Posted January 9, 2013 at 3:47 pm
by Lizzy Simon, The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2013, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
More than ever, theatergoers in New York are blessed with an embarrassment of riches: experimental work, which has been long marginalized, is awakening traditional stages; nonprofit theaters are investing millions in affordable ticket-pricing and intimate state-of-the-art venues; non-traditional ensembles are dazzling their way into the mainstream.
Many theater makers, on the other hand, are struggling like almost never before, with rising rents compounding other costs that are wildly disproportionate to the income they derive.
With that in mind, we asked 40 New York-based theater artists to anonymously distribute $1 million each in imaginary funds to other local artists, ensembles, theaters and institutions. The participating designers, actors, directors and playwrights come from varied backgrounds, from the experimental to the traditional, and are produced in theaters on, off, and off-off Broadway.
While our sample is too small to yield any broad conclusions, we did notice a few trends in the tally.
First, we heard repeated requests for resources to be allocated to “devised-theater,” an emerging style wherein shows are developed not from a polished script, but through a collaborative process involving performers.
The institutional model of developing plays through readings is, apparently, out of touch with many of New York’s most promising young ensembles. Said one respondent, “This city really lacks places to work for those of us in nontraditional formats and structures, which often require a full technical set up to work with from the first moment, rather than an empty rehearsal studio.”
Second, we noticed that gifts to institutions came with instructions, while those to artists were to be no-strings-attached. “Rent, health insurance, credit card debt: the expenses of daily life as an artist absolutely crush whatever income we make,” said one actor donor. “What I’m doing now can certainly be called success, by many standards: an Obie, a Lortel, critical acclaim, dozens of productions, constant work. And by Dec. 31, I was lucky to clear $32,000 — the most I’ve ever made in the theater in NYC.”
Third, rather conspicuously, each of the artists and ensembles who made the top 10 have shows opening in the coming weeks, their popularity over other artists and companies a likely consequence of them being freshly in the minds of voters.
Finally, one ensemble, Half Straddle, narrowly fell short of the top 10, but exceeded every other artist, theater and institution in the number of contributing donors, receiving $903,33.33 in imaginary money from seven voters.
Here’s the top 10:
1. New Dramatists
From its church headquarters on West 44th Street, this nonprofit has given more than 600 playwrights seven-year residencies to develop work since 1949, offering access to the casting, dramaturgical, and directorial resources they need to explore their work. One playwright donor earmarked $500,000 for a “mommy fund” for child care.
2. The Chocolate Factory
Situated in Long Island City, this 5,000-square-foot, bare-bones theater run by artistic director Brian Rogers and executive director Sheila Lewandowski focuses on experimental multidisciplinary work by emerging artists. Said a veteran, award-winning director, “Brian and Sheila have a unique and simple
agenda: the needs, wants and desires of the artists they present. Anybody in his right mind would declare ‘that’s no way to run a railroad.’ Fortunately for New York experimental-theatre makers, Brian and Sheila are not in their right minds; they are of a higher mind and need to be supported for it.”
Since 1998, this avant-garde, Williamsburg-based ensemble has staged 10 technically ingenious, wacky and provocative shows in local, national and international venues. Said one donor, “The indomitable Eric Dyer has been the engine of Radiohole (performer/ tech wizard/co-director/administrator). He is so frigging poor and works tirelessly to infuse theatre with the fierce spirit of experimentation.”
4. Lark Play Development Center
Since 1994, this West 43rd Street nonprofit has supported new playwrights and developed new audiences for the theater. One donor had this earmark for his contribution: “Buy a brownstone. Offer up two or three rooms for a yearlong collaborative residency — a producer-director-writer, a musician-choreographer-filmmaker. Whatever. They would have to engage the community and do site-specific work using the house as a setting and character.”
5. The Debate Society
This Brooklyn-based devised-theater company, led by Hannah Bos, Oliver Butler and Paul Thureen, wowed critics and audiences this year with “Blood Play” at the Bushwick Starr. The show, about a community of Jews in 1950s suburban Chicago, will be reprised this month at the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. Said one director in making his $100,000 contribution, “To the Debate Society — not that they’ll need the support now that the world has finally caught up to them.”
6. The Public Theater
With five venues, Joe’s Pub, Shakespeare in the Park, and an annual festival of experimental international theater, the Public is a kind of theatrical octopus with artistic director Oskar Eustis at the head. A $1 million playwright donor earmarked his gift for a program annually dedicating one of the theater’s venues to a different playwright who would program the season and serve as an artistic director.
7. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council
This nonprofit creates artist residencies in unlikely places (bank vaults, storefronts, Governors Island), produces events including the River to River festival, and awards $500,000 in grants to artists every year. One director used her imaginary funds to expand LMCC’s residency programs. “As theater artists become more attracted to hybrid work that requires long-term gestation,” she wrote, “the most important resource will be long-term spaces where artists can keep their sets up and work in a cohesive way.”
8. The Kitchen
Located in Chelsea, this non-profit space focuses on experimental visual, literary, video, dance, theater and performance art. It reportedly suffered $500,000 in damage from Hurricane Sandy. Said its $1 million director donor:
“They have a curatorial perspective that is beholden to no one, and what could be better than that? They need resources. I give them the whole bag of bills. Without hesitation.”
9. Theater for a New Audience
For more than three decades, Theater for a New Audience has focused on new interpretations of Shakespeare and the classics, as well as arts in education. Its $1 million set-designer donor asked to earmark his gift so that founding artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz could create a second space, “dedicated to the work of young directors and designers (under 35) to produce constructed pieces or imaginative interpretations of classics. This kind of work is sadly lacking any kind of institutional support in NYC.”
10. (tie) Juilliard, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, playwright Thomas Bradshaw
For Juilliard, a world leader in the training of premier performing artists, one actor donor earmarked his contribution to elementary-school arts education. For La MaMa, in the East Village, one $1 million donor wrote, “The spirit of Ellen Stewart lives on, but they sure could use some coins to fix up the place.” And provocative playwright Thomas Bradshaw, the only individual to make the top 10, earned this enthusiastic endorsement from a $1 million donor: “I love and believe in everything he does, and I can’t say that about anyone else.”