Home is Where the Art Is

The Rebirth of Dixon Place

"Backstage" was Covan's kitchen/bedroom, where spectators came for refreshments and performers applied their makeup under the loft bed. "Everything about it was illegal," Covan now feels free to confess. "So we would tell the audience, when the police come in, just start singing, 'Happy Birthday.' We're just having a party."

For a while, she enjoyed living where the party never stopped, and she worked two jobs to support it. She was earning her money running the West Point Society of New York, the academy's alumni organization. She jokes about leading a double life, but actually learned a lot there, in fact producing her first show for them. At Carnegie Hall! A Sousa concert!! Then Dixon Place became her full-time job, as Covan got funding from foundations and the New York State Council on the Arts. Suddenly, the oddball space began to get very serious, claiming a niche in the artistic food chain. So this is a story about a place that became an institution while continuing to force a boho lifestyle on its founder— and la vie bohème is only fun if you choose it.

Covan moved DP to a larger second-floor space on the Bowery in 1991. Here she got her own bedroom and tried to establish some boundaries. (Rehearsal? "Everybody gets an hour. It can be done in an hour.") Often she had an intern living with her as well, and of course, her staff had to work there. In 1995, she told a writer from The New York Times that running Dixon Place made her feel like a single parent and "the kid never grows up." Meanwhile, with the clubs long dead and the Franklin Furnace performance space closed, Dixon Place was more valuable than ever. No one else was devoted to process, and Covan gave first shows or work-in-progress shows to everyone from Blue Man Group to Wally Shawn, from Craig Lucas to Reno, from John Leguizamo to the Five Lesbian Brothers.

Ellie Covan at Dixon Place, Manhattan's last venue for works in progress
photo: Robin Holland
Ellie Covan at Dixon Place, Manhattan's last venue for works in progress

Covan says it's possible that the new DP may even get a curtain. "Like those hospital curtains in Wit," she muses.

"I think we all deserve to have a professional space. I can't do a grassroots thing anymore. I don't want to say I'm too old, but I will say that I'm tired of running it in that way. It was my own performance project for years. To have it in my living room and to kind of put myself on the line, personally, every night." It was art in everyday life, and there's a reason that kind of art usually gets filed under ordeal.

As she talks, a friend who's helping to fix the office walks in with a strange wrought iron . . . plant holder? It has two plant-size shelves, it seems. "I found you a little present on the street," he says, reminding her that she wanted little tables in the theater.

I ask her what she thinks it is.

"I don't know," she says. "But we'll use it. It's in the tradition."

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