P.S.122 Prepares to Hit the Road

With its building soon to undergo multi-year renovations, the venerable performance space plans for life without a home

In the first evening of Performance Space 122’s Old School Benefit on June 22, burlesque artist Julie Atlas Muz fellated a microphone and solo performer John Fleck, via video, advised everyone to “blame homosexuals” for all the culture’s problems. Okwui Okpokwasili read a scene in which two 11-year-old girls discuss orgasms. Choreographer Yvonne Meier barked orders at her dancers such as “friendly snake on caffeine!” and “Medieval goat has a field day!” Various performers and audience members discussed how much blood—real and fake—had spattered the upstairs stage.

It was just another night at P.S.122, except that as of Saturday, there won’t be any more nights like this—not for at least three years. Next week, P.S.122 moves out of the 122 Community Center, a former schoolhouse on the corner of First Avenue and 9th Street, to make way for a $22.8 million renovation project undertaken by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Design and Construction.

The renovation, which follows the overhaul of the building’s exterior, will render it accessible to those with disabilities. It will also provide a courtyard, a roof deck, many more toilets, and two new theaters for P.S.122 on the fourth and fifth floor (one seating 199, one seating 87). The present ground floor theater will become a gallery and the second floor one will be allocated to fellow tenants Mabou Mines. Maitland Jones of Deborah Berke & Partners, the project’s lead architect, speaks of a design that “unifies the building and makes the place more than the sum of its parts.”

Coming to an apartment near you.
Coming to an apartment near you.

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Both P.S.122 and Mabou Mines react to the planned construction with a mix of pleasure and trepidation. Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of P.S.122, says, “We’ve been identified with this building for so long. Losing that is scary. It’s liberating and it’s empowering, but it is nonetheless scary.”

During the next few years. P.S.122 will partner with other spaces, such as the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Performing Garage, and the Museo del Barrio, to continue presenting work. (They’re also in talks with the Parks Department, a cathedral, and a ping-pong parlor.) “We will be producing all over town,” says Gantner. “For us, the push to move out is an opportunity to completely reinvent ourselves. We’re trying to think of ourselves as a venue for the whole city, as a state of mind.”

While annual budgets will remain approximately the same, rented spaces and nontraditional spaces will make individual shows much more expensive to produce, which means fewer shows will be offered. Still, next year’s COIL Festival, held in January, promises new work from the likes of Young Jean Lee and the TEAM. And in 2012, P.S.122 will launch Apartment X, which will take place in 24 apartments in three different neighborhoods, with each space containing a separate work by the likes of Rimini Protokoll, Peaches, and Bruce LaBruce. P.S.122 also plans to tour theater and dance shows to the U.K., Germany, and Argentina.

And when P.S.122 returns to the building, Gantner promises that the new theaters will provide “a quality of audience experience—in terms of inventiveness, comfort, surprise—that we struggle to offer now. The nature of the spaces as they stand at the moment doesn’t actually serve the work.” Both column-free spaces will offer flexible seating, as well as new light, sound, and video equipment, for which P.S.122 will soon announce a $3 million capital campaign. There’s also a possibility of plein air performance on the roof deck, though Gantner adds, “We have to be very conscious of neighbors around here.”

Mabou Mines, which plans to remain in the building until construction begins, has not yet been able to secure an alternate studio space. Ruth Maleczech, one of the company’s cofounders, worries about the upcoming years in exile. “It is a very long time to be out of the building,” she says. “Plenty of time to put you right out of business.” Yet, she knows that when construction concludes, “We’ll have a lovely space with an incredible legacy.”

Anne Dennin, the chairman of the board of the 122 Community Center, who has campaigned for these renovations for years, says, “At the end of the day, we’ll have a building that will work for everybody—actors, audiences, artists.”

 
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