Dan Glass is a freelance writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired.com, and Vice, among other publications.
A true tale featuring secret meeting spots, cops, a knapsack full of iPhones, and a live performance that floated down New York's Gowanus Canal.
The coast was indeed dreary. The taupe-tinged drizzle dampened our long shrouds as we slid along the pathogenic passageway of Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, a designated Superfund cleanup site where barges haul scrap metal through a rusty canyon interspersed with patches of trash-choked vegetation. It was, of course, the perfect place for a play.
At least it was for Jeff Stark, creator of The Dreary Coast, an ambitious piece of DIY theater that recently utilized the waterway's bridges, brownfields, and industrial infrastructure as the set and stage for a fractured version of the Persephone myth. For the last two weeks of October, the blighted landscape became Hades, the canal the River Acheron, and audience members were the dead, ferried through the narrative on a fantastical craft steered by the demigod Charon.
The endearingly disgruntled boatman, played E. James Ford, boomed out a satirical monologue as we cruised past looming brick buildings and drooping chain-link fences, his introductory speech punctuated by the squeals of the elevated train nearby. We collected Charon’s love interest, Persephone (Ava Eisenson), at a bridge embankment, then drifted between rock outcrops and canal spurs for appearances from Hermes, Cerberus, and Hades, as well as for a rock-opera serenade by Glenn Danzig. (Yes, liberties were taken with the storyline, and the Danzig character was a ringer, but remember where we are.) At one point we tied up next to a stormwater and sewage discharge pipe. Why wouldn't Persephone stay with Charon here? "Because it's a cesspool," she said. Charon, glum and resigned: "I know."
There's been a profusion of popular theater works performed in places besides theaters in recent years—especially in New York—notably Sleep No More in its film-noir inspired "hotel," and Then She Fell, set in a defunct insane asylum. Such works are generally known as called “immersive,” “site-specific,” or “site-responsive” theater. While these productions are held in controlled and sanctioned spaces, Stark's works take place in locations like abandoned power plants and disused subway stations, with no permission or permits, and are subject to a rude lack of cooperation from the real world. In the NYU art class he teaches, Stark refers to them as “siteworks.” After a show's run is finished (and the press embargo lifted), then he might call it "trespass theater."
"I think artists see opportunities in places that are underused, those wild spaces," said Stark as we motored down the canal around midnight after a show, picking up props and wrapping up. "And that should be exciting to a city. It should look to artists to identify spaces and conceptualize ways they can be used."
That's exciting, inconvenient, stimulating, and sometimes risky. Audiences are used to being in a space protected by walls, legal controls, and sufficient budgets. Which is part of the reason those embarking on The Dreary Coast had to hand over their cell phones at the pre-show secret meeting spot: no photography, waiver required, and no suing if you fall in and become infected with cryptosporidium as a result of art.
After a somber shrouding ceremony in a raw upstairs space, we were led by a birdcage-headed guide to a quiet dead-end street at the canal. A jazzy dirge grew louder as we approached the tiny landing, where horned trolls made bad jokes as they loaded us by lamplight into a pontoon boat that looked like part of a ride from a long-gone carnival.
Just being on the water is a perspective-shifting experience, but at night among industrial maritime infrastructure it is positively surreal. While piloting the boat post-show to its nightly hiding place Stark asked, "You see the clearance we have on this bridge coming up?" We glided under the steel grate of the road deck with cars passing a couple feet overhead. "It was like nine inches earlier because of the tide," he said, showing how people had to duck down. "People flipped out; they loved it. When you hit those marks, the audience is like, Oh my god! I get it! You're not supposed to be here."
But these marks didn't distract from the story at hand. I fully accepted my role as transient soul when Charon told us, "This is Hades, not Hell. You have not... fucked up," and that this was not the Styx but the River Acheron, the working waterway of Hades. The mashup of classical mythology and the canal's actual history coaxed my imagination into seeing the processing facilities, holding tanks, cement trucks, and weedlots around us not as anachronistic to the story, but as part of it—the "above world."
Stark said at least 80 people were involved in making the show happen—mostly volunteers, with others working three months for what they'd normally make in a day. The boat itself was designed by internationally known artist Caledonia Curry (aka Swoon); professional set decorator Sarah McMillan designed the costumes with a ragged elegance somewhere between Fantastic Mr. Fox and Game of Thrones; and many others contributed carpentry skills, audiovisual expertise, logistics, and mechanical work gratis just to be a part of the project. Funding came from a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign (with a most impressive and diverse set of rewards) and from the sale of 250 tickets for the play’s entire run, which included discounted spots for a land-based audience that followed along. Did they make any money?
"Doing this?" asked Stark. "No way. Not a chance." He's not even sure yet if the production broke even. But to him, that’s not the point. Success is being part of a group of people pulling something off—and not just for the audience.
“This is a public space," said Stark. "We're not petitioning the gods who run the gallery, or the gods who run the grant organization, or whoever else determines if we get stage time. We're not asking anyone. We're saying, 'Culture is important. This is what we do. We're going to do it. We're doing it here.'"
But where the gods may be absent, there may still be wrath: One crew member fell into the canal tying up a candle-laden boat. A few days into the run they got kicked out of their production space and took refuge in a church basement. And the complex system for transmitting live audio to the land-based audience was foiled by the signal-absorbing water—the canal basically ate the soundtrack.
Oh yes, and the police: House manager Melina Gioconda Davis was about to set up props behind an industrial building for the final scene when she was stopped for trespassing by undercover officers. "They asked what I was doing, put me in handcuffs, brought me to the car, and went through my stuff," explained Davis. "And I'm thinking, Oh my god, I have a backpack full of 18 iPhones, a check for $2,000, and two hundred dollars in cash." She said it was part of a game organized by students. The officers scolded her about safety and gave her a ticket.
Davis also completed an immersive theater project recently with friend Theo Di Castri called “Nighting_Gale,” where they arranged dates with strangers on OKCupid. With little knowledge of the project (and sometimes none at all) the dates became participants in a disturbing story involving a conjoined couple, Hans Christian Andersen's nightingale, and the “date” holding a circular saw. One participant said that it was the most intense theater experience he'd ever had.
"That element of uncertainty both ways was a part of it," said Di Castri. "They were going to a stranger's apartment, but we were also having a stranger come into our apartment, which gave it an extra charge." Added Davis, "It was so freeing—freedom from the proscenium, from the fourth wall."
So, what's wrong with a good old-fashioned theater?
"A theater is a very powerful machine," Stark acknowledged. "It's a machine for making people pay attention, and I would love to control that machine." But the problem, he says, is that much of theater has been reduced to a transactional relationship where the audience’s only role is to open their wallets, consume, and clear out. "But I think from the very beginning that theater is about sharing [a] moment together," he says. "And what shows like [The Dreary Coast] do is remind the audience of their complicity in this relationship; you are on board, literally."
The trespassing part, the "transgressive placemaking" that colleagues N.D. Austin and Ida Benedetto refer to, is just a reminder of the risks taken. And the DIY part is a reminder that this experience is available to us. "It's about participating in the city where you live," he says. "The idea isn't for the whole world to see this play, it's for everyone to make their own plays."
While researching for the play, Stark realized that almost no substantive information was to be found about the oft-mentioned Charon. If there were to be a story, he'd have to write it. That sparked an understanding.
"You see that it's all myth," he says, referring to society and how it remembers itself. “It's part of this whole tale: What stories are we making? What myths are we making? Everyone talks with their friends about the time they did that thing. That's what you do when you're a culture, retelling the old stories while also making your own. And that is myth making. That is culture making."