Company of American Vaudeville Theatre, Todo Con Nada, 1999
I ran into an important figure from my past a few months back. I can’t refer to him as a friend, for we never were that; let us call him a very dear colleague. Indeed, I’ve long thought of him as the Father of All I Hold Dear in Indie Theatre, or as we called it in those days, “Off-Off Broadway”. So delighted and surprised was I to see this individual on this recent occasion that I actually used those words in greeting him: “Hey, It’s the Father of All I Hold Dear!”
The remark produced snickers. (Too often is my earnestness mistaken for irony; it often got me my ears boxed as a child. This is how comedy is born.) Yet it was true. The person I greeted is flawed, no doubt, but so much of what I value, so much of what I am able to do, so much of what and whom I choose to surround myself with, would be impossible without his existence that I can’t help but think of him as the progenitor (if a partially unwitting one) of it all. Old friends already know who I’m talking about: it’s Aaron Beall.
It’s easy to recall the history of the Lower East Side theatre Beall founded in the late 1980s, Todo Con Nada. The reason it’s easy is because it was recited to the audience in every curtain speech before every production. Aaron, like many of us who grew up around him, saw himself in the great American entrepreneurial tradition. The word “entrepreneur” initially came from the theatre; only later was the word applied to other enterprises. In this sense, the entrepreneur is an impresario. The Adam of the type is P.T. Barnum. In this tradition, the self-mythologizing begins BEFORE the course of action is even undertaken. Hence Nada was “legendary” from the beginning. As with Hercules, Paul Bunyon, Gargantua, Romulus and Remus, Superman, and Jesus of Nazareth –the myth began in the crib.
Aaron had actually gone and done something many of us had dreamed of but never dared. He’d rented a storefront and started his own theatre — on a credit card advance. As far as I know he was aided by no grants, no backers, no inheritance, no bank loan, no nest egg. He risked all. Blind, stupid, reckless, arrogant, breathtaking, glorious faith in himself. Art and entrepreneurship are metaphysical gambits. You stake your very existence on your enterprise. You need, and you ask, no one’s permission. Despite what common sense tells you, despite what friends, advisors, “professionals”, “experts”, tell you, you simply know. One believes in oneself – despite all evidence to the contrary — or one ceases to exist.
The business model on which Aaron created his theatre – though age-old — was radical at the time. No fund-raising was done. As a professional fund-raiser for many years, I can tell you: don’t bother. For the first few years, it’s pointless anyway, and it takes up a great deal of your time. Furthermore (and this is a subject I shall likely return to), there is no such thing as a free lunch. Grant money comes with just as many stifling “strings attached” as the backing of commercial investors does. It’s out of the frying pan, into the fire. (Had enough clichéd metaphors?) Instead, Aaron had used the same technique as the one I had envisioned when at the age of six, in emulation of the Little Rascals, I wanted to have a puppet show in our basement: simply open the door and sell tickets. Rent a storefront; present attraction; open door; sell tickets. Barnum started this way, Keith and Albee started this way, this methodology goes back for centuries and centuries.
Did folks in the original Off-Off Broadway do it, too? Some, no doubt. But there’s an important difference of philosophical orientation. In rebelling against commercialism, the sixties radicals, also tended, overtly or by implication, to reject capitalism. Inspired by Grotowski and so forth, they initiated a Poor Theatre. They often did shows outdoors, did them for free, or passed the hat. The money part was a necessary evil, but an evil.
By contrast, though the product at Nada was every bit as non-commercial, challenging, and strange, Aaron would have made money by it if he could. He called himself an entrepreneur, an impresario. Where the hippies had merely been anarchists, he was an anarcho-capitalist. He would have built an empire—and he briefly did, expanding into a modest Lower East Side chain that included House of Candles, the Piano Store, and Nada Classic (an ironic but eloquent reference to the Pause that Refreshes). He’d been one of the founders of the New York International Fringe Festival. When he split off to start his own ill-fated splinter fest, he named it Pure Pop. Pop – as in Popular and Populist. He had ambitions. And when the Lower East Side situation crashed for him, he went right into the heart of the beast; the last iteration of his enterprise was in a porn theatre in the Times Square area, the very front porch of Broadway.
But Aaron was a visionary, not a businessman. Empires such as he was attempting are usually partnerships between evangelical nutcases like himself and bean-counters. For the beans must be counted. They must be jealously guarded, sometimes planted, occasionally traded, but they can’t just be tossed around like Mardi Gras beads. When he launched Pure Pop he’d won my confidence by telling me he was going to John Jay College and learning how to write a business plan. He then lost that confidence when he boasted that he was in the midst of cranking out 40 business plans. It is an extremely difficult thing to write ONE good business plan. There’s no possible way to write 40 unless you have some army of monkish accountant-scribes grinding away at it for months on end in some business-hatching cave someplace. My confidence was further eroded when Aaron blithely announced that he’d quit the classes at John Jay, having learned everything he needed to know.
I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. (More details on the Nada saga can be found in my Village Voice encomium at http://www.villagevoice.com/2003-03-04/news/exit-stage-lower-east-side/) I vouchsafe to say that Aaron’s example inspired numerous other venues created along the same model, and scores or hundreds of theatre companies.Thousands of artists plied their trade there.
Of course, similar statistics can be trotted out about many theatres. Here is where I begin to get partial to me and my own. I’m going to speak now about the sort of indie theatre that speaks to me, and I believe, to the pack I run with. It is the indiest of indie theatre, the kind that is independent to a fault.
I’m Scotch-Irish; contrariness is in my bones. My father was a hillbilly from the Smoky Mountain region; my ancestors fought genuine feuds, and ran revenuers off their property with shootin’ irons. My paternal grandmother was one of these hill folk. Once, when a cousin reached down to help her pick up a shawl she’d dropped, she smacked his hand down with her cane. No one’s gonna he’p me if I kin he’p it! I like crazy, perverse individualists. Frankly, I don’t exactly know how to talk to anyone else. I love show biz but hate the phonies who generally spread their legs there. Nada (and places like it that sprang up subsequently) were havens for “square peg” artists like me.
When I came to NYC in the late 1980s I had very definite, very eccentric ideas about the sort of theatre I wanted to make. (In subsequent posts, as part of this series, I’ll talk about a bunch of those ideas—for laughs). Essentially, the core of my belief was, and is, a desire to create a theatre that could be poetic, metaphysical, satirical and a little experimental – but still appeal to a mass audience. In other words, it would mix the best elements of the “art theatre” with the populist instincts of the commercial. “Our Becketts must write Las Vegas lounge acts!” I proclaimed, somehow without a shred of embarrassment. Gradually, I think this dream is slowly coming true, and there are large numbers of artists who share something like my vision. But 20 years ago and more when I first arrived there were few places for someone like me to go. It was the age of the Culture Wars. All the cutting edge work was identity-based and autobiographical. Without a contact in the world, I sent my plays blindly out to theatres, and occasionally self-produced my work at places like the Sanford Meisner over on 11th Avenue, and the old Village Gate (now known as the Village Theatre).
Having heard about Nada and seen a couple of shows there, I’d sent plays there as well. But no one ever answered my queries. It’s easy to imagine why, when you have a little experience under your belt. This is New York. Even a rat-infested storefront theatre like Nada receives enough scripts to fill a Volkswagen. Without a proper game plan, playwrights might as well mail in sections of the telephone book. (No doubt, some avant-garde playwright has.) At any rate, it wasn’t until 1996 that I worked up enough gumption to actually approach Aaron after some show and just do the pitch orally. And I was in. That was all it took. I’d already been doing theatre in the city – quite ineffectually – for eight years.
Fresh from my stint as a fund-raiser at Big Apple Circus, I’d recently started my own company Mountebanks, which would present my plays, vaudeville shows, odd exhibitions, performance pieces, and a ‘zine. All of these it would accomplish. I’d labored for the first half of the nineties on a 70-page manifesto and founding document; in 1995, I mailed it out to 200 friends and family members seeking their support. (I bumped into one of these on the subway not long after, an old school friend I hadn’t seen in years. “I got your thing in the mail,” he said, “You know what? You’re nuts!” Then he bolted for his train. I haven’t seen him since, although I did Google him recently. I rejoice to observe that today he remains relatively unaccomplished and obscure, and, furthermore, is now bald.)
While my eventual hope was to have my own physical venue from which to produce all that work, that was not fated to be. Funds trickled in, in three digit denominations, and never did grow beyond that. I was to be itinerant, hopping between venues. I was natural fodder for Nada.
My show, the American Vaudeville Theatre and New American Lyceum, was booked on Mondays, opposite a play by Kirk Wood Bromley, who was also doing his first production there. I also met for the first time Ian W. Hill, who had just started there as kind of theatre manager.
For the next couple of years I made Surf Reality, over on Allen Street, my base of operations, but came back to Nada in 1999 and worked there very frequently over the next couple of years with the likes of Ian, Frank Cwiklik and Michele Schlossberg, Bryan Enk and Christiaan Koop, Matt Grey, etc. Art Wallace, like Ian, was one of the space managers. Other close and frequent collaborators, Jeff Lewoncyck and Hope Cartelli, I met at the Present Company in about 2000.
I mention these names in particular (to the exclusion of others, many dear and worthy friends) because I believe our work (and our work ethic) shares similar characteristics. It is the work I know best, it is my sort of work, and so it is what I will champion. Logic, not hubris. (Those Greeks had a word for everything).
What some of those characteristics may be is the subject of the next post in this series. Also to come: some relics from our first show at Nada in August, 1996.