Dixon Place rides (and reads, and performs) again

Clip lights, kitchen chairs gone; ‘laboratory theater’ mission remains

Dixon Place has been a downtown fixture ever since 1986 — when founder and artistic director Ellie Covan began inviting strangers into her Alphabet City apartment to watch performances and poetry readings. In the 23 years since then, the organization has gone through four different locations and presented hundreds of performers — including Ethyl Eichelberger, Reno, John Leguizamo, Frank Maya, Holly Hughes, and even your own humble correspondent.

On December 2, they officially cut the ribbon on their new $5.7 million Chrystie Street space (although they’ve been presenting shows in the new space since late spring).

This is quite a gear shift from the old modus operandi — which involved rows of old kitchen and office chairs crammed into a loft space, and access to Covan’s personal refrigerator. But according to development director Catherine Porter (also known as one of the leading lights of the Peculiar Works Project), necessity is the mother of expansion.

“In 1999, we found out that our days on the Bowery were numbered, so Ellie and our board started looking around for a new space,” Porter recalls, “But real estate being what it always is in NY, we couldn’t really find anything affordable. We were paying practically nothing on the Bowery in those days. Ellie got a Ross Wetzsteon Award at the OBIES that year and, in her acceptance speech, announced that we might be closing. Doug Aibel [artistic director of the Vineyard theatre] heard that and offered us a one-year residency at the old Vineyard on 26th Street, which gave us a reprieve. That one year stretched longer, but [then] we found out that THAT space was going market rate, so we were going to be homeless again. So, now Ellie and the Board really started looking; but, again, any rental spaces were just out of control, cost-wise. The decision was made to try and buy, and heck, while we’re at it, let’s fulfill Ellie’s dream of a sort of Jacob’s Pillow in Manhattan — a place where artists could develop and dream in a great atmosphere, with the equipment and amenities they need and deserve.”

That was over seven years ago. The years since have been an Odyssey of fundraising, construction set-backs, re-designs, and even some self-imposed hurdles.

“Ellie was adamant about not wanting to incur major debt or debt service, even though everyone told us to take out bridge loans to get things built faster,” says Porter. According to Porter, Covan eventually gave in late in the game, but some of that debt has already been paid off. Porter cites City Council member Alan Gerson and his staff as being instrumental to leveraging city capital funds. The rest of the $5.7 budget came from a cocktail of grants from New York State Council on the arts, private foundations and individuals, and the building’s developer, Charles Blaichman, who donated half the space. The staff also passed a construction worker’s hard hat around before every performance, collecting almost $50,000 in change and dollar bills.

The story becomes all the more remarkable when you consider the multitude of other downtown venues, with a similar mission, that weren’t able to weather the same real estate storm: Todo Con Nada, Surf Reality, the Present Company Theatorium, and more recently Collective Unconscious and the Ohio Theatre.

In light of this, says Porter, “We’ve really had people rooting for us; and when they walk through doors on Chrystie Street, people are just blown away.”

The new space is indeed a far cry from the old, clip-light illuminated raw space we remember from back in the day. It features a state of the art 120-seat main stage theater, a 35-seat performance lounge, a rehearsal room, administrative offices, and a fully licensed bar (which will be open to the public even on nights when there aren’t performances).

The lounge space is reminiscent of earlier Dixon Place incarnations, whereas the much larger mainstage theatre allows artists to present shows on a much larger scale, and with a variety of technical tools at their disposal. And because the new location is far less residential than previous ones, the options for presenting live music are greater.

Dixon Place’s Director of Programming Leslie Strongwater says that at their old Bowery location, “…some of our dance artists may have experienced certain vertical limitations. Our clip lights were always getting high kicks. We’ve since presented larger groups like Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, as well as the Bindlestiff Family Circus because we’ve got a bigger dressing room (for the choir) and fly space for aerial artists.”

Recent hits at the space (which hasn’t even officially opened yet) have included performances and productions by Penny Arcade, Martha Wainwright, Jeffrey & Cole, Dan Fishback, Sibyl Kempson, and Regina Nejman, as well as this past summer’s HOT! Festival (their annual LGBT festival, held every July and August).

Upcoming events include a benefit performance with Lily Tomlin (November 23), a new show by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver called “Lost Lounge,” new dance pieces by Niles Ford & Regina Nejman, new works by Sarah East Johnson and Holly Hughes, and the premier of a new story by James Braly called “Asylum”.

Regular performance series at the space include three literary programs (Experiments & Disorders, Belladonna, and QT), five dance programs (Body Blend, Brink, Under Exposed, Crossing Boundaries, and Moving Men), a cartoon series (Carousel, curated for the past 15 years by R. Sikoryak), a puppetry series (Puppet Blok), a play-reading series (Page to Stage), an artist in residency program (AIR), and a commissioning program (Mondo Cane, in which they select 7-8 artists a year for a co-production).

“It’s such a beautiful space,” says Porter, “just as we’ve dreamed of for six-plus years — and it’s a testament to Ellie Covan’s vision that we’ve gotten here.”

Covan herself is currently on a badly-needed sabbatical, scheduled to return “later this year.” Operating the helm in the meantime is Acting Executive Director Emily Morgan, a longtime board member and friend to the theater. In the meantime, the staff continues to carry on the mission of Dixon Place, which according to Strongwater, remains the same as when Covan founded it.

“This is something we feel very passionately about. In 24 years, our mission has never wavered. We are a laboratory theater devoted to supporting works in progress at all stages of development. It’s our identity and we’re sticking with it!”


Official Opening Date: December 2, 2009

Benefit performance with Lily Tomlin: Nov. 23

At 161A Chrystie St. (btw. Rivington & Delancey)

Call 212-219-0736 or visit www.dixonplace.org