I first set foot in the HERE Arts Center, in downtown New York (off the corner of 6th Avenue and Spring Street, to be specific) in the summer of 1998. That’s fifteen months shy of a quarter century ago – long ago enough that tragically, the skyscrapers looming up from several blocks away are no longer the same. In 1998, the Twin Towers were the landmarks you could see off to the south; New Yorkers were muttering in exasperation at Mayor Giuliani as they went about their business, and the area south of Houston Street was full of alternative music-loving, Tarantino quoting, impossibly pretty young artistic types flitting to and fro.
HERE itself is a multi-use cultural center, with a bar on the top level as you come in, one theatre space on the ground floor, and another down the steps to the basement level, next to whatever art installation they happen to be exhibiting at the moment. When I first set foot in HERE – back when all bars were coffeeshops instead, and every such coffeeshop worth the name had homemade muffins to consume while you waited – it was to perform in that basement level theater space. It was for a program they used to sponsor called the American Living Room Festival, which showcased a different menu of short theater pieces each weekend. (Essentially the Fringe Festival, before the now-defunct NYC Fringe existed, all in once space and with an even scrappier vibe.) I was performing in a series of interconnected avant-garde vignettes, each of which featured me as a bodiless head. I wore all black and had a pinhole spotlight on my face, so that’s all the audience would register of me. In one of the vignettes the Head had magical powers. It was the sort of glorious ridiculousness – Sam Shepard by way of The Kids In The Hall – that you could do when you were a young actor in the late 90s, back when ersatz Shepard was the height of what our playwrights aspired to, back when our nation was complacent and at peace, and the Twin Towers could still be seen from Spring Street.
Friends of mine in the New Ambassadors Theater Company, after the digital interregnum which we’ve all gone through (digirregnum? Is that a word?), recently mounted their HeartBROKE festival of one-act plays. I went to see it this past weekend – at HERE, that marvelous old venue on 6th Avenue and Spring Street. It was a festival of 10 ten-minute plays, loosely on the subject of love, some naturalistic, some avant garde. The theater space itself has long since been refurbished – there used to be a number of infelicitous columns blocking the sight lines – but it was still that same basement black box space, where young actors have spoken the words of young playwrights for a long, long time now.
It’s still there.
An awful lot of things – an awful lot of people – are gone, of course. I don’t recognize any of the surrounding restaurants, you can’t buy muffins in the lobby anymore, and it’s the Freedom Tower that looms as the landmark off to the south, as you peer down 6th Avenue. But young and pretty people are still flitting to and fro, and hungry young actors are still honing their chops with the most preposterous of short new pieces, down in that basement theater.
You can keep your “Broadway is Back” sloganeering, or whatever else is current these days. As long as that basement – as long as any of the basements – are still there, as long as war and plague and economic catastrophe and murder hornets have still managed not to dislodge us from those basements, then we’ve still got a chance.