Michael Romanyshyn choked back tears as he stood beneath the colorful, cherub-bedecked proscenium at Los Kabayitos Puppet Theater in late November, delivering his farewell speech as the theater’s director. “Just whose city is this city?” he asked, adapting some lines from a Brecht song that was part of the evening’s program. “Just whose cultural center is this cultural center?”
He was addressing the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, the former public school at Suffolk and Rivington that houses some 80 artist studios and half a dozen performance spaces, where Los Kabayitos opened under Romanyshyn’s direction in 1996. Last month, he resigned over conflicts with CSV president Ed Vega, which, depending on one’s point of view, stemmed from administrative, aesthetic, financial, or personal differences. But by all accounts, at its core, the conflict was political. As the city continues to cut arts funds, sell off public buildings, and generally impose a free-market discipline on all arts production, the fate of Los Kabayitos is a tale of two ways of valuing community arts in Giuliani’s New York.
In less than two and a half years, Los Kabayitos had become a vibrant center. Operating almost entirely on box-office income (and holding ticket prices to $10 for adults and $6 for children), the theater hosted artists from the Czech Republic, Mexico, Bosnia, Romania, Russia, Korea, Nicaragua, Spain, France, and Canada. Among more than 100 artists from the U.S., it presented Bread and Puppet, Janie Geiser, the Neo-Futurists, El Mundo de los Muñecos, and the bilingual children’s group Red Wing Puppet Theater. It was home to three annual Toy Theater Festivals and a first-of-its-kind Talk and Film series featuring presentations on puppet theater in Chiapas, in the African American tradition, and in the Yiddish theater.
But one thing Los Kabayitos was not doing—at least not yet—was generating income for CSV. According to board member Paul Nagle, troupes that from Romanyshyn’s perspective were helping out by performing for free—and others working for a cut of the box office—were “getting a free ride” because they weren’t paying rent. And that increasingly looked like a lost opportunity, especially as the building came under threat.
Like other city-owned properties, CSV was offered to the highest bidder in 1996. Vega rejected community-rousing survival tactics that would have linked CSV with other embattled groups, such as CHARAS/El Bohio and the public gardens around the neighborhood, that fought back with press conferences, protests, and letter-writing campaigns challenging Giuliani’s disdain for community-based organizations. Vega, instead, pursued quiet negotiations that did not reject the principle that anything worth having should be able to pay for itself—and at market rates. “Our strategy,” explains Nagle, “was to get our business idea to the Republicans in the administration who would like our idea of generating profits and being self-sufficient.”
That business plan was based on CSV developing commercial ventures that would pay for the nonprofit projects it houses. Trouble is, Vega sees Los Kabayitos as one of the profit-generating spaces while Romanyshyn always thought it belonged on the other side of the ledger. Cashing in on Los Kabayitos means changing the programming from what Vega describes (having attended few of its numerous productions) as “geared to an impotent American left” into what Nagle (who never attended Los Kabayitos) describes as “commercially viable children’s entertainment.”
Such work could, of course, coexist with the fare Romanyshyn was booking. But Romanyshyn’s involvement in activism against the city’s attacks on artists further widened the rift between him and Vega.
In a flaming eight-page letter to Romanyshyn in October, Vega rails against him for urging folks on the Kabayitos mailing list to write letters to the mayor supporting CSV and CHARAS. Meanwhile, Great Small Works, which was a resident company at Los Kabayitos and which has had rehearsal space at CHARAS for more than a decade, has staged many of the demonstrations to save the public spaces. “It took us a tremendous amount of effort and time to separate the issue of our center and that of the other organization,” Vega chides in the letter, adding, “The reason we ended up on the auction block is because we were perceived to be part of a political bailiwick.” In an interview, Vega further explained, “The politics of this neighborhood don’t interest me. What interests me is having a cultural center. By any means necessary means by any means necessary.”
For the time being, at least, Vega’s strategy has succeeded: CHARAS’s building was sold on July 20 for $3.15 million (though the group is contesting the sale in a pending lawsuit) while CSV was spared, and now works toward raising $2.5 million to buy and renovate its building. How solid a victory is it? For starters, the city no longer has a cutting-edge, adult puppet theater putting up a range of shows each month. What is more, suggests local city council member Kathryn Freed, who has worked with CSV on securing its home, “Strictly in terms of its own best interests, CSV’s strategy was the right strategy. But in terms of the city’s or the Latino community’s best interests, maybe not.”