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Thursday, March 13, 2008

looking back - looking forward

Downtown Art started out 20 years ago here in the East Village as a company making original theater as well as a company dedicated to supporting and advocating for young artists creating new work. (Young in those days of Downtown Art meant artists in their 20’s and early 30’s. Original can be loosely described as the equivalent of avant garde, edgy, or ‘indie’ theater.) I was one founding member of four and we turned our hands to everything… within 5 years, we had won OBIE and BESSIE awards, had collaborated with over forty artists to produce pieces at every alternative performance space in NY, from Dixon Place to Dance Theater Workshop to BAM, sent work out to tour all over the world. We were getting funding from a broad range of sources, and we were homesteading a new space in a dilapidated city owned building on East 4th Street. We were also burning out. We were being hit with the politics of censorship (many of the artists we worked with were gay or lesbian), AIDS was devastating the arts community, and we were absolutely and without a doubt poor. Within the next few years, I was the only founding member left to run the company, and I, too, wanted a big change.

I was extremely proud of the art work we had created and supported… but there was a disturbing gap between the makeup of our audience and the makeup of our community. Our audience was mostly young, white, and artistically inclined. Not a bad crowd… but not the diverse local community I wanted to engage.

For two years in the mid 90’s, as the city (with funding from Ruth Messinger) slowly renovated our first home on East 4th Street, I moved our programs to Judson Church, a few blocks west. There I started over. I folded old programs, let go of funding, and began to try new community based efforts… of the many we undertook, it was my work with teenagers which took hold of my heart.

I began working with teens in rural New Hampshire, about the same time we founded Downtown Art. For six summers, I managed to escape the city and keep it up... and I loved it. It was like the best parts of summer camp, theater, and vacation rolled together. My first attempt to work with teens in New York, in 1994, on the other hand, was grueling. Brought up all my doubts. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to continue if it hadn’t been for one 15 year old boy, James Faller, who was in that first project. James was a tall gangly African American teen who was so shy that he could never even look me in the eye when he was talking to me. But I cast him in that first project, giving him bit parts in the background, and watched his humor show itself in subtle ways. After that project ended, despite how excruciating I know it must have been for him; James would call me every few months and ask if I was going to do another project. Finally, I just couldn’t take it any more. I said yes. Come on, James. We’ll make something happen. And we did. (As an aside, James became one of the bravest and funniest actors Downtown Art has ever supported.)

So I learned, bit by bit, the hard way. In 1997, we reopened on East 4th Street as a theater of teen artists. The city, perhaps through generosity, or perhaps through oversight, was only charging us $145 a month for rent, so I turned my attention to the work, and not to fundraising for, building or running a company. I just focused intently on making theater, learning about young people, figuring out how to be real artists together. We began putting together three and then four productions a year at the theater; they volunteered their time, working afterschool and weekends with me. Together, we staffed the theater and besides directing, I learned how to write a play, design a set, choreograph a dance. I wanted to learn more so I approached Judith Foster at the Neighborhood School, volunteered to make a theater piece with one of her 5th grade classes (not teens, but it seemed a good place to learn), and she took me up on it. Within another three years, I’d been hired by her school, and two other public schools in the neighborhood... the Earth School, and Tompkins Square Middle School... to create theater with their students in year long programs. I was making theater all day long with young people, a dozen projects a year, each with a company of 15-18 actors, it was crazy but it was wonderful, too. I didn’t sleep much, the bills were tough to meet, but I felt I’d found my ‘calling.’

And then two things happened. We heard the city was going to sell the arts buildings on East 4th Street, including our home. And 9/11. Every once in a while, there’s a moment in your life when a sudden opportunity is presented to you and you have to choose whether to take it or not. And there may also be a moment in your life when you realize that you’re in a position to do something now that will affect many people later. That you can actually leave a small legacy to your community. 9/11 made me want to leave my community something. The city opened the way.
I gave up my work in the schools. I began to work with Fourth Arts Block, a coalition of all the arts groups in the buildings that the city now wanted to sell on East 4th Street. With help and some chutzpah, we got the city to transfer 6 properties to us for $1 each. Properties that would now and forevermore be arts buildings. And, with tremendous neighborhood support, Downtown Art became the majority owner of a rundown 4 story vacant building and the adjoining vacant lot behind it. Today, after a host of even more hair-raising adventures and challenges, we’ve raised $4 million from the city to renovate it.

I think that everyone, in their own way, wants to make a difference. I’ve chosen mine. I want to work with a community of like minded adults to open a new arts center for young people, where they can demonstrate their extraordinary creativity. Where they can make a claim for adult respect, for adult admiration. A place where they can test their inventiveness, their minds, their capacity for fresh thinking... and where they can play. A place which is open, diverse, and accessible to all without economic barrier.

Downtown Art is known for treating young artists with respect, challenging them deeply, and giving them real responsibility for running a small working theater. Our future home makes it possible for us to expand that work into three new disciplines. Besides theater, we will start parallel programs in music, video and teen-led community service projects. We will have a theater (a bit bigger than our current temporary one) and add to that a second rehearsal studio, a café lounge, a video/media center, a music recording studio, offices. Through the city’s renovation funding, we already have the money to open the first floor with the new theater and café/lounge; they will also turn over the rest of our space -- another floor and a half -- strong, clean and raw. We’re just beginning to pursue the final funding that can transform that empty space into the rest.

It took a big push by you and people just like you to convince the city to sell us the building. There were letter writing campaigns, neighborhood fundraisers, phone calls, get togethers. It was that enthusiasm and those smaller commitments of money and time that convinced the city to bring the big money to the table that will renovate the building.

Now, we need to launch a new grassroots campaign. … this time to help us build our organization, bring in additional staffing, and make us competitive for foundation grants… to raise our visibility here in our community and around the city… to open us up to more young people and families. There are lots of simple steps in doing this... things like signing up to be a Bowler and recruiting friends to sponsor you for our Rock and Bowlathon in May, our yearly fundraiser. Coming to shows and bringing newcomers to introduce them to the theater. At all levels there are ways to get involved. The members of our new Board, most of whom joined us within the past year, have already taken strides to provide leadership for this campaign. I hope you will consider joining them and me in this effort. It’s what we do here, at a community level, that will make success possible.

People sometimes ask me “Have any of your young artists become famous?” I want to be very clear. Our goal is not famous graduates. Our goal is creative hopeful people. I’m not against them becoming famous or rich, but I’m focused on now.
Every life is full of challenges. It takes creativity, persistence, and hope to meet them. It also takes a clear idea of who you are, in your heart, and it makes a big difference to have a community where you are liked and respected, even admired, for what you contribute. No, we can’t lay claim to any famous artists. But we have consistently made theater that has astonished and delighted our audiences. And we have a growing collection of letters and messages from young people throughout the years that say over and over again how much difference Downtown Art has made in their lives.

To close, I have an announcement I saved for tonight. Next year, we’re going to expand our annual Festival of original work by young artists. In fact, we’re going to take a new big bold step. We’re going to add a Young Artists Street Festival on East 4th Street, a day long event with multiple stages, featuring performances and presentations by extraordinary youth groups from all parts of the city. Theater, music, dance, video. This will be the first time such a festival will take place. And we want to take this on because we want to go beyond doing the work we do… we also want aim ourselves at being a champion and advocate for young people, their creativity, and their leadership. That’s what opening up a new youth arts center really means.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

being proven wrong

DREAM is the 109th project I’ve directed. But it is the first time I’ve tackled Shakespeare’s language. I’ve wanted to. I’ve created modern day versions of Shakespearean stories several times… but, until now, I never aimed our company to tackle the Bard himself.

Why? Because despite how many ways I should know better, I thought, like every other adult I know, that teen actors couldn’t make good theater out of Shakespeare. That the language would defeat them; they would just look stiff and ill at ease, and as for them enjoying doing Shakespeare.. well, the odds were heavily against that. Shakespeare, the thinking goes, is like olives or wine.. an acquired taste, and one rarely acquired until adulthood. Sometimes not even then. Teens and Shakespeare? A losing combo. This has been my thinking and I’m one of the most outspoken champions for teens and their capacities that you’re likely to come across. Which I think demonstrates how deep prejudices run.

Tonight this young company will once again prove my original prejudices wrong. Hooray.

Last season, I thought that, as I had several older company members who’d been working with me for five or six years, it might be a good stretch to tackle some Shakespeare before they head off to college or other futures. So I took a big deep breath and put DREAM on the table. But, much to my chagrin, I realized as the auditions and schedule juggling played out, that instead of working with those old Downtown Art pros, I was going to be launching my big stretch project with a company, the majority of whom were only 12 or 13 and had never worked with me before - young actors who, as yet, had only limited and sometimes no experience making theater. Ai yi yi. I got good and nervous then, good and nervous that as game as this intrepid band was, we just didn’t have the chops, the strength or the experience to succeed against Shakespeare’s challenges. And I’m telling you, in the English speaking theater world, I’m not convinced there are tougher challenges than him.

But here’s what young people prove to me over and over again. They bring gifts. They have the intelligence, the will, and the capacity to do extraordinary things. What they need is the support. What they need is good coaching, graspable tools, a step by step breakdown of what we’re doing, what we’re aiming for and why. They are bravely, trustingly doing many things for the first time – of course they need good support!

And this is where I get a boost up from those 108 productions that came before DREAM. I’ve learned a lot, they’ve taught me a lot, about how to make things clear, how to break things down, how to turn a task that looks daunting to something do-able. DREAM was an experiment for all of us – at the core of which was how to connect Shakespeare to our actors, how to make Shakespeare’s language feel natural and real in their mouths, his story clear; and then how to share that story with an audience.. as we’re practically performing in a foreign language.

I’m so pleased with the DREAM company. I look forward to each audience experiencing what they have created. And I’m so grateful for the powerful reminder they provide us about how easily adults continue to make judgements about the capacity, intelligence, and creativity of young people… how ingrained these judgements are…prejudices we rarely question… and yet how absolutely ready young people are, given the chance and the tools, to prove us thoroughly wrong.

of beauty and performance

Beauty doesn’t get talked about too much in theater. Or at least not in the theater circles I’ve been a part of. And that’s probably because it’s a word of too many meanings.

The definition of beauty that I think is most familiar is the beauty of surfaces… a beauty of colors, shapes, lines, and arrangements. Certainly some of the pleasure we feel, this visual pleasure is spontaneous… but a lot of what the eye tells us is beautiful is deeply informed by what a particular time and culture calls beautiful.

I’ve been as enthralled to visual beauty as anyone. I enjoy spectacle, I like design and detail, I’m often helplessly in love with movies for their look… but for some reason, when it comes to the visual part of my own work, I can’t bring myself to aim for such perfectness…no matter where I start, I end up wanting (and making) something more homespun, simpler, more everyday in its look. I like a kind of modest honesty in things. And I like things that bear the marks of human touch, a bit of imperfection.

And that affection I have for the beauty of humanness is at the root of what I think is the second meaning of the word. This isn’t usually a beauty that’s very pretty in its surfaces and rarely has any kind of arranged composition to it. It’s unexpected and often bursts upon us out of the blue.

Such as when you’re with someone dear to you who is crying, heartbroken, while you attempt to comfort them… and even at that painful moment, you suddenly sense them as profoundly beautiful. It’s the kind of beauty that stops you, frozen in your tracks, when you walk in a room to speak to your child, any child, and catch them deep in play, full of imagination, alone and engaged, unmindful of the world.

I would call this sort of beauty transparency. When we catch a glimpse of the true nature of another human being -- of, perhaps, our common human nature.

I’ve spent most of my working life as an artist with young people. I’ve done this not because the adult theater world rejected me, but because I chose to. And I chose to, because young artists have given me many… more than they’ll ever know…. of these moments of beauty.

Adult actors, like adult people, can become so highly skilled at putting on ‘the mask’, the ‘character’, that sometimes I can hardly glimpse the real human inside the performance. Young actors, like young people, can be awkward at times, they may stumble… but what I love is how transparent they can be. How much I can see, simultaneously, like a visual overlay, of both the character they are playing and the human being at play.

I love stories, and I encourage all my companies to find their way deep into the heart of the story, into its reality. The paradox is that when young actors are most fully engaged and alive in the story, is when they most ‘forget’ themselves, and when they most ‘forget’ themselves, is when I can perceive them most clearly. I see the story AND I see the humans, these wonderful, fabulous humans, who are making it. And what they demonstrate so powerfully is how creative, how loving, how tender, how intelligent, how deserving of respect all human beings are. Beautiful

story making

Stories enchant. When I was little I was fortunate to have a mom who made time to read stories to us .. when I was four she taught me how to read… and by the time I was seven, stories engrossed me so entirely that my family would have to practically shout and wave or have the house burn down for me to be able to pull my eyes off the page. I was charmed, enchanted, pulled into worlds and lives different and strange from my own.. which, somehow, became my own. I lived each of these stories, learned about myself and my world from them… they are as deep in me as any of the facts of my life.

Every night stories overtake me yet again. In dream. Dreams, something I am assured that every single human being does whether they remember in the morning or not… dreams bear witness to the deep, profound importance of stories in our lives. Remembering our dreams, we puzzle over them, knowing somehow that these stories hold keys to understanding our lives… that though they are full of mystery, yet they are full of meaning as well.

We are born dreamers… it follows, clearly, that we are born storytellers.. and born story readers. Stories fill our lives, coming to us in books, movies, theater… on the news, through history, television, gossip… what did he do? What did she say? How did it happen? How did they get through it? What does this story help me to know? It appears to me that it is largely through stories that we both understand and re-imagine our world.

500 years ago, Shakespeare created stories… he created them not only from his extraordinary mind, but he himself was pulled to stories from an older age.. he retold them, but this time, with a sense of language and insight into human beings that was dazzling in its depth. Today, despite the barriers of those 500 years, despite the poetic language which so distant from our modern English that it could just as well be a foreign tongue.. we still go to listen to his stories, our actors still undertake their difficulties and attempt to bring them to us with their meanings intact. We can feel that there is something in these stories which, like our dreams, is filled with meaning, cloaked in mystery, and which may somehow be, in a way that is hard to understand, important to our lives.

Perhaps the best stories, and I’d put Shakespeare’s among them, move past our daylight minds and speak, in a language we don’t fully comprehend, to the dreamer, the wakened watching dreamer in each of us.


In this, our home city, every day over 8 million people of all ages work and learn, face challenges large and small and try to figure out how to overcome them. And remarkably, each of those 8 million plus also does something that human beings have been doing, mysteriously, ever and ever, through the ages … they sleep and.. they dream.

Dreams, those strange and vivid worlds of image and narrative, poetic fragments, mysterious but meaningful stories. One ancient human theory believes they are profound messages sent to us from.. perhaps the gods. Another, that we ourselves are the creators of our dreams. That, in fact, each one of us is a gifted imaginative being without limit. That the creation of these nightly images is one of the most deeply embedded characteristics of human nature.

I think that dreaming in its daytime clothes is creative imagination. And that this kind of daytime imagining doesn’t come so easily and naturally as the night variety – that we have to encourage it, strengthen it, sometimes wait patiently for its arrival. But there is no doubt in my mind that the more we practice creativity, the better we become at it.

We live in a world filled with challenges. And we know, those of us who’ve lived at least long enough to have accumulated a nice string of failures, that challenges don’t respond to one size fit all answers. Invention, persistence, and creativity is required. Required. In fact, when looking a tough challenge in the eye, I think it is the failure of imagination that causes a descent into hopelessness. Hope requires imagination – and meeting challenges requires a sense of confidence in our own powers of invention. No dragon, large or small, gets vanquished without ingenuity.

I know that the adults in this room have already worked hard to ensure that the younger people in our lives have a place to live, good food to eat, the opportunities which education can offer… I think we also have a responsibility to encourage their imagination, their creativity… not only for the pleasure it can bring both us and them, but for the way it can support their future survival. So, while we do what we can in our neighborhoods, our communities, our city, our state, our country and our world to make its challenges less challenging – let’s also work to support the capacity of our younger ones to take on those challenges that will inevitably come their way with hope, with confidence, and with imagination.

jan 31 2008 - a special event at DTA

Hi. I’m so glad you’re all here. We have a few things to share with you about what’s going on with us today, how we got here, where we’re going… but, as many of the theater people here know, there are a lot of ways to tell a story. Because this isn’t just Downtown Art’s story.. this is our story. Your story.

Downtown Art is here today because of you… because you, and I really mean you, have worked so that this neighborhood can continue to be a home for diversity, for art, for differences living side by side. This block, which recently officially became the East 4th Street Cultural District, has been a home to immigrants, artists and working people for generations. The first Yiddish theater was created here. Working people organized on this block – in 1900, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was founded across the street, at what was then the Labor Lyceum. This block, like this neighborhood has always been about community. And so first I want to honor the people here tonight, who represent these ongoing, living traditions that are the backbone of our neighborhood’s character… from those on this block, La MaMa, Teatro Circulo, WOW Café, to beyond at Third Street Music School Settlement, Henry Street Settlement, DCTV, the Lower Eastside Girls Club, everywhere we turn we find you.. and we are extremely proud to be in your company, to be your colleague. Communities of places like these create an environment where a company like ours can grow; truly, there wouldn’t have been an ‘us’ if there hadn’t have been ‘you.’ So you are the story.

And Councilmember Rosie Mendez and her colleague and chief of staff Lisa Kaplan – they are a big part of this story. As is Margarita Lopez, our feisty former Councilmember. These amazing women have fought hard on behalf of this neighborhood – to keep it economically and ethnically diverse, to meet its very critical needs for decent affordable housing, for strong schools, for life’s real necessities… but they have also been able to support elements that go beyond the concrete and practical, they’ve taken leadership to see that the imaginative, inquiring, spirit of this community is encouraged, is nurtured… because as human beings, as much as we need shelter, food, security… we can’t avoid our need to dream, to invent, to long for stories that help us see into ourselves, for new ways to understand this world, this life. We are all of this, and Rosie and Lisa made a big commitment this year when they led the way to find money – over $3 million in new funding – to turn that broken down vacant building across the way into a home for imagination and enterprise. Our future home. This story is their story.

This story is Ginny Louloudes’ story – I think her organization ART/NY may actually the story of every small theater in this city – but it’s also of her good advice and ongoing encouragement, of the support of her and her staff every step of the way towards making this mini Cultural District a reality, of those amazing arts advocates at NYSCA, including Robert Zukerman and Ann Van Ingen, and of the staff at NYC’s Dept of Cultural Affairs, specifically our smart, committed colleague Alicia Grossman.

And this is Dolores Vanison Blakely’s story, the Executive Director of Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance, along with her partners Enrique Cruz DeJesus and Donna Clark, who’ve walked every step of the way with us through the ups and downs, good days and not so good days, that are now, inevitably and most definitely, leading us to a new building where they will also have a home. Finally. A home they truly deserve.

Of Judith Foster and the Neighborhood School and Mark Pingitore of Tompkins Square Middle School, who gave me the chance to work in two amazing public schools that really believes in artists, that can actually think of young people as artists of validity, real artists not some kind of ‘human work in progress’, but people with something extraordinary to offer right now, if those of us who are older could just see a bit more clearly. Of Sofia Pereira, the first teacher I ever collaborated with, who became a very close friend, and who took to theater-making like a duck to water, whose enthusiasm for the work we did not only lit up her class with courage, imagination, and the determination to master new skills, but who spent countless, unbelievable hours working side by side with me here at Downtown Art or home in my apartment to make costumes, props, anything… who has left her mark indelibly on us. Her story.

The story of Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper of Nature Theater of Oklahoma who fired our imaginations last year and who helped me to grow as an artist and director, of Nello McDaniel who has been councilor and advisor to me and Downtown Art and who, and this is unexpected, is as creative and imaginative at tackling nonprofit organizational structure and adapting it to suit us and move us forward as any of us could ever be with a piece of script, of Tamara Greenfield, whose arrival a year ago as the Executive Director of Fourth Arts Block has made this Cultural District leap forward with renewed energy and hope,

And the board members of Downtown Art, the astonishing and enthusiastic Elena Feliciano, the generous and wise Bruce Morrison, the thoughtful, cheerful Guillermo Franco, Sam Greenhoe who will tackle any carpentry or technical problem we can dish up with enthusiasm and skill, Rosemary Quinn who embodies a hearty, passionate, joyous love of young people and their creativity, Cliff Scott, who co-founded this company decades ago, who pioneered and homesteaded our first home on this block, who literally spent an entire summer singlehandedly putting a roof over our heads, whose commitment to Downtown Art is only equaled by the pleasure with which he greets, commends, and praises each and every effort he sees us make.

It is the story of my family, of their astounding and never wavering support, of my beloved daughter Dakota and the way she has embraced the sometimes odd life of a theater family, and of my partner, my Board Chair, my musical collaborator, and .. new this year.. my husband, Michael Hickey, who has so generously placed himself at the heart, the need, the very center of Downtown Art that I can’t even get enough distance to praise and thank him elegantly, and will have to just tell him, like all of you, that there is no story without you.

Finally, Downtown Art’s life and history, is the story of every young person who is here tonight, and the hundreds more who have been part of these past 10 years when Downtown Art committed itself to them, who are loved and honored in this community as individuals, as artists, as people of courage, intelligence, wit, humor, and who bring life and hope to all of us.

That’s how we got here today. And what is today? Three years ago I had hoped that today might be the day we opened a new season in a new home. A year ago, today might have been the day that I told you, I’m sorry, it’s no good, we did our best but obstacles like water damage, renovation budgets that escalated from 1 million to 4 million, and a host of other delays and hurdles were too much for this small company to overcome. But, miraculously, today is the day that I can tell you that for the first time, I can see that opening date. It’s two years off, it won’t happen until 2010, but it is now inevitable. It will arrive. Everything is in motion.. that new arts center will be made and those doors will open.

And so I can tell you that you got us through the wilderness. And I can tell you something about what’s ahead: that when we open that new space, we will expand our theater work with young people with three new disciplines: music, video, and community service. We will be a home for young artists and for young citizens, for creating, recording, writing plays, composing music, drafting lyrics, making documentaries, and finding ways to connect who we are with our world. And we intend to make everyone that created this story proud of where it leads next. Thank you so much.