“Of course I want popularity,” Charles Ludlam wrote in The Scourge of Human Folly. “That’s what I’ve been working for.”
Fifteen years after his untimely demise, Ludlam would be delighted to know that dozens of fledgling Downtown micro-theaters are following his pioneering example by producing bold, intelligent theater that also manages to entertain. This mix of “high” and “low” culture has become the hallmark of numerous companies since the mid ’90s. The artists in question might be characterized as “theatrical populists”: Their work features Grade-Z budgets, Grade-A aspirations, and, above all, a desire to please the audience.
A mother of the movement is the tiny Ludlow Street storefront known as Todo Con Nada. Cofounded in 1988 by Aaron Beall, it has survived for more than a decade with no nest egg, no board of directors, and no development staff, relying almost entirely on box office. Over the past several years, Beall has seen a rise in productions that aggressively court ticket buyers. Asked why he (and so many of the hundreds of companies he’s presented) are inching away from the avant-garde, Beall explains: “The pendulum swings back and forth. In a way it’s a reaction to the sort of Downtown theater that had become a parody of itself, sort of recycled Wooster Group and Richard Foreman—both of whose work I like. But the time had come to listen more to the audience, and the audience seemed to be looking for a return to a more traditional framework.”
The ways in which Off-Off companies are trying to do this without sacrificing artistic integrity are as numerous as they are “alternative.”
For instance, Ian Hill, director of Nada Classic, has become something of an expert on 19th-century melodrama, having directed the temperance classic Ten Nights in a Barroom last year and Mose the Fireman, a Todd Miller tribute to the genre, in this year’s Ridicufest. The revival of the long-discredited form has become something of a popular subgenre: Two other Downtown companies, the Metropolitan Playhouse and the Clyde Fitch Group, are specializing in it. (One might also include the Hourglass Group’s recent revival of Mae West’s Sex, which had more of the 19th than the 20th century about it.) In addition to the melodrama work, Hill’s company, Gemini Collisionworks, is collaborating with Frank Cwiklik’s Danse Macabre Theatrics on an even more audience-friendly project: “The Masterworks of Edward D. Wood Jr.” series, in which they’re staging the entire text of Ed Wood’s screenplays. So far they’ve performed The Sinister Urge, Jailbait, and Bride of the Monster. Their production of Wood’s The Fugitive Girls opens July 27 at Nada. They have also announced a “Great Cinema for the Stage” series, wherein (it is promised) the troupe will enact cinematic blockbusters such as The Poseidon Adventure and Heavy Metal.
“To say that something is entertaining is another way of saying that it is engaging,” argues Mark Greenfield, artistic director of the Faux-Reale Company. “And without that engagement the theater cannot function.” Faux-Reale grapples with the audience-engagement problem from an entirely different perspective. Using Grotowski and Le Coq movement-theater techniques, the company balances an extreme avant-garde approach in their texts and staging with a ripping good show that’s accessible to even mainstream audiences. Productions like their Funbox 2000 and Shakespeare’s Haunted House quite consciously use amusement park rides as their template. While the texts are nonlinear, often nonsensical, and the staging unconventional (viewers move around as much as the actors), this merely becomes part of the rush, as opposed to an attempt to alienate the audience. In Funbox, performed at the Piano Store last year, audience members were given a goody bag full of props, a Lone Ranger mask, and a hit of brandy, all of which freed them up to participate in scores of ever shifting mini-dramas with the cast, who were uniformed like Power Rangers. In Shakespeare’s Haunted House, Faux-Reale’s annual Halloween show, all the scariest scenes from Shakespeare (the ones with ghosts, monsters, witches, and murderers) are re-created by the troupe, with the audience passing through them. The operative word at these productions is “carnival.” They’re a kind of medieval marketplace, where any second a new and bawdy surprise might pop up. Having performed lots of street theater, Greenfield likes the sense of chaos such an environment produces—though each individual moment is carefully rehearsed and planned. Greenfield evokes the concept of théâtre populaire to explain his festival-like approach: “I wanted to do theater that is for the people, for the audience, and not a select group of the converted, recycling the same ideas for each other and seeming avant-garde while performing for audiences you can count on a couple of hands. That’s anti-community, and that’s not what theater is about.”
Project 400 places its emphasis on popular music. The company’s The Donkey Show, a disco version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, began life at the Piano Store and has gone on to become a huge Off-Broadway commercial hit (outliving the other Shakespeare-inspired pop smash, The Bomb-itty of Errors). Despite the success of The Donkey Show, Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner, its husband-and-wife creators, continue to do what they’ve always done—mount highly accessible Downtown productions that have one foot in the classics. Their first go at this, in 1993, was Prospero’s Revenge, a rock-operetta version of The Tempest written in collaboration with a biker-bar band named Big Mouth. In subsequent summers, the company developed Baron of Love, a Stax-Volt version of Phaedra; Frankenweiner, which mixed Shelley’s classic with pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt; a hip-hop Lohengrin; a Turandot in the style of the WWF; and, most recently, a Show World “strip club” Measure for Measure (which will get a full production in the fall).
“The audience’s voice needs to be heard,” says Adam Adams of the DUMBO-based company One Arm Red. He’s created his entire organization around this community aesthetic, relying on what he calls “forum theater”—colloquies where audience input is solicited to develop pieces. His best-known work, The Gospel Truth Family Hour, was developed in this fashion. It began life as a Who-style rock opera at Surf Reality in 1997, became a hit of the 1998 NYC Fringe Festival in an expanded version, and, in its most recent incarnation at his DUMBO theater, Red Lab, has become a full-blown tent revival with gospel chorus and band, and a harrowing, soul-searching two-hour sermon delivered by its creator. At each step of the way, the audience was involved in the piece’s creation. Adams’s next plan is to take the show on the road in a tour bus that will open up into a stage, bringing the piece to rural communities across the country, whether they have a taste for theater or not.
One show that won’t be making a tour of Appalachia anytime soon is Surf Reality’s Grindhouse-a-Go-Go, which uses sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to pack them in at midnight. “Comedy and sex are closely related,” says Surf’s Robert Prichard. “It comes from the gut, the crotch, and the belly. The main question I ask myself is, ‘When I’m in an audience, what do I want to see?’ ”
The original Grindhouse show, produced by Tom Tenny at Tonic, was one of a slew of neo-burlesque shows, circuses, and vaudevilles that popped up in New York in the late ’90s, including the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the Blue Angel Cabaret, the Moxie Opera Company (which produces the Va Va Voom Room), and the grandmama of them all, Tirza’s Wine Bath at Sideshows by the Seashore. (Circus Amok, Tenement Vaudeville, Delicious Vaudeville, and my own American Vaudeville are several others.) Tenny named his show after the adult cinema form (of whom the salient figure is Russ Meyer), a genre characterized by busty women, thin plots, and craven thrills. The “a-go-go” was added when the event moved to Surf Reality and the format was altered to fit the new venue, where Prichard was already developing what amounted to a rep company of Lower East Side bizarros, with names like Rev Jen, the Purple Organ, Chocolate Puddin’, Faceboy, and Reverend Hank. These most solo of solo performers had been interacting in tentative ways at Surf’s late-night variety shows, events with names such as “Fuck Me Up the Ass With a Strap-on Dildo” and “Mistress Elsa’s Bondage Theatre Players.” At Grindhouse, the actors’ carefully worked-out personas interact in loose commedia-like shows that allow copious opportunities for improvised soliloquies that amount to stand-up routines. The plots are purposefully negligible. The real appeal are the comic riffs, bits of slapstick, songs, occasional topless dancers, free beer, and “mandatory drunken gay orgy” that follows the show. As an audience member recently gushed, “Free beer and topless women? You’ve read the mind of America!”
The danger, of course, is when there’s no medicine behind that spoonful of sugar. This especially concerns Gemini Collisionworks’ Hill, who makes a careful distinction between what he does and what they do on Broadway. “It’s a two-way street,” says Hill, surrounded by science fiction costumes in the dressing room at Nada. “You have to put on a good show for the audience, but you can never relinquish your intellect, your heart, your own unique point of view. Then it ceases to be art and is just a product. What would be the point of that?”