A Prediction: The Rural Theater Movementby Gary Winter
A playwright/actor friend, KK, dips our dim-sum into the pitcher of beer.
"Why the glum face?" I ask, as I towel off my dumpling.
"You ever get that feeling that the highway you’ve been cruising on has ended and there ain’t nothing on the other side but a deep dark cliff? That you can keep driving off the cliff or you have to turn left and take that road that leads to your step-mom in Pensacola? Well I feel as if I’m at that cliff and I don’t want to make that left turn."
"Hmmm. You are, I assume, referring to the end of poor theater in this city."
"Yes. There are still a few outlets, for sure. But I’m talking theaters that are life-forces: putting up poor theater on a weekly basis. I mean full-length poor theater pieces. But the signs are telling. And most of the signs say Century 21, Corcoran Group, William B. May, or City Habitat Real Estate, or—"
"I get the picture."
"Used to be there were at least pockets of neighborhoods that were sacred. That no sane realtor or cannibal would step foot into. Now every square inch of real estate is fair game, and you have to be an investment banker just to live in the boroughs. Is nothing sacred?"
KK gulps down a few more beer dim-sums. An uncomfortable silence ensues.
I envision myself at the ledge of that same cliff, and butterflies shoot through my stomach—probably my fear of heights has something to do with it, but more likely the existential crisis KK has presented has really touched a nerve.
So I try to lighten the atmosphere.
"So, KK, what’d you and Killer do this weekend?"
"Oh, we checked out our new house upstate. It has a barn and everything. Y’know, we were thinking we could put up my play in the barn. Invite friends up for the day. Bar-B-Que. Line up some benches. It would be a blast."
Another lunch with MT, a playwright. MT says to me, "Just bought ourselves a new house on the Hudson. Got a huge barn and no animals. May just invite the neighbors and put on some plays in that barn."
Drinks with PP, a film editor: "Hey, me and the wife just bought a little cabin in the Catskills. You gotta come up."
Me: You got a barn?
Me: Can I put up plays in your backyard?
PP: Sure, why the heck not?
Hmmmm. This gets me thinking. With all the real estate eaten up, with truly not a speck of land left for theater to be vital, with the boroughs no longer an option, what is left?
A prediction: The next alternative theater movement will take place in rural communities upstate, in the Catskills, along the Hudson and thereabouts. Already, signs are pointing to rural communities as an alternative for the arts: the new Frank Gehry-designed theater at Bard College; the new DIA Museum in Beacon; the Powerhouse summer theater at Vassar College; and North American Cultural Lab’s Catskill Festival of New Theatre.
In the beginning, off-off Broadway theater—alternative, experimental and cheap—could be found at Caffe Cino, The Judson Poets Theater, The Living Theater, and The Theater of the Ridiculous.
Now the devoted, those hungry for mind-blowing anarchy, will get up early on Saturday mornings, jump into their communal cars, and head to points north along the Palisades, Route 17, and the New York Thruway. They will be greeted by friends, friends of friends, and neighbors. They will drag along friends, friends of friends, and neighbors. They will sit on long narrow benches and gather splinters as they watch a new play by KK, or MT, or even PP (well, not PP, perhaps a friend of PP’s). Then they will Bar-B-Que, take the Buds (tall boys, of course) out of the hands of the designated drivers, hop in their communal cars and drive home.
Word will spread. Soon, yellow buses painted with the faces of icons of off-off Broadway (Charles Ludlam, Irene Fornes, Ellen Stewart, Lee Breur) will depart from the Lower East Side for points north.
One may reasonably ask: What about all that gas we’ll be burning up, just to see some darned theater? I would answer: Why the heck do you think we grabbed all those Iraqi oil fields? For culture, man, culture.
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.