Monday, July 28, 2008

Theatorium In Memorium*

I just found out via Scrappy Jack's blog that there is a new building going up on the site where the Theatorium used to be. A converted garage (auto body shop? Shit, how could I not know this?) at 198 Stanton Street, between Attorney and Ridge, it was, from 1998 til 2003, a lot of people's artistic home and now it's gone gone gone for good.

I'm full of all kinds of mixed feelings about this turn of events, compounded and confused by my not very mixed feelings about what is happening to my old East Village/LES neighborhood. The Present Company gave up the Theatorium in early 2003, understandably really, as it was a huge drain, both financially and in other ways. I try not to wax nostalgic what with my punk rock upbringing and all. The building has stood empty for five years. But still.

Buildings have memories, what goes on inside of them seeps into the walls. That building absorbed so much sweat and hilarity and frustration and blood and here and there, genius, pure genius.

The early years of FringeNYC (for which the Theatorium was Command Central) changed my life. I spent hours and hours and hours working for the festival while simultaneously and unwittingly creating what would become the rest of my life from the people I met and the theater I saw. Nothing I would subsequently do would ever be more difficult, maddening, frustrating or completely and utterly magical. I was going to tell a funny, funny anecdote about filing a stack of cash under M for Money, but figured Elena would not be pleased. I'll tell this instead:

A friend and I had this longstanding theatrical goal, that we would one day be involved in a performance where audience members would would be so shocked and horrified, they would jump out of their seats and run for the door. In the Theatorium, on a deathly cold night in (I think) 1999 our wish came true! We were involved in a performance/art/music extravaganza called Safety Can. It began at midnight and went until 3 or 4am and was hosted by Bill Talen. One piece involved this pagan offering-up of salad ingredients which were thrown by us into a huge, rubber vat. Then someone (I can't for the life of me remember who) came out with a weed-whacker and made salad, which we subsequently served to the audience (yes, the salad was precisely as disgusting as you might think). We had packed the Theatorium to the rafters with extra folding chairs in front. As the weed-whacker roughly pureed our ingredients (including dressing), salad was flung toward the (now much closer due to the added rows of seats) front row. Several people leaped to their feet and ran to the exit. We managed to stagger off stage before literally collapsing with laughter. Goal attained!

I have mentioned LIT in previous posts, and one thing being discussed is a sort of LIT seal of approval for venues and rehearsal spaces. So that audience members and theater-folk would know that the spaces are clean, air-conditioned, etc. Needless to say, the Theatorium would have failed on every single point. Un-airconditioned, largely unheated, leaky-ceilinged and oh, yeah, rats. But the alchemy of spaces put to artistic uses is strange indeed, and the old Theatorium for all its faults and assorted horrors (rats, sewage explosions- I'm looking at you!) was possessed of certain grubby magic that will be fondly remembered, maybe best remembered rather than re-experienced, by me and I'm sure lots of others. I lift a glass to all the lost sacred spaces that live only in our thoughts, dreams and art! Let the myth-making begin apace!

Me, in front of the Theatorium, 2002

*I am fully aware that the correct Latin is "memoriam". Memorium looks better, so no need to comment. God, I'm such a fucking pedant.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

And besides everything else, the Theatorium was just such a great *space*! A huge stage, with plenty of backstage room, entrances on all sides, and an onstage balcony and staircase! I really wrote Piece of the Sun for that space, and though Ian has made noises about wanting to do it elsewhere, I can hardly imagine it being anywhere else.

And---I'd always heard it was actually a chop-shop, where stolen cars got enough parts replaced that they could be sold. I don't know that it's true, but I'd sure like to believe it is.

Carolyn Raship said...

I think I might still write nearly exclusively for that space. Which I suppose I should stop doing.

And my hat does go off to you, Fuzzy Bastard, as I think you are the only person I've ever saw who truly exploited the possibilities of what could be done there. I think Urinetown did a nice job, too.

John said...


All the stories are true, which does not mean, necessarily, that they should all be permitted.

But, yes, it was a chop-shop and a drug distribution center and in the back (back where we tried to build a rehearsal hall), it was a modern-day speak-easy, a "social club", like you hear about in mob stories.

I know this because of the business cards I picked up lying on the floor in the back when we moved in, lying there discarded with the vials and the cigarette butts and the burnt matches, cards with the address and a logo and "The Mustang Club" in red lettering, left there on the night the Feds shut it down.

It was my Fortress and my Cradle and my Burden and my Home.

Leaving that place is still the single hardest thing I've ever done, no regrets, turned out to be the right thing to do, but to abdicate, to leave...

And it wasn't the place, of course, (although the place was, physically, Valhalla for those of us who insensibly and persistently tried to create Heaven and Hell and All in Between in storefronts and bars on the Lower East Side in the late 90s, it was fucking vast, man, endless, tall and no columns! No fucking columns!) it was the people who gathered at the place.

The people.

The artists and the soon-to-be-artists and the audience and the misfits and the crazies and the supporters and the friends and the hangers-on (Steve) and the neighborhood predators and the families and the wannabees and the strangers and the first-timers and the folks from uptown and the folks from out of town and the comedians and the artistes and the performers and all of them.


I used to meet all of them.

And send them home at the end of a long night, shake their hands or just wave them off and then lock the door, roll down the roll-gate and go home tired to the bone, but very, very settled.

A magical place.

Theatorium in Memorium, indeed.

The spelling is exactly right.

Carolyn Raship said...

Tried to turn it into a rehearsal space? Maggie and I rehearsed entire shows back there!

Remember when we turned it into a speakeasy again for that Millennial benefit?

John, you very nearly just made me cry.

No regrets, face forward, but, I think to myself, I'll never be that young again. Glasses raised everybody!

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

And what's really funny is that when Urinetown moved to Broadway, they pretty much just recreated the Theatorium space in the middle of the Great White Way.

I'm just glad I got to direct there after I knew what a luxury it was to have actors exit upstage and re-enter downstage.

Carolyn Raship said...

I saw Cabaret in that same theater (Henry Miller - it's gone, right?), and they did fantastic things with the balcony, too.

Jeffrey Alexander Lewonczyk said...

Yeah, Hope and I would still be creating theater in a ditch somewhere if it weren't for the Theatorium. We were able to make a few years' worth of incredible mistakes in there, and if I ever write a novel about those days it would have to be the book's primary location.

John said...

I watch the progress (so to speak) of the new building every day from the roof of my building across the street.

They have the foundation poured and what I assume are two elevator shafts dug in.

I look down and think:

"That truck is roughly where Erica Schmidt did Brandon Teena and those guys smoking would be in the DVL."

Very odd, but strangely, not sad.

Life moves and NYC moves even faster than life sometimes.

Got to keep dancing.

LIVE Theaterr said...

Yes, that space was amazing. Especially for those of us who cut our proverbial teeth there.

The Safety Can weed-wacker in question was Dan Hope.

Carolyn Raship said...

Right! I had completely forgotten that Dan was the one manning the whacker.

Good times.

Carolyn Raship said...

With all this talk and reminiscing about the Theatorium, I was shocked to behold Steel Neil hanging out with Tony Bourdain on the Travel Channel last night. He had just made a combination spoon/fork/straw out of metal. The show was Bizarre Food with Tony Zimmern. They drank moonshine together in Red Hook. Has the world gone mad?

Miss Nic said...

I have such fond memories of that place: the spiral staircase; the the rain through the roof to the stage; the rat that stole the show; that peculiar odor of tire rubber, lube and mildew...

Seriously. Great memories. And I think I met almost everyone I know in NYC there or around there at some point about ten years ago including you Miss Cavigila.