Even as downtown theaters go, Abrons Arts Center has long been unusual. There’s its Lower East Side location: way down Grand Street, just blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge. There’s its delightfully patchwork architecture: half concrete bunker, half ornate, proscenium-style playhouse.
And then there’s its programming. For a decade, under the leadership of artistic director Jay Wegman, Abrons has been an epicenter of downtown theater, performance art, visual art, and dance, presented in inspired, eclectic combinations. The 2016–17 season, which begins September 11, is no exception. It features, among other offerings, an outdoor performance by the queer, social-justice-oriented troupe Circus Amok; virtuosic drag artist Dickie Beau’s solo show, Blackouts; and a world premiere by venerable downtown company En Garde Arts — plus the eighth installment of the forward-looking American Realness Festival, curated by Ben Pryor, which brings provocative, interdisciplinary performance to Abrons each January.
But this year is also Wegman’s last, as he prepares to depart for NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. When Wegman came to Abrons in 2006, the venue had little reputation among artists and audiences. “Abrons didn’t have much in terms of financial resources, but it had space, and that was just as valuable to a lot of people,” he tells the Voice. “We gave away space and time. We put stuff in the karma pot, and artists valued the relationships we started with them.”
The results have been impressive, and widely recognized. “Sometimes the stars align and someone is able to create something remarkable that supports artists and supports the community. Jay did that with aplomb,” notes Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of the East Village theater P.S.122 — a longtime home of the avant-garde — and a colleague and collaborator of Wegman’s. As a curator, Gantner says, Wegman has been unafraid to offer artists “the liberty to do what they feel — to stick the audience on the stage, to put them in the basement, to put them in the dark. As he has done that, he has made Abrons part of the artistic sediment of the city.”
The space alone, in its abundance and its idiosyncrasy, sets the institution apart. Abrons encompasses three distinct theaters: the Playhouse, with its plush seats and wooden flourishes; the black-box Experimental Theater; and the quirky, concrete-walled Underground. Wegman “was really generous with space,” recalls cabaret and performance artist Erin Markey, whose piece A Ride on the Irish Cream premiered earlier this year in the Experimental Theater. Playwright and director Richard Maxwell, whose company, New York City Players, has been presenting work at Abrons since 2009, speaks of the Playhouse’s old-fashioned allure: “It has
a grandmother’s living-room feel — but it also has a working fly system,” a set of rigs that allows artists to operate visually on a large scale. “Watching something there feels expansive and intimate.”
The artistic community Wegman has fostered is, likewise, both expansive and intimate. New York City Players found “a shared ethos in connecting to the community,” Maxwell says — a natural priority for Abrons, which is housed within Henry Street Settlement, a social services agency. “Henry Street’s primary mission is to help people,” says Wegman. “I focused Abrons on helping this community of artists.” He’s done this by being generous with residencies and presenting opportunities — and by cultivating a warm, cheerfully informal atmosphere. “Jay doesn’t think of the institutional formalities that some people do,” Markey recalls. “I would come to his cinderblock office and he would offer me a warm Budweiser.”
Wegman’s vision is similarly expansive in its embrace of risk-taking artists from across the spectrum of live arts, especially those negotiating the increasingly porous boundaries between disciplines. “It’s very right-now,” reflects Markey, “in the sense that these genres of live performance are melting into each other.” This season, genre-defying work abounds, from groups like dance-theater company Witness Relocation and past Obie winner Minor Theater, which melds the aesthetics of horror movies and live drama. Beau’s Blackouts is a “revitalization” of the art of lip-syncing; in it, he plays iconic figures such as Marilyn Monroe. Blogger and PR agent Kippy Winston will present a series of “live talk shows about the state of contemporary performance in New York City.”
Whatever that state may be, there’s no doubt it has been profoundly influenced by Wegman’s work at Abrons these past ten years. The theater plans to name Wegman’s successor in October. Meanwhile, others are already looking toward his next gig. “I’m excited to see what of his Abrons energy Jay takes with him to Skirball,” says Markey. “I hope he still offers me warm Buds.”