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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.

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