Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Out with the Old…

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, James Carter.

This week is my 17th anniversary of living in New York City. I, like so many before me, came here to study acting. I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and shortly thereafter, I was cast in my first play. The play came and went, and the venue, One Dream in TriBeCa, disappeared, too, like so many of the other Off-Off Broadway spaces in downtown New York. I went on to perform at Nada on Ludlow, cut my teeth writing at Collective:Unconscious , and I experienced some of my favorite avant-garde work at Surf Reality and The Theatorium. All are gone, except the names and memories. Trav S.D. gave a great obituary for some of these venues in a 2003 The Village Voice article, examining a shift in the theatrical landscape of the Lower East Side. Recently, our beloved Ohio Theatre lost its space, and this season, 3LD (who recently overcame their own real estate woes) will help keep The Ohio floating on their ship for the time being. When we’re in the thick of it, it feels like the creative joy will never end. But it does end. Everything always does.

I don’t want to lament the loss of downtown theaters. Too often, our community focuses on loss of “great theaters” that cultivated life from their petri dishes of downtown awesomeness. Some truly are victims of inflation, real estate vampires and lack of funding. Some people, however, do not know how to manage spaces and let venues run to near ruins because egos stand in the way of allowing those more knowledgeable help them improve or change bad business practices. There are great moments in OOB, but there are horrors, too. The loss of some theaters may not be a bad thing. I even suggest the loss of some theaters have created opportunity where many OOB theatre artists would have never imagined 15 years ago. That opportunity is Brooklyn.

What I’m sharing isn’t new. The Brick, Chez Bushwick and Vampire Cowboys are the shit. They are the new homes to displaced downtowners who once lived across and down the street from Katz’s Delicatessen (http://www.katzdeli.com/). Two of the three of these are Caffe Cino Fellowship winners. All three of them generate work at a fast and furious level. Granted, Vampire Cowboys produce in Manhattan, but their Battle Ranch houses Saloons and rehearsal space for some of the greatest OOB theatre artists, including Taylor Mac. Fresh artists like Reggie Watts, Thomas Bradshaw, Crystal Skillman and Qui Nguyen throw down in the BK. These homes allow artists to explore, create and, most importantly, have fun. These companies have proven you don’t need to be in Manhattan to be cool, and people will trek a few stops into Brooklyn to experience new and exciting theatre.

We are a sentimental bunch, theatre people. We laugh hard, love hard and we lose hard. We will go kicking and screaming before someone takes what’s “ours”. Theatre people don’t have much, and when we get something – anything at all – we cling to it for dear life. I’m suggesting that we learn to let go. There was a wise old dude who explained why we all suffer – it’s because we cling to things. Let it go, and you no longer suffer. The less we suffer, the clearer our minds will be to move forward and generate great theatre.

It all ebbs and flows, and we need to focus on now. If a venue is endangered, of course we should fight for it. More importantly, though, we should focus on the OOB theaters that are succeeding. Why are they succeeding? Did they go to Brooklyn and find cheaper rent? Did they get sharp managers who wish to treat fellow artists with respect? Do they keep their season manageable, not overloading, double booking, and writing checks their butts can’t cash? Too often we roll our eyes and allow poorly run theater spaces to continue abusing and hurting the very community it purports to support. It seems we should focus on those doing it well to figure out how to get better.

The landscape of OOB has drastically changed over the past 17 years. When I arrived in New York, there was no organization like the Innovative Theatre Awards. The League of Independent Theatre hadn’t even been imagined. Hell, the word “blog” didn’t even exist, and now we have a place to put our thoughts and share with each other. As we entered the 21st Century, our gathering spaces may have changed, but they’ve become more organized and more global. Now, we congregate on Twitter and Facebook, sharing links with people from other countries, growing our understanding of theatrical greatness. If we embrace all that works and let go of that which doesn’t, we will grow by learning from the past.

What are some venues you think are doing a great job and why?

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