Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Confessions of an Independent Artist/Producer part 1 - History lesson


Contributed by guest blogger of the week, Paul Bargetto.

I have been working as a director and independent producer in New York City since 1996. I began my career at the Collective:Unconscious, a self described "art hole" on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side. For my first year in the big city I lived in the basement, under the stage with six other artists. In this wild and sleepless theater I began exploring and creating my first experiments as a director and producer. Traveling down to Ludlow Street at that time was still a somewhat risky proposition as its commercial heart was driven by the drug trade and the random mugging. That and theater! There was an amazing cluster of small Off-Off-Broadway theaters on that block at that time including The House of Candles, Todo Con Nada, The Piano Store, Expanded Arts, and of course Collective:Unconscious. Soon the bars followed the theater audiences down the block and for a brief time the scene was in full flower. The International Fringe Festival was born the following year on Suffolk Street. I was young, burning with ambition, and thrilled at the possibilities of making theater in such an amazing community.

Then the real estate bubble tidal wave that was poised over our head crashed down with a vengeance. Exploding rents shuttered almost all of those small theaters within three years and drove many of the artists to move out of Manhattan. A general migration began to the outer boroughs, first to Williamsburg, just over the bridge in Brooklyn and then to Queens and Long Island City. Those neighborhoods would also in time face the same problem and today's theater artists have been driven farther and farther from the creative center of Manhattan, the audience for their work, and most importantly from each other.

Those few blocks of Ludlow Street are unrecognizable to me today, it has transformed into an expansion of Soho boutiques and bridge and tunnel bars. The building that used to house the Collective Unconscious was torn down and never rebuilt. An "art hole" to the end!

Yet independent theater continued to grow and thrive! Each new year has brought more and more artists, many of them with freshly minted MFA's from ivy league schools. Despite the space churn and ever rising costs more and more dreamers bought the one way ticket, formed companies, and chased down their vision of a new theater and an artistic home. That process has continued right up to today, so that now, Independent/Off-Off-Broadway contains the largest population of theater artists in the city, and the nation.

This has created an incredibly fertile scene, with many brilliant artists who are pushing the boundaries and creating new forms. I have never seen as many exciting new plays, ensembles, and festivals as there are today. But this historic migration of American and international theater artists to New York City has created and exposed a host of systemic problems. I believe that the system of funding, presenting and producing as it stands today is at a crossroads and faces a fundamental crises. I believe that our already threadbare funding is consistently being misdirected, that the outlets and touring options available for successful work are limited or non-existent, and that the artists making this fabulous revolution are so under compensated as to guarantee that it is unsustainable. I will discuss each of these issues in greater detail in more entries to come.


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