I Don’t Care What You Say, I Say Hello

Brighton Beach boardwalk at dawn, April 4, 2010.

Brighton Beach boardwalk at dawn, April 4, 2010.

Just before dawn on April 4, 2010, I landed at JFK. Bedraggled and bleary-eyed, I tossed in the back of a cab the two suitcases that contained all my worldly possessions not consigned to a storage unit, and then did my best to guide the cabbie to my new home with my iPhone. A rented room in a townhouse owned by a friend-of-a-friend, it was pinched between Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. A few wrong turns later we arrived on a narrow side street; I plucked the keys from the mailbox, dumped my possessions in the room on top of the tiny, sheetless bed and, with nothing else to do, Googled the nearest Starbucks half a mile away on Brighton Beach Avenue, underneath the elevated Q train tracks that lead to Coney Island. It was barely past dawn by the time I left the cafe, uncomfortable and out of place among the Russian cabbies decompressing at the end of their shift, so I walked up to the boardwalk, sat down, and looked at the ocean. It was still bloody early, and everyone I knew was on the west coast, three hours earlier still, so I had no one to text or call. I just sat, smoked a cigarette, and snapped the above photo of dawn breaking over far south Brooklyn.

It was nominally a surprise job offer that brought me to New York, and indeed, it was the job that made it comfortably possible in a way most people don’t enjoy. But the reason I was willing to pull up stakes at 30, and leave behind friends and books and pets to move across the country to a place where I didn’t really know anyone, was art.

I’d been writing about the arts for eight years at that point, since I moved to Seattle in 2003 after studying theater and comparative literature. I had burned out on theater before I left the university, and I was surprised to find myself working as a technical director and master carpenter within three months of moving to Seattle. My career as a theater technician lasted about two years, until nasty politics and bad, bad art caused me to walk away. By that point I’d graduated from writing for the free monthly alternative rags that collect dust inside the front windows of bars and pizza shops to being…a blogger. For Seattlest.com, Gothamist’s Seattle outpost. And in the mid-Aughts, I indulged in all the bad tendencies bloggers were guilty of back then, which is to say, mainly writing snarky crap for the purpose of drawing attention to myself. I was ready to quit by 2008, having realized how terrible and pointless the whole thing was, when I was offered the chance–by way of an editorial shuffle–to become the performing arts editor. I’d always been hesitant to write about theater, since I imagined that I might one day work in the theater again. But it’d been a good couple of years at that point since I’d last taken a job, so I jumped in.

It took all of a year and a half to burn out on theater again. After months of seeing two or three plays a week, I began to notice I was seeing the same thing over and over again. Hackneyed actorly attempts at psychological realism, the production of “Geometric characters.” Plays that read like op-eds arguing their “big point.” Glib attempts to make classics (mainly Shakespeare) play as relevant by imposing an aesthetic scheme on them that made them read like op-eds…arguing their “big point.” And then there were the flogging-a-dead-horse revivals of museum pieces like You Can’t Take It With You. I have a horrid memory of suffering through that play on opening night at one of the big houses, seated next to a gray-haired couple who showed up tipsy, pointedly sought themselves out in the back pages of the program to ensure they were identified under the right donor level, and then prompty began dozing within ten minutes of curtain. The only genuinely funny moment I had that evening was when gray-haired husband got caught looking down my date’s blouse by gray-haired wife coming back from intermission.

Spend enough time watching and thinking about theater, and eventually you’ll probably come to the conclusion that theater is something theater people do to entertain themselves. If it wasn’t for On the Boards, I probably would have shifted back to writing about indie rock and books. Seeing a Toshiki Okada or Young Jean Lee or Radiohole, to name but three that immediately come to mind, was revelatory. It reminded me of the spring of 1998, when–directionless in my supposed freshman year of college and working at a bookstore–I read Beckett, who first suggested to me that theater could truly do something that film or television or fiction couldn’t. And exactly the sort of thing I wanted to see the theater doing, but which so many artists were unwilling to risk, limiting themselves to received traditions. I also discovered dance at On the Boards, too, which consumed much of my last year in Seattle. Dance, by its very nature, rejected the most objectionable thing I found about theater: namely, its privileging of the text above all else.

So when I moved to New York in April 2010–for art–my first destination wasn’t Broadway or The Public or any of that. It was Performance Space 122. Within a week I dutifully bought a ticket to my first show. To Avant-Garde-Arama, because it seemed like a more social event where I could meet people.

Now, the first thing to understand is that I’d never been to PS122 before, so I knew the name but didn’t grasp the double-entendre; I was actually surprised to show up at an old school. Second, I didn’t really note that “doors at 8” implied the show didn’t start at 8. So I arrived maybe 7:40-ish expecting something approaching a proper lobby and instead found myself sitting alone in the hallway in front of the upstairs theater, more and more convinced with each passing minute that I’d made some sort of ridiculous mistake. At some point I grabbed someone who looked like he worked there (a then-intern by the name of Phillip Gulley) and asked what was up and whether anyone else was coming. He just nodded and pointed to a conference room (the Mabou Mines space) and said: “Oh yeah, go on in, have a beer, they’ll be here in a minute.”

Confused but with nothing else to do, I went in where, indeed, there was a bucket of beer on the table, and sat down awkwardly and waited. A few minutes later, a veritable crowd walked in, led by a tall, long-haired blonde woman (who I quickly learned was Carleigh Welsh) who was orienting PS122’s volunteers for the upcoming gala. An orientation I was crashing.

It was clear I was out of place, but I hurriedly began texting anyone on the west coast who could offer an ice-breaking introduction. Pretty quick she introduced herself and, determining at least part of the situation, took pity on me (or decided to make me someone else’s problem) and pawned me off onto one of the volunteers to take me into the show.

A long-time East Village resident (as I recall), I have no idea the woman’s name. She was gregarious and kind, and identified herself as an artist, though when asked about her work she referenced only taking part as a community member in Phillipe Quesne’s  L’Effet de Serge. I have no idea what her name is. All I remember is that at some point that evening–which was hosted by Eric Dyer, curated by the Wooster Group, and line-produced by Mashinka Firunts, who I also met that night and who also sensed I was painfully out of place–I asked my erstwhile host how I could keep abreast of work like this.

Meeting with Andy in Williamsburg, summer 2010

Meeting with Andy in Williamsburg, summer 2010

She quickly responded: “Have you ever heard of Culturebot? You should read Culturebot.”

So in the end, I really owe it all to some woman whose name I don’t know. Or to Carleigh. Or Phillip, maybe. Whatever the case, within a couple of weeks I wrote Andy Horwitz an email, and a couple of weeks after that we met for dinner near Columbus Circle, and he took me along to ERS’s gala where they were raising money to bring Gatz to the Public. And a few weeks after that we met at the Alligator Lounge in Williamsburg, because you get a pizza with every beer and that seemed like a good idea at the time. I don’t remember exactly when I started writing for Culturebot, but I do remember I missed my first show because I got lost on my way to what was still the Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Because I was new to town and can be forgiven for thinking for some reason that St. Mark’s Church would be on St. Mark’s Place. All I know is that by the time I went to Portland that September for the TBA Festival, I was covering it for Culturebot.

The rest is basically the last three years of my life. And not really worth recounting since anyone reading this knows a fair bit about it. Andy has occasionally described me as the only person crazy enough to go to four shows a week and write about them for no money. Which I suppose helped him a bit in trying to realize what he’d imagined all along: A new form of criticism for an era where all the high-falutin’ encomia to the importance of “serious criticism” in newspapers and magazines ain’t saving those jobs. A criticism to support the sort of work those “serious critics” have more often than not given short-shrift to.

The amount I’ve learned from doing this–and from Andy in particular–is immense. As many would attest, Andy can be one of the best and most helpful people to know in this town. In addition to Culturebot, he hooked me up with my current roommate and I’m fairly certain was responsible for a date or two along the way.

But as Cuiturebot has grown, it’s become difficult to manage my own interests and projects along with the editorial and other responsibilities, so sadly I’m moving on. I’m sure this won’t be my last byline, but my days as editor have come to an end. For those interested, you can keep up with what else I’m working on over at “Deeply Fascinating,” my own little home on the web. I don’t actually promise its content will always live up to the name; it’s more a joke at my own expense, a thorough text analysis revealing my overuse of those two words.

Otherwise, keep calm and carry on. Next Brooklyn Commune is May 12 at the Invisible Dog.

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