3rd Ward: Guerrilla theatre

The Sweet Cheat: Re-experiencing Memories in a Post-Apocalyptic New York

3rd Ward Magazine, New York

A community of artists led by Jeff Stark—founder of the Nonsense List—presents a play in an abandoned warehouse. Sophie Harris braves the broken glass to find out why.

“We apologize for the elevator situation,” says a man wearing a train conductor’s cap and smart shirt. He is standing next to a gaping elevator shaft, which drops down three floors and is surrounded by tangled rusty steel. Next to it, there’s staircase—except that most of the stairs have flaked away leaving just bars. The landing has fallen out completely, and another man, dressed in a suit and fedora hat, is straddling the empty space, guiding intrepid/scared-looking folks across [“Square yourself. Hold on to the grating with your right hand, and reach forward with your left”]. “I’m in love with you!” one relieved young lady tells him, once she gets safely to the next floor.

It’s nearly 90 degrees this Sunday afternoon, and forty people have travelled upstate to a secret location to be part of this show: a play named The Sweet Cheat that will only ever see four performances. Its organizer, Jeff Stark—the guy in the fedora—describes it as “site-specific theater.” Most people would describe it as pure madness.

You may already be familiar with Stark’s work. Since 2002, he’s been putting out the Nonsense List; a weekly email listings service that details the coolest, silliest/most serious goings on in New York [a sample read of this week’s events will find you the Swan Lake Masquerade Ball, a discussion entitled “Porn From Madagascar,” and a wrestling party.] This service alone would have made us want to know more about Stark, and the underground community he’s a part of. But then we heard about The Sweet Cheat, and we were hooked.

Stark moved to New York 11 years ago and immediately fell in love with the city’s creative energy. “There were two things that got me very quickly,” he says, when we chat on the phone before the play. “The first weekend I was here I went to a party that lasted for two days. It was in huge warehouse space in Williamsburg and it was amazing.” A series of installations included a walk-thru Stonehenge made out of old fridges, reflective pools of water and massive inflatable sculptures. So he was already hanging with the cool crowd? Not at all, says Stark, “I was never able to find that thing again, it was just, ‘Oh my God, what was that?’” A few months later, however, Stark met Julia Solis of the Dark Passage group, and took part in a citywide scavenger hunt that culminated in a sit-down dinner for 40 people in a live subway tunnel: “It was instantly, ‘Who are you people and how do I get to participate in this stuff in the future?’”

And so the Nonsense list began to take shape. “I was looking for a publication that collected all of this information together—and when I couldn’t find one I just started my own,” Stark shrugs. He’s cagey about the number of people who subscribe to Nonsense: “I only had 50 people signed up to it originally and I wanted people to take me seriously,” he says. “*Now, I want people to feel comfortable listing things that happen at their homes. I list things that happen in kitchens and in living rooms all the time and they just find their own audience. And I would worry that if I announced a number, people might freak out thinking that 300 people would arrive, y’know?”

Suffice to say, since its inception, Stark has had several scrapes with the law (“I think that anybody who is active in NYC has,” he says), including arrests for bartending, political protests, riding his bike, putting up posters… You know the deal. Should there be more tolerance in New York, or is that struggle par for the course? “I mean, on the one hand I really thrive in New York because there’s a lot to push against. On the other, we live in a city with far too many police, too much mayoral control, and not enough public space.”

The Sweet Cheat is absolutely a product of this tension. Attendees receive an email the day before the show warning them that the secret venue is dangerous: “You attend this event at your own risk— physically and legally,” it reads. “There will be crawling, climbing, and shimmying involved. You are in charge of your own safety.” But this doesn’t really prepare you for the broken glass and rusty nails on the floor, or the crumbling windows where the last few broken points of glass are barely clinging onto the frames.

Nor, though, does it prepare you for how beautiful the building is. We board the train to travel to the play at Grand Central Station, and half an hour down the line, arrive at an enormous, derelict warehouse—designed by some of the same people that worked on Grand Central. “They don’t make buildings like this any more,” says Stark. “The space itself is monumental, similar to the Tate Modern. So just beginning with that, it’s beautiful. Then you add on the layers of time, and decay, the way that nature finds a way.” There are times when Stark finds this space incredibly depressing and sad, he adds. “And there are times when I’m threatened by it, and there are times when I feel like it’s a giant cautionary tale. And I think that all of those experiences of this space resonate with the play that we’ve made.”

And how. Stark adapted the script from a short story, The Albertine Notes by Rick Moody, which first appeared in McSweeneys. It’s a Philip K Dick-style sci-fi set in New York; following a nuclear blast in Union Square, most of the city has become addicted to a drug named Albertine, which allows the user perfect memory recall. Naturally, the weird, unreliable nature of memory and reality are at the story’s center, and it’s a neat irony that while the play’s protagonists do everything they can to avoid living in the moment, the action couldn’t be more real and immediate for the viewer. Even down to the fact that on this hot, sticky day, hunched together in the warehouse spaces, there’s a sweaty, musty tang in the air—which is exactly what you’d expect to smell (and worse), if a bomb had really gone off in Union Square and left New York ragged and rubble-ized. (Oddly, the night before the performance, an actual bomb is discovered in Times Square.)

For all the play’s bleakness though, Stark is optimistic about the city. “I do really think we’re in a golden age in New York,” he says cheerfully. “But I have to say that I think the golden age for anyone is when they’re young and good-looking and full of energy.” I laugh, and then realize that Stark is dead serious. “We are fortunate that we get all of the most talented kids from all over the United States, who move to New York because it gives them access to something. They come here to contribute, to make things, and there’s a constant cycle of it. You know, there’s opportunity? And it’s a place for re-invention and you can be whoever you want to here. And that is tremendously exciting. The tongue in cheek part of what I’m saying is that New York City was always totally so much cooler, right before you got here, and that’s what everyone will tell you. People are always talking about this lost era. I even hear people romanticizing the Guiliani years, Gimme a fuckin’ break y’know! Everyone talked about being miserable then. or romanticizing the ’70s, the time when the city was completely falling apart. So, I think what happens in New York is that people romanticize their youth.” He pauses for a moment. “Fortunately, we are a city where people have youth all of the time, so it’s *always a golden age for someone.”

But what happens when we get old? “Oh I’m already old!” Stark laughs [he’s actually only 38]. “You make a choice. You can keep fighting the fight and keep playing and trying to have fun, or you can become bitter and complain that it used to be so much better all the time.”

One of the things that’s so appealing about Stark is that he has what a teacher might describe as a good attitude. Meaning, positive, pro-active and un-cynical. It’s rare to see goofy, cheerful hipsters, and so it’s easy to assume that underground artists might also be snooty or at least a little remote. But Stark’s whole deal is about including people, welcoming people. “I don’t come from this place where everything has to be super avant-garde or incredibly extreme,” he says, “I *want people to like the stuff that I participate in. I want them to feel like it’s friendly and it’s for an audience.”

He avoids using the term guerrilla theater, he says, because that has a different implication: “Coming out of the ‘happenings’ of the ’60s, there was this activism in the early ’70s, this strain of guerrilla theatre which was generally about dramatizing some sort of international wrongdoing.” Funny, I say; these days, people use the term to describe Shakespeare in the Park… “I love Shakespeare in the park!” Stark exclaims. “And quite frankly I’m totally influenced by it. Part of the idea of moving around a space in this show comes directly from that. And using flashlights to light people up, I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now too! It’s like when you see the kids running to the next scene in the park—I wanna find the guy that’s having a sword fight on the bridge.”

The crew in The Sweet Cheat are constantly following the action, scrabbling around from scene to scene with spotlights and sound effects. Part of the joy of the play—and it’s a real laugh out-loud joy—is its stream of sensory surprises. As one scene in a squalid drug-den ends, we pick our way through to the main hall and hear music being pumped out of a soundsystem. A glitter ball swings into view and the play’s villain emerges through a doorway in the top corner of the warehouse wearing silver pants and singing Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” into a mic. His henchmen join him, shimmying in turquoise lame. Glitter is being sprinkled on our heads from hundreds of feet up.

While the play has obviously been put together on a tiny budget, its creators’ attention to detail is formidable. You can download videos of characters’ “memories” before the play, and costumier Sarah Mack has integrated these flashes of color into her designs, via patches and prints. Robin Hasty’s sets are striking too; look down to the bottom of the warehouse and you’ll see a row of cots standing in pudgy mud, surrounded by great swathes of fabric billowing gently in the breeze (this is the HQ of the play’s Brooklyn Resistance.) Hasty says that she made all the sets out of materials she found on the site; out of junk, essentially.

What does Stark want people to get out of the play? “I would hope people have an emotionally response to the space,” he says. “An emotional response to the story. That they recognise that it’s been a group of people that have worked together and collaborated and made something with love because they believed in it. For the purposes of sharing it. If people come away recognizing those three things I would be happy.”

It’s a nice, noble sentiment. As the play reaches the end of its final performance, however, adrenalin is running high. Outside the warehouse, cast, crew and audience are standing together in the weeds drinking coffee from plastic cups and chattering excitedly. The conductor has changed into his civvies—orange jeans and a matching neck scarf. I ask him how he feels, now the play is over, and his face lights up with glee. In a half-whisper, he says: “We got away with it!”