Theater for the New City Preps 2020 Street Theater Tour to be Outdoors or Virtual
Summer Street Theater is one of the delights of the season and has been central to Theater for the New City's mission since the organization's first such production in 1976. Unwavering in its commitment to provide New Yorkers in all five boroughs with an original, free street theater musical each year, Theater for the New City (TNC) now faces daunting uncertainties. Will its usual outdoor venues be closed due to Covid-19? And will gatherings of this sort will be allowed?
It's Phase Two of NYC's reopening as of this writing and Phase 3 is expected July 6. Parks have been open since June 22, with social distancing requested, team sports prohibited and residents advised to avoid congregating in groups. Prior to the pandemic--last fall--TNC had gone through its usual permitting process and planned productions in 14 locations between August 1 and September 13. Committed venues include parks, playgrounds and closed-off streets throughout the five boroughs, most of them having hosted the event for years. (Schedule follows below.)
The crystal ball is cloudy on whether restrictions on outdoor assemblies will be relaxed or tightened for the period of August 1 and September 13, or even radically changed in the middle of the run. So...
Would it be possible to craft an outdoor musical that could ensure social distancing in the audience and onstage? Or would it be best to just make the show virtual, building on the success of Theater for the New City's Lower East Side Festival of the Arts on Memorial Day Weekend?
The answer, at least for now, is to do both. Author/director Crystal Field, working with composer Joseph Vernon Banks, is changing the show's format from a traditional musical comedy to something more like an oratorio--a sing-along for a socially distanced audience that could be produced either outside or online.
TNC's Street Theater productions are always a bouncy joyride through the undulations of the body politic, with astute commentary couched in satire, song and slapstick. They are delightfully suited for family entertainment, since complex social issues are often presented through children's allegories, with children and neighborhood people as the heroes. This year's show is titled "Liberty or Just Us: a City Park Story." Its hero is a parks manager and its plot is his adventures during our time of Covid-19. It is a story of land-grabbing and the possible privatization of parts of our public parks. Woven in are tales of police brutality and prejudice. These will be no revelation to African-American or Latinx citizens, or to Asian-Americans who have been attacked by fellow New Yorkers due to misinformation that was given to the public. The show warns that we sit on the brink of a fascist state, a police state or a truer democracy. It calls out for a truer democracy, celebrating today's impetus to change things and the exciting news that many white New Yorkers have joined their friends and neighbors of color in fighting to make things racially equal and just, which offers great hope.
In a typical year, the production arrives on a truck and is mounted on an elevated proscenium with trap doors, giant puppets, smoke machines and a huge (9' x 12') running screen or "cranky" providing continuous moving scenery behind the actors. Music varies in style from Bossa Nova to Hip Hop to Musical Comedy to classical Cantata. Seating is laid out with milk crates and a crowd is summoned by playing recorded jazzy, peppy music before the show starts.
This year (regulations permitting), social distancing will be achieved by spreading the milk crates out for individuals and couples and marking areas where 3-4 people (families or groups of friends) can sit together. The cast of 18 will be staged far apart on three separate platforms, each with multiple stair units. Actors and crew will don gloves and masks as necessary. Disposable song sheets will be passed out to the audience for sing-alongs and attendees may even be asked to provide harmonies. Instead of the "cranky," there will be a painted banner behind the center platform.
To accommodate the need for simplicity, author/director Crystal Field and composer Joseph Vernon Banks have adopted the form of a straightforward oratorio to make a sort of a concert version of their traditional musical comedy. The restrictions of technology are taken into account and the music is accordingly simple. Since live Zoom requires presenters to take stage sequentially, there's no way for the ensemble to sing together, so songs are divided up verse-by-verse. There are lots of shoutouts. Classic folk songs are also used, notably "This Train is Bound for Glory" by Woodie Guthrie. When the audience is to sing along, words will be projected on the screen. Accompaniment will be by a solo keyboardist (replacing the usual five-piece band), supplemented by live guitar played by two actors.
If virtual performances are necessary, they will occur live on the schedule of the 14 venues (see schedule below), but the cast will perform by Zoom from their individual residences. Virtual backgrounds will replace the painted banners of the outdoor version. The script will include specific references to each location. The live stream will be available on the Theater for the New City website (www.theaterforthenewcity.net) and on the theater's Facebook page. Each park that has its own website will also broadcast the performance from its site.
One venue recurs: the tour is scheduled to begin August 1 at First Avenue and East Tenth Street and to return there September 5. The hope is that the show can go on outside Theater for the New City at least once.
Meanwhile, preparations are proceeding apace. Each year, the performing company immerses itself in the issues of the play by engaging in workshops with experts and practitioners. As of this writing, they have met with two parks managers, a public school teacher, a protest organizer, and African-American policeman and a professional clown. Veteran company members have also led a dance/song workshop. What's unusual is that this year, instead of in-person at TNC, the meetings have been by Zoom. That has gone along with upgrading of some actors' equipment to ensure uniform audio and video quality for all participants. Ring lights and webcams have been procured for those in need.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Author/director Crystal Field began writing street theater in 1968 as a member of Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. She wrote and performed her own outdoor theater pieces against the Vietnam War and also curated and performed many poetry programs for the Philadelphia Public Schools. There she found tremendous enthusiasm and comprehension on the part of poor and minority students for both modern and classical poetry when presented in a context of relevancy to current issues. She realized that for poetry to find its true audience, the bonds of authoritarian criticism must and can be transcended. Her earliest New York street productions were playlets written in Philadelphia and performed on the flatbed truck of Bread and Puppet Theater in Central Park. Peter Schumann, director of that troupe, was her first NY artistic supporter.
In 1971, Ms. Field became a protégé of Robert Nichols, founder of the Judson Poets Theater in Manhattan, and of Peter Schuman, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater. It is an interesting historic note that "The Expressway" by Robert Nichols, directed by Crystal Field (a Street theater satire about Robert Moses' plan for a throughway to run across Little Italy from the West Side Highway to the FDR Drive) was actually the first production of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. Nichols wrote street theater plays for TNC in its early years, but as time went on, wrote scenarios and only the first lines of songs, leaving Field to "fill in the blanks." When Nichols announced his retirement to Vermont in 1975, he urged Field to "write your own." The undertaking, while stressful at first, became the impetus for her to express her own topical political philosophy and to immerse her plays in that special brand of humor referred to often as "that brainy slapstick." Her first complete work was "Mama Liberty's Bicentennial Party" (1976), in honor of the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution.
Field has an associate's degree in Dance from Juilliard and a BA in Philosophy form Hunter College.
TNC Street Theater's leading actor is and has been Michael David Gordon, a teacher and performer with Irondale Theatre Company who is also bandleader of a performance group which performs classic rock in the subways.
Field has written and directed a completely new opera for the TNC Street Theater company each successive year. She collaborated for eleven years with composer Mark Hardwick, whose "Pump Boys and Dinettes" and "Oil City Symphony" were inspired by his street theater work with Ms. Field. At the time of his death from AIDS in 1994, he was writing a clown musical with Field called "On the Road," which was never finished. One long-running actor in TNC street theater was Tim Robbins, who was a member of the company for six years in the 1980s, from age twelve to 18.
The Village Halloween Parade, which TNC produced single-handedly for the Parade's first two years, grew out of the procession which preceded each Street Theater production. Ralph Lee, who created the Parade with Ms. Field, was chief designer for TNC's Street Theater for four years before the Village Halloween Parade began.
Field has also written for TNC's annual Halloween Ball and for an annual Yuletime pageant that was performed outdoors for 2,000 children on the Saturday before Christmas. She has written two full-length indoor plays, "Upstate" and "One Director Against His Cast." She is Executive Director of TNC.
Composer Joseph-Vernon Banks has written original music for the TNC street theater productions "No Brainer or the Solution to Parasites," "SHAME! Or The Doomsday Machine," "Checks and Balances, or Bottoms Up!," "Teach it Right, or Right to Teach," "EMERGENCY!!! or The World Takes A Selfie," "99% "Reduced Fat, or, You Can Bank On Us," "Bamboozled, or the Real Reality Show," "Tap Dance," "State Of The Union," "The Patients Are Running The Asylum," "Bio-Tech," "Code Orange: on the M15," "Social Insecurity," "Buckle My Shoe" and "Gone Fission: Alternative Power" all with book and lyrics by Crystal Field. His other TNC productions include music and lyrics for "Life's Too Short To Cry" by Michael Vazquez. His awards include a Meet The Composer Grant, the ASCAP Special Awards Program, and a fellowship from the Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU. His musical "Girlfriends!" premiered at The Goodspeed Opera House. He has been a composer-in-residence in The Tribeca Performing Arts Center Work and Show Series and is a member of The Dramatists Guild.
SCHEDULE (as of June 25)
Saturday August 1 -- 2:00 PM --10th Street and 1st Ave. (MANHATTAN)
Sunday August 2 -- 2:00 PM -- Sliding Rock (St. Mary's Park) (BRONX)
Saturday August 8 -- 2:00 PM --Abe Lebewohl Park, 2nd Ave. @ E. 10th St. (MANHATTAN)
Sunday August 9 -- 2:00 PM -- Central Park Bandshell (MANHATTAN)
Friday August 14 -- 6:00 PM -- Coney Island (BROOKLYN)
Saturday August 15 -- 2:00 PM --Fort Greene Park (BROOKLYN)
Sunday August 16 -- 2:00 PM -- Jackie Robinson Park (BROOKLYN)
Saturday August 22 -- 2:00 PM --Sunset Park (QUEENS)
Sunday August 23 -- 2:00 PM -- Travers Park (QUEENS)
Saturday August 29 -- 2:00 PM -- Washington Square Park (MANHATTAN)
Sunday August 30 -- 2:00 PM -- Wise Towers, 117 W. 90 St. (MANHATTAN)
Saturday September 5 -- 2:00 PM -- 10th Street and 1st Ave. (MANHATTAN)
Saturday September 12 -- Tappen Park (STATEN ISLAND)
Sunday September 13 -- Tompkins Square Park (MANHATTAN)