Thursday, February 28, 2008

again with the laziness

This is part laziness, but also got interested in going through the old files last week. I was looking for some real estate research I'd done back before we got the Theatorium and found this.

Cool little historical footnote for you future historians: EdgeNY was co-edited by Jen Woodward and David Cote, back when Cote was still wearing short pants, right before he hit puberty. Damn he was cute. "EdgeNY" sounds wrong to me, but that's what I wrote back then, so I'm letting it slide.

Originally published in Volume One, Issue One of EdgeNY, February 1999

I’m writing this at a table in Tonic, a hip little coffee shop/salon/nightclub on Norfolk Street down here on the Lower East Side. Odds are good that you’re reading this somewhere not far from Tonic, unless this magazine’s circulation and distribution departments are shooting high early, which is possible. Let’s say you’re nowhere near Tonic, you’re uptown or in the West Village or sitting in some tower in midtown.

Wherever you are, odds are still good that if your eyes are scanning this page you have involvement with downtown theater or emerging theater or independent theater or Off-Off Broadway or whichever euphemism you use. We probably have a lot in common. We probably know some of the same people, have seen some of the same shows, read the same books, hang out in the same bars, hell I probably know you, it’s not that big a town. But wherever you sit, whatever you read, wherever you drink and whoever you are, the odds are astronomical that we belong to the same community, because I haven’t belonged to anything I recognize as a community since around 1969.

I was six in ’69, so it wasn’t a sex and drugs commune, sorry, it was a neighborhood of red brick houses in St. Louis. Every summer we’d have a block party and the adults would get blitzed on Budweiser, the bottles floating in plastic wading pools filled with iced water, and we kids would run around screaming, eating hot dogs, drinking orange soda and trying to push each other into the beer pools. Everybody there knew each other, lived next door to each other, walked the same streets under the same sky, everyday.

In the 29 years since 1969, I’ve belonged to many groups, joined many organizations and found much in common with many people. But I’m not part of a community anymore, not one I recognize. Not like that neighborhood in St. Louis in the burning summer of 1969.

For me, now, the word “community” has become a funding word, a buzzword, less than a word. It’s joined “outreach” and “development” and “mission” on that sad historical scrap heap. They are all fine, solid words conjuring up beautiful, valuable concepts, but when we use them in the performing arts they become deeply suspect and hollow as gourds.

One could mistake the theaters and theater owners that have taken part in FringeNYC for the past two years as a community. We brave the same administrative and financial challenges every day, we book a lot of the same acts, for the most part we know, respect and enjoy each other. But we more closely resemble a merchant’s organization or a cartel than we do a community. One could mistake the tremendous number of talented, driven artists in this town that stubbornly make great theater in the face of the polite disinterest or outright hostility they encounter every day as a community. When one of us is threatened or censored or attacked we all feel the chill. But we’re more of a big social club or a leaderless army or, more often than not, an unruly mob than we are any kind of meaningful community.

So I don’t know much about communities except that I miss them and don’t much trust these new-fangled ones people keep trying to sell me. If I think back to ’69, what I remember most about that community was the neighborhood itself. The trees, the streets, the houses and the people I saw everyday. So let me tell you a bit about the neighborhood I live in now, the neighborhood I’m sitting in, right now, my new neighborhood.

My company converted an empty chop shop/speakeasy/cocaine retail outlet on Stanton Street into the Theatorium last July. My wife and I moved into a place around the corner a few weeks ago, so I now live and work in the same neighborhood. On the corner of Stanton and Ridge is Sajoma, a bodega run by Frankie, Pedro, their father, their mother and an aunt. A big Supermercado opened up right across the street from Sajoma in September and you can bet Frankie and Pedro weren’t welcoming those guys into the Stanton Street Bodega Community. They thought they’d go under. The new place is four times their size, but it hasn’t happened yet. There seem to be enough dollar bills and food stamps to go around. The new guys are good people, too. The boss’s name I could never catch and now I’m too embarrassed to ask so I call him Jefe and his wife laughs at my Spanish every morning. They have better coffee than Sajoma, but I still buy my cigarettes from Frankie. Just doing my part to further the equal distribution of wealth.

There’s a big Catholic church right across the street from our apartment, Our Lady of Sorrows, and I look down at it from my window and think of my childhood and some mornings even seriously think about catching a mass some day. I met the priest back in July when we first got the Theatorium, a purely political move on my part, but at least we recognize each other now. Just a matter of time before he drops by to see a show. I just hope it doesn’t suck when he finally does.

It’s not St. Louis, but it is a neighborhood – an actual, living community. It will be a few years before I can say it’s my community, assuming the Theatorium is still there and the locals keep coming. I look forward to that. I look forward to being part of a community again. I miss that feeling greatly.

UPDATE, 2/28/08
Nine years later, we’re still here, Frankie’s place is still here, though Frankie isn’t around anymore, he got a job as an assistant teacher at a grade school over in Brooklyn. Pedro joined the Army years ago, haven't seen him in quite awhile. Supermercado is doing fine and of course the church is still open for business.

So what’s gone? The Theatorium closed its doors five years ago, four years after I wrote the words above. It’s a vacant lot right now, cleared for the next huge Hideous Incongruity they’re about to build. Tonic has been gone for years now.

So the businesses and churches survived and the arts spaces didn’t.

Go figure.


Nan said...

Funny, I actually miss the Theatorium. I never thought I would come to this. I am really thrilled we did it.

Last night, with all the Fringe veterans, laughing about the cold Theatorium, the "heater" that blew warm air only down right, creating havoc with the blocking of any show, Gus the Rat(size of a small canine), exploding toilets, Ralph the plumber,the roof,etc. Hilarious only in retrospect.

Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

After I got to the city in 2001, the Theatorium was the one space where I really wanted to put up a show "some day". While at the same time figuring, it'd be quite a while before I'd ever be able to afford it, and/or be able to get a foot in the door. I loved going to see shows in that space.

So, do you feel any different about the theatrical "community" these days, or is it same old, same old?

John said...

Nothing new under the sun, little brother.

Anonymous said...

This community issue is something that's been on my mind a bit and I think it relates a lot to your post about the theater world lacking a moral code. It doesn't say much that the points in history where cultural and intellectual pursuits have reached their peaks, morality has hit a low (think Greece and Rome in their prime or Germany in its prime). That, for me, has been a huge issue. Mostly because I showed up to NYC thinking that theater was all about giving so everyone who does it must be really nice. Ha. My temporary solution has been to keep a community in which morality is central and consider the performance world a job that just has a strong social bent to it. Sometimes people cross over by happy accident. But I haven't had to test this much since I'm only going to be in the country for a few more months. Ah, well, might be fodder.

John said...

Yeah, Kate, it's weird.

I try to keep an ethical attitude right front and center when I ask people to step out on stage, no judgement of the audience, no waste of time or money or energy on display, but our job is a very strange one. The first duty of the artist is to hold people, not to teach them or lead them to some kind of truth. That's the teachers and the family and the churches. Maybe you can get close to some of that sometimes when you're doing what we do, but that's not the actual job.

Weird, like I said.

You're leaving the USA? Be careful, they don't like us so much out there these days.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you put that. Thank you. Funny how when you just find the right words for things you can make sense of them better--even though things aren't the words that describe them. Weird again.

I'm going to Israel. So the worry isn't the people that hate Americans, just the people who hate Israel. But why worry.

I also have a nifty backup for some European countries... Canadian citizenship. I've considered getting a CDN passport if I go to France. Some countries see the two as the same but many don't. I also think I'd have fun with more than one passport--secret agent style.

John said...

You are Jason Bourne. Except Dave Calvitto already is Jason Bourne. He's got an Italian passport, funniest thing I've ever seen. There's Dave looking out at you, but the passport is all in Italian. Like he's an Italian guy, or something.

Boy was born in Paterson, NJ.