Home is Where the Art Is

The Rebirth of Dixon Place

It was born by accident, then nurtured like a calling, humble-but-lovable Dixon Place quickly developed into an indispensable part of the late-'80s theater scene. Today, it's even more crucial, maybe the last venue in Manhattan where performers can present works in progress. For 13 years, however, this laboratory for both the half-baked and the soon-to-be-great operated four nights a week in Ellie Covan's living room. First her East Village storefront, then in her loft on the Bowery.

"And every night," Covan recalls, "somebody new would walk in and say, 'Oh my God! Does somebody live here?' " For her, the novelty had worn off during the pork-rind phase of the Bush administration. Yet living in the space had become part of her identity, and artists kept telling her how much they liked working in that homey ambience. "I would never think about it, because it was just too weird— I didn't even have my own bathroom." So this is one of those rare cases where the imminent loss of a lease changed a life for the better.

Last spring, Covan won an Obie, the Ross Wetzsteon Award, for service to the community that went above and beyond. Taken completely by surprise, Covan babbled the bad news during her acceptance speech: Dixon Place was on the brink. The lease was up soon, and she had not been able to find a new space after looking for over a year. Within a week or so, the Vineyard Theater came to the rescue, offering her their old place on 26th Street, at least for a season. And Covan, who was on a brink of another sort, used her Obie money to rent a cabin in New Jersey where she could finally get some privacy.

"I could never go home," she exclaimed, showing off the new Dixon Place at Vineyard 26, which celebrates its gala opening tonight (September 15). DP at V26 has all the old homey stuff— chairs found on the street and little lamps— as well as all-new amenities such as seats on risers. "Every single person can see, breathe, and cross their legs," she marvels. There's a tech booth, a box office, her own office— and she's thrilled at how big it is, this walled-off corner of the lobby. Not one but two dressing rooms! Not one but two bathrooms! Triumphantly opening one of those doors as she passes, Covan announces, "And it isn't my bathroom."

Dixon Place had a fairy tale beginning. I'm thinking "Bluebeard," that charming tale of compulsion triggered by the forbidden. As in: "Just don't enter that room!"

In 1985, Covan showed up in Paris where she knew one person, an American businessman, and because he was leaving for the summer, he gave her his apartment one flight down from Andy Warhol's place in a beautiful 16th-century building. For free. "Just one thing," he told her. "You can't have anybody over."

Covan intended to comply. After all, she didn't know a soul. Then an acquaintance persuaded her to have one little dinner party. The 12 guests brought the food, and Covan read the first short story she'd ever written, and they had so much fun they agreed to meet the next week. And the week after. And so on. The night before Covan flew back to New York, when the businessman happened to call, there were 80 people in the apartment. "It was so bad," she grimaces. But she had discovered her gift for hosting, for bringing people together and making them more than the sum of their parts.

To Covan, the Paris scene was just a party, a salon. But the French people called it "Tuesday Nights at Dixon Place," noting the shelves of leatherbound books in the apartment embossed with the name "Dixon Place." Unknown to her at the time, Coven would be naming her arts organization for Daniel Dixon, a wealthy man based in San Diego who published editions of Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein as a sideline and had sublet his Paris place to the businessman. Covan waited five years before trying to contact Dixon, afraid he'd object to her using the name. As it turned out, he was "worldly, funny, educated, and just totally a kick. He'd been throwing parties for 50 years! It would have been a match— that personality. He would have loved Dixon Place." Dixon died before they had a chance to meet.

Back in New York, Covan rented the storefront on East 1st Street. It was autumn 1985, the golden age of the burned-out rec-room look in performance spaces. The East Village club scene (8BC, Darinka, Club Chandalier, etc.) was peaking and about to die. In April 1986, Covan revived Tuesday Nights at Dixon Place as a reading series in her living room, then added performance artists and bands on weekends. Admission was $1.98.

Already the tiny storefront stuffed with found furniture was a "borderline theater," where performers usually faced an audience that was sober and listening, unlike what they found in the clubs. Everybody has a story about colorful Dixon Place. Once, sick with the flu, Covan came out and introduced the shows in her pajamas. Once, snowed into Boston, Danny Mydlack phoned his show in to a speaker phone set on a chair.

"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.

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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