Up from Off-Off: Prelude '05 Redefining "Downtown" Theater

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
Young Jean Lee

Imagine yourself on the “L” or the “F” or some other subway line lurching towards Williamsburg, DUMBO or a murky address in Manhattan somewhere below 14th Street. Propelled into the ominous night, you stumble past leering crackheads and clutching street urchins to the graffiti-splattered façade of the hot new “off-off-Broadway” theater space your friend Kiki had raved about. After plunging down the dimly-lit suicide staircase, you crunch your way across a carpet of empty beer cans, past the one-eyed, tattooed troll clutching a cash box and croaking, “fifteen dollah,” to the performance space itself—a fetid, airless little room where, under a single, flickering spot, a painted man in a loincloth listlessly beats a drum while reciting the complete works of Heiner Müller, backwards. The little room fills with big people who look like they don’t like you. The troll locks the door behind him and doesn’t open it again for seven hours. Too late, you find yourself wishing you’d gone to Momma Mia! for the 47th time instead.

Is this what “downtown” theater is really about?

Too often, even now, such is the perception that lingers stubbornly over New York ’s so-called “downtown” or “off-off-Broadway” (OOB) theater scene—a convenient, generic branding of an alternative theater movement that in recent years has jumped the East River to consume large chunks of Brooklyn as well. One of the raps against OOB theater is that it is so determinedly inaccessible, both physically and artistically, that only other OOB theater folks will come to see it.

Prelude 05 ’s Sarah Benson is out to help change that.

“I particularly dislike the term ‘off-off-Broadway’,” Benson says, attacking a Danish in a TriBeCa café on a recent bright, late summer morning. “I hate having an entire theater movement defined by the mediocrity of mainstream Broadway.”

Spawned in the rank poetry clubs, cafés and dive bars of lower Manhattan in the early 1960s in a burst of youthfully raw, spontaneous combustion, alternative theater in New York has matured over the years into some of the most challenging, innovative and, yes, entertaining theater to be found anywhere in the world. Yet, largely ignored by a mainstream media that rarely ventures south of 14th Street in Manhattan or, God forbid, into the boroughs , some of the best theater happening today flickers but briefly and is gone, like so many fireflies on a hot August night.

Now, thanks to the City University of New York, downtown theater gets to put on a clean shirt and head uptown to strut some of its best stuff in Prelude 05 , a preview of coming-attractions in the alternative New York theater world coming to the CUNY Graduate Center ’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center September 28 through October 1.

“The emphasis is on exposing new works in a global context,” explains Benson, who is co-curating the four-day event with the Graduate Center ’s Frank Hentschker. “It will give people a peek in at works-in-progress.”

Subtitled, “at the forefront of contemporary NYC theatre,” Prelude 05 will feature excerpts from some 20 upcoming works as well as various panels, talkbacks and live entertainment, all designed to both increase awareness of new theater locally, and to help put a fresher, multicultural American face on international stages too often limited to the stale likes of Neil LaBute and Rebecca Gilman.

THE OTHER HERE
Big Dance Theatre

A founding member of the International Company Project, the London-bred Benson is especially interested in “cutting-edge” artists striving to broaden the very underlying language of what theater can be, those who “invent their own grammar” in a theatrical context. (“’Cutting-edge’ is about reinventing theater,” she explains when asked to define that over-used term.)

Now in its third year at the Graduate Center, Prelude 05 ’s will feature artist selected from a 22-member advisory committee of theater artists, academics, critics and agents, each of whom submitted a list of ten individuals and companies they thought to be ahead of the curve in contemporary alternative theater. The result is a four-day blitz of new work intended to benefit performer and audience alike, while hopefully increasing local theater’s presence on international stages.

The lineup is impressively eclectic, ranging from group efforts such as Williamsburg’s Radiohole (previewing their upcoming A Fiery Flying Roll or Dick, Dick, Dick ), Big Dance Theater, Richard Maxwell and the NYC Players, The Builders Association, Division 13, Joanna P. Adler and the Mabou Mines Suite, Elevator Repair Service, the National Theatre of the United States of America and Big Art Group, to individual artists like Madelyn Kent, who will present a staged reading of her new play, Peninsula .

“ Peninsula is a continuation of my work with language and identity,” says writer-director Kent, whose Shofu Theater evolved from her experience working with Japanese housewives, and has led her to a uniquely poetic writing process and style which allows the flaws of translation to speak their own language. “The work explores the performance of language, the ruptures of syntax and grammar as people struggle to mutually create a world through language.”

For director Pavol Liska, Prelude offers an opportunity to explore the creation of new work from an even more primal stance: four bodies and an empty space. Liska, whose radical reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters earlier this year at Classic Stage Company caused some much-welcomed local waves, is presenting the first three parts of a four-part new work, Poetics , a sort of “working riff” on Aristotle’s treatise on dramatic structure. He is looking forward to this opportunity to embrace uncertainty and “not-knowing” as a creative impetus.

“I used to prepare meticulously because I wanted to know what I was doing,” Liska says when asked about his start-from-scratch approach to creating new work. “But knowing what you’re doing is safe. It’s our response to fear, particularly fear of failure. The ideas we know are going to work are a response to what we already know, what we have seen before.”

“What we have seen before” unfortunately comprises the bulk of the theater produced in New York and, because of this, American work on international stages as well. Liska likens this theater-of-comfort approach to making a map of a new country before it’s discovered; the result always looks like “maps of countries you’ve visited before.”

STANLEY
Lisa D'Amour

“For me, it’s about having the courage to fail,” Liska says. “Though the ultimate goal is to create something for which there is no standard of success or failure.”

For writer-director Young Jean Lee, being a part of Prelude offers another kind of incentive—a gentle nudge or perhaps boot in the ass to that big, slovenly pal of all artists: Procrastination.

“The interesting thing about Prelude is that it is so low-stakes that you don’t have to freak out about it, but it still puts pressure on you to create something for people to see,” notes Lee, who is contributing “some kind of workshop presentation/staged reading” of her new show, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven . “ Prelude is useful in that it is forcing me to come up with text and performers now, which means I won’t be able to procrastinate as long as I usually do.”

Prolific Brooklyn-based playwright Sheila Callaghan is looking forward to her lead-off spot in Prelude to explore the environment of her latest play, Dead City , set for a Daniella Topol-directed New Georges production in TriBeCa next Spring. “We want to use this opportunity to explore the environment of the play, rather than the text,” says Callaghan. “The presentation will be totally bare bones, but in this we will attempt to explore the play’s peripheral landscape, to see what lurks in the margins.”

Other playwrights presenting excerpts of new, production-bound work will include Anne Washburn, Lisa D’Amour, John Jesurun, Erin Courtney, Jay Scheib, Ayodele Casel, as well as Mac Wellman, who is, for many, an example of a downtown writer whose work has remained and yet transcended this ghettoized zone to reach broader stages.

By creating an open forum for the presentation of new work in which the audience is an active, contributing participant, Prelude curators Hentschker and Benson hope to break through the illusory but often impenetrable “fourth wall” that often separates viewer from performer and performer from viewer, to create a reciprocating exchange beneficial to both. And while theatergoers may be hesitant to, as Sarah Benson puts it, “climb four flights of stairs to a hot little room with no air-conditioning” to experience new work, Prelude ’s eclectic preview buffet, set in the relative opulence of midtown’s Segal Theatre Center, may provide just the incentive needed for new audiences to discover that this bold new grammar being forged by a variety of “downtown” artists is not the esoteric mutterings of some inscrutable dude chanting under a spotlight, but rather a new, evolving language that speaks directly to them, and their lives.

“Work in theater, I believe, is always completed by the audience,” observes director Liska. “Hopefully, it will provoke a productive and creative dialogue that will help push the artform where it has been afraid to go.”

Contributor

Brook Stowe

Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.

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