Off-Off Broadway on the Upper West Side Via Budapest – West Side Rag
By Wendy Blake
Stepping down through an unmarked door into an intimate, dark room to watch a multimedia play, I was reminded of the underground art scene in Soviet-era Budapest, where I was studying linguistics in the mid-1980s. We secretly attended performances which, despite the risks in this era of Soviet rule, popped up wherever there was room. The creative energy of the dissident artists was like steam under pressure.
But this place, with the familiar atmosphere, the same sense of urgency and vitality, was on West 106th Street: this is where the award winners call home New Stage Theater Company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and is perhaps the only off-off Broadway theater on the Upper West Side. After meeting Ildiko Nemeth (right), the Hungarian-born founder and artistic director, my déjà vu made sense.
As a teenager in Budapest, Nemeth also attended these underground shows and was inspired by the use of theater as a form of resistance. “Repression is always good for art,” she says. At 16, she decided theater would be her life’s work, not medicine as her parents wanted. When the Iron Curtain fell, she helped found RS9, a still active independent theater company in Budapest.
She moved to New York in 1998 and studied at the renowned Actors Studio – partly, she says, to improve her English (!). After graduating, she founded New Stage; Her work would include drama, music, visual arts, performance art and movement. The Polish director Jerzy Grotowski – who is considered the founder of experimental theater – had a great influence, for whom theater was not an end in itself but a means of self-exploration.
The company was homeless for years. Nemeth’s works have been performed by invitation at avant-garde downtown venues such as La MaMa and Dixon Place. Then, in 2017, one of her board members (the board includes Nemeth and five others, who all got involved after seeing one of the company’s shows) offered her a free rehearsal space in the basement of a building he owns, at 36 W. 106th, just off Central Park. In the end, she negotiated a long-term lease. With city and state support, she remodeled and installed HVAC, lighting, and sound systems.
Each year, Nemeth premieres original works she has written or adapted and directs the plays of others, often in collaboration with first-generation immigrants. She stages a play or two a year but wants to make the 1,150-square-foot space a year-round cultural center. “I want to make this a home for artists with bold, original voices to create multidisciplinary, experimental works,” says Nemeth.
Though a world away from Soviet-era Hungary, Nemeth’s work still feels subversive. She examines more insidious forms of oppression, focusing on how society deals with the marginalized: women, the mentally ill, the powerless, the dissidents. However, your vision is not a vision without hope. “Overall, I’m concerned with meaningful connections and the barriers to finding harmony in yourself and in the world,” says Nemeth.
The current production of New Stage, The Singing Spherewritten by Marie Glancy O’Shea, runs through May 12th. It explores the intertwined stories of seven women in a barren landscape –Waiting for Godot explicitly mentioned – touching on topics ranging from motherhood and gender discrimination to the effects of war and politics.
Last years cosmic comedy (the show I stumbled upon) revisited Nemeth’s 2014 adaptation of Italo Calvino’s collection of short stories, a bold dramatization of a world of nonhuman beings seeking connection (not easy to explain, but I found the one) against the backdrop of the evolving universe production luminous).
New Stage has won two Innovative Theater Foundation awards and been nominated for 10 others.
Behind the scenes, Nemeth is essentially a one-woman show. Besides writing, directing, casting, hiring crew, doing videos, etc., she manages the performance space and of course applies for funding. (Her last show was supported by the city’s Department of Culture, the State Council on the Arts, and the Puffin Foundation.) She gets administrative help: For each project, she will hire a grantee to complete applications and a public relations agent, and she will be supported by interns supports. One board member even helps with the bookkeeping and another with the sets.
“Theater is a village,” she says on the phone from her Broad Street office (the space was donated by a board member), although she works there alone. “But people are always surprised when they know what I’m doing, that I don’t have a major infrastructure behind me.”