Archive for Kirk Wood Bromley

It Was A Set Up

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags on August 5, 2010 by travsd

As far as I’m concerned, Kirk Wood Bromley is the whole enchilada.

Experiences like I had last night at his new work It Was a Set-Up are the whole reason I moved to New York and the whole reason I got into theatre. (I should quickly add that the new work is a collaboration with Leah Schrager, who co-directed choreographed and created the “phoems”, or photo-poems that are part of the set.).

Last night was the first performance ever in their new space “The Home Of“, a combination house and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. (The address — for the nonce — is a secret known only to ticket buyers. And I must add that my constant companion and I encountered one already-annoyed neighbor, who later got his revenge by parading in front of his open window in his underwear. The experience wasn’t too different from the piece we’d just seen.)

Appropriate to this particular environment, Bromley’s new piece (adapted from his earlier When I met Juliet) is a domestic drama concerning a middle aged man’s struggle to understand his wife, and his longing for a younger hottie he encounters at a party and who drives him batty by — unthinkably — blowing him off. On the face of it, that plot description sounds like that awful uptown drivel they put on at commercial and Off-Broadway theatres, the style of theatre I think of as “live meat television”. But this is Bromley. The language is his usual Black Forest Cake of dense poetry, as heady and as pleasurable as a scuba tank full of whip-its.  The thrill comes not just from the scale of his talent, but from the risks he takes. He uses words like buckshot, some hit the bullseye, some go wide. But his willingness to fail, to put his balls on the chopping block, whether that means distinguishing or embarrassing himself, makes him an exciting artist to watch.

And it’s not just about the language. There is an event happening right in our faces. While the language drifts in and out of what we might recognize as natural speech, the high-flown (and sometimes completely nonsensical) portions are scored in such a way that they match the rhythms and cadences of a real argument. As a consequence, the actors can use these words and invest them with meaning, and a large part of this experience is about watching the body language of these actors. Every moment is alive. Tim Fannon and and Charise Greene as the couple are more than up to the task, precise and passionate down to every broken-down beat. Sharing the experience with them feels like a privilege — and it ought to, because it is one. It’s mighty good to know that in this sea of striving, undifferentiated hustlers, a few people are having the courage to make something pure.

My New TV Show

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, My Shows, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2009 by travsd

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As some of you may know, Indie Theatre Now the theatre podcast I host for the New York Theatre Experience is about to launch a television version on Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The pilot episode airs tomorrow night, with my guests John Clancy and Elena K. Holy talking about the NY International Fringe Festival and the League of Independent Theatres; Ellie Covan talking about the early days of Dixon Place; playwright Kirk Wood Bromley, who coined the term “Indie Theatre”; and New York Theatre Experience director Martin Denton himself, on the new edition of Plays and Playwrights.  Here’s where and when to watch:

  • Wednesday, May 20 at 7:00PM on cable channel 56 (Time Warner)/ 83(RCN) and STREAMING ONLINE at MNN.Org
  • Monday, May 25 at 11:00PM on cable channel 67 (Time Warner) / 85 (RCN) and STREAMING ONLINE at MNN.Org
  • Sunday, May 31 at 11:00PM on cable channel 56 (Time Warner) / 83 (RCN) at MNN.Org

I repeat, the show is streaming online at MNN.Org. “I don’t get cable” and “I don’t live in Manhattan” therefore rank as excuses comparable to “My dog ate it” and “My grandmother was sick”. “I didn’t want to watch your stupid show” is much more like it, though, frankly, inconceivable. At any rate, I do hope you’re able to tune in, or at the very least, turn on or drop out.

Everything from Nothing

Posted in BUNKUM, Indie Theatre, ME with tags , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2009 by travsd
Company of American Vaudeville Theatre, Todo Con Nada, 1999

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.

But—

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.

First Principles — Redux!

Posted in Indie Theatre with tags , , , , on January 21, 2009 by travsd

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My New Year’s Resolution this year (I very prudently only made one) was to respond to a comment made here many months ago by Tom X. Chao, which was, if I remember rightly, “What the hell’s up with this blog?” After a big launch announcement, I’d gone on to commit the cardinal sin of all Web logs – neglect. A log being a log, its writer should post as often as he can, daily if possible. Post, post, post. I’d managed to craft a couple of long, thoughtful essays, and some announcements about upcoming shows, and then…nothing. But as Lear said, “Nothing will come of nothing.” In imitation of my more diligent friends, I therefore resolve to post.

Luckily, I’ve concocted a theme that should keep me going for awhile. Martin Denton and myself are developing a television version of our regular audio podcast Indie Theatre Now! This development seems to me a fortuitous occasion to ruminate on the subject of Indie Theatre itself – what sets it apart, its positive and negative aspects, its historical origins, and, chiefly, what it means to me. I regard this as an opportunity to educate an audience I hope will widen.

First, some props. “Indie Theatre” is a term coined by that King of Coinage, playwright Kirk Wood Bromley of Inverse Theatre. Credit for this astute re-branding should always be attached to him by us navel-gazers when we presume to dissect its meaning. I wasn’t personally present at the occasion on which he proffered the new term, so I didn’t hear his own thinking about the definition. I can only offer what I think it may refer to, and what it means to me, and then offer space here for those combative souls who wish to augment or rebut the record.

I admire the handle for several reasons: its economy, its efficiency, its clarification, its resonances. It addresses several semantic and political problems simultaneously. It is at once a re-drawing of the map, a factual correction, and a generational rallying cry. But what does it mean? The old lexicon gave us a handful of outmoded professional categories: 1) the Broadway or “commercial” theatre, a uniquely American marriage of art and commerce with origins at the start of the last century and headquartered in Times Square, though with touring tentacles throughout the country; 2) Off-Broadway, a movement begun in the mid-twentieth century as an alternative to the pure commercialism then dominating the American theatre. While there had been numerous “art theatres” prior to Off-Broadway’s advent, nothing like a broad institutionalization happened until around the 1950s. From Off-Broadway stemmed the Regional Theatre movement, as well. All shared a not-for-profit model, and tended to present seasons consisting of modern classics and serious works by mostly established contemporary playwrights; and finally, 3) Off-Off Broadway, the highly radical, experimental movement that sprang up in the 1960s, which also followed a not-for-profit model, but in general was far less concerned than Off-Broadway with placating the expectations of middle class ticket buyers, and was (and is) often presented in store fronts, cafes and lofts.

The latter category, from its very inception, has always presented something of a problem. To the vast majority of Americans who have nothing to do with the theatre, and even to many working within the theatre’s other branches, the name has always been something of a punchline. Anyone who works in theatre will tell you: announcing that you work in Off-Off-Broadway theatre feels a lot like telling people you’ve chosen to pursue an amateur hobby rather than get a real job like everyone else. “The theatre” is bad enough. “Off-Off-Broadway” strikes outsiders as a bit like admitting, “You’re a doctor? You’re a lawyer? Great! I’ve chosen to play my cello far, far from Carnegie Hall.” Protestations that one has chosen to commit oneself to art, rather than whore oneself out to do crap, sound a mite disingenuous when you define yourself in relation to the crap. The fact that the crap is more famous and more popular can’t help but make matters worse.

But that’s only the founding problem. Decades pass: seventies, eighties, nineties, oughts. A couple of generations have since grown up within the art form, with very different aesthetic and political sensibilities from the original Off-Off Broadway generation. By the nineties, these were based not only in New York, but in major cities around the country, growing up in opposition to their local regional theatres, which by now had become major establishment institutions. What should the new generation be called? Off-Off-Off Broadway? That simply wouldn’t do.

Occasionally the term “alternative theatre” was and is used, in imitation (I assume) of “alt-rock”. One of the many possible meanings of the now-defunct RAT movement (which I will touch on in a subsequent post) was “Regional Alternative Theatre.” But this still smells suspect, whether you’re talking about rock or theatre. It reduces an artistic sensibility to a market niche, and it implies that it is secondary, tertiary, or worse, to a more valid mainstream one. That won’t do, either.

And so, Kirk coined “Indie Theatre”. The term, short for “independent”, is used in the music and film industries, and suits the needs of the moment to a tee. Among other things, the term is a double liberation – not just from the tyrannous expectations of the commercial theatre, but, perhaps more tellingly, from the equally stifling expectations of the not-for-profit arts establishment. Some indie theatre is more defined by its aversion to the former, some by its aversion to the latter, some, by both.

Where I, and some of my favorite colleague and cohorts fall in that spectrum, will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Meantime, watch this space for reviews of Cornbury (Theatre Askew) and Theatre is Dead (Stolen Chair) in the next few days…

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