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Island Hopping in New York City for Theatre: How Live, In-Person Theatre Is Being Reimagined as it Reemerges

I’ve been island-hopping this summer, solely in pursuit of theatre, and without ever leaving New York City. Some three dozen islands dot the waterways that thread through the five boroughs of the city, most of them clumps of land isolated and uninhabited. But on several of them, I witnessed how live, in-person theatre is being reimagined as we tentatively reemerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the first pieces I saw was the most traditional, though not very traditional at all. It took place at a plaza across from the Gothic ruins of the Smallpox Hospital, on what until 1973 was called Welfare Island, 139 acres in the East River once known for its prisons and its hospitals, including the bluntly named Lunatic Asylum. Now it’s Roosevelt Island, a mostly residential community. But it is no accident that the Magis Theatre Company chose this location, and this moment, to present The Alcestiad, a rarely staged play by Thornton Wilder.

A man, standing and wearing white, with his arm raised up. A woman, sitting behind the man while wearing black and red, with her hand covering her face.

Kimbirdlee Fadner as Death and George Drance as Apollo in The Alcestiad. Photo by Irina Island Images.

Wilder’s adaptation of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy Alcestis features Death as a character, and in act 3 a plague has overtaken the community, but the new leader is a tyrant who refuses to help, and indeed is looking to blame others. The Alcestiad, which debuted in Edinburgh in 1955 directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Irene Worth, has been called the only flop by the playwright.

This production felt like a resurrection, and not just of the play, and not just because in it Hercules brings Queen Alcestis back from Hell. Yes, the haunting Smallpox Hospital provided the dramatic backdrop for the action, but the audience was sitting on the grand, granite steps of the FDR Four Freedoms State Park, designed by the renowned architect Louis Kahn to serve as a modernist ode to the Golden Age of Greece. Occurring over a long weekend in June, The Alcestiad seemed to be welcoming New York audiences to the resurrection of in-person summer theatre. We were asked to wear masks, but the wide, windswept plaza at river’s edge of Four Freedoms park (including “freedom from fear”)—with a spectacular view stage right of the Manhattan skyline—allowed for what one might call a natural social distancing.

A shirtless man in sandals putting his hands in front of a woman's whose outfit is black and red.

Gabriel Portuondo as Hercules and Kimbirdlee Fadner as Death in The Alcestiad. Photo by Irina Island Images.

The very next day, I took the ten-minute ferry ride from Manhattan to Governors Island, the 172-acre island in New York Harbor that served as a US Coast Guard installation until 1996 and opened to the public in 2005. I was lured by June Rites!!, a production by the Waterwell theatre company, which promised “an original hour of visually stunning and viscerally contagious live performance” conceived by two of the cast members from David Byrne’s American Utopia. What I hadn’t realized was how far Picnic Point, the site of the production, was from the ferry docks, and how vicious the sun would be for the longest half-hour walk of my life.

June Rites!! turned out to be forty-five minutes of slow, wordless movement—the performers spent a lot of time sitting in chairs wearing boxes on their heads—accompanied by sounds from a variety of percussion instruments. The audience sat among the performers, sharing the same lawn albeit at a safe social distance, with a view of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

Waterwell has impressed me for years with its innovative site-specific plays and musicals, including The Courtroom, which took place in a courtroom, and Blueprint Specials, which was performed on a decommissioned US Navy aircraft carrier. But these theatrical island excursions began to feel like part of a new trend. Established Off-Broadway theatre companies were creating the kind of work they’d never done before—at least in part, it seemed, because of the need to socially distance.

Actors holding various bright-colored plants in the middle of a park with an audience circled around them.

Waterwell's June Rites!!. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

One such example was a devised theatre piece called Glimpse, which was part of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s Global Forms Theater Festival, showcasing a hundred immigrant artists from thirty-four countries in dozens of shows over nine days. Glimpse was the only live, in-person performance; all the other works were virtual. In it, a character named Shahrzad, dressed in a flowing red robe and a hat full of flowers, goes on a journey to many lands, meeting many storytellers, arriving at the land of Lenape, the Indigenous people who lived in New York.

The series of scenes lasted three hours, but the endeavor felt more party than production, not just because of the music and dancing and improvised interaction with the audience, but because it took place in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, in an open field called the Peninsula, an isthmus (almost an island) surrounded by Prospect Lake. The audience sat under the shade of trees, as casual as a picnic. Indeed, Glimpse didn’t seem all that different from the barbecues and birthday celebrations I had passed by on my way through the park.

The point of Glimpse was “gathering together, coming out of Covid together,” Rattlestick’s artistic director Daniella Topol told me during an intermission. “We’d been dreaming of doing this in person for a while; we took a leap of faith when we began planning for it last fall.” They only got the permit after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo started partially lifting the lockdown in April.

Of course, summer theatre is almost always more relaxed, especially outdoors, but the nature of these theatrical experiences seemed to have as much or more to do with the response to the pandemic than to the season. This point was driven home by two very different experiences I had recently in Manhattan (which is, to stretch the point, an island—the second largest wholly within New York City, after Staten Island).

In Endure—which combined dance, audio, and site-specific theatre with a hike—we followed a performer through Central Park for more than an hour while listening over earphones to an audio recording of her inner thoughts . This was not a new play. Its creator, Melanie Jones, had originally performed it in 2011. After an absence of several years, she decided to revive it now because of the pandemic. “We thought ‘this is our moment,’” she told me. “People want to go back, but they aren’t quite ready for a theatre.”

A woman in athletic clothing dances on a bridge in Central Park, New York City.

Mary Cavett in ENDURE: Run Woman Show. Created, written, and narrated by Melanie Jones. Directed by Susan Vodoor. Original Music by Christine Owman.

Intar Theatre’s MicroTEATRO Festival presented short, original new plays that took place not inside Intar’s theatre building, but more safely in site-specific locations in the surrounding neighborhood once called Hell’s Kitchen, now Clinton. None of the six plays were longer than fifteen minutes, and each was performed to no more than four socially distanced audience members at a time. In Foul Shots by Christin Eve Cato, actors portraying a cop and a teen took turns shooting baskets and the breeze in the gymnasium of the Patrolman William J. Duncan Police Athletic League (PAL) Center; Epstein’s Paint by Julissa Contreras took place at Epstein’s Paint Center, a one-minute walk from PAL, in which two characters were hilariously throwing shade at one another while comparing shades of pink in the paint swatches they were considering to help design a drag show; #Emperorof10thAvenue by Carmen Rivera took place across the avenue in Sonny’s 10th Avenue Meat Market, where actors portraying Sonny and his daughter talked about the changes in Hell’s Kitchen over the years.

Intar got its inspiration for the festival from Mexico City’s brief, informal plays that take place in people’s apartments. “They see plays differently there,” Intar’s artistic director Lou Moreno told me. We were chatting informally during the down time between plays, on the sidewalk of Ardesia Wine Bar, which functioned as a place to hang out until the next performance.

Two people looking through different shades of paint sample cards.

Sijean Gonzalez and Alexander Lambie in Epstein's Paint, a part of Intar's Microteatro. Written by Julissa Conteras and directed by Rebecca Martinez. Photo by Nidia Medina.

It started to occur to me that these new live, in-person shows seemed more or less to share an aesthetic: smaller audiences; shorter, more informal works; a tone of celebration, a sense of makeshift adaptation, a rethinking of space, an expansion of boundaries. This came into sharper focus for me on the little island where I’ve seen the most theatre this summer—although the place has been redefining both “theatre” and “island.” Little Island is a 2.4-acre park constructed atop new concrete piles like so many oversized golf pegs, replacing the old rotting wooden pier in the Hudson River to the west of 14th Street in Greenwich Village. It opened to the public in late May and began presenting performances a month later, primarily in two outdoor theatres, the Amph, which seats eight hundred or so, and the Glade, a smaller venue with benches that seat maybe thirty people, but also a long, narrow sloping lawn behind them

The first show I saw at the Glade was a concert by Joshua Henry, an eight-time Broadway veteran. “I’m so grateful to be doing this,” he told us at one point, a sentiment I’ve heard expressed repeatedly by performers appearing in-person before a live audience for the first time in more than a year. I next attended another concert, this one at the Amph, entitled Tina and Friends, BYOB (Bring Your Own Beautiful), which was billed as a celebration of pride and featured songs sung mostly by well-known performers, many of them Broadway veterans, organized by Tina Landau, the Broadway and Off-Broadway playwright and director. She explained to us what kind of show she had in mind: “I wanted it to feel like my living room.”

The latest of my excursions to Little Island were for the five-day Storytelling Festival organized by the PigPen Theatre Co., a group of seven artists who have been creating and performing together since they met at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2007; they are among the new island’s artists-in-residence. The performances I witnessed were varied. Stephanie Chou performed excerpts from her full-length jazz-opera Comfort Girl but also from a repertoire that ranged from arrangements of traditional Chinese melodies to original ditties about mathematics. Mahogany L. Browne, Jon Sands, and Sarah Kay performed their poetry accompanied by a trio of musicians on drums, trumpet, and guitar. A group calling itself “You’re Never Too Old To Play,” comprised of residents from age seventy to ninety-five of Westbeth, the nearby artists’ colony, presented an hour of storytelling, mostly about their lives during the pandemic.

All these shows were, in the broadest sense, wonderfully theatrical. But the only works I experienced in the festival that fit any traditional definition of theatre—a play or musical with characters and a plot—were seven audio dramas, written by established playwrights like Ike Holter and Max Posner, and performed by the likes of Tony-winning director David Cromer. None were much longer than seven minutes, and they were part of an installation called Overhear, conceived and designed by Mikhail Fiksel, which you downloaded from QR codes placed throughout Little Island and listened to in specific locations.

An island with various pathways and lit-up trees on it.

An aerial view of Little Island from the Standard. Photo by Michael Grimm.

At the Northwest Overlook, the highest point on the island, looking out over the river as far as the Statue of Liberty, I listened to Overhear: A Conversation, written by Brian Quijada, in which he and his brother Marvin Quijada portrayed brothers Brian and Marv visiting New York, looking forward to the city’s “fine dining” and to Broadway, to which Marv hoped to make it big.

“You can’t act or dance!” Brian bellows.

“But I can sing,” Marv replies, and he lets out a whale of a song—because the two brothers are whales.

“I’m a double threat… Singing and swimming!”

“Land fish don’t care about swimming,” Brian says, referring to humans.

Brian Quijada came up with the idea for the play after watching a documentary about the reaction of animals to the absence of humans in the outdoors. “It’s altered their lives,” the playwright tells me later. “Dolphins returned to Venice canals, whales returned to New York waters. It’s been an incredible year where animals didn’t have to deal with humans.”

Of course, human lives have been altered too. Quijada acknowledges that his short play “might fall in a more linear theatrical narrative” than much of the new work that has emerged. “What’s beautiful about this time is that a lot of theatregoers are very hungry, they want to experience a return to theatre in a way that is a little more adventurous, and in short bursts.”

It is presumably avid theatregoers who have been flocking to theatre this summer, including to PigPen’s festival, which was organized by a group of artists who call themselves a theatre company, and yet the festival promised storytelling, not theatre. I remember how PigPen’s Arya Shahi had introduced the poets: “The folks who were doing this first. Word for word, pound for pound, poets are the purest storytellers that we have.”

I wondered, then, what he saw as the relationship between storytelling and theatre. “I love this question; it’s something we’ve thought about for a very, very long time,” Shahi said, when I got a chance to talk with him and fellow company member Matt Nuernberger. “We are all trained as actors but very quickly realized that the tools of storytelling are broad and diverse.” Over the years, they individually and collectively have been inspired by everything from music to poetry to animation to novels. For their festival, they said, “We’re experimenting with the form.”

“Is this experimentation connected to the pandemic?” I asked. Would they have done a different festival if there had been no COVID-19 lockdown?

According to Nuernberger, the festival did change direction, “After everybody had been in their apartment alone for over a year, we leaned away from curation and more towards the festival as a celebration,” he said. “That also changed a bit the kind of artists we were featuring, and we leaned more into music.”

I told them about the theatre I’d been attending over the summer, which I see as being different from the pre-pandemic past, and at least in part in response to the pandemic—if nothing else, an adjustment for social distancing.

“I absolutely see what you’re seeing,” Shahi said. “I think it has to do with two different things. It has to do with artists’ personal comfort levels and how they want to reengage with their craft, and then it has to do with the bigger societal discussion of how we want to tell stories.” He added:

"I think people’s imaginations are kind of on fire because we have been cooped up for so long. Theatre is a very traditional art form. It is based on ceremony. It’s based on a routine. And I think that’s one of the things that we all love about it. That being said, I do think that there is a new energy, there’s a new kind of way of engaging with live performance that is very exciting. You see all these non-traditional spaces opening up because of what happened in 2020, because of the economy, because there are more spaces available to artists to take over."

Whether or not what’s happening in the summer of 2021 as a result of 2020 will persist to 2022 and beyond is anybody’s guess.

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