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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.