Friday, January 28, 2011

Why I Love Indie Theater


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Martin Denton.

When I began, nearly 15 years ago, I was a Broadway guy. For me, back then, "New York theatre" was the stuff that got done between 42nd Street and Lincoln Center, with the occasional anomalous foray to Greenwich Village, or, rarely, somewhere else in Manhattan. All the other stuff—what used to get lumped into a category called "off-off-Broadway"—was completely off my radar. My preconceived notion about it was that it was located in undesirable parts of the city, was experimental and/or somehow dangerous, and probably lacking in the professionalism (not to mention lush production values) that I was used to.

Luckily, some wonderful people quickly steered me in a better direction. They made me challenge these silly assumptions by inviting me to see their work, to discover that the world of theatre beyond Broadway and off-Broadway in New York is where the action actually is. In a heady 18 months or so, I found myself going to places I never imagined I'd go to in NYC: to deserted office buildings in the Flatiron District and Midtown; theatres in church basements on the Upper East Side and the far West Village; a whole festival, for goodness sake, in the Lower East Side, in venues with names like House of Candles and the Piano Store.

It was not simply the novelty that made this work feel interesting. And it wasn't simply its quality, though of course that bowled me over right from the start. No, what sold me on indie theater in the late '90s was the unbridled energy: the creativity, invention, and adventurousness of the thing. Thinking back on some of what I saw in 1998—the year I really found my niche and shifted my energies and's focus to the world of indie theater—makes me feel a little giddy: Matt Maher in W. David Hancock's The Race of the Ark Tattoo at P.S. 122; Kirk Wood Bromley's The Death of Griffin Hunter at Walkerspace (the first show of his I ever saw); Let It Ride!, the first production of Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! series, at the Lamb's Theatre; Tim Cusack in Rachel Kranz's Stunt Man, Eric Winick's Ian Fleming Presents Steve Gallin in Nobody Dies Forever, and David Summers & Gary Ruderman's "So, I Killed a Few People...", all at the 2nd FringeNYC Festival; Marc Geller's revival of Dark of the Moon at T. Schreiber Studio; Philip Ridley's The Fastest Clock in the Universe at the old INTAR space on Theatre Row; David Fuller as King Lear in Rod McLucas's production for Theater Ten Ten; Joe Calarco's R&J at the John Houseman Studio Theatre (before it went off-Broadway); Letty Cruz's revival of The Mulligan Guards Ball at Creative Place Theatre; Mark Lonergan's The Return of Avant-Vaudeville at Nada, where we saw the first glimmer of what would become his first hit, Velo/City; Storm Theatre's revival of The Shaughraun at Looking Glass Theatre; and Jason McCullough's Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig at ATA (which was directed by Adam Rapp before he was famous; Shay Gines was the publicist... and that's where she and I first met).

What a year that was! Turns out I was very wrong about Broadway versus its Other.

I have, since, been very fortunate to get to know most of the artists just mentioned, and so many more. Being pulled (willingly) into this community has had a lot to do with how I feel about it. Indie theater is the only kind of theater where audience and artists truly engage and reach the possibility of collaboration and community—there's no sense of rarefied "stars" that creates an "us" and a "them"; rather there's an ecstatic and genuine feeling of equality: everybody in the room is just as important as everybody else, but some of us are astonishingly talented and creative. The generosity of indie theater artists no longer surprises me, but the open arms with which I was welcomed into this community was entirely unexpected when it happened in the late '90s.

I have also stopped being surprised by how often I am inspired by the extraordinary output of the people who make indie theater. Way before I started, I used to tell people that theatre was where I went to find out how I feel about things. The shows I see season after season by NYC's hundreds of indie theater companies constantly reinforce that thesis. But I've learned that theatre can do even more than that. A John Jahnke show (like his recent Men Go Down) teaches me how to see and listen, anew. A performance piece like Judith Malina's Korach reminds me to question all the stuff I think I know. Work by people of different backgrounds from my own (Ralph Pena's Flipzoids, for example) makes me become hungry to stretch and learn what I don't know. Immersive experiences like bluemouth inc.'s Dance Marathon offer authentic renewal and catharsis.

As long as there's stuff like this to take in, I'm not going anywhere.

One of the things I love about being a theatre reviewer is that I don't have to supply the topic for the evening's entertainment—that's the job of the playwright and other artists. All I have to do is show up, watch, and listen.

So, to all the indie playwrights, directors, actors, producers, designers, etc. who are reading this: I'm never going to tell you what kind of art you should make. The only thing I want you to do is to make the art that you know you have to make, and to do it with honesty and without cynicism, embracing the independence that working outside the mainstream provides. You inspire me, and for that I am eternally grateful.