May is Lower East Side History Month. This brand new annual festival launched earlier this month at Pier 42 with a picnic featuring live music and family activities. More than fifty cultural organizations and community groups have joined together to celebrate the rich, diverse history of the Lower East Side. The organizers aim to “connect our present to our past, exploring how history can inform and inspire our future.” Look for more up-to-date info on Twitter @LESHistMonth.
The zone comprises the neighborhoods of the East Village, Chinatown, Little Italy, and Alphabet City. Over the course of the month, there are walking tours, exhibits, performances, and other events planned. You can take a tour of the neon signage of the LES, learn about theatres in the LES in the 1850s, watch a 1915 gangster film that was shot in the Bowery, and lots more.
I am particularly interested in Illyria, a walking tour of the Lower East Side based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, conceived by Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant theater company. They first developed their modern-language, neighborhood-based take on Twelfth Night using the Meatpacking District, in a program called Little West 12th Night, which premiered as part of the undergroundzero festival in July 2012. Over this past winter, the ensemble was one of the artists-in-residence at University Settlement, one of the landmarks of the LES, established in 1886—the birthplace of the settlement house movement in the United States.
As part of their residency, Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant explored the LES searching for ways to transpose the story and their production onto the fabric of this historically rich and rapidly transforming neighborhood.
I spoke to Cynthia Croot, the director, and Peter Lettre, the writer.
Tell me about the troupe and how the idea for this project first came about. How did your interest in overlaying a theater piece onto a New York neighborhood develop?
Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant has been doing immersive, audience-participatory, site-specific work for over eight years. It’s part of our “M.O.” Our production of Little West 12th Night in the Meatpacking District in 2012 was the brainchild of one of our members, Rachel Benbow Murdy, who has been with the company from the beginning. That production took the characters from Twelfth Night and reimagined them as inhabitants of the Meatpacking District in the 21st century. The noble Olivia, for example, became a wealthy hotel heiress living in a room at the Standard, and Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, became the scion of Orsino Meats, a fictional big player in the industry that once defined the neighborhood. The piece was conceived as both a love letter to the old disappearing neighborhood that Rachel remembered and an exploration of the sordid and sensational history of the people and places in that area.
We love the visceral experience of journeying. Using space differently enables us to attempt what film does, what theatre often can’t. You can get long shots, or close-ups. Other tour groups might see each other, from across a distance, and the tracks of one character can intersect with another. There is almost a feel of game play.
How did the story change when transferring it from the Meatpacking District to the Lower East Side?
The Lower East Side is at a different stage of gentrification and transformation. The piece became more an examination and a celebration of the neighborhood—what it has been, is, and will be.
We look for opportunities to connect with the spaces, and the points of view that the architecture provides. There was a lot of vertical play in the Meatpacking district—players in a tall building looking down at another scene at street level, or using the elevated space of the High Line, for example. Now the work is more about diagonals across a low-lying space. This neighborhood is more intimate in a way, more contained.
The populations are different, too. We have cast actors in roles that reflect those demographics or trends, to highlight for example the Puerto Rican history of the area or the huge recent real estate development.
One thing that will remain the same is the way the performers embrace the moment, the spontaneity of being in the street, the possibility that anything can happen. One audience member from Little West 12th Night remarked on how alive the street seemed, and how aware she was of the surroundings when they were walking, as the audience never knew if the people coming towards them were part of the play or just people walking by. You were always waiting for another character to appear. This is the kind of theatre we like to do. It’s never unsafe or uncomfortable, but it is messier and has more potential than a lot of traditional theatre.
What kind of research did you do into neighborhood history?
The history of the two neighborhoods is another thing that is very different. A lot of the history in the production has changed. Our play is iterative in that way; the new scene gives us a chance to improve the way we tell Shakespeare’s story.
There is extreme wealth right side by side with extreme poverty. It used to be that these were separated by geography, but now they coexist. It’s not sure how long that will last, but it was an interesting aspect to examine within the context of the production. You can find the class distinctions in the play, and how they feed off of each other. We hope to grapple with those ideas, while keeping it fun at the same time.
What kind of work did you do while at the Settlement House?
The residency program allowed us to get to know the community at the Settlement House. It also gave us free rehearsal and development space, which is like gold in New York City. At University Settlement we had what we called “group shares”—where the company would come to hear life stories from members of the settlement community.
We also spent time meeting people, going places, looking at the populations in the area, the industry, the art, and the history. We had a dramaturg on board who looked specifically at the neighborhood history. A number of figures spanning a huge range of time feature in the production—from the Lenape Indians who once lived in Manahatta, to the Delancey and Rutgers families, to the pop culture figures of the 1970s and ‘80s arts and music scenes, like Keith Haring and Debbie Harry and others. Lady GaGa even makes an appearance. This kind of layering of history is something we really enjoy. We want to take the best aspects of a walking tour, the most fun parts. As long as it serves our storyline, we love to teach people about what they are seeing and where they live.
Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant has from the beginning incorporated food and drink into their performances. This production is no exception. Cake is promised! Mark your calendars. The performances will take place May 27-30th.
[I have been AWOL from the MARCH blog for a number of months, on account of a new job as director of the Center for Italian Modern Art, which opened in late February. Our inaugural installation, featuring work by the futurist Fortunato Depero, is open until June 28. Guided tours are offered Fridays and Saturdays. Book a visit!]