In yesterday’s New York Times Anthony Tommasini wrote a piece on the continuing disarray surrounding the World Trade Center’s Performing Arts Complex. Superstar architect Frank Gehry is ready to design and build a new palace of culture, but as Tommasini points out, nobody is quite sure what kind of space he is actually supposed to be building, because nobody knows what is going to happen there. Of the four major non profit arts organizations originally slated to share the space, three are off the project, and the last, the Joyce Theater, has had its role greatly diminished. The situation is a perfect example of the absolute disfunction of the non profit movement in theater, even with vast amounts of money ready to be spent by the government, nobody is confident that a large NFP company can survive in the space. The assumption underlying the creation of the space was that it would be a home for very large, very established arts organizations who could take advantage of its huge theaters and spaces. I propose a very different vision for the complex, a vision guided not by the administrators and gatekeepers of big time theater, but by the artists of New York City themselves.
I was amazed to read in the Times article that in 2007 the city had opted out of using the complex as a theater space (with Signature Theater Company) because the demands of theater were too expensive compared with dance or opera. Frankly, its absurd that this should be the case. It reminded me of something my former collaborator Matt Korahais said years ago. We were preparing with the RAT conference to attend a theater festival in Argentina, and a heated discussion was going on about how many props everyone could bring, Matt got a bit angry, and said “We don’t need this shit, its theater, all I need to make theater is a table to stand on.” If a theater is too expensive for the WTC arts complex, it is only because major companies have utterly failed to control costs, they simply assume that increased grants and donations will make up for poor management and excessive spending. But there is plenty of theater in NYC that does not have millions of dollars in technical and space requirements. And the artists who create that type of theater are much more worthy to take advantage of new public space.
My proposal is a simple one, instead of, or perhaps in addition to the large 500 plus seat theaters, include smaller, lower tech spaces that seat between 40-200 and offer those spaces through a bidding process that any company could engage in. The biggest hurdle facing small theater companies is space, it is expensive and rare, and often requires an in with whatever non profit entity controls it. Some will surely think that a drawback to this idea is that the complex would have no artistic guidance, no leadership to ensure “the right type of work” gets done. To this I say “thank fucking G-d”. The leadership of the major non profits has proved itself so incompetent at growing and expanding the art form that it is time for them to get out of the way. If they can’t make theater without hundreds of millions of dollars, there are plenty of people who can.
The process would be quite simple, several months in advance, each small space would be offered in an online auction, some for a week at a time, and perhaps even some cabaret type spaces for one night at a time. At the time of the auction, every company in the city could bid, and the winner gets the space. I am extremely confident that a process along these lines would lead to more original, independent and diverse work on the complex stages. It would also open the space to more diverse audience, as it has been shown that major NFP organizations overwhelmingly create art for wealthy white people. The theater artists of this city need space, and they will pay for it. We should give them that chance.