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The Ghosts of the Interart

I believe in ghosts. Theatre ghosts.

For ten years, Blessed Unrest, the physical theatre company I co-founded in 1999, was in residence at the Interart Theatre, a sixty-five seat gem in Hell’s Kitchen. The Interart was our home for rehearsals, for our ensemble training sessions, for eighteen fully realized productions, for more developmental workshops than I can count, for frequent post-show dance parties that wore on well into the night, and for one wedding. Early this year, after years of a legal battle attempting to save the space, the Interart was evicted, making way for the building’s redevelopment into commercial space and apartments.

While we knew the forces of New York City real estate development were coming to claim our space, as has happened to so many other small theatres here in the last fifteen years, the end came much faster than expected. We scrambled to pack up what we could and held one last dance party. Theatre people are good scavengers and we quickly found new homes for the costume collection, props, furniture, lights, cable, pipe, and lumber. Watching those physical remnants of a decade’s worth of work get carried away was easy, lovely even, knowing that they will go on to support the creativity of many more theatre artists in many more spaces for many more years. What got me was saying goodbye to the ghosts.

With the loss of dozens of small spaces like Interart across New York in recent years, and the increasingly rapid turnover rate of neighborhoods from dangerous to desirable, the way of the scrappy theatre artist is threatened.

The Interart was full of ghosts: the ghosts of actors passed and living, of characters, of entire productions, ghosts of moments in rehearsal that broke open our conception of how to tell stories, ghosts of moments in training where impossible things occurred and barriers came down and expectations we had held for ourselves and for each other were shattered.

The Interart also housed the ghost of a way of working. It used to be that a gang of scrappy New York artists with almost no money could find a space that all others had neglected, invest quantities of love, passion, and sweat, and turn it into a nest of creativity where theatre was made. Those artists would use those nests to experiment wildly, invent new forms, make plays over extended periods of time, and then show those plays to adventurous audiences who paid little or nothing.

actors in a blackbox theater
Measure for Measure, 2007. Photo by Ian Robertson Duncan.

The Interart was such a nest. It was converted from a derelict lightbulb storage room owned by the city in what was a dangerous neighborhood where few dared to live or work. Art was made in that room, and in many other rooms in the rest of the building, for decades. Now the neighborhood is safe and desirable, in no small part due to the efforts of the artists who occupied it when no one else wanted to. The value of the building outweighs the value of the art made there, and the wheel turns. 

With the loss of dozens of small spaces like Interart across New York in recent years, and the increasingly rapid turnover rate of neighborhoods from dangerous to desirable, the way of the scrappy theatre artist is threatened. Competition for the remaining spaces is intense, and even when deals are made with developers to replace demolished art space with space in new buildings, the price tags are also new. Small companies of artists are now expected to pay $35/hour for a decent rehearsal studio and $5,000/week for a small performance venue. This necessarily leads to work made as quickly as possible, artists who are underpaid or even charged to perform, and ticket prices for some productions in small venues nearing $100. One shining exception has been Soho Rep, which just closed its home of twenty-five years and will now reenter the real estate scramble. Meanwhile DANY Studios, where you could rent an excellent studio for only $20/hour (non-profit rate) has announced they are unable to renew their lease and will be closing at the end of October.

a group of actors on stage
Nick (translation/adaptation of Ivanov), 2009. Photo by David Anthony.

At the same time, new ways of working are emerging. Established institutions are recognizing the value of scrappiness, and with the support of funders who also recognize it, are offering space and time to companies like ours in developmental and performance residencies. Last spring Blessed Unrest had the great fortune of performing our latest creation, Body: Anatomies of Being, at the New Ohio Theatre downtown. The New Ohio and IRT Theatres supported the piece in their Archive Residency program, and we had additional rehearsal support from an ART/New York space grant. This year, we have been invited into the New Victory Theater LabWorks residency program to develop a new production for family audiences.

Onward we press.

actors dancing on stage
Lying (adaption of a memoir by Lauren Slater), 2014. Photo by Alan Roche.

And as we do, we carry the ghost of the Interart Theatre with us. A decade ago we were a group of passionate artists barely surviving financially, who had a lot to say but were not sure how to say it. We were given a home where we spent years finding collaborators, figuring out how to train together, training, developing our process, making plays, failing, training more, refining our process, and making more plays. In the Interart we found our artistic voice, formed our aesthetic, and built our ensemble. The visionary founders of the Interart Theatre provided us with a space, a space where all of the work that Blessed Unrest will go on to create, in many other spaces, has its roots.

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