In a northern New York suburb there stands an abandoned factory riddled with loose overhead bricks and jagged metal. Graffiti-ridden and overgrown with brush, it's the kind of place you approach via a sloping terrain of crackling twigs and a slit in a wire fence. Inside, it's sharp drops in the floor and broken staircases. Starting April 24, it's also going to be a theater.
A site-specific, guerrilla theater, to be exact, for a play called The Sweet Cheat. For each of the show's four performances (April 24 and 25, May 1 and 2), an audience of up to 40 people will take a train from Grand Central to the factory's secret location. Upon arrival, they will begin an act of theatrical trespass, for a piece based on Rick Moody's futuristic novella The Albertine Notes.
The Sweet Cheat is directed by Jeff Stark, an artist and editor of Nonsense NYC, a newsletter for weird art events in New York. Last year, Stark gained attention for writing and directing a play he produced on the subway, IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations. It was about the birth of New York's transit system, and featured mobile sets, Victorian costumes, and a traveling audience.
The new production, which is Stark's second play, chronicles the aftermath of a suitcase bomb that detonates in Union Square, leaving 20 percent of New York's population addicted to Albertine, a drug that allows people to accurately relive their memories. "It's this crazy Philip K. Dick–style story that I was constantly passing around to people," says Stark, a tall, fearlessly collected figurehead with thick-rimmed glasses. "I wanted another form to get them interested in reading it."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the cast and crew gathered to survey the site a few weeks before the play's opening. Stark briefed the team on audience coordination, which is going to be crucial, given the building's dead-end corridors and the pool-size gashes in the floors that could have someone plummeting 15 feet.
"We're trying to figure out how to get through the building without leading 40 people across a deadly catwalk," says Kevin Balktick, the play's curly-haired usher. "The key is to keep the group together and not do this at night."
Not having permission to be in the building adds further risk to the production—who knows what the local police's tastes are in avant-garde theater? Although safety is a priority for the production, Stark says people are responsible for their individual well-being. Danger, though, is integral to the play's post-apocalyptic storyline. (The lack of restrooms will be another kind of hazard.)
Since the cast and crew have limited time to work in the space, rehearsals have happened mostly offsite, at a studio in Midtown. "In a professional production, you would rehearse six days a week for eight-hour days," says M. Scrivo, who plays a jealousy-driven drug abuser. "For this, we're rehearsing 10 times for an hour and a half. That's not a lot." A team of costume designers, led by Sarah McMillan, are assembling costumes that evoke the styles of both Dominican gangs and steam-punks.
Most of the cast and crew are non-professionals, who, like Stark, have limited theater experience and are learning a tremendous amount on the fly. But these circumstances play into Stark's modus operandi for grassroots collaborations with friends in unconventional spaces. "The audience part of me says this is fucking crazy," says Scrivo. "But we're in good hands."