As Space In New York Gets Ever More Expensive, Indie Theatermakers Are Getting More Resourceful

Several dozen people crowded into a tiny Bushwick apartment basement on a cold February night for a live performance of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”

Ryan Czerwonko, 34, who lives upstairs and runs the space, set the scene with his very own furniture: bookshelves dragged downstairs, an old black futon, and a rickety table topped with his morning coffee mug.

The basement isn’t just home to Czerwonko and his worn and torn furniture. It’s also an independent theater and artistic training center called Adult Film, which Czerwonko heads as artistic director, teacher and occasional performer.

“We sat down, and I was like, this is the most New York thing ever,” said 29-year-old Ellen Hamilton, who was squeezed in the back corner.

Photo by Kenneal Patterson for Gothamist

As the lights dimmed, audience members sat on foldable chairs or crouched on the steps leading up to Czerwonko’s apartment. A few made their way out of the windowless bathroom, where performers would eventually crowd for the final scene, staring into the mirror to say their lines.

The show — an experimental performance of a play about love, sex and the human psyche — followed the unstable Elizabeth, played by Mia Vallet, who forms an intense relationship with her nurse at a psychiatric hospital.

And it’s part of New York City’s vibrant and resurgent indie theater scene, where theater fanatics are finding creative ways to get their art in front of others.

In Downtown Brooklyn, there’s the Loading Dock Theatre, founded by a couple who converted half their loft into a black-box theater. Smaller groups, like Feral Theatre Company, conduct readings in Washington Heights homes. Pocket Ghost Productions puts on “site-specific” shows in a Flatbush kitchen and dining room. In her Bushwick apartment, Ann Liv Young hosts an avant-garde “Marie Antoinette” show during a dinner party. Other theater companies include New Relic Theatre, which has productions on restaurant patios or rooftops, and Wet Spot, which does queer shows in a Bedford-Stuyvesant backyard.

Most shows aren’t rated or reviewed, and most don’t adhere to a strict script or style. Some vary night to night: In “Persona,” for instance, the leads switched roles each day. But these shows are often sold out despite their unpredictability — or perhaps because of it.

“The intimacy is a huge part of it,” said Vallet. “It’s kind of like a whole evening that revolves around dealing with people in a less alienated way than you would be in a traditional theater space.”

‘I’m not going to wait for everybody to give me permission to do the play.’

Vallet learned about Adult Film two years ago when she attended one of their events. “It was a very interesting post-pandemic energy,” she recalled, noting that “everyone was really excited to be there.”

Actors and directors alike agree that this unique style of “living-room” theater largely resurged after pandemic restrictions lifted. Vallet said it’s only grown in recent years as rents rise and producers and performers find creative ways to produce shows while skirting red tape in an increasingly expensive city.

Just don’t call this “Off-Off-Broadway.” Matt Gasda, a well-known scene pioneer and founder of the the Brooklyn Center of Theatre Research, prefers the term “loft theater.” Theresa Buchheister, artistic director for the Brick Theater, says it’s not designed to compete with Broadway’s “spectacle.”

“I don’t love ‘Off-Off-Broadway,’ because it centers Broadway in a way,” said Buchheister. “To call it ‘Off-Off Broadway’ is sort of implying that it wants to be on Broadway, and it’s like, no, that’s not true.”

That sentiment was palpable at “Persona” as actors, aspiring playwrights and neighbors all milled about together both before and after the show.

A recent performance of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.”

Photo by Kenneal Patterson for Gothamist

Some enjoyed a smoke on the front patio or a drink from the handcrafted back bar. Others took a seat on prop chairs to chat with the night’s stars.

Czerwonko started his artistic hub in 2022. For years, he had felt cynical about the effort it took to get a theater production off the ground. Most venues — including well-known playhouses and their smaller, more curated counterparts — require hefty expenses and lengthy approval processes.

Take for example East Village’s Frigid, a small independent theater company that operates underneath another playhouse and has only 45 seats. Performance rates for a prime Saturday night slot can reach $525 per performance and must include a Frigid staff member, which adds another $75 for the night.

“The divide between what artists are doing here on the ground and the institutions is continuing to grow,” Czerwonko said. “Don’t you feel like we’re in a holding pattern with a lot of things? We know something needs to be changed.”

Tad D’Agostino, 30, who has been performing in DIY spaces since the pandemic, echoed the frustration with financial hurdles. But he said the DIY approach is ultimately empowering.

Since the whole scene started, he said, its essence has been “I have a play, I want to do the play, I’m not going to wait for everybody to give me permission to do the play — I’m going to find a space and do it.”

The pandemic hit the reset button.

Audiences also praised the model for its focus on creativity and its affordability. Tickets for Adult Film shows are $20 for a play (and sometimes less for a reading). By contrast, a ticket to this Saturday night’s “Hamilton” starts at over $300 for an orchestra seat. For “Merrily We Roll Along,” orchestra seats start at $450. Even the Public Theater, which was founded to support emerging talent, now runs sold-out shows with arrangements by global superstar Alicia Keys.

Still, DIY theater might have what it takes to weather the storm. As basement venues multiply and writers dream up new one-act shows, local performers say the new post-pandemic indie scene is just beginning.

Some spots, like the Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research, are slowly growing into more-permanent establishments. The center, started by Matt Gasda, put on more than 120 ticketed events last year.

Nontraditional venues were initially a financial necessity for 35-year-old Gasda. But he soon began to admire the style, which he called a “universal” phenomenon, noting that people have always performed when and where they can.

A handwritten sign directs people to the theater in a Bushwick basement.

Photo by Kenneal Patterson for Gothamist

Living-room theater existed centuries before London’s iconic Globe Theatre opened its doors. The Brick, an experimental playhouse in Williamsburg, even started as a garage before getting the funding to transform.

Buchheister, the Brick’s artistic director, said the number of DIY spaces decreased in the 2010s due to gentrification in Brooklyn, and larger venues boomed instead. Then, the pandemic hit the reset button and forced thespians to get experimental with space.

“Indie theater, so to speak, has its moments, then it dies, and then it comes back,” said Gasda. “This is a moment where it’s really back.”

More shows are cropping up every week. Billy McEntee, a performer and longtime theater critic for the Brooklyn Rail, hosted “The Voices in Your Head” at his local church, St. Lydia’s in Gowanus. Kate Eberstadt, a Brooklyn-based singer and actress, wrote a piece for her late grandfather and performed it in his apartment.

“The shared interests of everybody involved is what gravitated me towards this and kept me here,” said Ethan Navarro, 28, Adult Film’s artistic associate. “It just so happens we’re doing it in a basement. … I think this group of people would do it anywhere if we had each other.”

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