Exit, Stage Lower East Side

The Closing of Surf Reality and the Theatorium Signals the End of a Theatrical Era

From the late 1980s though the late '90s, New York's Poor Theater had its own Poverty Row, a crossroads in the heart of the Lower East Side that had more in common with grunge than Grotowski. At its peak circa 1999, one could count close to a dozen Off-Off-Broadway venues in the area bounded by Allen, Ridge, Houston, and Delancey streets. To a generation of NYC theater artists, this downscale neighborhood was home. While some may have been turned off by the filling-station-style rest rooms, the garbage under the seats, and the fire-sale sets and props, others were touched by the youthful enthusiasm that imbued the scene with a kind of magic. The houses that anchored it, run by bulldog impresarios with Ahab-like fanaticism, seemed indestructible, if only because the Grim Reaper wouldn't tarnish his scythe on them. Now, with the January loss of the Present Company Theatorium and the upcoming closure of Surf Reality, all but one of the strip's theaters will be history—victims of economics, burnout, and changing times.

In 1988, the 'hood was strictly an urban frontier. The intersection of Stanton and Ludlow streets was a good place to score dope or purchase the services of a prostitute. Apart from these errands, no one—including the area's mostly Latino residents—dawdled there. Yet, implausibly, that year two of the area's storefronts were converted into theaters. The Independent Theatre Company, a splinter group from the Jean Cocteau Rep, opened the House of Candles on Stanton Street (near the present Arlene's Grocery). Like its mother company, the group was devoted to productions of "modern classics," works by Chekhov, Pinter, Beckett, and the like.

Meanwhile, around the corner on 167 Ludlow Street, a graduate of Ringling Brothers Clown College and his two LeCoq teachers from Carnegie Mellon were launching a more ambitious project. Initially called Theatre Club Funambules, the new space would soon be renamed Todo con Nada (often shortened to Nada), becoming the epicenter for the groundswell that was to come. According to artistic director Aaron Beall (partners Tim and Babs Carryer were soon to drop out) the project began—ironically—as the twinkle in the eye of real estate developers Joe Cross and Woody Fox. "They thought it would increase the value of their property to have a theater on the block," says Beall. "It took a few years, but they were proved right." While Beall directed and produced many of his own productions in the space over the years (including well-publicized Faust and Hamlet festivals), Nada's real business was space rental. The statistics were impressive: 2400 different productions in 12 years, including performances by such future household names as John Leguizamo, Reno, and Blue Man Group.

Surf's down: Prichard says so long.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Surf's down: Prichard says so long.

Five years later, House of Candles and Nada were joined by a third space. "When we first opened in 1993," says Surf Reality founder Robert Prichard, "there was a brothel in our basement and the space now occupied by the Bluestockings Bookstore was a crack deli. The building also featured a pawn shop. It's like we were a downtown mall for outlaws. Theoretically, one could boost some goods, redeem them for cash at the pawnshop, cop a little blow at the deli, grab a 'date' from the basement, and then come upstairs to see a show."

Prichard and his wife Jen had met as bit players on the set of The Toxic Avenger. Prichard had been shooting improvised videos with the likes of Todd Alcott and Matt Mitler, a process he called "surfing reality." When he formed his new video studio in an Allen Street loft, the phrase became both the brand name and an exhortation to its performers: "Surf Reality." Although legit theater was occasionally produced there, it was mostly a forum for variety shows presenting alternative stand-up and sketch comedy, such as the long-running "Faceboyz Open Mike Night" and "The Witching Hour," hosted by the whip-cracking s&m MC Mistress Elsa, played by Jen Prichard.

Nineteen ninety-five saw the formation of Collective Unconscious in a storefront at 145 Ludlow. This theater filled a niche somewhere between the experimental theater aspirations of Nada and the punk show business of Surf. Reverend Jen's Anti-Slam, starring the elf-eared, Budweiser-guzzling humorist, has played there every Wednesday since the theater's inception, but the theater has also launched such downtown hits as Charlie Victor Romeo, created by Collective members Patrick Daniels, Irving Gregory, and Bob Berger.

Seeds were sown for critical mass on the L.E.S. with the success of the First International New York Fringe Festival in 1997, co-produced by Nada, the Present Company, and Jonathon Harris. The Present Company, formerly based in a fourth-story walk-up on 45th Street, sought a downtown venue to serve as the center of subsequent festivals. They found one in an old auto-body shop on Stanton Street, a few blocks from Nada and Collective. Next to these 30- to 50-seat theatrettes, the Present Company Theatorium seemed a behemoth, with 20-foot ceilings, convenient catwalks above the playing space, a lobby, a bar, and a stage big enough that the cast didn't look like it was playing Twister. (The Theatorium also featured the occasional onstage rat appearance.)

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