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Brave New Worlds for Beloved Old Festivals

Date: Jul 03, 2012


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Summer in New York City may bring us wet blankets of humidity and subway platforms that recall Dante's Inferno but on the upside, it also delivers loads of theatre, much of it in festival form.

It wasn't always so. When Robert Lyons, artistic director of the New Ohio Theatre, staked his early claim to festival territory, he sent his intern to the public library (rather than the internet) to find the vintage photo---of a man cooling his heels outside an ice factory---that spawned the Ice Factory Festival's now well-known name.

"As hard as it is to believe, given how much stuff happens in the summer now, 19 years ago, nothing was happening," Lyons recalls. "Everyone said, 'Oh, everybody goes to the Hamptons.' We said, we're not going to the Hamptons. Most of the people I know, most of the artists I know, are not going to the Hamptons. So why don't we do this?"

At both the Ice Factory (running through August 4) and, downtown and to the east, the Undergroundzero Festival (running through July 29), there are key changes afoot for summer 2012. For instance, it's the Ice Factory's first year in the New Ohio's new space in the West Village, while Undergroundzero is marking a major evolution in its artistic identity.

For Ice Factory, having a 10-year lease inspires a sense of security and optimism. After all the uncertainty that came along with their departure from their old location, Lyons says, "We can really sink our roots in here and feel like there is another chapter to all of this."

Even in a new space, however, Ice Factory's approach remains the same: "It's always been a great foot-in-the-door type of thing," Lyons says. "Especially for young companies that are trying to approach us and are interested in us getting to know their work."

Ice Factory sane pace facilitates these relationships, since every show gets a full week to take over the space. A week may not sound like much, but as Lyons points out, some festivals require artists to strike their sets in 10 minutes to make way for the next production.

This year, the Ice Factory is establishing new relationships with several artists. Festival newcomers include Godlight Theatre Company, whose Pilo Family Circus follows a sadistic circus troupe, and Rady&Bloom's Girl of the Golden West, an ambitious musical adaptation of the classic Belasco novel.

Down on the lower East side, Undergroundzero is also in the midst of a pivotal year. The festival was started in 2007 by artistic director Paul Bargetto after the now defunct Collective: Unconscious offered him their space, dormant in the summer months, to do whatever he liked. "I had no funding, I had nothing in place, I didn't know what to do, and so I thought about it, and I thought maybe we should do a festival," he says.

Bargetto wanted to do something differently than other summer festivals, which generally have an application process with fairly stringent guidelines. His idea was to let artists present whatever they want. "There are a lot of places out there that to a certain extent will do this for artists, but I wanted to go all the way," he says. "Once you're invited, you're free to do anything. I got a very strong emotional response from that, and that was sort of the cornerstone of what the festival became."

Undergroundzero grew each year, and when Collective: Unconscious folded in 2010, the festival moved to PS 122, drawing international acts into its fold. Global scope became another key part of the mission. "Those were the basic components: it's artist-driven, independent companies, with a real international focus and awareness so that we're having that global conversation," Bargetto says.
That year the festival hosted companies from Romania, Germany, Ireland, Spain, and Australia. "It put us on the radar," Bargetto recalls. "Ever since then I'm bombarded. Everyone wants to perform on the New York stage." This year the festival closes with B-Floor, a physical theatre company from Bangkok whose Oxygen is a multimedia exploration of the volatile political situation in Thailand.

Now, Undergroundzero is more than a festival. Squeezed to the breaking point by dwindling resources and what he feels is a resulting lack of community in the downtown scene, Bargetto asked the companies he's developed relationships with over the years---or whose work he's admired from afar---if they'd be willing to band together to form a collective. Part of the goal is to pool resource, but the deeper purpose is to create a sense of kinship among independent companies.

Undergroundzero executive director Connie Hall was quick to sign on to the collective enterprise. "Part of the restructuring of this as a cooperative is that there isn't that same kind of community that is based in geography anymore," she says. "We are all spread around the perimeter of New York City, so this 'festivalizaiton' is trying to get us in the same physical space together again."

Hall's company---Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant---is using the festival to move out of its comfort zone with a piece called Little West 12th Street, a walking tour of the Meatpacking District loosely based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. "With the support of a festival, it just felt like the right way to do it," Hall says.

The 65-year-old Living Theater has also joined the collective, and now Undergroundzero is headquartered in the apartment of Living Theater's artistic director Judith Malina. (The Living Theater space also serves as one of the primary locations of the festival's more than a dozen productions.)

Many of the practical aspects of working as a cooperative have yet to be worked out, with this year's festival being the group's initial foray. But Bargetto and Hall hope it will become a successful new model of making theatre, one that helps small companies to thrive both economically and artistically. "It was put to me once by a friend of mine who said, this whole scene, it isn't a lot of people," Bargetto recalls. "If you're talking about the downtown scene, it isn't. If you really wanted to, you could put a roof over it. And I think in some way Undergroundzero is trying to do a little bit of that."

Olivia Jane Smith is a writer based in New York City