been around long enough to see Off-Off-Broadway basically crumble around me a couple times over at this point. But like a mischief of rats, we just scurry to the next available building.
I wrote my first play, Fuck You or Dead Pee-holes, an American Tale in Thirteen Acts, with a couple of friends from acting school. We put it up at the now defunct Present Company Theatorium in November of 2000. After our show closed, I worked the box office on and off until fate (and the rent being too damn high, and zoning) shut that space down in 2003. My heart broke a little every time I walked past that empty theater, and I’ll never forgive the apartment building that stands in its place. Unless, of course, they put a theater in the basement.
My partners and I took that same show to my first New York International Fringe Festival in 2001. Our venue was the chop shop next door to the Theatorium. It didn’t even have four walls. The staff put up a sheet of plastic to close off the space. Even with such a challenging venue, our show won an Excellence Award in Over-All Production. We thought we had been set up to fail, but the Off-Off Broadway community doesn’t work that way. We are used to dirty basements and all manner of less than ideal situations, so we can see the theatre beyond the theater. We can see beyond the dollar.
The Kraine picked us up for a five-week run after Fringe was over. Week two of that run was September 11th. The following week, as soon as people were allowed below Houston, there was a meeting of downtown theater artists at that very same chop shop next to the Present Company Theatorium, and the agenda of that meeting was to make sure everyone was still alive. My friends and artistic partners had a separate meeting to decide whether or not theatre was even valuable thing to do in a post-9/11 world. Ultimately, we decided that, of course, it was. We just had to be gentler.
After that, my life was a mess of open mics whose venues all subsequently shut down. RIP to Surf Reality in 2003, Collective: Unconscious in 2008, and The Bowery Poetry Club, which became Duane Park in 2012. And of course there was my regular haunt Mo Pitkin’s, where I performed as a member of the house sketch team for Radical Vaudeville, which closed in 2007. After I left my open mic in 2008, I took my play Radio Star to Edinburgh, then Horse Trade picked it up for a run at The Red Room (RIP in 2013). Boy, do I love Erez Ziv, though he’s basically an enabler who needs to be stopped. From then on, Horse Trade presented whatever crazy work I put out. And even though a car accident put a bit of an unexpected hiatus on my career, I’m sure I’ll be scurrying across one of his stages before long.
This statement reads like an obituary to Off-Off-Broadway venues that have passed on, but it is actually a testament to the idea that our community is not defined by our spaces, but by our passion and by our work. It is defined by the people and by the art. Even though we’ve lost so many of our performance spaces over the years, we are still here. And new artists and audience members join us every day. We will always be here.
TANYA O’DEBRA is a Brooklyn-based, Boston-born writer/performer/funny lady. One half of the ECNY Award-nominated comic sister duo, The O'Debra Twins, Ms. O’Debra has spread mirth and filth all over NYC. Their annual O’Debbie Awards garnered a Best of New York Award from The Village Voice. Her play Fuck You won The Excellence Award in Overall Production at Fringe NYC. Published by Original Works, her play Radio Star has been produced all over the world, receiving numerous awards and accolades. Winner of the Miss Fag Hag Pageant, other theater credits include Patrice O’Debra in Straight Up Vampire (Joe’s Pub), The Evil Queen in Snow White (The New Acting Company) and Amanda McCloud in The Ultimate Stimulus (Dixon Place). Her play, Shut UP, Emily Dickinson, was presented at the Orlando ad Cincinnati Fringe Festivals. She currently cohosts Hawaiian Nights, a comedy interview show on Radio Free Brooklyn.