There’s a 3 ½ floor in the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. It’s buried at the back of the building, large enough to hold only one room. It was a janitor’s closet back when the CSV used to be Public School 160—but during the sweltering summer of 1997, in the thick of the 1st Annual New York International Fringe Festival, I called that crawlspace home.
As in—I lived in a janitor’s closet all through the Fringe.
Most theatre artists living in New York have their own personal war story over the Fringe at this point. Whether it’s performing in a cramped black boxer or slogging through an air-conditionless afternoon as an audience member, we’ve all earned our Off-Off-Broadway red badge of courage from the Fringe. But in true you-just-had-to-be-there fashion, there really was something exceptional about that inaugural year of the fest. Pre-Urinetown, the Fringe attached as many off’s to its Broadway with reckless abandon by rooting itself within every closet, every attic, every below-the-code and foreclosed storefront in the Lower East Side.
That included the Clemente.
Built by the Board of Education of the City of New York in 1898, this neo-Gothic school building has since had its classrooms converted into four theaters, two gallery spaces and over fifty different artist studios. The Fringe took it further that first year, transforming the entire building into a bunker of batshit-independent, no-fi, devil-may-care theater. No classroom went unoccupied without some one-man show exorcising itself before the blackboard. Even the library was renovated into a fifty-seater. Some overworked techie threw up a few bed-sheets over the bookshelves and clamped down a couple clip-lights onto the sprinkler system—and voilà:
A new venue was born, aptly christened—The Library.
Through some fortuitous venue-programing on the Fringe’s part, this was the theater me and my friends were assigned to herald the NYC-debut of our own production—The Pumpkin Pie Show.
I was eighteen. I was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman. On a whim, I applied to the Fringe, never believing I’d ever get in—but lord almighty, suddenly I was responsible for thirteen performances on the boards in the Big Apple.
And I lived in Virginia.
With no money.
Total budget for metropolis-lodging for the month of August: $180.00.
Here we were—three kids, right off the bus from the Ol’ Dominion. My friends and I had taken the Greyhound, packing our props in the bus’s underbelly. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed really doesn’t cut it. Chalk us up to dim-witted and dumb-assed, because we’d just arrived in New York without a place to stay, under the assumption that it would be a cinch to simply check in to the nearest performing arts hostel with only the change rattling about our pockets.
No such luck. Everything was booked. Everything. And the places that weren’t weren’t exactly spots we’d feel safe falling asleep in without someone standing watch.
It’s pretty amazing how swift this city can crush a kid coming from Virginia. We hadn’t been here for more than a couple hours, hefting our set—and already, we felt like we’d lost.
And we still had a show to put on.
And fill butts in seats.
Closing night felt a long, long ways away.
Ed Vega, head of the CSV back then, just-so-happened to be within earshot of our sob story.
You guys are really stupid, he said, shaking his head.
Yes, we agreed.
Wanna live here?
I got a broom closet upstairs that’s empty right now, he said. Paint the walls before you leave and it’s all yours.
A closet might’ve been a bit of an understatement, but it was ours. All ours.
There was a shower within the room, no curtain attached. We’d give each other the courtesy of turning a blind eye to whomever was bathing, for modesty’s sake.
There was a toilet in the corner with no enclosure—so whenever one of us needed to use the facilities, the rest would evacuate the premises.
There was no air-conditioning.
Hell—there was no air.
We found a cot, which the three of us would alternate sleeping on throughout the month. Sometimes, I’d sneak into the Library and sleep onstage.
We didn’t have keys. Each night, we had to make sure we were in the building by the time the venue director locked the front doors. Sure enough, there were a few nights when one particular member of our trio would inevitably stumble back from the bar a little too late for curfew, finding himself locked out—sleeping on the fire escape until the venue director returned the following morning to let him back in.
I was convinced the school was haunted with the ghosts of dead school children.
Or Lower East Side bohemians.
Or a little bit of both.
But the fact of the matter was—this sleepless, sore-muscled existence was one of the purest inductions into downtown theater that I was ever going to get. We came to NYC with nothing but our show strapped to our backs—and yet, through it all, somehow, it miraculously made its way onto the stage. Sure, only five people saw it—but that’s (almost) besides the point.
We made it.
We got here.
And we put on a show.
An awful show, of course—but trial by fire, right? We burned through thirteen performances, making fools out ourselves in front of our poor, poor paying audience. But as far as inauspicious beginnings go, ours was a glorious failure. One that’s hard to not feel a little sentimental about.
There’s a space within this city. Nothing but a room. It’s probably no longer a theater anymore, having been renovated into a yoga studio or something else by now—that will forever possess the first Pumpkin Pie Show.
I snuck back into the CSV once, a few years back—just to peak my head inside the janitor’s closet on the 3 ½ floor.
The door was locked. Whatever was in there now, the maudlin-in-me imagined three squatting teens, curled up in their sleeping bags like newborn pups in a shoebox. Sometimes the closest thing to ghosts that haunt a theater are the shows performed within them. If that’s actually the case, then the Clemente is haunted by a bunch of ripe smelling Virginians waiting for their 30-minute turnaround between shows to set up and perform.