When Leslie Strongwater began her job as programming director of Dixon Place three years ago, she was told the venerable downtown performance space would be moving from its humble digs on the Bowery to a new state-of-the-art theater on Chrystie Street in eight months’ time. Then she learned it would be another eight months, and then another. Construction delays, paperwork mix-ups, and the slow pace of fundraising kept pushing back the big move.
Five years and several postponed openings have now gone by since Dixon Place founder and artistic director Ellie Covan purchased the ground floor of 161 Chrystie. The theater was supposed to finally open its new doors on October 29 with Forever, a dance piece by Laura Peterson. But last week, the show was postponed until early 2009 because of a dispute with the Department of Buildings (a dispute that kept Covan too harried to return calls for comment).
Covan founded a weekly salon in her East 1st Street apartment in 1986, when the Lower East Side was teeming with spaces welcoming works-in-progress. She moved to 258 Bowery in 1990, and the salon—by then a nightly affair known as Dixon Place—moved with her. (It was named after a spontaneous salon in Covan’s Paris apartment years before; the apartment’s landlord was named Dixon.) Other than three years at the former Vineyard Theatre space on 26th Street, and one year without a space, Dixon Place has existed in, literally, Covan’s living room, where it has survived most of its contemporaries.
At the new Chrystie Street space, the lobby will contain a tiny half-moon stage that will host readings and cabaret shows. The main stage will have high-tech lighting and sound, flexible seating plans, aerial rigging, and a capacity of 120 (the Bowery space sat 50). Strongwater insists that despite the extravagance, Dixon Place will continue to be a safety net for works still in development. But she worries about solo artists who don’t have the following to fill 120 seats. “I don’t want anyone to be afraid of performing new work here.”
The benefits for artists, though, should ease some of that anxiety. With a dressing room and storage closet, both a fantasy at 258 Bowery, “you won’t have to hide your props under the pizza-parlor booths,” says Erin Markey, who hosted a variety show at Dixon Place this summer. Jeffrey M. Jones, co-curator of the eclectic monthly showcase Little Theatre, is looking forward to the full bar in the lobby. (Little Theatre will now be the first performance in the new space, scheduled for November 3.) And playwright Sibyl Kempson, whose third commissioned work at Dixon Place, Potatoes of August, is slated for December, plans to use the luxuries of fly space “to stage numinous cosmic events involving sentient potatoes and the recently retired.”
But with these new luxuries come new challenges to the mission of “artistic laboratory.” Markey is concerned that “bigwigs who haven’t utilized Dixon Place in the past might trump the time and the space.”
The move is attracting high-profile interest. Lily Tomlin has signed on as the honorary chair of the opening galas, tentatively planned for January. Elizabeth Streb, Moby, Stew, and Justin Bond have also expressed interest, says Strongwater. And some of the greatest stars of Dixon Place’s history—Lisa Kron, Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver—who have ridden out the years on the Bowery, will continue to develop new works on Chrystie.
But there can’t be any galas or performance art if the new Dixon Place isn’t open. Though construction has sped up recently (“In July, it was a pile of dirt,” Strongwater says), everything is coming down to the wire. After five years of obstacles, is there anything else that can stand in the way of an opening? “You know what?” says Strongwater. “Bring it on.”