Flea theater, experimenting again, walks a new tightrope

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the Flea Theater has positioned itself as a haven for experimentation, an unassuming hotbed for ri...


Since its inception in the mid-1990s, the Flea Theater has positioned itself as a haven for experimentation, an unassuming hotbed for risk-taking and for young actors eager to get started.

But for years, discontent simmered beneath the surface.

The actors were frustrated that the theater required a lot of work without pay; Black performers felt mistreated even when working on shows intended to center black experiences; artists felt exploited, intimidated, voiceless.

In 2020, bad feelings boiled over when an actress who had performed at the Flea, Bryn Carter, issued a letter detailing her experiences, highlighting what she described as elitist, racist and heartbreaking encounters and attitudes.

When the organization’s balance sheet collided with the pandemic shutdown, the chip’s survival became uncertain.

But now, the nonprofit Off Off Broadway theater is fighting to come back — this time with a new hybrid structure built to give complete artistic autonomy to a group of writers, directors and actors who have spoken out against the old Flea. This group, now known as Fui Collective, receives funding from Flea to stage its own program in the theater’s TriBeCa space. In addition, the Flea will produce its own shows, but now all actors will be paid and the focus will be on the work of “black, brown and queer artists”.

The first Flea-produced show at the theater in two years, “Arden – But, Not Without You,” hit the stage last month and has just extended its run.

But major challenges, mainly financial, remain. When the organization’s longtime production manager, Carol Ostrow – the target of most criticism – retired following calls for her ousting, around half of Flea’s board members l followed to the door. The departures resulted in a loss of trustee and fundraising donations that depleted the organization’s $1.5 million budget by about a third, said Niegel Smith, the organization’s artistic director.

Dolores Avery Pereira, a leader of the Fled collective, which is trying to build a new future within the reconfigured Flea, said she was not discouraged.

“I believe the money will come,” she said. “I choose my artistic freedom every time.”

When the Flea was born in 1996, the founders, which included theater couple Jim Simpson and Sigourney Weaver, saw it as a passionate, forward-thinking alternative to the commercial imperatives of Broadway.

From its earliest days, the Flea was seen by aspiring actors as a place where they could practice their talents without having to present a lengthy resume or fancy diploma at the door.

“If you didn’t go to Juilliard or Yale or Brown, this was a place you could start,” said Adam Coy, a Fled frontman who joined the Bats, Flea’s resident acting company, in 2017.

The newest iteration of The Chip pushes the parameters of this type of experience a step further in its effort to dismantle the traditional hierarchies – think autocratic impresarios – that have long ruled theatrical spaces. In its push to democratize the production of works, the chip echoes the kinds of demands heard in theater communities across the country over the past two years as pandemic threats to the industry and urgent calls to racial equity have stimulated the collective organization of artists.

But to succeed under new financial constraints, Flea executives have had to take into account that its output may not match what it has been in the past, especially now that all actors will be paid. (In March 2020, for example, the Flea had 13 employees; it currently has two.)

“We’re doing a lot less now, and we’ll probably be doing a lot less for a long time,” said Smith, who is one of the few black artistic directors at New York theaters. “But at least what we do is driven by our mission.”

The issue of actor compensation has been hovering around the chip for years. Some recall receiving no payment except for a single $25 or $75 stipend after spending weeks in rehearsals, in addition to having to spend several hours a month doing unpaid work. paid in theatre.

The problem became particularly frustrating for actors when the chip opened a new three-screen performing arts complex at TriBeCa which cost around $25 million in 2017. As the Flea transitioned to the new building, the phrase “pay the bats” appeared written on the walls of its old theater, Jack Horton said Gilbert, who had been a member of the Bats for about five years. Beyond the issue of survival in New York, the lack of pay has drawn attention, critics say, to the demographics of those who could afford to work for free.

“By not paying actors, the diversity of the business suffers because people who can actually be there and invest are privileged,” Carter, who had been in the Bats cast, wrote in her June 2020 letter. “Many actors of color did not feel welcome or safe in your doors.”

Much of Carter’s criticism was directed at Ostrow, who she said abused her, was generally condescending to black creatives, and “didn’t know how to talk to black people.” Once, she said, Ostrow had touched her hair without permission. Another time, she said, Ostrow had confused a black lead actor with his understudy.

The flea bosses apologized. Ostrow wrote Carter in June 2020 say she was “responsible for the behavior you describe” and that she was “deeply sorry”.

Later that month, a group of performers with the Flea posted a letter on social media condemning the theater for, among other things, creating a culture of “intimidation and fear”. The letter cited a case in which black artists who challenged a season of “trauma-focused” works on race were told, critics said, they could be replaced; he also repeated concerns about expecting actors to work for free.

“We have seen these same artists paid to organize your events and galas, rather than for their creative work,” the letter states.

In response, Flea management said it pay all artists for their work and said theater had to “come with the intersection of racism, sexism and wage inequality”.

Later that year, the artist collective made demands of Flea’s board of directors, which included involving artists of color in planning the season, ensuring there was board representation from their ranks and getting rid of Ostrow.

In November 2020, Ostrow, who had worked without pay for years, announced his retirement. Shortly thereafter, five board members resigned, Smith said, resulting in a loss of about $475,000 in annual contributions. (Ostrow and her husband, board member Michael Graff, had been the main contributors: the couple were listed as having donated more than $500,000 to the new chip building.)

Neither Ostrow nor her husband responded to requests for comment.

Relations only deteriorated further when the board, in what it described as a cost-saving measure, decided to disband its artist-in-residence programsincluding bats, infuriating the collective of artists who had worked for months trying to shape an organization they would be willing to return to.

In a statement released to social networks, the group of artists, now operating as Fled, made a bold plea for the Flea to “hand over the keys”. In one statement to New York Magazine a few days later, Simpson and Weaver threw their support behind the idea.

Later, Smith shocked Pereira when he told him that he and the board would be willing to explore transferring ownership of TriBeCa to Fled.

The deal that was actually reached was more modest, but still extraordinary. The Flea, which continues to be a non-profit organization, will still own the building. But the Fled, made up of a hundred artists, will operate there under a three-year residency, the costs of which will be borne in part by the Chip. The theater will also provide production and marketing support.

Separately, the chip produces its own content, like “Ardennes”, which was funded by a collection of grants. “Arden” includes a sculpture and video by the visual artist Carrie Mae Weemsmusic by the artist with multiple hyphens Diana Ohas well as an improvisation song by the choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili and designer and director Peter Born.

Smith’s own segment of the show addresses the recent flea turmoil head-on, something he felt needed to be done in the first job under flea’s new tenure.

Wearing a white dress and shirtless, Smith walks around the stage of the small black box theater in a ritualistic trance, muttering – and eventually shouting – the phrase “this place is loaded”.

“This place has held oppressive structures fueled by coercion and ambition,” he says on the show.

Some artists still say they are skeptical that an organization with the same artistic director can really start from scratch. Others are simply not interested in performing, or even sitting in the audience, at Flea after their personal experiences there.

“I just stopped wanting to get involved in this space in any way,” Carter said, noting that she nonetheless supports the work of Fled.

The leaders of Fled, which plans to host its first improvement workshop at Flea in May for a Liz Morgan play, unsure if it will go beyond the three-year contract. The current goal is to hold the Flea to the promises it made and create a model for an effective artist-led theater collective, said Raz Golden, one of the leaders of the Flea.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Pereira said. “But it’s a relief to be in the art-making part.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.



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