Being Positive on 4th Street: in a Blaze of Glory
In October 2012, The Horse Trade Group (HTG) had successfully rallied the communities of artists in downtown NYC and saved UNDER St. Marks, a forty-five seat basement theatre space between 1st Ave and Avenue A. In the months leading up to this dramatic turn of the tide the owner had intended to sell the building, but paused, allowing HTG to try to raise the funds to secure a longer lease. I remember posting the Indiegogo link on my Facebook page, and a number of artists, such as playwright Joshua Conkel, lamenting what the loss would mean for us all – how a number of us had grown there, were able to take risks, and create the kind of theatre, which frankly, we wanted to see and engage audience members – many of whom were also artists.
Two of my favorite events at Under St. Marks were Rising Sun Performance Company’s production of my short play “Southern Werewolf,” in which director Rachel Klein choreographed a transformation under the moonlight to “The Monster Mash,” and RSPC’s production of Will Kern’s Hellcab which required us to lug in a reconstructed front of a car (okay, it was wood, but it was heavy wood), along with bench seats (front and back) for a ten week winter run (I came in at week four).
I remember reading blogs, Tweets, and Facebook status updates celebrating HTG’s seven year lease. There seemed to be a collected sigh of relief for HTG, and for us all. Furthermore, it was a fairly visible campaign, and a number of us were granted the opportunity to declare to The Public At Large that indie theatre matters, and this victory, in some way, proved it (this might be my own sentiment, but as someone who regularly justifies what he does, I stand by my feelings). And just on the heels of that celebration, we were hit with more disturbing news: The Red Room, another space managed by HTG, is closing. No, not closing. Being “re-purposed.”
As stated on HTG’s website, The Red Room, located just above the Kraine Theatre on 4th Street, is “an intimate black-box like space. With 32 stackable chrome and padded seats on fixed risers and a flexible stage depth, The Red Room is ideal for especially innovative artists.” As with UNDER St. Marks, I have a history with this space: my plays Goodnight Lovin’ Trail and On Top have both been performed at The Red Room. Indeed, I earned my first positive review from OffOffOnline with RSPC’s production of the latter, while the former was featured as part of 2011 FRIGID New York (a festival co-created by HTG and San Francisco’s EXIT Theatre, and produced in the HTG’s three operating spaces – UNDER St. Marks, Kraine Theatre, and The Red Room), and the FRIGID Hangover.
I asked Erez Ziv, the Managing Director for HTG, what will become of The Red Room? Ziv responded that the future for the space is a bit foggy: “It started out as one thing and is now looking like an events space. The bottom line is an attempt to make the room produce more money.” In fact, The Red Room is not the only space which has been closed or re-purposed. According to Shay Gines (cofounder of the Innovative Theatre Foundation), an estimated twenty-five percent of Off-Off Broadway spaces have closed. The ITF’s website has a growing list of spaces that are no longer operational. As Martin Denton suggests, “there’s a very disturbing trend in that small theater spaces are being closed down at a higher rate than the community can really afford; this has been going on for at least a decade, but it seems to be accelerating.”
Denton, a well-known champion for indie theatre, also believes that indie theatre proves a neighborhood’s viability, and is not properly acknowledged nor rewarded: “Basically, indie theater seems to locate itself at the vanguard of re-emerging neighborhoods in the city, and once the theater vibe proves that a neighborhood is viable, other sectors follow and eventually price the theaters out of the neighborhood they revitalized. This happened in the Lower East Side, in Soho/Tribeca, and is now happening in other areas as well.” What makes The Red Room different? “4th Street contains a number of protected spaces like La MaMa and Duo that are probably immune to this situation, so The Red Room’s departure is a surprise.” Erez Ziv, however, does not feel the situation is so grim: “Every few years there is a new story about the dramatic amount of theater closings, they do indeed close to fast. However, what happens inside a theater is more important than the facility itself and we are celebrating that in throughout the month of March in The Red Room with “Blaze of Glory.”
The Blaze of Glory is a month-long celebration, looking back on fifteen years of productions and performances hosted in The Red Room. The program opens on March 4 with Kevin R. Free’s A Raising in the Salad: Black Plays for White People, a hit in the 2010 FringeNYC, and closes on March 31 with Peter Aguero’s Bare, a mixture of storytelling and burlesque. RSPC is also producing my two plays, Goodnight Lovin’ Trail and On Top on March 30. As stated in their press release, “Horse Trade couldn't let The Red Room go without a proper send-off!”
Ziv’s closing thought to me was “How about doing a story about all the new theaters that have blossomed in the last few years as a follow up to this one?” This is indeed a good question. After all, we artists tend not to go away in the face of diminished funding and loss of space. At the same time, it is so easy to feel doom-and-gloom given the economic state of affairs for indie theatre artists, and yet events such as "Blaze of Glory" remind us that we are still here, still viable, still excited, and still creating work. New artists, new companies, new opportunities emerge despite the odds, and new spaces indeed follow suit. With the growing theatre communities in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Long Island City, it is clear that the arts are thriving in and around NYC, despite financial turmoil. What we need are more celebrations of the arts, celebrations such as "Blaze of Glory," which will close out The Red Room with a bang, not a whimper.
Although I am ending this article on a high note, there is still one question which nags at me, and it has to do with a comment made by Martin Denton: if a theatre can prove a neighborhood’s viability -- indeed, pave the way for further recovery -- than why won’t the neighborhood support the theatre once it has recovered? I do not have an answer. But I can urge you to go out and see something. See something tonight. See something close to where you live. And in March, see something in The Red Room. Be a part of the celebration of independent theatre. Theatre exists for you.