If asked, you could probably describe a theater with relative ease. A stage comes quickly to mind; curtains, seats, spot lights, a sprung floor, tickets, a box office, even a concession stand and bathrooms (complete with interminable lines at intermission). We might agree to entertain, for this moment, that such a description can read also as a syllogism: if box office, then theater. And this equation makes total sense because theaters appear to us all the time on television, in the newspaper, and sometimes, we appear at the theater for dance performances, plays, and the opera.
According to the Municipal Art Society’s 2012 Arts Digest, there are 675 non-profit theater, dance, music, and “other performing arts” organizations in N.Y.C. Add to this the 40 or so Broadway theaters, as reported by The Broadway League, and we arrive at a total of 715 institutions throughout the five boroughs. That’s more than the 400-plus public high schools in this metropolis. It is no wonder then that the rudiments of a theater should be so familiar to us.
Some institutions, like The Belasco Theatre, the Baryshnikov Art Center, and New York Live Arts, were intentionally designed and constructed as performance spaces. Others, like the Bushwick Starr, the Invisible Dog Art Center [of which I am the Associate Director], and Judson Memorial Church, were conceived to function as an apartment, a factory, and a Baptist church respectively. The emergence of a theater in a building that once played host to an entirely different mode of production is a disruption. In becoming performance venues, these buildings, along with their originally intended uses, become mummified beneath the floorboards of new makeshift stages. These stages are cobbled together by a motley crew of artists, volunteers, and one or two staff members who tend to be as multipurpose, and as financially precarious but psychically wealthy, as the resulting venue itself. It is very challenging for these types of performance venues to prove they are eligible for the same funding that is so integral to the survival of their intentionally designed peers. They lack technological and staff infrastructure; their programming is not discipline specific; they often rely more on earned rather than contributed income, which might jeopardize their likelihood of attaining non-profit status if the staff even has the time and inclination to pursue it.
The structural conversions needed to make a space safe for artist and audience might be costly, but the foundation laid through the previous industrial, ecumenical, or other uses of the space is priceless. These past uses form an emotional ether—the ghosts of inspiration—that everyone who visits or works in the space can feel. They act as a primer upon which artists can paint new bodies of work. They lend authenticity and comfort: no one needs permission to create in a space where creation is already the primary directive.
But what about this other type of theater that has no box office, no sprung floor, no spot lights (only a limited number of clamp lights), and definitely no proscenium arch? We can’t complete our syllogism, but the show goes on regardless. We were not exactly wrong in our summation, but lacking in an expansive enough view of what makes a theater. In a discussion of Luciana Achugar’s recent project, “OTRO TEATRO,” Marissa Perel writes: “To imagine that the person is not the attribute and the body is not the thing is then to encounter the person as an event and the body as an experience.” Let us try to use this same logic in our revised discussion of space: imagine that the performance is the attribute, the theater is the event, and the building is an experience. The contents/container relationship between these three elements is undeniable, but in this new comparative logic, there may be overlaps and slippage, history, and infinite possibility for how one continuously serves the other.
So, let’s create a new list of indicators for those characteristics that indicate a venue as one suitable for performance: an audience, an actual performance, a certain structural vastness, and those ghosts of past production. Jill Lepore’s recent explanation of Clayton M. Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation reminds us that “Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature ... Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism is atavistic.” Unintended performance spaces are not blanket prescriptions for amazing, let alone innovative, work. But they do present more problems for artists to solve with their inherent creative skills. And in so doing, the subsequent work is inherently more connected to the space. While bucking the historical trend of use, the process of adaptive reuse can be limited to simply changing the name on the sign above the door—or adding the first sign to ever hang above the hallowed threshold. The burden is on the artist to negotiate all the limitations of working in a space that was never meant to host performance, and the responsibility, as always, lies with the audience to willfully suspend their disbelief and agree—if only for the duration of the performance itself—that yes, this is a theater; yes I believe that what is happening before my eyes is art and not artifice.
In preparation for this article, I had a long meeting with performance practitioner and theorist Sarah Maxfield. Among other projects, Sarah is developing an artist-driven archive of ephemera and stories relating to experimental performance in N.Y.C. I asked her why these spaces, originally unintended for performance, were so vital. She answered: “Culturally, we have so many rules and art is one of those places where we can break the rules.” These theaters that spring forth from factories, and churches, and schools, and sidewalks, and barns become community spaces above all else. Everyone needs a safe place to cut loose, to break rules, and to build relationships in the process. And, in the breaking of rules, in the denial of history, in the creation of what wasn’t from what always was, we arrive at a venue that is not limited by transaction. These are not spaces where you simply pay for a ticket and take a seat; these are spaces where the initial work of art is the theater itself, and by agreeing to enter it, you become complicit in the project that is the creation of a performance venue. The “It” is anchored by history, but thrives in the act of co-creation that takes place between artist, audience, and administrator.
RISA SHOUP is the Associate Director of The Invisible Dog Art Center, Brooklyn, and her passion is to develop unique and accessible cultural spaces from existing building stock. She works to provide artists with the financial and workspace resources they need to create work that the public can experience in non-traditional spaces.