The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation Team, led by Kyoung H. Park, has created a series of interviews with artists and arts leaders to address issues of diversity and social inclusion in contemporary performing arts. Over the course of the next few months, we will highlight interviews with artists who are in conversation with our team to ask ourselves how we can insure that people from all points on the age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and cultural spectra have a place in the conversation. We invite members of our community to help us gather more information by completing our artist surveys here, and stay tuned as we synthesize our findings and share them online.
Before we start, would you mind introducing yourself?
Sure. I’m Noel Joseph Allain and I’m Artistic Director of The Bushwick Starr Theater.
Could you let us know a little bit of your history and how you became Artistic Director of The Bushwick Starr?
Yeah. Starting in 2002, the space was a rehearsal space for a theater company called Fovea Floods. The people who started the space, Sue [Kessler], Jay Maury, and myself, were all part of that company. People lived here and we would have events or one-night things for people we knew and that went on for about four years before the company came to a close—people went back to school, people moved or changed careers in different parts of the country
In 2006, I moved in and the space was more or less converted into a black-box theater, but it wasn’t being used for anything at that point. That’s when I started the conversation with Sue that we should do something about the space. At that time, you could see that there was a really vibrant grass roots arts community growing in the neighborhood and it seemed like the space provided a great opportunity to be a part of that.
We started renting to people, mentioning that we had a space that they could use to rehearse. We also partnered with Arts in Bushwick and had events with them—parties and concerts. It was very loose at that point, because we were really figuring out what this was all about, learning everything as we went along, as we’d never done it before.
We did that for a couple of years and things really snowballed in a great way. We were very active; in fact, one of the things we learned was how to reserve time to take breaks because we just started to program everything wall-to-wall for months on end. Then, we were like: oh my God, we’re trying to kill ourselves! At that point, no one was getting paid anything and it was all about just paying the rent. We still lived here, as well.
After a couple of years doing that, we started to produce a series called the Bushwack Series during the summer—it was a performance series and it was the one thing that we curated and produced on our own. We got our first grants through the Brooklyn Arts Council, but it became clear to all of us that we didn’t want to be a rental house, it wasn’t very fulfilling and there wasn’t enough of an identity in that—we just rented to people and there were people that we liked renting it to and people we wouldn’t rent to again.
There was no mission, so that’s when we decided to start presenting and form a season and really take control of the character of the space—in terms of our programming, and we’ve been doing that ever since. That’s when, in 2009, I became Artistic Director and Sue became Executive Director.
Why did you start your company and was the space integral to the needs of your company?
We started Fovea Floods in college and we had an infrastructure. We went to Skidmore so we had school as a resource, businesses as resources, and we had a space in town—it was a small space, but it was ours and basically rent free.
When you move to New York, you don’t know anyone, it’s much more competitive, and much more expensive and difficult. So the idea of getting a space that was just ours was about finding a way to get back to what we had in Saratoga. We could build sets in the space, rehearse on it, really develop a show, and finding that space was a somewhat lucky turn of events.
I think Sue and Josh Chambers, who was director of the company, were walking down the street and saw a cardboard sign on the side of the building. They went up and were like: this is perfect. They lived here to keep it because the company really didn’t have any money. And ultimately, the company didn’t have that kind of infrastructure that could sustain it any other way.
Back in 2002, this neighborhood was really different.
Well, it was different in the sense that it hadn’t been gentrified hardly at all, and now it’s being rapidly gentrified—aggressively so. I’m actually going to a hearing tomorrow—a City Council hearing. Councilman Steven Levin and Chairman Jimmy Van Bramer are proposing a city-wide cultural plan, basically, a plan to help sustain small, cultural organizations throughout the city that are often bulldozed over by the development that goes on. I certainly live in constant fear of that happening here.
Are you guys still renting this space?
I used to live with people that started a theater company off the Morgan stop, but once people realized that they could start building here—
Age old story, but I didn’t know much about it honestly. When we first moved here, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of gentrification—now, it seems so incredibly naïve—but gentrification is one of the big, hot-buttons in our lives.
We were that first wave of artists moving into the neighborhood and we set the stage for that. It’s a hard reality to accept that I’m part of that. I didn’t mean to be, but I am.
Last Saturday night, we had an event here called Ghetto Hors D’Oeuvres, an event created by our friend Flako Jimenez. Flako has a company called Brooklyn Gypsy, he was born and bred in Bushwick, and he’s a poet and a performer. The whole point of the evening is to get different communities into the same room, so it’s all local performers and writers and musicians from the community that’s been here for the last few decades, and the new artists and young professional community that is moving in.
How did it go?
It went great—it was the best one so far. We’ve done a bunch of them—I think this might be the fourth—and the events have always been amazing because they are the most diverse. I feel really lucky to be working with Flako because he’s an Ambassador, someone who is a very talented writer and also, one of his main talents as a person, is his ability to bring people together—he’s a people’s person. He can speak from both sides, which is unique. I feel really lucky that we crossed paths with him and started this collaboration.
How long has that collaboration been going?
Well, I met Flako when we did our first Big Green Theater, which is a program we now do with PS123 around the corner. We work with students for three months in January and they learn about playwriting and environmental issues, and write plays about what they’re learning, and then we put up the plays in the theater in the Spring.
This coming April will be the third year we do it with the school. The first year we did it with an organization called Still Waters and a Storm, which is kind of an after-school/school-house writing center that is run by Stephen Haff. Flako had been working with Stephen for years—they had a company called Real People Theater that they ran here. Stephen was a mentor for Flako and Flako was a volunteer, so we got to know him through that.
Being who he is he immediately told me that he wanted to come up to the theater and help out with whatever—and then he talked to me about all of his ideas and what he wanted to do. A lot of it sounded really great, so the first thing we did together was him performing in that first year of Big Green Theater and our relationship and the things that he’s done have just grown and grown since then.
Is being a local artist part of your criteria when you search for companies to present?
Flako’s evening is definitely centered around that and we have programs that are more centered around Bushwick audiences—specifically family audiences, like Big Green and a puppet festival that is coming up. We give free tickets to families who live in the neighborhood because we want them to come to the theater and the programming is really geared to be family friendly.
It’s really easy to say: oh, the theater’s open for everybody, but our main programming is kind of experimental. I always get a little bit nervous about that word because it always feels like it’s one specific thing: “experimental theater”—but we do all sorts of different kinds of things. We often do things outside the box—stuff that’s crossing disciplines, stretching things a bit—that’s the kind of work we’re interested in, but that’s not everyone’s bag.
These programs started, in part, when we went to Community Board meetings and asked what was needed. What did people want? How could we actually serve a need instead of deciding we’re serving one, and the big theme was: after-school arts program, which is what we do with those programs.
But in terms of local artists—no, I go see work locally and all throughout the city and it’s more about finding artists that are exciting to me.
You’ve been presenting for about 5 years now—
This is the fifth season.
Was this something that you trained for?
No. I’m an actor, my training is in that, but you know, we had a theater company and anyone that runs a theater company knows that you do everything and you learn a lot. I often say that the success we’ve had here is a product of being in the theater in New York for ten years and working in different ways. I didn’t’ go to any formal training program for it, but I have learned more about how a city works from doing this—politics, local politics, on all levels—not only in government, but politics in the neighborhood, how people deal with each other and how connections are made and how you establish a relationship with your area, being part of a city… It’s really fascinating and that’s been great.
How have you responded to the changes in this neighborhood and have you addressed those things in the way you curate?
Interesting. I don’t know if I have. The community programs are something that we wanted to do from the beginning, before things got as aggressive as they are now, and in terms of the development, that question feels more important now. I don’t know if it’s more important, but it seems more important.
In terms of our programming, there’s two different types of audiences that come here—there’s more like three. In this sense, there are people who go to other downtown theaters like Soho Rep, the Incubator, New York Theater Workshop, Rattlestick Theater, Three Legged-Dog, and they will also come here—it’s the same interest, the same community.
But generally speaking, they’re not the people who used to live in Bushwick. The Bushwick community is a lot more about visual art, for the most part, and music. I used to work at this art gallery restaurant in Chelsea and the people that I used to wait on were here, at a party. It was kind of amazing—I was like: “oh wow, you’re in my space in Bushwick, something’s going on.” But that’s changing, with the changing community.
There’s more people here now, so I find that there’s more people that are interested in the theater because they’re more interested in performance—in theater—they tell me: “oh, I live down the street.” But that wasn’t the case before…
When we first started and we did more rentals and parties and stuff, it was more of a neighborhood scene and as soon as we started to say: we’re a theater, we’re gonna do more—I don’t wanna’ say plays, because we do plays, but we also do dance and other things that couldn’t be described in that way (it’s more performance)—that neighborhood crowd doesn’t show up for those as much.
That’s been changing and growing in the past few years but you know, you look at the development and it’s scary, it’s knocking people out of the neighborhood and that’s never a good thing. We live in fear of not being able to grow fast enough and being able to stay here—which is not a good thing—but it’s bringing more attention and people to the theater as well, so there’s good and bad.
We’ve interviewed people that started grassroots organizations in Manhattan and a lot of those venues were started by artists and kept at a grass-roots level before they decided to build something, which is to own property to a certain extent. Do you feel like that is a natural progression that you’re considering, or do you want to keep the theater intimate and small?
No, I think it’s a natural progression and I think that what’s different in what we do. We didn’t start this place to put up our own work—though that’s often the seed for a space being started.
I was having a discussion with some people and we were talking about what you have to do to get more stability in the city—that connections and growth is important. We’ve been learning how to continue to grow and someone said: “well, that’s true, but I’m an artist. I started this space to work on my work, I don’t want to become an administrator.”
And that’s an important thing to recognize, but I think that if you don’t have someone doing that, the future is pretty uncertain. I think Joe Papp said that if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and that’s a pretty bleak thing to say, but the way the city moves—it’s fucking scary. You kinda’ have to keep planning on that direction or else, you’ll be a place that used to be there.
We’ve always thought about this like a place that wants to grow and it started off grass-roots because we started it with nothing, but we wanted it to continue to grow and be something. I don’t want it to lose the character of what it does, but I want it to be a sustainable organization. That doesn’t mean being Lincoln Center, but it means having a larger budget, a larger staff, and ultimately, more space.
I love this space and I actually never want to give it up—at one point, we may have to face that decision, but you know, this space itself holds a lot of character and a lot of energy and I believe in those things. People feel it when they come here. The building has a lot of history in of itself and we have a lot of history here. But it is not big enough.
When did you decide to transition and shift your focus from being an artist in a company to curating and presenting new work?
Well, I was one of those people that went back to school for acting. I was at Julliard and they demand all of your time and energy and that was great. I think I did one show with the company in the summer and this position wasn’t something that I had planned for.
I moved in here because I needed a place to live and there was a lofted room that we had built that was available. And it wasn’t until I moved in here and started to really fix the place up that I started to think about it.
Also, I saw that the company was basically over, and frankly, I had come out of a long-term relationship and was getting out of school, so my life looked very much like a clean slate. I realized that I was hungry for something to build a community around and this was a place to build a community around.
So there wasn’t a transition. I’m still an actor—I do both—and while it’s harder and harder to juggle, I’m still trying to do that. I just thought of this as another hat that I liked wearing so it’s more like: “and also…”
After your training in Julliard, did you feel that performance was something you were more interested in aesthetically, or was it more happenstance that you became involved with it?
Somebody asked me once for an interview: “where would you put your taste if Lincoln Center is on one end and Richard Foreman is on the other?”
I said: “Well, it’s funny: the first thing I did when I came to New York was intern for Richard Foreman and acted for him for two years, and then I went to Julliard at Lincoln Center. So if that answers your question—it’s the whole thing.”
Having said that, I did feel somewhat artistically unsatisfied at Julliard. I mean, I love more traditional theater—I like acting in traditional plays, it’s very satisfying to me—but I also need something more experimental. I get a lot of joy seeing people try new things—especially when they work. It’s like when you see someone communicating something in a way you had never seen before, and it’s an exciting moment. That was lacking at Julliard. So I was definitely hungry to get back to that kind of work and seeing more of that type of work.
In terms of what we do here, I like to say that I don’t like to be too strict. I know what we don’t do. We don’t do traditional productions of classic plays—nothing against them, we just don’t do them here. And generally speaking, what we do here is more adventurous and more outside the box, and that’s definitely more of our interest in the type of artists we’re interested in supporting.
But you know, we’ve done plays. “Blood Play” was more or a less like a play—I thought it was a really cool play.
What’s the range of your audience here?
I think it’s pretty wide—it’s very young, which is great. That’s important to us. But then, that generation of people who are the older generation of vanguard artists, come here, as well. And in fact, when we first started presenting, a lot of people who knew the East Village when it was more of what it used to be, they were really excited about us. It was really great to hear them say: “this is what it used to be like then—it reminds me of those old theaters.”
I think there’s a whole generation of theatergoers who are not going to come out to Bushwick, though. There’s a lot of judgment about Bushwick in an older generation, cause the neighborhood used to be something completely different to what it is now. There’s a young, professional, kinda’ conservative set, that literally their mantra is: “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”
When I hear that, I’m like: you do know that you’re missing out, right? Brooklyn’s great! It’s not a competition; it’s part of the city. It’s weird.
It’s completely bizarre. When people admit it, I think they kind of admit it with some pride—
Yeah. It’s like a class-thing, or a status thing: I don’t go to Brooklyn. OK—that’s fine. I’m sorry for you.
How do you connect to your community, in terms of your Community Board, or your District Council? Do they understand the kind of social issues, besides the art, that you’re trying to address here?
I think so. At one point we decided to start going to the monthly Community Board meetings and meeting the people who run the Board and introducing ourselves. At the end of the Community Board meeting you can make announcements, so we’d let people know what’s coming up at the Starr and hand out cards and invite people.
People often asked: can I bring my kids? Often, we’d answer: “Uh, not to this show, but this is coming up—this is an opportunity to bring your kids.”
I think that people know that we do things for the community and in schools, and it’s just basically showing up and doing what you say you’re going to do.
Right around the time we decided to start presenting, Sue and I both read “Free for All.” It’s an oral history of The Public [Theater] and Joe Papp’s life—it’s all about him starting the Public and its history. Reading about what he did—that was a definitive moment for us when we were like: we’ve gotta’ do this shit.
Before, we were just putting up shows and doing our thing, but that’s when we realized the scope of what an organization in the city can be and what he was able to do, growing that organization and working with the city and demanding things. It was a different atmosphere back then and he was just a dynamo—you can’t just be Joe Papp—but that was an eye-opening experience. I was away, doing a show—which is one of the things I don’t do anymore, go out of town—but I got back and the first thing I did was get a list of all our local politicians and get numbers to their offices and make appointments to meet them. I was like: here we go.
One of the first people we met with was Marty Markowitz’s office—Elizabeth Koch was their Director of Arts and Culture. He popped in for about twenty minutes and we asked him how do we get money from you? And he told us that the discretionary funding is given out through your Council person.
Who was our Council Person? Diana Reyna—she’s finishing her term right now, but I got in contact with her and started going to events she was holding—getting to know her a little more and now we’re getting discretionary funding from her and she nominated us to the CASA grant, which is a big grant for arts organizations to work in schools, which is what’s supporting Big Green this year.
It’s just research and then picking up the phone and having something we wanted to do—not just saying give us money to make something. We have a program we want to do—this is what we’re going to give back to the community. This is what we already do—but this is what we can do if we get some funding. Can you help us? That gets people’s attention.
There’s also a part that you have to institutionalize internally—
Right, that’s really complicated, because I don’t feel like there’s actually a template. There is, but everyone does it a bit differently and I found it confusing.
I think one of the things we’ve done well is that every few months—I say that, as a general time frame, but we do it whenever we have to do it—we sit down and say what’s working, what’ not working, what needs to be fixed, and we fix it. I think that’s really important.
We had a few staff positions that we formed with a little bit of money for each, and they weren’t working very effectively because no one was getting paid enough to commit and it was all spread out.
At one point, we consolidated all of those positions into one—a General Manager position is what we call it—and we found Maria Portman Kelly, who’s someone we got to know through Big Green and she is amazing and kind of a dynamo—someone we can rely on. We said we were looking for someone and she said she was interested and we were overjoyed to hear that.
Now, it’s more about where the need is and then I get informed by talking to other people from larger institutions who have more of a structure about what positions they have in place to help me understand how we can fulfill our own needs—what positions we need to create and then, get creative how that works for us at a specific moment of time with the amount of money we have and all of the other positions we have.
How do you prioritize your needs and do you ever get to a point where you actually think about what would happen if you had a little extra to do something?
Yes, we do often. All the time. We always know what is the next step. I mean, it just becomes apparent. There’s like a fire that needs to get put out at a certain point.
Maria’s position came about as we got to a point where Sue and I were doing so much work outside of the actual running of the theater facility that needed to be done for development and growth, because that’s where our attention was going, so time and time again, scheduling the theater was getting screwed up and it was getting out of control. People were getting pissed and we were embarrassed so we needed someone who’s main responsibility was the facility—organizing it physically and organizing scheduling and what’s going on there. That was Maria—why we knew we needed a position in that—we had too many problems in that area.
There’s a lot of things we’d love to have, but aren’t spiraling out of control—just unsatisfactory. The theater’s always a mess. I’d love to have a theater manager that is in charge of keeping this place and all the gear organized —it’s kind of a person that would work with the company of artists and helping them find things. I don’t have the money for that person right now, so we make do—it’s fine. The moment we can hire that person I’m going to, but the world is not going to fall down without it.
After five years, does it feel like survival or does it no longer feel like survival?
Oh no, it feels like survival. We’re small, we’ve grown a lot—it doesn’t take a lot when you start with nothing to grow a lot—but we’re still really small. The expectation grows a lot, also. And you get to a certain point where you realize that for the next level, the growth is exponential. I don’t need to hire one more person, I need to hire five more people to go to this next level, because I need someone to handle this area, and this area, and this area, and this area… We talk about finding a new space, work with the city to buy and do a capital campaign around that—that is an enormous endeavor. I need a bunch of more staff to do that.
I’ve seen a lot of founders really struggle with capital campaigns. It takes a toll on you.
Yeah, it does. And if you’ve got that new space, it’s bigger, then you need more people to make sure that space runs properly. So it’s that kind of a moment where you think: my budget right now needs to double, at least, before I’m even ready to do that. So it’s exciting, but it’s also daunting and it doesn’t feel stable. I worry about getting booted out of here, us not growing fast enough to stay in this area and I worry about the economic situation, not being able to find the funding.
How has the recession affected you?
I think individual funders are much more careful, or much more picky about where they give their money, so it’s harder and harder, I think, for everyone to find those really important donors. The same thing with foundations, you know? We have some foundations that have all but told us that they’re waiting until they can—they want to give us money, they just can’t right now. It’s very frustrating.
Is that your biggest challenge? Reaching out and connecting to funders?
We have a few people that work on grants and who are good at it, which is a nice thing. We have people writing and researching things. But any organization’s board is part of the fundraising and we’ve been developing our board over the past four or five years, from really a group of people that we knew and could give us advice, to a more fundraising board. But it’s slow to develop that infrastructure…
We’re trying to build a board that involves people who have access to individuals with those kinds of resources, because you need that kind of support. We’ve had some lucky things happen that have enabled us to get to where we are now, but we need more. It can’t all lie on one person’s shoulders.
The other thing I was going to say about funding in general is that we’ve been talking about how we need to find big funders—we still do—but the focus has been all there. I think lately we’ve been talking about cultivating, spending more time, and putting more time cultivating the people who know the theater and care about it, who as we get older, might become people who might be able to support the theater more.
There’s a lot of people who come here and we don’t do a lot of outreach to those people, or as much as we could, and those are the people who come to the theater and know it, and care about it, and if you can connect with them, and they have the means to do it, they can help form a much bigger part of our base.
Let’s talk about the fun stuff. What’s your relationships with the artists you curate and what have you learned from serving a curatorial role?
Well, we don’t have a submission process. When we started, we had a list of people who we wanted to work with—some of them were like a wish list, some were people that we knew.
The first couple of years, I sent people a bunch of emails asking them if they were interested in doing something and it’s still the same situation right now: it’s not like we had money to commission work, and we’re still not quite there yet, but what we did have was the space and equipment that, you know, costs money to rent.
So I’d say: do you want to do your next piece with us? Whatever you want to do next that you’re interested in, do it here, and I’ll give you a month of rehearsal where the space is basically yours, and we’ll do a 3-4 week run. It’s really important to run the show long enough so we can get the press in here, and get the momentum to build with a potential of an extension.
We market the show and do the press release and promote to the extent that we can, which is pretty thorough—the New York Times always comes now. We also have a couple of interns we can give to people per show, to help them during rehearsals and the performances and then, a percentage of the box office to give them a little bit of money on that end.
Surprisingly, at that time, a lot of people were really excited about that. It was exciting to me. I knew some people would be like: that’s great, but other larger companies were like: I want to do something too. That worked out well and that’s how we still function.
It’s a partnership—it’s the only way we can do it—they produce the show itself, we just make it as easy as possible for them to do it here. There’s no charge. And our resources, like in terms of manpower, for the actual show are fairly limited, we’re just trying to keep the theater running all the time, but we do our best to help. Mostly, it’s the in-kind stuff.
Do you get involved in their process?
No, as an Artistic Director, I’m available to talk and I like to pop into rehearsals when I can, and know how it’s going. If something dire is presenting itself, I’ll speak up, but generally I’ll let the director or the lead artist take the lead on that. When you come into the process, it’s in process. I’m not going to be critical—say, this isn’t really working—I mean, how many times have we sat through the rehearsal process and watch something that looks like a disaster come together beautifully two weeks later? If someone has a concern they want feedback on, I’m really happy to do that, but I generally stay out of it.
We also love to pow-wow with the artists and get to know them better through their experience here—we say that we want this theater to be a springboard for people, kind of developing their career. After they do their show here, which will hopefully be artistically fulfilling, they’ll also get the kind of attention that you really need to make that next step forward.
I think we’ve been able to do that for a lot of people that have performed here and also, for people who are kind of further along in their career, this place is a place they can try out something that wouldn’t be done somewhere else. Experiment a little bit, try something out—we’re like a little home for that, it’s how the theater’s best used.
And then, in order to find new artists that we don’t know already, I try to see as much work as possible. People send me invitations and I’ll go see work and if something catches my eye, I start a conversation.
The Propeller Project begins our season, it’s a one week run, and it was Kristina Haruna Lee this year. The project’s for someone who’s really emerging who we will probably not run for 3-4 weeks, but it’s someone who we want to work with, cause we’re interested in their work.
The October slot was The Team this year, that’s the kind of headliner slot; the largest company is usually in that position and it starts off the year with a bang. Then, we have the puppet show, which as I said is one of our community programs, and then these two slots—which are basically in the February/March and are for companies that are somewhere in the middle, and we’re just interested in working with them.
Then we do the Big Green Theater, we’ve talked about that, and then the last slot, in general, has become a Young Playwright’s slot—it was Eliza Bent last year and William Burke is doing a show this year.
We try to find opportunities to work with people who are in different stages of their career and that’s the whole point of curating.
What concerns come up from the artists while they work here with you?
Lately, it’s been a difficult and different point in time for us. I feel like the reputation of the theater has grown, and people think that we’re a larger institution than we are.
Before, we told people what we gave them and they were floored and now it’s like: “oh cool, and also, I need…” And no—that’s actually it—we can’t do more, we’re not that big yet. So that’s become a theme lately that we’re trying to address, like more clarity in the upfront conversations so there aren’t as many surprises and people know how to plan.
It came up really most pointedly when we did Eliza’s show, because she was the first playwright that we had here who didn’t have a company. Usually, we worked with companies so they brought a whole crew of people, but she was just a playwright and we were like: oh right, we need to figure out how this works. So it became a whole thing: how do we do this? How do we assist Eliza putting together a team, because we cannot provide a team, but we can hopefully be helpful in creating a plan, which was a whole other thing and a different conversation that had to happen with playwrights who don’t have companies.
What about in terms of the ideas, or subjects—?
Oh, for the seasons? Sometimes, they jump out. It’s really weird.
I remember there was one season that was all about conflict and aggression. That was “In the Pony Palace/Football” [by Half Stradde] and in that same season, there was “The Ring Cycle” [by Performance Lab 115], which was all about wrestling—so it was about contact sports. Then, I think that in that same season, we had the Witness Relocation show [“I’m Going to Make a Small Incision Behind Your Ear to Check and See if You’re Actually Human”], which also had wrestling in it.
People seemed to want to engage in a really physical way that year, and that was followed by “Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din” [by Van Cougar], which was all about war and the season after, you had “Blood Play” [by Debate Society] and “House of Von Macrame” [by Joshua Conkel and Matt Marks], which had a lot of blood in it.
Yeah, so sometimes themes tend to get teased out, but I don’t curate shows, I curate the artist—so repetition in themes is not purposeful. I don’t ask for shows on a theme, literally the question I ask the artists is: what are you most excited about? Tell me about that idea. Nine times out of ten, I like that idea so we just go, great. And once in a while, I’ll say: tell me what else you’re thinking about? But the idea is to work with someone who’s work you’re really excited about.
Our team is researching diversity in the field—
It’s a hard one. We think about it a lot because one of the realities is that in this kind of downtown, experimental theater world, it’s pretty white. And then you have these subsets that are also very, very segregated and I don’t know exactly why. It might just be social. Some people are just starting in their communities and they grow in that way, so one thing I’ve been trying to do is to find my own way into those communities that I normally don’t get invited to.
Another thing we do is a playwright’s reading series, where we read a play every month, and that’s become really important because we have submissions and we make sure that we have a diverse selection of playwrights. But you also have to put that aside a little and pick the best plays, you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re like: well, I don’t like this play as much, but I want more diversity—that gets really dangerous.
In the end, it should be about artistic integrity, but you’ve also got to be progressive because this is a real issue and it’s one that is not going to go away unless people are more proactive.
I think about it a lot and try to take steps, but sometimes it feels slow. You’ve got to make it a real initiative, so we try our best to have a diverse group of people and I think that we have a diverse group of artists that are interested in the space, which helps, because then you have people coming to you and you end up really liking their work, which is ultimately how the decisions are made.
It’s always nice when you have a diverse group of people coming to you from which you can curate from, instead of having to make these kind of more forced choices. It gets into that land of political correctness that is a little bit icky—that’s not what this is about.
You always want to do it from a place of: I really respect this artist, but you have to broaden your horizons on the art you’re seeing so you can make sure the art you’re thinking of, seeing, is from the whole spectrum because we end up in our own little boxes and often, those lines are drawn on cultural barriers.
Do you have a specific example or story where you feel that you were looking for a different cultural reference, or community or audience, and where an artist was coming form, and how that worked in the space?
I feel like a good example is something that happened at a Catch! We’ve done a lot of things with Catch and I feel like they have a wide variety in their series and that was a great opportunity for me to see artists that I didn’t know.
I remember having an especially great experience with Regina Rock, who’s going to be the Propeller Artist next year.
Regina told me that she had someone who was coming to participate in a piece with her but didn’t show up, and she asked me whether I could sit in and do it instead. I asked her: what do I have to do? And she said, you just have to sit there. I was like: OK. Fine. I don’t dance, so if you need dancing—you don’t have to dance, she said.
Regina played this character which was interviewing me about my relationships and lambasted me, I mean, not me—it could have been anyone—but basically, she put me in this character who was a chauvinistic asshole and then sat me down, and then sat on my lap, and she had this recording where she was this abusive boyfriend, like: “yo bitch, I’m going to do this and this to you”—and she was talking in her own voice along with the recording.
Then, she was like: “now we’re going to have a dance off” which was really alarming to me, but she took me aside and said “I’ll go first” and whispered to me “you don’t have to go,” and she had this whole dance where she beat this tray of cupcakes to death with a baseball bat.
I didn’t know Regina before and that was a very insider way to getting introduced to someone—but I immediately wanted to do something with her in the space, because she does it really well. She’s an awesome performer.
I guess as a last question: you were talking about figuring out how to reach out and organize a base. You’re really on the grounds with a physical space, with an actual community, and now you’ve got a history—a context that is specific to this neighborhood… Taking these factors into consideration—what are the issues or questions you’d want to address with your community?
I think it’s very much tied up to what the City Council meeting will be about. I think we might be at a big inflection point, with the change in Mayor and having a progressive mayor for the first time—we’ll have to see how he performs in that role—but he’s someone who isn’t outright saying that he wants to make New York a luxury brand and pursuing that.
The idea of people in government really pursuing a more stable environment for artists and artistic organizations, I feel, is a big thing for us right now. We’ve learned that you can’t just be scrappy—I mean, we’re still scrappy and underground in a lot of senses, and this is a total make-shift space. We have a lot of work to do.
But you build the future by being more involved in the government, being informed on who is making these decisions, who if you want change, you can talk to, or approach, and it’s all politics, but it’s the environment we’re in. We’re not in a bubble.
These are people that affect us and I always used to ignore that stuff and thought about my own little thing. But now, it’s not just about this theater existing, it’s about the city being a kind of place that allows places like this to exist. And I think that I selfishly want to exist—this has become a large part of my life—I love doing it—and it’s part of my career now.
I also do want New York City to have a vibrant culture and that’s not just Lincoln Center or this for-profit immersive theater experiences that are all the rage now. If people in government value the reputation of New York as the cultural center of the world, will they help that remain true or not? Do they value the idea that New York is a culturally vibrant place that produces artists?
If so, the people in charge need to recognize that it doesn’t start in the big houses, it starts in places like this, where people can experiment and fail, but also experiment and succeed and a new idea comes up. You need to invest in the places where those seeds are sown.
There’s an ecosystem and you have to support every level of it. And small institutions don’t need a lot, but they do need to know that someone’s not gonna’ come in and bulldoze them over—they need a little bit of protection, if anything. They need the city to be like: “no-no, that’s there for a reason” and the rent should be kept at a level that’s appropriate for that place, and that sort of thing.
Theater is not a business, we know this. You can’t make money doing it. It takes too much money to do it. And you can’t sell enough seats—especially if you want to keep them inexpensive. Any big theater is supported by other people with large endowments. That’s because certain people still believe in culture. It’s a part of culture. It’s always been part of civilization. People who make a lot money who help support the arts do it because they think it’s important to exist—it’s important to a healthy vibrant world, and that’s just how it’s always been.
I struggled with this idea when we started doing this, because I was uncomfortable with the fact that I needed other people’s money to do this. I was going to be that person that’s always asking for other people’s money. But then, I thought about it and asked myself: can I live with that? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I could, because that’s how theaters exist and I believe in their importance. But more and more in this country, I feel like that’s becoming forgotten.
On that note, thank you Noel, I appreciate your time.
Yeah, it was good to meet you.
Noel Joseph Allain is a New York based actor, educator, and theater producer. He is the Artistic Director of The Bushwick Starr of which he is also a founder. In addition to the Starr, he has served as founder and producer for two other theater companies: Fovea Floods Theater (NYC) and Shakespeare East (Boston, MA). Noel is a graduate of Skidmore College and the Juilliard School, and has since performed in various theater, television, and film productions in New York, regionally, and abroad. As Artistic Director of the Starr, he has presented over 50 companies in the last 5 years and served hundreds of artists. His curatorial track record is noteworthy, resulting in critically-acclaimed productions by emerging and established performance companies alike such as The Debate Society, Half Straddle, and Witness Relocation. Noel created the Starr’s educational outreach program, Big Green Theater, with Executive Director, Sue Kessler, which works with Bushwick’s PS123 students every year to teach playwriting and environmental awareness.