Avant Midtown


That old boho energy now quivers unexpectedly along 42nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, just a swift kick away from Disney and the other neon nabobs. The location of this art effusion is one of post-gentrification’s little ironies. Forget the cheap neighborhoods; there aren’t any left. (Not Williamsburg, not DUMBO, etc.) So set the controls for the heart of the beast. Downtown just found a midtown sublet.

Four storefronts on the block between Sixth and Seventh have become unique theaters under the auspices of Chashama, an organization founded in 1995 by principal players in Reza Abdoh’s experimental theater company, Dar a Luz. Chashama’s declared intention is to bring experimental art to commercial areas and unsuspecting audiences. That it’s done. But perhaps the most invaluable gift Chashama has to offer in an age without wiggle room is space. In addition to the four theaters on 42nd Street, Chashama has parceled out studios for artists in a 57th Street building—40,000 square feet, and it’s all free.

This month Chashama moves to an unprecedented level of activity with their Oasis Festival, offering free film, dance, and theater events every day through the beginning of June. They’d planned it as a kind of swan song to 42nd Street, thinking they had to move out in June. Now construction on the new office building has been delayed, and they have till the end of the year.

So the scene is temporary—but then, from Montmartre to the East Village, weren’t they all? The property belongs to the Durst Organization, the developers who erected the Condé Nast building and own other chunks of midtown, and they have big plans for the space. But for now they’ve turned it over to Anita Durst, a founding member of Dar a Luz and Chashama’s artistic director.

Durst says Chashama began out of a feeling that Dar a Luz had to somehow keep Abdoh’s energy going after he died of AIDS in 1995. “That’s what it’s about for me,” she says. “Creating the kind of energy that Reza gave me. Because he took me out of a box. He opened me up to things I never would have imagined. So that’s what I’m trying to do with Chashama. Give that healing, that creativity, that space.” Chashama means “spring outlet” or “of my eye” (depending on pronunciation) in Farsi, Abdoh’s native language.

Indeed, Chashama offers a playful do-anything ambience long missing Downtown. The storefront housing the Oasis Festival is the only one with a regular proscenium stage. The other three have interiors designed by the people performing in them, right down to one fur-lined bathroom.

In a former haberdashery slightly wider (perhaps) than a jumbo jet, the National Theater of the United States of America built itself a long skinny stage to accommodate its current madcap effort, Placebo Sunrise, set in the corridor of a surreal cruise ship. NTUSA’s antic sensibility extends to the little bandbox built for spectators. From the “Imperial Box” ($25) to the “Makeout Balcony” ($7), 40 people pack the house.

The Thing opened last week a couple of doors west. Performance artist Julie Atlas Muz installed a six-inch pond as her stage, lugged in 34 tree stumps for the audience to sit on, and carpeted this little forest glade with $600 worth of pennies. Spectators sit mere inches from the water, wearing ponchos.

Meanwhile, Durst is directing The World of the P Cult, with a cast drawn from nightclubs (go-go dancers) and the Living Theater. Durst asked metalsmith Veronica Evanega to design the set—and to make whatever she wanted. The result is a metal catwalk about seven feet high hugging the walls of a former deli, with a small Plexiglas stage and what appears to be a slice of roller-coaster track. Spectators will stand.

Durst had an unconventional introduction to the arts. Dropping out of school in the 10th grade, severely dyslexic, she was enrolled in a program she describes as “10-minute classes, not very educational. Then you worked the rest of the day.” But when someone came in to do theater with them, she was hooked. She moved from Westchester into Manhattan to study acting and lived with her grandfather, the realtor Seymour Durst, in the middle of his amazing Old York Library collection of 13,000 books, 20,000 postcards, and piles of ephemera related to New York City history. He even had books in the refrigerator.

“Along with the food?”

“Instead of the food.”

(Seymour Durst also put up the National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue, blinking its horrible numbers for years, bumming everyone out. An art project, really.)

Anita Durst became an assistant to Annie Hamburger of En Garde Arts, which put theater productions into nontraditional settings during the ’90s. A pier. A warehouse. Even once—for Mac Wellman’s Crowbar—in an actual 42nd Street theater, though the audience sat on the stage. That was in 1990, when Douglas Durst, Anita’s father, owned the theater.

“Then I met Reza,” says Anita. “I got him all the spaces he had in New York. Even when they weren’t from my family. I had, you know, the connections.” Indeed, Douglas Durst, who sits on the board of a couple Off-Broadway theater companies, was not hard to persuade. “He gave me 57th Street,” says Anita. “I didn’t ask him.”

Up at the 57th Street site, Durst shows me through a couple of cavernous floors that used to house Artkraft Straus, a company that made signs for Broadway shows. Much of the space is open, and artists have marked off their turf with plastic, dropcloths, and curtains. A few even built walls with locking doors. Durst can’t remember the exact number now using the space, probably 50 or 60. That doesn’t include the occasional desperate dancer who comes to rehearse despite the bad floors.

Durst has a dream of turning Chashama into a kind of Real Estate for the Arts program modeled on Materials for the Arts and Lawyers for the Arts. The idea is that developers would donate temporarily empty space, maybe in exchange for a tax deduction, and Chashama would turn it over to artists. “I’m going to try to do it without my family’s assistance,” says Durst, who’s been supporting Chashama in part with family money. “If this is going to happen, I want it to happen on its own. Or with other people’s support.”

“Like 1 Times Square,” she says, as we get out of a cab across the street from it, center of the universe when the New Year’s Eve ball drops, currently empty and forlorn. “That’s such a vital spot for New York. Even if we just put some window performances in there . . . ”

I haven’t even touched on the window installations or the outreach program for youth at risk. Chashama has to be the most ambitious new arts group to come along in a decade, a blast of fresh air against the fetid ’90s. But last week, a piece of the roof collapsed at the 57th Street site, and Anita Durst was hoping to bunk the second-floor artists in with the first floor. It’s a precarious business. I mean art, not real estate.

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