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Theater Thursday: Checking In On Off-Broadway

Throughout history, societies look to the arts to give insight and meaning to events and experiences. And so with good reason, we have been thinking a great deal about our theater artist community in these days and months since the pandemic has closed our beloved cultural institutions. Artists who create theater have been given the seemingly impossible task of reinventing a 2,500 year old tradition. To no one’s surprise, our theater artists continue to be a lesson in resilience and creativity, as they work to rediscover and redefine our changing world. Let’s take a look at a couple of our beloved Off-Broadway theaters today, and one outlier which has temporarily made its home in Greenwich Village.

Cherry Lane Theatre

At the Cherry Lane Theatre, owned and helmed by Villager Angelina Fiordellisi, they have largely taken the time during this pause to prepare for the exciting and important upcoming 100th anniversary of the founding of the theater, to both look forward and to look back at its rich history of theatrical invention.

John Dos Passos was one of the first playwrights to be produced at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library

In 1923, a group of theater artists led by Evelyn Vaughn, William Rainey, Reginald Travers & Edna St. Vincent Millay, commissioned famed scenic designer Cleon Throckmorton to convert what was a box factory into Cherry Lane Playhouse. It fueled some of the most ground-breaking experiments in the history of the American Stage. The Downtown Theater movement, The Living Theatre, and Theatre of the Absurd all took root at the Cherry Lane, and it proved fertile ground for 20th-century dramaturgy’s seminal voices.

A production of The Centuries by Em Jo Basshe *Photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library

And so, for its imminent 100th anniversary, the theater is planning a festival of plays that have gotten their start there.  It will be called Retrospective: Revisits & Reimaginations of Our Historic Plays. As the countdown to the centennial begins, they intend to provoke the public’s imagination by rekindling plays from its nearly century-old catalogue. They will kick off the reading series once NYC theaters are back in business by selecting plays from its last 97 years to honor the artists who contributed to its deep tradition in Greenwich Village.

Meanwhile, in October, in partnership with 23 other theater companies across the country, they produced a free festival that featured 24 world premiere works created by multidisciplinary theater artists of color.  The series of plays is called The Breath Project, and was formed in response to the current global spotlight on racial injustice.

The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

Rattlestick has taken this opportunity to introduce its work to a much wider audience by moving their artistic endeavors online. While the online experience is far different from the traditional theater experience of sitting together with other people in one room, living, breathing, and experiencing the wonder of live theater, the online experience has offered new and innovative ways to connect with audiences that might not otherwise be able to attend in person.

Dael Orlandersmith, creator and performer of Until the Flood produced at Rattlestick

In partnership with ALL ARTS (a free broadcast and digital platform dedicated to the arts), Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, along a consortium of regional theaters across the country, presented the broadcast premiere of Until the Flood, by acclaimed writer and performance artist Dael Orlandersmith. Based on extensive interviews following the 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, this tour-de-force one woman show lends voice to a community haunted by injustice and a country yearning for change.

Next up for Rattlestick is an online production of The MTA Radio Plays, a series of 3-10 minute audio dramas created to honor and celebrate the people that keep New York City running. Composed by 16 playwrights, each episode is inspired by a stop along the MTA’s No. 2 subway line. The MTA Radio Plays runs from December 14, 2020 to January 14, 2021 and you can find registration information here.

Rattlestick has also produced, in partnership with Village Preservation, a salon series that engaged theater artists and experts in a variety of fields in conversation around the Covid 19 crisis. They continue to engage the community with a powerful Community Conversation series, an Artist Spotlight series, and a Global Gab Holiday Gathering. And on Friday, December 18th, Rattlestick will conduct its first Acting Masterclass with Andrew Polk of the Broadway production of The Band’s Visit, and continue with an additional Masterclass taught by Lockdown’s Keith Randolph Smith on January 18, 2021. Rattlestick is a company that makes things happen!

Executive Director of Village Preservation, Andrew Berman, and actor Zachary Quinto hosted one of the early salons

And for the final entry of our Theater Thursday check-in, we call your attention to a fascinating immersive theatrical experience in Greenwich Village which you can enjoy in person. Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec, produced by Bated Breath Theatre, is an immersive theatrical company that originated in Hartford, Connecticut, but has moved to New York City in order to explore its unparalleled spaces. The immersive experience invites you to peer through the windows of old Paris (in the guise of Greenwich Village), where unexpected moments of art, beauty, and seduction await during this pandemic-friendly theatrical walking tour.

Immersive theatrical performance of “Voyeur: The Windows of Toulouse-Lautrec” in Greenwich Village

The artists at Bated Breath believe that performance can happen anywhere. The space itself becomes the muse, the teacher, and the scene partner. In this open air experience, audience members are guided through the dreams of iconic artist Toulouse-Lautrec as he recalls his final absinthe-laced years living and working in Montmartre.

The sidewalks, doorways, and windows of Greenwich Village become the setting as live accompaniment mixes with the city’s soundscape, transporting you into the bohemian world of 1899 Paris.

Innovation and creation are the hallmarks of our neighborhoods. Our current creators and innovators leave us breathless (in a good way!), and inspire hope for the future of the arts.

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