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Friday, August 5, 2011

The New York Times writes about Woodshed


The New York Times' Woodshed article...


No Space Too Dilapidated for a Show

Guy Calaf for The New York Times
Top, Evan Enderle and Teddy Bergman rehearsing “The Tenant.” More Photos »
FOR about three years the West-Park Presbyterian Church, at the corner of 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, sat abandoned as architects, congregants and preservationists squabbled over a plan to build condominiums above the rosy, Romanesque Revival structure. When landmark designation last year quashed development plans, worshipers returned to a building much in need of repairs. In the parish house that abuts the chapel, paint peels, damp patches spread, and musty odors rise from the basement.
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Guy Calaf for The New York Times
From left, Teddy Bergman, Stephen Squibb, Emily Fishbaine, Jocelyn Kuritsky and Carl Faber of the Woodshed Collective. More Photos »
Yet for the Woodshed Collective — an ambitious New York theater company with a commitment to low-budget, site-specific productions (past locations have included an empty swimming pool and a ship) — West-Park’s dilapidated state has been the answer to a prayer. Walking through a meeting room in the church, Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, one of the collective’s three artistic directors, ran his hand along a rip in the wall that revealed layers of faded paint. “Recreating this would be so expensive and difficult,” he said. “Actually it would be impossible.”
On Wednesday the company will begin previews of “The Tenant,” a theatrical installation that uses West-Park as the setting. It is based on a 1964 novella by Roland Topor, later adapted by Roman Polanski into a 1976 movie that flopped. Teddy Bergman, another of the collective’s artistic directors, described the source material as “French, alienated, midcentury, Left Bank moodiness.”
The story involves a Polish man, Trelkovsky, who takes over a Paris apartment — “two gloomy rooms, with no kitchen” — that had been occupied by a woman who committed suicide. As the grim building and irascible neighbors press in on him, Trelkovsky experiences a crisis of identity: He begins to dress as the dead woman and then replicates her fatal plunge.
Woodshed will use all five floors of the parish house as well as the church chapel to recreate and expand on the events in the novella. The collective has gathered six playwrights — including emerging writers like Bekah Brunstetter and Tommy Smith — to draft a script for the inhabitants of each of the fictional building’s apartments. Duncan Sheik, who won two Tony Awards for his work on the musical “Spring Awakening,” is providing the music for the production, which opens on Aug. 24 and runs through Sept. 17.
With so much sinister action and so many stairs, the show is not for the faint of heart or weak of quadriceps. Audiences can follow one set of characters throughout an evening, or hopscotch from floor to floor, somewhat in the manner of the current Punchdrunk hit “Sleep No More.” But unlike Punchdrunk, whose top ticket price can run to $95 or more, Woodshed presents its annual project free. Though, just as at a church service, a collection plate is passed after each performance.
The opportunity to perform at the church arose when the Rev. Dr. Robert L. Brashear, West-Park’s pastor, donated use of the space to the collective. It was part of a commitment to reinvent the church as a community center “for social and spiritual renewal,” Mr. Brashear said.
Woodshed originated when Mr. Bergman, Mr. Evansohn and the collective’s third artistic director, Stephen Squibb, met through drama classes at Vassar. Their initial idea was to form a troupe that would take an innovative approach to classic plays. After graduating in 2005 they decided to focus on site-specific performance. In 2008 they presented Caridad Svich’s “Twelve Ophelias” in a drained swimming pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in 2009 they staged an adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Confidence-Man” aboard the Lilac, a decommissioned Coast Guard vessel moored in the Hudson.
Creating site-specific theater poses challenges: securing spaces, making them safe for audiences, adapting sound and lighting equipment to fit untraditional environments. Anne Hamburger, the founder and artistic director of En-Garde Arts, the site-specific group that during the 1980s and ’90s performed in New York on piers, in parks, at an abandoned nursing home and on the streets of the meatpacking district, recalled: “It’s very complex in terms of logistics and production management. You can’t fight a site. If you try, it will win.”
Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of Performance Space 122 in the East Village, which presented “Hotel Savoy” at the Goethe-Institut last year, said of site-specific work: “The predictability is much less. It’s great in terms of the excitement you feel about the piece, but it becomes a much more unwieldy beast.”
The Woodshedders have experienced that firsthand. Poor acoustics marred “Twelve Ophelias,” and uncooperative weather rained out several performances of “The Confidence Man.” In preparing “The Tenant” the crew spent two weeks just clearing away debris. But for these young men, who discussed their hopes for the show on the church’s crumbling patio, the difficulties are mitigated by the opportunities that nontraditional spaces offer.
The structure of the West-Park parish house has determined various creative decisions, influencing both script and staging. West-Park “is a character in the show, it’s a collaborator, it gets a seat at the table,” Mr. Squibb said. “As we’ve gotten to know it, it’s had different opinions of things. We wanted to use the bell tower, but it decided we didn’t get to, because it was overrun with pigeons.”
The building’s seat at the table is one of about 90 chairs, for the cast, crew, writers and designers, all of whom work free. “The Tenant,” which has a budget of under $100,000, according to the artistic directors, is Woodshed’s most ambitious undertaking: eight separate plays that must unfurl with meticulous timing as they intersect with one another. Sheaves of spreadsheets have been printed, and technical rehearsals were estimated to last three weeks. The prospect is enough to make most theater artists head for the nearest black box and stage some comforting Chekhov one-acts.
Still, Woodshed’s Web site describes its mission, in part, as creating “a genuine sense of wonder” by providing theatrical playgrounds through which audiences can wander freely, selecting their own experiences as they move from scene to scene, something a black box cannot offer.
Mr. Squibb said he was baffled as to why more theater companies don’t pursue the site-specific route. “There are so many incredible spaces in New York,” he said, “a boat on the Hudson, a giant Robert Moses pool, a church building that’s been empty for three years. And you want me to rent a theater and build a bunch of stuff and then throw it out afterward? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 4, 2011
An earlier version of a caption in this article reversed the names of Jocelyn Kuritsky and Emily Fishbaine of the Woodshed Collective.

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