Real Estate as Theatre
Admittedly, at first glance, "serious" theatre operating out of a porn palace is a tad incongruous, if not downright oddball. But then again, maybe not.
Just ask Aaron Beall (pronounced Bell), artistic director of Nada Show World, who was brought in to produce plays-at the moment, it's Chekhov, no less-in an adult entertainment establishment that still houses its share of triple X delights.
"What we're doing is not all that far removed [from the triple X delights]," Beall stresses. "The arts and porn have always shared a certain edginess. And artists have traditionally been identified with the other elements [translation: the sexual wild bunch].
"Our main challenge," continues the 30-something New York City native who meets us in Show World's bordello-red, ahem, lobby, "is to use the setting: select plays that'll work here and/or see how the plays we select are shaped by place." He beams, "Real estate as theatre!"
Show World is located between 42nd Street and 43rd Street on Eighth Avenue (how fitting!). And like the lobby, the theatre spaces are also bordello red and boast ceiling mirrors and gilded-framed lights, evoking the kinky.
Nada Show World is currently presenting "The Chekhov Vaudeville Festival," a series of 11 short plays written early in Chekhov's career "that he called "vaudevilles,' " emphasizes Beall. "My goal is: Turn Nada Show World into a kind of Angelika Film Center, meaning that there'll be plays going on in our three spaces [The Go-Go Room, The Big Top, The Space] all day long."
Beall's vision is, shall we say, au courant. Case in point: His "On the High Road," written by Chekhov in 1885 and set in a tavern outside of Moscow, has been transported to a universe 300 light years from earth, awash in "Star Wars" allusions and lots of electronic bleeping noises. Here's another: Chekhov's "The Wedding" will become a kind of "Tony and Tina" event that'll include a participatory audience in the nuptial festivities.
Beall, who is best known for creating Toda Con Nada Inc., a downtown company boasting a number of storefront theatres on the Lower East Side, is unabashedly trendy in style as well as viewpoint. When we first met him several months ago, he sported purple nail polish. Talk about triumphant androgyny!
And he defines the evolving actor as one who can "multi-task." In his troupe-a core group of performers he uses frequently-he wants those who can "produce, and/or paint, and/or do graphic arts on the computer, among other skills so that they can recombine in any number of combinations to create a new model. My ultimate aim is to build a company of 175 actor-entrepreneurs who can multi-task and in so doing create a pure pop aesthetic."
Now celebrating its 12th anniversary, Toda Con Nada has produced more than 2,000 performances, according to Beall, and launched such Off-Off Broadway companies as Target Margin, Elevator Repair Service, and Arden Party. Toda Con Nada was also a co-producer of the New York City Fringe Festival and the Pure Pop Festival. "Our shows talk to the post-college, pre-long-term relationship crowd," he chortles, a private heartfelt joke.
Lucky timing played a role in Beall's current gig. He was on the lookout for some uptown space and Show World's manager was searching for a producer of legitimate works. Their paths crossed. "New zoning laws dictate that only 40 percent of the space can be used for adult purposes," explains Beall. "Right now only the downstairs theatres-and that's 18 percent of the house-is used for adult purposes. Although that part of the operation is ongoing 24-hours-a-day, it has a separate entrance downstairs. I wouldn't want all of the space. I like the idea of sharing it with an "adult' establishment."
(To drive home the idea that Show World has been transformed, at least in part, there are signs all over Nada's area boasting, "No Live Girls! No Live Girls!" Still, a tall top-hatted member of the company who greets us at the door and escorts us upstairs conjures a creature of the night, just this side of sleazy.)
"It's ironic," Beall notes, "that as we struggled with skyrocketing rents downtown, we ended up in a high-rent mainstream district! We plan to offer Off-Off-Broadway performances in an uptown space. And we'll be giving emerging artists the chance to get the attention that they wouldn't get otherwise."
Besides the Chekhov "Vaudevilles," Beall has produced two plays since coming on board at Show World last fall. These were: Tom Payne's "Pervy Verse," and Sholom Asch's controversial 1907 Shtetl play "God's Vengeance." "Pervy Verse" is an adaptation of "The Bacchae," set in contemporary London and celebrating the fetish subculture. "God of Vengeance" tells the story of a Jewish brothel owner who tries to become respectable and spirals downward into God-hating despair. The play brings together battles over God and lesbianism, even introducing a feminist spin on marriage and class.
Underscoring "God's" modernity, Beall, who directed the play, placed two giant TV screens on either side of the stage. Partially covered in flowing gauze-bringing to mind, depending on viewpoint, a chuppah (a Jewish ritual marriage canopy) or brothel or both-the monitors alternately featured bawdy turn-of-the-century photos, old Yiddish movie clips, and scenes from "Blade Runner," a 1982 flick starring Harrison Ford.
A further curiosity: The translator of the Yiddish play was Caraid O'Brien, an Irish-born Roman Catholic who is a recognized scholar of Yiddish literature and theatre (See Back Stage, Dec. 10, 1999). O'Brien is also an actress who will be performing in the Chekhov Vaudevilles.
The Journey of a Downtown Entrepreneur
The son of parents whom Beall describes as "multi-task artists"-they painted, wrote poetry, and made films-Beall was brought up in New York, Chicago, and Mexico, among other places. From the outset, Beall had his sights set on a theatre career. He earned a certificate in mime (yes, that's right) from Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., and was one of four students to graduate from the mime training program that died after two years. A stint at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Clown College followed, which in turn led to an aborted gig at another California-based college.
Shortly thereafter Beall arrived in New York in search of "Shakespeare's London," he recalls, only half-kidding. "But I realized I was 400 years too late and on the wrong continent. So I decided to create it." Indeed, he views his Toda Con Nada enterprise as closely allied to the Elizabethans' Globe theatre (where Shakespeare's troupe performed).
Besides launching his Toda Con Nada venture, Beall also performed, acting in six Off-Broadway plays at such venues as the Classic Stage and Roundabout Theatre companies, among others. To this day he acts from time to time; in fact, right now he's appearing in Chekhov's "The Bear," playing an obsequious servant.
Still, it's his entrepreneurial hat that most defines him. Consider the genesis of Toda Con Nada-the gap he was trying to fill on the cultural landscape-and the roadblocks he faced on the journey. Beall is a man of relentless energy.
"Our mission was to create Off-Broadway on the Lower East Side," he recalls. "We wanted to create a clean, well-lit space for theatre where there was none or very little. We originally thought we'd use the space for New Vaudeville, which stars performers like Bill Irwin and the Flying Karamazov Brothers. But we soon realized we wouldn't be able to pay our rent on New Vaudeville. So we decided to use the space to produce several different types of shows a night [an aesthetic-economic concept that's clearly in operation at Show World]."
With two partners and $3,500 borrowed on a credit card, he launched Toda Con Nada's first theatre in 1988. Toda Con Nada literally means all with nothing. In this context, it alludes to the theatre's artists themselves. They're giving all they've got with no money or backing.
Five years later, and feeling restless, Beall created the Hamlet Festival, featuring 31 different productions of "Hamlet" in 90 days. In 1994, Beall spearheaded the Faust Festival, producing 43 productions in eight months. "We presented Faust in various incarnations-from the 15th-century German Chapbook version, based on oral tradition, right through to Todd Alcott's contemporary version, "Jane Faust,' which cast a woman in the lead."
On the Fringe
Given Beall's sensibility, it's not surprising that he turned his attention to co-creating-along with the Present Company and Jonathan Harris-the New York City Fringe Festival in 1998, serving as its founding artistic director. For this festival Beall opened up several more spaces (under the auspices of Toda Con Nada) to accommodate the productions that were pouring into town. Indeed, at one point, Nada was housing five theatres.
But that did not last. When two of the buildings were sold to developers, Nada's two theatres were demolished. "I saw that the world of Off-Broadway was being challenged by real estate!" Beall asserts.
Still, three Nada spaces-including Show World-remain. And each boasts, within Beall-like parameters, its own quirky tone, although that tone is equally dependent on the theatres' respective directors, artists Beall subsequently brought in. "One of our missions is to create new leaders in the theatre," Beall says.
"At Nada Classic, for example, Ian Hill's company, Gemini Collision, specializes in mixed media works that are dark and crafted. He's Downtown's Francis Ford Coppola."
"At Nada Piano Store, Artistic Director Eva Minemar and her all-women company Angry Jello Bubbles are searching for new definitions [new ways to consider emotionally charged topics] in the culture. Its current play [also dubbed "Angry Jello Bubbles"] looks at the beauty myth and examines women in contemporary society."
At the moment, however, Beall's aesthetic-and by extension, that of Nada Show World-is most in tune with the works that emerged from his Pure Pop Festival, an event he forged last summer, where almost every play was overflowing with pop-cult allusions. These elbow-nudging nods ran the gamut from grade B 1960s movies to the biographies (and/or demise) of hot rock stars. In one production, "Nirvana," based on Chekhov's "Ivanov," the story was re-told-and updated-to detail the life and death of grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's lead singer.
Although Beall is not planning to bring "Nirvana" Uptown to Show World, he expects to mount a full production of "Uncle Vanya," to punctuate the Vaudevilles. "It will be a pure pop version, including MTV dance numbers and videos onstage interacting with the characters, some of whom will perform karaoke."
Beall's next Nada Show World project centers on Sam Shepard's one-act plays, culminating with an "environmental" production of "Paris, Texas."
So who's going to come to Nada Show World? Clearly, Beall hopes that the audience will be broad based. But even if it only attracts Beall's followers-18-to-35-year-olds-that's not so bad either, he insists. "They're the demographics to die for!" q