I received some good news a few weeks ago from my friend Darpan Joshi, who directed my short play Basic Cable Method Acting at the Queens Theatre Festival earlier this year. Another annual festival, for which he’s been a playwright in the past, asked him if he had any ten minute plays he’d like to present this year. He told them he didn’t have any of his own writing ready at the moment, but that he’d just directed a piece which he thought would be suitable. The festival agreed, and Darpan called me up to say that Basic Cable Method Acting was receiving an encore performance. The festival? The Lower East Side Festival of the Arts, taking place throughout the Memorial Day weekend at the Theatre for the New City.
It took me back a bit, hearing this news. Specifically, it took me back twenty five years. Because that’s how long it’s been since the last time I took part in the Lower East Side Festival of the arts, as an actor, back in another century.
I was in one of those incredibly odd, self-important, barely-counts-as-staged productions of a new play that seemed to litter the landscape of the late 90s, back when space was cheap and non-union performance opportunities were plentiful. (And to think that at the time, we thought that the off-off-Broadway scene was already a pale shadow of its former self, with not enough opportunities and the cost of space too high. How naïve we were.) When I say it barely counted as being staged, that’s putting it mildly; in point of fact, the director was so incompetent at the basics of production that the entire cast had an intervention of sorts – supported by the playwright/producer, who wasn’t otherwise sure how to extricate herself from a bad situation – and fired him, effectively cancelling the production. There had been no advance sales for this, so it’s not like anybody other than ourselves was inconvenienced by this drastic step, but now we still had nothing to show for our months of work. However, the playwright was friends with the folks at Theater for the New City – they were all a loosely affiliated crew of unreconstructed hippies – and so she selected three of the performers, cut out a ten minute chunk of what had been a two and a half hour opus, and got us booked in the Festival.
(At least I think the show would have taken two and a half hours to perform; up until about two days before our scheduled opening we’d never so much as run either of the show’s two acts. Hence the aforementioned intervention. But I digress.)
We found ourselves on the main stage at Theatre for the New City, a complex which contains a total of four performance spaces; I’ve been there numerous times sense, but somehow the stage has never seemed quite so cavernous as that particular afternoon. The bill of fare was a chaotic grab bag, drawing a level of talent shockingly incongruous with our cobbled-together little production; about a half an hour before we performed, Kurt Vonnegut delivered a short lecture. We got up and emoted, then some bands played, and so on (to use Mr. Vonnegut’s phrase). It was a weird mixture, prominent downtown folks cheek-by-jowl with the rest of us, everybody flying by the seat of their pants.
I’d like to think I’ve progressed beyond those seat-of-the-pants days. I got my Equity card (through Classical Theater of Harlem) some years later, bidding farewell to the kinds of sketchy non-union productions which could be ended by the cast simply choosing not to show up. (It’s horrifying even to type this – it should fly in the face of all standards of professionalism – but it’s hard to be professional in the absence of other professionals.) I’ve been in award-winning productions. I’ve progressed to playwrighting, and been featured in some reasonably prominent places. And here I am, with a well-received short play of mine making a return engagement –
In the exact same festival.
I’m not sure if this means I’m going in circles, or if somehow time stands still at Theatre for the New City. Obviously time hasn’t stood still – both the playwright and “director” I mentioned passed away about a decade ago; I’m still not going to name either of them out of respect, but there’s no longer any reason not to tell the story. And the city where that story took place hasn’t been the same for decades. But Theatre for the New City is still there, still chugging along – and still throwing the Memorial Day festival.
Except now they’ve added a second stage downstairs for the ten minute plays. So there’s that.