Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Tragedy of the Village Voice

The Village Voice introduced me to New York theater.

In 1990, when I was a college student, I saw the first show in New York that was somewhere other than Broadway. It was well beyond Broadway—in the Lower East Side, in a tiny venue called House of Candles, produced by the Independent Theater Company, one of the originals in what many of us now call indie theater. I went because I had read a short blurb in the Voice, and they were producing one of my favorite shows, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

The cab driver that picked me up at Penn Station refused to drive me all the way to the theater. “Why do you want to go into that neighborhood?” he asked. “I’m seeing a French absurdist play,” I told him. “Drugs,” he concluded. He let me out at the corner of Houston and 1st Avenue.

When I came to New York, the Voice was the one publication I was sure to read to know what was going on in downtown theater (and the downtown art scene in general) It was more important to me than the Times. I didn’t always agree with Michael Feingold, but I always respected and enjoyed his reviews and the fact that he valued deep critical analysis. But the Voice was not just Feingold, it was a host of reviewers engaged with downtown theater: Charles McNulty, Alissa Solomon, Alexis Soloski, Jorge Morales, and the many freelance reviewers (like my friend Trav SD) who covered the independent theater scene.  I am grateful to them all.

And of course there was the OBIES, the awards ceremony seemingly made to celebrate that scene. Thank goodness, I thought, we have an advocate. The OBIES championed the lesser known but valuable artists such as Richard Foreman, Vaclav Havel, Ellen Stewart, and all who struggled to create art without a giant budget. Foreman told me that the only reason he survived as an artist is because of one Voice reviewer who continued to believe in his work. This is for us, I believed.

The Voice was the first paper to review my work, back when I directed a show at Nada, just around the corner from House of Candles. The Lower East Side was slightly more respectable, by then—cab drivers would drive in, though the nightclubs and hipsters hadn’t yet arrived. It devoted a full page lead article to my first downtown festival, the Ionesco Festival, at a time when few other publications bothered to cover it.

In fact, thanks to Joe Holladay, the Voice sponsored the festival, as it did my next two festivals as well, providing advertising at a very discounted price because they believed in the importance of the work.

A few years ago, suddenly people started getting fired. It started with editors. Then freelancers. Then some prominent names, such as Hoberman in film. Dance was cut out altogether. The Voice stopped reviewing my shows. It stopped reviewing almost any small budget show. The one remaining working reviewer was Michael Feingold, and one man with one column can only review so much. He covered the major productions, but downtown was forgotten.

But I knew the rot had crept in earlier. Because, frankly, the Voice had lost its way. It had lost its identity. Even in the OBIES, which I attended at first enthusiastically, I realized that the ceremony had been transforming to one of glamour and big budget self-congratulation. Occasionally a true downtown artist would slip in, and the recognition would be well deserved and deeply needed. Metropolitan Theater, Peculiar, The Ice Factory. But rare was the show financed under $250,000, and the majority of the work came from theater institutions with multimillion dollar budgets: Manhattan Theater Club, The Public, Roundabout, Classic Stage Company, New York Theater Workshop. Soho Rep seemed small and scrappy by comparison. Movie stars gave out the rewards and often movie stars received them. It has become not so much a celebration of Off-Broadway as it was of Little Broadway.

I have been thinking for a while about talking about what’s wrong with the Voice, why it has lost its way, and what it can do about it. How it can regain its spirit. Its name. It is called The Village Voice. The voice of Greenwich Village, from the time when the village was the home to bohemian artists. What is it the paper now? What has it become?  Who do they expect the readers to be, when it has lost its identity?

I write now even though I suspect it is too late to have a rallying call. The Times reports two chief editors have quit rather than fire the five (of twenty) staff members demanded. On Michael Feingold’s page appeared a status report: “It looks like I may need a job.”

Am I writing an obituary for a once great paper? Perhaps. The OBIES are on May 20. I wasn’t planning to go, I had given up on the spectacle, and I’ll be busy in tech But maybe there’s one last chance for the voice of the village to be heard. Fellow theater artists, if you do go to the OBIES, if by some reason you know an uptown star that will be handed a piece of paper giving him or her downtown cred, it’s time to speak. It may be past time.

New York has too few reporters left that care about the smaller theaters. Recently, I wrote about the demise of Backstage. That was sad. This is a full on tragedy.


Ludlow Lad said...

This was a great piece. And very sad. I too had an early House of Candles experience, and saw a great production of John Guare's A DAY FOR SURPRISES at The Piano Store around the corner. And the Village Voice was a cornerstone of the theater scene in those days. The internet has changed everything, fractured it really. The old models were broken to pieces, tiny little pieces but there is a huge vacuum in the center that has yet to be filled.

I think The Voice we remember is never coming back. I think it is up to a new generation to fill the void.

brian said...

Don't forget about the amazing coverage that Cynthia Carr published in the Voice in 80's and 90's. Her articles on performance art and queer theater are some of the only published reviews/features of fantastic, long-forgotten yet entirely revolutionary theatrical events from the likes of WOW Cafe, Bloolips, Ethyl Eichelberger, Dar A Luz, and more. Such a different time...