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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

3 Things Adults Should Know about Teenagers

by Zen Anton Paultre

Zen Anton Paultre is a senior company member at Downtown Art, where he has been an actor, playwright and musician for the past four years. He is a teen.

Zen Anton Pautre, left; Oscar Hallas, right
Perhaps the title to this piece should be called "3 Things Adults Should Know About Themselves?" For just as Darwin proved to us that we are descended from primates so must the adults of this generation recognize that they are descended from teenagers and understand the similarities between the so called "Old Folk" and "The Youth".

I'd like to first of all say that no, the basis of my argument is not the played out phrase "But don't you remember when you were that age?" That phrase is for the uninventive teenager to say when in trouble and the unoriginal adult to use as a defense when taking up the uninventive teenager's plight with the parents. Instead, the subjects I'd like to touch upon are such as music, deep inner emotions of the soul, and technology. Shall we begin?

Music. The thing that makes our pulse pound, makes our feet move, and sometimes even makes us start riots. Needless to say there's a lot of simply terrible music out there and the majority of today's youth eat it up, without thinking of the consequences, just like that chubby kid in Starbucks who thinks to him/herself "Oh, just having one caramel-mocha frappuccino won't kill me." Sure, once and a while it won't kill you, but eventually that arm fat will sag so low that people will wonder if indeed they are trying to grow wings and fly away. Just like the aforementioned chubby kid, all these young kids today are drinking down far too many doses of caramel-mocha-emotionless-bland-overly-produced-excuses-for-music-frappuccinos. As a member of "The Youth" I find it sad to see so many of my own kind wow'ed and impressed by the white noise they choose to sing along to and quote lyrics from with such strong conviction.

You may be wondering to your self something along the lines of "Well, even as this information is all completely accurate, what does it have to do with the similarities between Adults and Teenagers?" To answer your question, it has everything to do with the similarities. Have you not seen the amount of adults also singing along to the "popular" music of today? Singing along as if they connect to the lyrics that the musician didn't even write themselves? You see, adults and teenagers have an almost equal amount of tasteless music listeners. Adults and teenagers both have members of their societies who are trying desperately to connect to something.. To feel like part of a group… To try and maybe feel not so alone…. And so they take refuge in music. This is all well and good until it goes too far.

Categories such as Goth, Emo, and Hipster have often been associated with being a young person thing because we have all that "teenage angst" pent up inside of us. This is true for a lot of cases but just as many adults have that same angst and are Goth, Emo, and worst of all Hipsters. And just as many adults are still trying to find themselves and find where they fit into the world. Some even take trips to far away countries in hopes that a magical epiphany will hit them and explain the reason all their friends are moving on in life and why on earth they can't find a date who just so happens to be "the one."

Does that remind you of that time a friend of yours kept you up all night Facebook chatting about their Deep Inner Emotions and you nearly bit your computer out of sheer boredom? It sure does remind me of that time...

This in turn brings us to the last topic of today, Technology. It has long been the argument that one of the main differences between The Youth and the Old Folk are the gizmos and gadgets. This argument seems to steadily become less and less valid. I mean, sure, 75% of us teens are addicted to Facebook and texting but at least 50% percent of the adults in this world are also addicted to the same thing. Feeling the need to constantly update the world on every little minuscule thing they do in the day. Seriously, does anyone really care about you enough that they need to know you just bought some milk? It's a vice that everyone has fallen into.

In this day and age narcissism is at an all time high. Teenagers may be the ones who are more outwardly obnoxious with this vice, but it is safe to say that everyone has been affected. As much as it is painful to admit, you adult readers must recognize that teenagers are your not too distant cousins after all.

-Zen Anton Paultre

P.S. The use of big words throughout this blog was to not to be annoyingly pretentious but to prove that not all teens have lost their vocabulary from all the texting.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

3 Things I like about Writing - Oscar Hallas

Oscar Hallas is a DTA grad about to head off for Knox College. He wrote several plays as a teen, many of them in DTA's Writers Project.

1: I like the process of connecting the various related ideas I have in my mind. It's like inventing puzzle pieces to fit other puzzle pieces together.

2: I love the first laugh I get from an audience the first time I perform my writing.

3: I like the challenge of always being original. Even with an original story, it's dangerously easy to slip into territory (in terms of themes and ideas) which has already been explored too much.

Downtown Art is currently seeking teen writers and composers for this year's 'Writers Project'. Check it out at

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

3 Ways Downtown Art Could Change Your Life

by Michela Garabedian, company member

Downtown Art’s influence on my life has been far-reaching and incredibly positive.

1) DTA has provided me with a creative outlet that I could not have found anywhere else—throughout my time at this theatre company, I have worked on stage, backstage, and have even written a short play to be performed in front of a real audience. Having this outlet has given me a chance to express myself in a unique and fun way. It has also given me a lot of confidence in my own creative voice.

2) DTA has provided me with the friendships and tools I need to flourish in the world of high school and beyond. I have learned to collaborate well with teens from all different backgrounds. Not only have I gained leadership and teamwork skills through this collaboration, but I have also made some of the best friends I’ve had and probably will ever have. Working with so many talented, kind, and passionate people inspires me to transcend the barriers of what I can accomplish every day.

3) Lastly, DTA has provided me with a community for life. I never really knew what a community was until I became a part of DTA. Now I know that a community is a place where, as cheesy as it sounds, you are the best 'you' you can be. When I am a part of DTA, I feel like a better person. Being part of a community like Downtown Art is rare and life changing!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

3 Reasons I'm coming back to DTA

by Lena Feliciano Hansen (age 17)

1) A MOMENT TO BREATHE: Downtown Art, though a lot of work, is a place where I can put my stress from school and home aside. Here is where I can focus on something that I want to do and choose to put my time into. When I feel like I'm failing at everything else, I can come here and feel like I'm doing something right.

2) THE PEOPLE: I love everyone in DTA, I really do. It boosts me up to be around everyone. I trust everyone -- I don't have to worry about petty things that most people usually do when they're at school. We are all really supportive and we work to have everyone at their best. We are not about pulling people down and being on top. We truly work as a team.

3) TO ACT: I love to act! - and DTA has a great environment where I feel comfortable. I've grown a lot as a person, writer and actor here. Being on stage is my greatest fear, but it's also my greatest passion. I'm so thankful DTA's given me the chance to take on this paradox of mine and do what I love.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

3 Ways 'The Writer's Project' made a Difference to My Writing

Alyssa Burgos is 18 and has written three plays over the past three years which have been workshopped and given staged readings through Downtown Art's Writer's Project.

I know you guys have heard this kind of thing before, so I’m going to make this as original as possible and interesting as I can. Okay? Okay. Here we go.

1. For starters, one big difference 'The Writers Project' made is that I have actual completed scripts. I have written a lot as a kid .. basically my whole life. I could complete short stories - no problem. Scripts I couldn’t. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because when you don’t have a deadline to pressure you to finish something, and you don’t have a deadline so deadly that if you don’t finish by then you will die (I tend to be very dramatic - I apologize), and you’re a procrastinator ... stuff just doesn’t get done.

But now I have three complete scripts, thanks to the Writer’s Project. And I have the ability to give myself a mental deadline, because I know that if I don’t finish the script I’m starting the damn thing won’t write itself and an amazing earth shattering idea just goes to waste in a file drawer.

2. I found out in the Writers Project that I’m a good comedic writer. Like, I can actually be funny and sorta witty. Who knew? I sure as hell didn’t. Lovely self discovery. So, yes, that made a difference because now I’m writing comedies.

3. Last, but not least, the third difference the project made... Confidence. Yeah, how original. Basically, when it comes down to it, when you’re doing something and you want to be good at it, and you can be good at it, its confidence that will put it over the top. (When I say this don’t get too confident so that you think you’re better than everyone else, even if it is true. No one likes an overly confident person. I think they would rather have a humble person than an overly confident, arrogant one instead.) But seriously, I did get more confidence in my writing. Not overly confident, mind you. Just a bit more than I was before. I mean, I still get nervous when someone first reads my writing. My hand or knee might shake a little bit and I’m mentally going crazy trying to figure out what I can do better, but, hey, that’s normal. (I hope. Well, at least that’s normal for me. It’s my normal.) Now if someone asks me if I can write, I’m no longer like all shy and saying “Yeah.... I guess I can.” Now I’m like “Yupp! I can write. It’s what I want to do.”

Oh, one thing that hasn’t changed…I don’t edit! I get someone to do it for me. (Oh, yeah, I got it like that. Okay, not really. My sister likes to do it for me. No, really. She does.)

- Alyssa

For more info on opportunities for teen playwrights at Downtown Art, go to

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

3 New Things I want to Try This Season

Ryan Gilliam is the Artistic/Executive Director of Downtown Art.

In the coming season, I want to take on:

1. Bringing together teen writers and composers to create new music theater in the ‘Eastside Stories' project. I am really psyched about this.

2. Finding new ways to work with staging and sound in ‘The Bowery Wars, Part II’. We've broken ground with our ways of connecting street performance and music. What new variations are possible?

3. Using technology and social media to support our projects. We’re going to have an Ipad in rehearsals, our blog is gathering steam, our Twitter followers are growing, and we're building a new Wordpress site for our Festival. Possibilities abound.

Ryan Gilliam, Artistic/Executive Director


Monday, May 23, 2011

Sharing the Streets

People stopped, watching, puzzled. 'What's happening?' they asked each other, looking at the silent, bowler-hatted actors, dancing somehow in unison. Then they'd start to notice that all the silent actors and the watchers that surrounded them had earphones. For them, this wasn't a silent mystery. This was a story - and the key to enter was the tiny mp3 players in their hands.

Yesterday, on a cold cloudy Sunday, we finished a four week run of 'The Bowery Wars, Part 1.' After weeks of rehearsal and performance on the crowded LES streets and alleys, our company of young performers couldn't be thrown. On Saturday, it rained for 15 minutes - the audience all pulled out their umbrellas, but the company didn't blink. Their concentration in the face of all NY threw at them was fierce and unwavering. They had a job to do and they never let go of it.

Not in the face of a hundred obstacles: not in the packed density of a street festival, not when surrounded by a hundred Amish travellers, not in the face of a frightening bicycle accident, a giant poodle, a wedding celebration, or any of the hundreds of encounters they had with New York over the past two months. New York, was, in fact, part of their story. They displaced no one. Instead they collaborated with the life and people of the city in ways that impressed me deeply.

It's impossible to go through this creative process, which after all is inspired by the city, and not grow in appreciation for the abundance of life that crowds the streets. It was an experience we won't forget - to bring our story of the Bowery to mingle and merge with all the other stories the city gives birth to every moment of every day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Home in the Streets

Two years ago, faced with our company's pending 'homelessness', I was feeling pretty down.

Sometimes having a small theater company is a bit like what I imagine it must feel like to run a small farm. Time doesn't really build security. Experience doesn't guarantee survival. At any moment, for almost any reason, at the whim of the weather or the markets or some new and destructive bug... you're back to zero. And you have to build everything up again once more.

What helped me pull myself up with a mental image of some tough little bootstraps, was, as it often is, the young members of our company.

I am their leader. That is my job. I have a responsibility to them.

Was I going to mope around in front of them? Share my bout of hopelessness? Let my resentment at our fate infect us all? That's not leadership. It just isn't.

And so I turned my mind to trying to find where that elusive silver lining might lie. Yes, I wept a bit in the middle of the night, but I got up in the morning and firmly directed myself (I'm a director after all) to find a way out.

Slowly, step by step, my mind nudged forward. One half thought a day. Or a week.

"Well... we don't have a home. We're on the streets. Then... we will make the streets our home. We don't have a building... but we have a stake in a vacant lot. The streets.. the lot... We will do theater without having a theater. What will we make? What will we make?? .. We'll make theater about the streets themselves. About what they've witnessed, what they've lived through. About the ghosts, the remnants of history that still cling to them."

Last spring, this experiment launched with 'The Waistmakers' Opera'. I still feel a wave of queasiness at the risky nature of that venture. Although the company and the board stuck with me, cheerfully, most have privately told me they never thought it would work. But it did. It did. Powerfully. And through it, although this sounds kind of dramatic, at least in an artistic sense, we were reborn.

Two weeks from today, we will open 'The Bowery Wars, Part 1'. We will be on the streets again, interacting with new ghosts. We will be on the streets -- ghosts ourselves -- as we perform behind, between, amidst, without stopping the business of the city and its people. I have found a new set of roots. A new sense of kinship to those who came before.

Home, it seems, is not a place we're searching for. It doesn't lie at the end of an odyssey. Home comes to us. When we are willing to accept the place we're in, home arrives.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - thinking about tragedy

I'm not much of a tragedy lover. First, tragedy upsets me. It even kind of scares me. And second, I'm always thinking about how there was a way out. How it didn't have to end up a tragedy. Of course I'm not talking about disaster tragedies or innocent victim tragedies. No, I mean classic tragedies. Like Romeo and Juliet. Where the mix of circumstances and character has an outcome that feels like fate.

The great majority of us - the really great majority of us - are survivors. We might become bitter, emotionally limited, survivors - but, still, we don't go under. We live out our lives and we want them to be long.

Romeo and Juliet could have made different choices. They could have practiced patience, they could have plotted more deviously, they could have taken the risk of telling the truth. Romeo could have decided not to kill Tybalt despite all his provocation. Juliet could have told her parents, "I can't marry Paris, I'm already married. Call the holy Father, he will confirm it." And if they threw her out on the street, she could have found sanctuary somewhere in the large clan of Capulets or with a friend of Romeo's or even with the holy Father himself until, between her love and herself, enough money had been raised for her to travel to Mantua and join him in his exile.

The point is, of course, they didn't do any of these things. Their minds were full of love and death. Their mantra was: if I am not with you, I will die. If I can't be with you, I will kill myself. Life apart from you is excruciating, unbearable, intolerable, and I refuse to live it. They were extremists. Complete extremists. In the most gorgeous way possible.

But perhaps that is one of the defining characteristics of youth. Gorgeous, romantic extremism. Which we must get over -- or perish. The world is a deadly place for that kind of romantic longing. The daily life pretty much conspires against it. Romeo and Juliet had a host of obstacles in life -- but even if they had parents saying, 'Um.. she's only thirteen. How about you date a while and maybe not get married the day after you meet her at a dance, hmm?" Would they have felt that was an unbearable reality as well, impossible to reconcile with love?

Older people hold young people back. All the time. The daily round wears down extreme devotion, takes the knife edge off romance, cools down obsession - and if it doesn't, then the lightning strikes. We must give up our overwhelming longing, our romantic singlemindedness, our refusal to compromise... or tragedy lurks in the wings, waiting for its moment.

And what of the other tragedy? The death of our youthful purity and devotion? The creation of rationality, compromise, patience, the muting of our desires? Is this not also something we weep for?

And so perhaps it is not possible to reconcile ourselves to the death of these young lovers. We cannot dismiss them even if we privately know that their beauty is mixed with foolishness. Because we also know that every time Romeo and Juliet die, the world becomes a bit smaller.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A modern day 'Bowery Boy'

Eric Ferrara has got to love the Lower Eastside.

First, his roots are here. He's a fourth generation native New Yorkers, and a true product of the Lower East Side melting pot: his ancestors arrived in New York City from Sicily (1880s), Ukraine (1909), Russia (1917) and Naples (1910s).

Second, he founded the Lower Eastside History Project, an award-winning center for research, information, and tours of the LES. And if that weren't enough, he also founded the East Village Visitors' Center and the Museum of the American Gangster.

Then, there's his books. The most recent is "The Bowery: A History of Grit, Graft, and Grandeur" -
"...celebrated as a haven of counterculture, entertainment and theater and denigrated as New York's "Skid Row. Home to bums, bohemians, criminals, artists, performers and the rich and poor alike, the Bowery has attracted the most diverse population of any place in all of New York City's history."

Yes, if you want to dig a little deeper into an amazing time in New York's not-too-distant past - Eric's the guide you want. Check out upcoming events on the LESHP website!!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

'Monk Eastman'

By 1900, Eastman and his gang had laid claim to all of the Lower Eastside.

An excerpt from Herbert Asbury's "Gangs of New York"

".. He began life with a bullet-shaped head, and during his turbulent career acquired a broken nose and a pair of cauliflower ears.. He had heavily veined sagging jowls and a short bull neck, plentifully scarred, as were his cheeks. ... He accentuated his ferocious and unusual appearance be affecting a derby hat several sizes too small, which perched precariously atop his shock of bristly, unruly hair.

He could generally be found strutting about his kingdom very indifferently dressed, or lounging at his ease in the Chrystie street rendezvous without shirt, collar, or coat.

His hobby was cats and pigeons. Monk Eastman is said to have owned, at one time, more than a hundred cats and five hundred pigeons, and although they were offered for sale at his Broome Street pet shop, it was seldom he could be induced to part with any of them.

He sometimes went abroad, on peaceful missions, with a cat under each arm, while several others trailed along in his wake. He also had a great blue pigeon which he had tamed, and which perched on his shoulder as he walked.

"I like de kits and boids," Eastman used to say. "I'll beat up any guy dat gets gay wit' a kit or boid in my neck of de woods."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Timothy D. Sullivan - a legend erased by time

"I believe in liberality. I never ask a hungry man about his past. I feed him, not because he is good, but because he needs food." - Tim Sullivan

Isn't it remarkable that a man who embodied everything, both good and bad, of the Lower East Side, could have vanished from our collective memory so quickly?

Sullivan was full of contradictions. He was generous, a powerful ally to immigrants and women, a model kid who came out of the slums and worked his way up to position and power. He was also the colleague of gangsters, a receiver of graft, a compulsive gambler, the ultimate political insider.

He never lost an election.

I think he must have had such charisma it could have knocked you over.

The New York Times did a profile of him in 2009. The current perspective on Tim Sullivan is primarily as criminal. But, Tammany, and Tim personally won the fervent loyalty of many working people - people who preferred Tim's brand of politics to anything that the uptown Protestant reformers had to offer.

Complexity often gets erased by time. But then, history is never a single story.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Bowery Wars - Part 1

"I am a thorough New Yorker and have no narrow prejudices." - Timothy D. Sullivan, congressman and leader of Tammany Hall

We're getting ready to open a new music-theater piece - THE BOWERY WARS - Part 1 of a two part epic about the Lower East Side circa 1903. We will be performing it outdoors in the streets. For more info, check our website:

THE BOWERY WARS is set in the fall of 1903, when Tammany Hall's disgraced Democrats battled to retake City Hall, and the violence between The Eastmans and the Five Pointers over control of the Bowery exploded into the worst gun battle New York had ever seen. It raged over six hours and involved over 100 gangsters, but not a single arrest was made, not a single witness would come forward.

Featured historical characters include Big Tim Sullivan and Charlie Murphy of Tammany Hall; Big Bill Devery, former Chief of Police; Monk Eastman and his wife Margaret; and Paul Kelly, leader of the Five Points gang.

In the coming weeks, I will post excerpts and quotes that either appear in our piece or have been a source of inspiration.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Excerpt from 'The Waistmakers' Opera'

Triangle Factory Fire remembrance

Today we are remembering how one hundred years ago a fire broke out in a factory a few blocks to our west. How 146 workers died in that fire.

We are not a people who spend much time thinking about the past. We are a busy people, a forward looking people. So why does this tragedy still haunt us?

Across the street, at 77 East 4th Street, Rosie Friedman lived. She came from Bialystock in Poland when she was 14, part of a flood of Eastern European Jews hoping to leave violence and discrimination behind, hoping for something better in America. She came alone to live with her aunt and uncle here, to find a job and send money home to her family. In her uncle’s tiny apartment, there were also two boarders, five people in a one bedroom apartment, and like many immigrant teens, its likely she would have slept on the kitchen table or on a mat on the kitchen floor. There were some compensations to her life here – the Manhattan Lyceum, next door, offered concerts and lectures, as did Cooper Union and the Educational Alliance. There were dance halls, picture shows, there were young people everywhere. But most of her waking hours, she was a worker. Six days a week she was a worker at the Triangle Factory. Until, at the age of 18, she died in the fire.

Why does her death hurt us still? What is it about the Triangle Factory fire that makes it more than a horror story?

I think that the fire woke us up to to see that a great injustice was taking place. We had been lulled somehow into thinking that the conditions of factory workers were ‘normal.’ That the way the factories were managed by their owners was ‘normal.’ That things were hard for immigrants, but that this was ‘normal.’ It took the photos of Jacob Riis, it took the work of the Settlement Houses, of the newborn unions, and, finally, it took the Triangle Fire to show us that things were not ‘normal’, that in fact, things were not right and they must be, had to be changed. To show us that we as a people had a responsibility to our younger, poorer, less Americanized brothers and sisters - a responsibility which couldn’t be ignored, couldn’t be walked away from.

So much was wrong. For Rosie, as a woman, an immigrant, a Jew, a worker, a young person... so much was wrong. Could we really be asking people to put their lives at risk for a job in a factory? What happened on the road to success that had hardened the Triangle bosses, men who had once been sweatshop workers themselves, hardened them so that they fought bitterly against the workers at every step – so that they routinely locked the fire escape doors because they feared their young employees would steal scraps of fabric from their business.

We remember the Triangle Factory Fire. We remember the trapped girls that chose to leap nine stories to their deaths rather than burn. We remember them because we know, that day, we failed them. We have responsibilities to each other, to justice, to fairness, and those responsibilities include that we look at our world closely, and that we question all that seems ‘normal’, because what history teaches us over and over again is that what seems ‘normal’ may in fact, be very, very wrong.

Friday, February 25, 2011

learning and doing

Five years ago we began a writing project at DTA. The past two years, the project has been a close circle and the emphasis has shifted away from time spent producing work, to time spent writing and editing. Week after week, for the past five months, we’ve gotten together. Writers will share what they’ve written and then we go around the circle, letting them know what we respond to, where we’re confused, asking them questions, enjoying the camraderie and support of this small group.

The Writers Project is not an academic exercise. No one learns how to write a play; they write plays anyway. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to teach them how to write a play because I’ve never learned. To teach them, I would have to go back and familiarize myself with all the terms used in a playwriting class, take some lessons on structure, conflict, building character, begin to articulate my own thinking in those terms..... and I might do that someday, but in the meantime, these writers are here and they’re ready to write.

I backed into playwriting – rather similarly to how I backed into directing, designing, choreographing, writing lyrics – all intimidated me but necessity arrived. Fifteen years ago, either I wrote a play or I would have to turn away a fantastic group of 16 girls and find a lot more boys instead. That rubbed me the wrong way, so my first play was born, painfully, created for an all-female cast. Afterwards, it would often seem that each year I would think of the kind of material I wanted to work on with the company ... then be unable to find it.. and, reluctantly, would haul myself back to my computer to write it. I don’t think it was until I had a dozen plays under my belt that I could manage to refer to myself as a playwright. I still have the feeling of being a fraud when I say it now. And I would also say that it’s taken me fifteen years to actually want to sit down and write. Nothing would have happened before if it hadn’t been all those deadlines, the weekly dread of going into a rehearsal where the cast was waiting for the next scene and letting them down. Deadlines and necessity shaped me as a writer.

Learning by doing is a nice phrase. It hardly suggests the terror that can be involved. The chutzpah needed. To start doing something when you don’t know how – to try to figure out how to get better at it while you’re in the middle of doing it – to know that your efforts are going to be publicly scrutinized and evaluated at the end – people have nightmares about this stuff. Yet it’s the practice of being creative. And somehow your infatuation with the idea of writing a whole play, creating a piece of music, of seeing an idea all the way through to its completion... that infatuation or love or ambition or foolishness has to be strong enough to override your natural self-protective instincts. You don’t know how to do something and you do it anyway.

Downtown Art is basically founded on that principle. I direct, write, design and I’ve never had any training in doing those things. Mike composes and plays gorgeous music; he’s never had a class in either. Our company does things they’ve never done before, and we coach them to the best of our ability out of everything we’ve learned from walking down the same path. Our hope is that their own individual voice – their inner GPS – will hang in there and get stronger, smarter, through the process of doing. Then, one day, when they actually are taught how to write a play they will have the sense to pick and choose from the teaching on offer – to select anything that helps them move forward as original creators, and reject anything that muffles or mutes their own unique sensibility.