Just when local bars seemed to have run out of ways to reinvent the martini, the folks at Williamsburg’s Galapagos Art Space, a lively watering hole and performance venue, came up with a stunning new twist. One evening last month, a blond bombshell working the back room mixed a martini in a cocktail shaker cradled in her 47-inch bust. The finishing touch came when she reached into her thong for the olives. Hey, bartender!
The martini routine was actually a sly bit of burlesque by an artist known as The World Famous *BOB*, during the latest edition of Phat Tuesdays, a showcase for the city’s edgiest performers. Dov Weinstein, the big brain behind Tiny Ninja Theater, opened the evening with a wry discourse on the effects of nuclear war. Neil Greenberg followed with a sneak peak at TWO, which premieres at Dance Theater Workshop in March. John Moran sang about Charles Manson and the softer side of Sears, traversing several octaves with his vocal acrobatics. And Jenny Seastone Stern moved with otherworldly grace in a fresh piece of movement theater.
Nights like this help explain why Galapagos, which opened in 1998 in a former mayonnaise factory near the East River, has emerged as a leading venue for experimental performance. Its currency continues to rise under Boo Froebel, the budding impresario who signed on as artistic director last spring.
Froebel, 34, made her name with Phat Tuesdays, which started four years ago on the Lower East Side. Paper magazine called it the city’s “best ongoing performance art series.” Today she sits on the committee that gives out the Bessies and moonlights at the Whitney Museum of American Art, curating performances and readings at its midtown gallery, in the Philip Morris building on 42nd Street. The full-time gig at Galapagos, where she books dance, music, theater, and literary events, provides the platform she’s craved since she settled in New York in 1996, and it let her give up her administrative day job at American Express.
Still, she wears her authority loosely.
“It’s not about me and my eye,” she says warily. “It’s about these interesting artists. I don’t really want to be a power broker, telling audiences what they should be thinking about or looking at. I’m simply telling them what I’m thinking about, and who I find interesting.”
Froebel’s star began to rise in October 1998, after stints directing communications for P.S.122 and writing ads for Broadway shows as brilliant as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and as banal as Forbidden Broadway. She longed to produce edgy performance work, but no one would give her a break. So she took a gamble: she tapped into her bank account and put together a series of four “performance parties” at the CSV Center. Word quickly spread, and Phat Tuesdays moved to Dixon Place. In 2001 it moved again to Galapagos, along with Froebel herself. Phat is now a quarterly affair, with the next one set for March 18, but some intriguing act plays Galapagos almost every night. The January program includes four gigs by the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, the latest phenomenon in camp. Jason, Tina, and eight-year-old Rachel Trachtenburg write songs about other families’ vacations based on old slides they find at estate sales.
“Boo has a very interesting take on programming,” says Mark Russell, artistic director of P.S.122. “She has a contemporary sensibility and she knows how to make an evening bright, fun, smart, and surprising—and that’s a great thing.”
Like Ellie Covan at Dixon Place and the curators at Movement Research, Froebel provides artists a much-needed forum for trying out works in process. “It keeps me fresh,” says Julie Atlas Muz, whose cleverly modulated burlesque act has become a staple at Galapagos. “I’m not afraid to fail at Phat Tuesdays.”
Chelsea Bacon, known for her pensive trapeze work, credits Froebel with a rare willingness to stay out of the spotlight. “The majority of people in the downtown art world just want to make shit,” says Bacon, whose new aerial piece is inspired by her neurosurgeon. “They want to be creators of things. Boo is an enabler, and that’s great.”
Froebel grew up on a farm west of Minneapolis, near the town of Independence. The youngest of five girls, she was nicknamed Caboose, which was then shortened to Boo. She refuses to divulge her given name, which she legally changed to Boo a few years ago—after swearing before a judge that she was not trying to run away from a debt or a prison record.
Froebel’s mother was a real estate broker, her father a sofa salesman who called himself “the Rag Man.” The farm, a hobby gone awry, makes Froebel’s coming-of-age narrative read like a dark comedy. “The chickens got eaten by a fox,” she recalls. “The duck got eaten by a fox. The bunnies lasted a little longer. And I didn’t really do very well with the fish.”
The Froebels were better suited to their other pastime: seeking out new cultural experiences in Minneapolis. They spent their weekends going to museums and performances and trying out new ethnic restaurants.
When Boo was 12, her parents split up; when she was 16, she moved into the city with her mom. Aaron Landsman, a high school classmate who’s performed frequently at Phat Tuesdays, says her talent was already obvious. “Boo was wiser and more sophisticated than anybody I knew,” he recalls. “She had an incredible sense of fashion and culture. She was aware of what was going on socially, and musically way ahead of everyone else.”
While her high school friends went off to college, Froebel stayed home to work wardrobe at the Guthrie Theater, getting a close look at deft actors like Byron Jennings (who starred in Garland Wright’s production of Richard III) and Ruth Maleczech (who was in JoAnne Akalaitis’s staging of Genet’s The Screens).
“That’s one of the best ways to learn,” Froebel says. “To watch a master doing it night after night, trying different things, and seeing how they adjust. You become sensitive to the subtleties. I was incredibly lucky to be around artists who were doing what they wanted and making a living at it.”
After a couple of years at the University of Minnesota, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence, where she got a degree in theater, literature, and education in 1994. Returning briefly to Minneapolis, she signed on at the Walker Art Center, where she worked for John Killacky (now artistic director at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco) and Julie Voigt (now performing arts administrator at the Walker), and discovered how instrumental they were in finding an audience for the artists they put onstage. “If you feel strongly about a piece, you owe it to the artist to deliver an audience,” she says. “Because if a show doesn’t have an audience, I don’t think it really happens. Just getting them on stage isn’t enough.”
The trick is finding a way to make the work accessible to potential viewers, finding, she says, “a balance between the hype language, where everything’s got an exclamation point, and the really didactic, theoretical language you’d read in a performance studies program. That’s a fascinating process for me. I love that.”
Froebel is a lot like the social “connectors” Malcolm Gladwell describes in The Tipping Point. Her knack for bringing together artists and audiences was evident one night last winter, when she lured two colleagues from American Express to a remote warehouse in Bushwick. There, in the living room of choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, they watched his site-specific dance, enter the seen.
“It was a really lovely piece,” Froebel says. “Crazy modern dance with an installation and droning electronic music. No melody at all, and no discernible narrative. I was wondering how [my colleagues] would react, and they reacted like I thought and hoped: They loved it. They absolutely loved it.”