New York is crowded. Anyone who moves here feels it immediately – the sensation of being pressed on all sides by people. On the subway, on the street, in your apartment surrounded by other apartments that you share with three or four other people. Even in the theater – a supposedly safe and sacred space – we are constantly at the mercy of sirens from passing cop cars, or the music from the rehearsal room next door, or the noise from the street outside. New York is crowded, it is loud, and it is utterly overwhelming.
We try very hard, as New Yorkers, to shut the noise out, to stay sane as eight million people swirl around us. We in the theater try very hard to eke out places to work – small dark rooms in otherwise abandoned buildings, basement theaters shut away from the noise, rehearsal rooms high above Times Square, anywhere we can make quiet and secure enough to make some art.
Then there are the gardens – over 600 hundred of them. They are small and hidden, or big and sprawling. They are contained between buildings, or spilling out onto the sidewalk. They are well manicured, with trellises and gazebos, or haphazard, the result of determination and enthusiasm. In some ways, they would all seem to be a respite from the city, a little green haven in the midst of all this urbanity. In many ways, however, they exist because of the city, not in spite of it, and their very existence embraces the confines of their environment.
In these gardens, vines and murals creep up the walls that surround them. The sidewalk entrance pulsates with energy from the outside, and the people who bring their chairs to sit outside the gate are as much a part of the garden as they would be if they were inside. The members bring the city with them when they come to work on their plots, and the noises from the street and the lights from the apartments are part of the gardens – they add, rather than detract. Many of the gardens were formed as a direct result of the lack of public space in the city, and some New Yorkers intrepid ambition to see vacant lots remain vacant and open, to make a place for themselves. These are urban spaces, and they serve urban communities. Like an oasis in the desert, they are what they are because they are in New York.
Communal Spaces: A Garden Play Festival started as an attempt to merge the communal aspects of both gardens and theater, to see if plays written for particular public spaces – spaces of history and importance to the audience – could augment and heighten the experience of being in those spaces. It became, ultimately, an exercise in theater as public art – performances that were for the communities that came to see them, performances that could be seen in their entirety or in snippets as spectators passed by. For me, and I hope for the performers and playwrights, it became an exercise in letting go. Instead of trying to find a place apart to work, we carved out an area of the city that was not and could never be ours alone – one we had to share with the audience, and with all of New York. We couldn’t control the environment, couldn’t change it, couldn’t silence it to fit our needs, and so we embraced it with all its flaws and complications. The result was theater that felt truly communal – theater that felt like it belonged to everyone present. Just like the gardens. Theater that embraced its limitations, and grew from there.
This year, we’re including the surrounding areas – we’ll give out maps, tell people where they can get food or drinks or coffee, and encourage exploration of new neighborhoods. It’s about the gardens, it’s about the plays, it’s about the power and beauty of site-specific theater. But most of all, it’s about being a New Yorker exploring new parts of New York. This August and September, come plant urban roots.