BASEMENTWERKS AT THE LAB
BASEMENTWERKS was a late-night experimental performance and writer series used to develop new works.
For me Basementwerks reminds me of the Blue Note jazz club in the village. As a student I could never afford the cover price for the main show. However luckily after the show was over around midnight or 1 AM they would let anyone in provided you would buy a drink and I would sip that one beer slowly. And that's when the real magic begin. All these different jazz players would converge to the stage and began to jam freely with one another. The music and the freedom was "Extraordinary" watching them have fun with one another.
Basement was the exact same concept with actors, writers, dancers and musicians and singers. It was after hours as we would work around other sets that finished their shows at midnight. People would be drinking in the seats and smoking joints. There was nothing conventional about it. Pirandello or Stravinsky would've been proud. Writers were writing and the actors were acting and because of limited time for rehearsals we would have to improvise to some degree which brings me back to the jazz. Word was spreading and the place would be packed with artists of all types. And because of it's unconventional way you never knew what to expect and I don't think as performers we never knew, which was what made it so great.
Even Al the maestro would put the running order of the acts together on a piece of paper minutes before we hit the stage.
When I think of a scene that comes to mind right now. I think of Al Ramos painting Olivia nude on stage with pastels. Not a single word was uttered. All you could hear was his crayons scribbling her natural beauty. It was so powerful and yet not a single word was spoken. Our late great acting teacher Charlie Laughton used to say, do the play without any words.
To sum it all up when we took over the theatre to do our own full length plays, I think it was Nick who said, they were just an extension of Basementwerks which we had already created in the most minimalist of ways.
Basementwerks taught us to trust one another up there on a very shaky tightrope. Which we managed to cross night after night.
Damn Billy great way to bring us home.
Next jazz night let me know.
First, I think Billy's description of Basementwerks is awesome, very poetic, and captures the experience and the spirit of the project.
The first thing that comes to my mind every time Basementwerks comes up is Nancy Whisky Pub. This is where we gathered on Saturday nights after working in the theatre to let off steam. Stu and his Group of Actors were in the middle of ЧАЙКА (pronounced "Chaika" or Seagull as it’s known in English, though the English always attach "The" which doesn't exist in Russian) but, I digress. Nancy Whisky is where we first started kicking around the idea of an "in house" project for all of us to work on together and as a way to bring in creative friends to work with us. There was no better way to get to know each other and to come together than to start working together regularly. The Broome Street gang and the Group of Actors needed a mechanism to merge.
The objective was to have something we would commit to producing on a regular basis. No excuses. We had no preconceived notion of what it would be except we wanted it to be a free environment. We didn't want people to self-censor or self-critique to the point of paralysis.
Nick offered to host a regular Monday evening group session. Monday was picked because it is traditionally a dark night for theaters and it allowed colleagues currently in shows to show up and kick around ideas. We would do the shows late night on Saturdays so as not to compete with main stage productions. And, most importantly, we embraced obstacles rather than using them as excuses not to execute the program. If there was no opportunity to rehearse a given scene.... no problem, talk it through and do it. If there was an immovable set on stage..... no problem, perform within the existing structures. If there was no time to memorize.... read it. If you didn't write dialogue.... perform behavioral pieces (I used Red Skeleton as my inspiration for my non-verbal stuff... Mango Mania, The Dentist, etc).
Nick would curate the work. His critique of pieces always resonated, sometimes, at first impression, insanely, but somehow he cut to the core and was always on the money. I functioned as the producing manager of each show to the extent that I would arrange the order of pieces and handled tech with Melissa. The show did not have a director in the traditional sense, as each piece was self-contained. We all helped each other putting up each other's work for the night.
We were committed to not allow conventional expectations of theatrical performance to stop us. Raw is Good. And, culturally, this was a time in music where "garage" bands were emerging and a more visceral, raw aesthetic was spreading as a creative current. This is what attracted a wonderful group of young artists right out of college. They understood what was going on, what we were up to.
Once we had a clearer sense of what was evolving, the name became obvious. We were in a basement (actually a sub-basement) so....... "Basement" something....... we needed something German to sound important, hence.....werks. Basementwerks ....... In German the show is pronounced as "Basementverks" with a "v" sound.
Once we got a few shows under our belts -- once we knew we could just do it, we started to want to break barriers.....nothing was TABOO. One night Billy turned to me and said.... "I think Clayton just took a shit on stage." Nudity was second nature. Sexual/relationship material cut to the bone with candor not heard anywhere else at the time. And, the most striking of this material was written by women from their experience and point of view.
Once we got confident in our ability to put up the shows, our imaginations started to free up and the programs began to be thematic or unified. We could kick around a theme or a theme might emerge from the works that were presented at Nick’s on Monday. Writers started to come down to the theatre from other venues to put up scenes or read other forms of writings.... poems, letters, diary entries, stream of conscious-surrealist exercise type pieces, etc.
Writers, actors, dancers, musicians, clowns, comics, designers, teachers.... a wide variety of creatives would appear for a Saturday night Basementwerks and want to be involved. Basementwerks was instrumental in bringing together the community of artists who worked at Tribeca Lab.
The natural next step in the evolution of Basementwerks was the spawning of full-length works that could stand on their own for a run of performances: James You Are Sweet, The Confessions of St. Augustine, Life In Bed, Lo-Lee-Ta, etc. Then, it spawned a music oriented late night show PMS (or People Making Sounds).
As Goethe observed..... "Die Basementwerks definiert Tribeca Lab". Translated from German...The Basementwerks defined Tribeca Lab.
I worked with the ones I trusted to tell our truth who Trusted I had something to give and they wanted it.
Bear baiting in the bear pit –
Blood gnashing of teeth and snarling and shuffling to the length of a chain in a circle with dogs and gambling and odds.
Basementwerks was got up around a table at the Nancy Whiskey bar over a pitcher of beer and something in a basket. For me: “bear baiting,” dogs sinking their teeth into flesh whenever they could, jaws snap their back, eyes clawed out. Turning weirwolf lying naked with Julie in the park under my favorite beechnut tree while waiting for the FBI to come for me one summer day. Pitchforking a little acolyte skating around my box on the abandoned overpass above the Intrepid.
Basementwerks for me was naked inarticulate expression of truth for awhile.
Yes! Bear baiting...gnashing teeth!!! Naked - Inarticulate - Truth!
The Wolf and the Moon said it all.
Stuart naked with a girl in his arms and howling at the moon. Where the fuck can you see shit like that now, nowhere! lol.
When I graduated from NYU in 1988 most of the Off Off broadway scene seemed to consist of industry showcases. Actors were interested in agents and casting directors from TV and film seeing them in roles similar to those they would be playing on TV. So most theater that I saw kids my age doing was a type of theater where everybody tried to look and sound like they were on TV. They did plays that were like TV. Sometimes they even recreated sitcoms word for word on stage. insidiously and bit by bit most live performance in New York seemed to become like low rent TV. It became an aesthetic. It was completely without irony. An aesthetic of TV professionalism. On every stage I saw TV faces and TV clothes, TV hair and TV teeth, TV words and TV thoughts. People were reaching deep inside their souls to find toothpaste and sell it. In this process not only were these artists ignoring was interesting about themselves they were also ignoring the power of the medium they were working in. It became apparent few people were mobilizing the full potential of live performance as a medium.
Basementwerks for me was experimenting with the live medium to see what would work. — What its inherent strengths and limits were. We were testing its capabilities. In our other work we were limited by either literally working for TV and film or working in showcase stuff. We all needed to sink our teeth into substance. We were hungry. Basementwerks allowed us to be red in tooth and claw and tear into some living flesh. Occasionally we would tuck into some carrion but hey, we were were in a sub basement!
Another aspect of the aesthetic of professionalism that was corrupting showmanship in New York in that era was that most young artists working in these mediums seemed to be trying to do what they thought casting directors and agents wanted so that they could get a job on TV so that they could get a commercial so that they could get a film so that they could be a star and then they would do what they wanted… The result was they were forced to totally leave themselves out of the equation. Always reaching, always aspiring for an image they could be in someone else’s eyes that would be acceptable. Rarely going the opposite direction and digging deep and tearing up some stuff to see who would connect. With Basementwerks we shorted out that process and did what we wanted from the very beginning. We used our venue, our stage, our space and other environmental spaces to do live performance in and explore the inherent values of our medium.
We hectored each other to go past our comfort zones— because it frequently occurred that when we got into something dangerous, something scary, some kind of shared humanity thing, something universal would be hit. And it would be worth it. Getting a laugh in the midst of some horror was like being forgiven from god. And it was late night. Frequently midnight on Saturday. The City was at the nadir of the crack epidemic. The marginal neighborhoods we lived in were full of trauma and violence. Truly, late night on Saturday we had nothing to lose and our audience was self selected. Many of them rolling off of their own gigs OFF OFF or restaurants and bars. People like us. Hungry and haunted, ambitious and lonesome, horny and sad.
The stage has incredible potential. For us it was like getting behind the wheel of a Maserati when you are used to driving an old chevy truck. It's so responsive that it’s very easy to wreck. Its easy to oversteer. Speed seems slow.
I’m grateful for the time and place we were given. New York city and the Tribeca Lab gave me room to breathe. The crime and violence of that era gave us the feeling we lived in an open city. We were limited only by the physical limits of our body. There was no time but the present. There was no law but God’s.