by Collin McConnell · July 15, 2014
New York City is home to theater the likes of the $75 million Spider-Man and limitless amounts of free Shakespeare in parks (and parkinglots). The diversity is incredible, but the disparity is just downright insane.
So I'll go out on a limb and guess at least 80% of artists in NYC are trying to make their work on a budget worthy of food stamps. It's either "the classics" in the park for free (Shakespeare, because Marlow's a hard sell and Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw still have some hefty-budget-requiring sets), or producing some sort of new work that's a passion project (read: everything is paid for out of pocket, leaving the passionate artist in all sorts of passionate debt). The advent of crowdsourcing has begun to change the game in a serious way... and yet I still have four more "stripped-down" productions of Shakespeare in parks to see before I skip town to go do my own stripped-down Shakespeare in a park.
The point: money is tight, this city is expensive, but nonetheless we all insist on our need to be making our work.
Paul Bargetto is among those stepping beyond the budget-conscious with an answer: undergroundzero.
undergroundzero is, in premise, a festival of and about budgetless theater – theater made with no budget, discussions on art-making and it's importance in difficult financial times, and parties without cover (and if you turn to the manifesto, you might be led to believe the performances themselves are free – "we are giving it away" – which is sometimes the case, but sometimes not). Ultimately, a worthy ambition that succeeds (mostly) in where it seems most appropriate for it to succeed - in the work and events that appear to strictly adhere to the premise.
Again, the premise: no money.
What I saw in my week spent with the festival was a bit of a mixed bag. Where the festival excels is when "no budget" is either taken as a challenge (brilliantly overcome by LONEtheater in their private, site-specific pieces littered about the city that I would recommend to anyone in search of a moderate amount of adventure in their theater-going experience), or when those words simply mean process and not product (such as with the handful of pieces presented by LEIMAY – the company famed for their video and lighting designs takes the great and bold risk to present here the raw pieces of movement and dance without all the technology in an exploration of what they might become). Unfortunately, some pieces in the festival seemed to feel a need to be polished, and so while well-crafted (to a point), were lacking in substance (as with many of the short musical pieces of Voices of Justice and Consanguinity), and the party, latenightzero, felt a bit out-of-place (an after party for this kind of event is, I think, crucial, but the posh Ella Lounge – with one discounted drink among their obnoxiously priced cocktails for the event – seems far too removed from the festival's theme).
But perhaps most importantly: theater isn't always (read: really) about the audience receiving a product – it is often (really) about the connection and the dialogue and the experience. Much of the work in undergroundzero is worth venturing out for just to see the locations (I spent an extra half-hour in the map room of the Fraunces Tavern after Voices of Justice and Consanguinity because when else was I going to find myself there?). And the people. While my night at the latenightzero party might not have really hit the mark, I had an excellent discussion of the work and process with several artists of LEIMAY. And it is with a seriously heavy heart that I am missing all of the Intrinsic Value Project conversations (conversations on art and science and their value to us – I loved Raising the Bar, and so this sounds all the better).
...so what am I left to say about undergroundzero? Find something you're curious about, and just go. And don't just go, but talk to people – hang out at the bar, meet the artists, ask them questions, dig into the work with them. Maybe the show will be a bust, but maybe it will be an incredibly moving experience. If anything, at least you can walk in knowing that the artists here are really working to make this happen: not to rain on the webbed-wonder's parade, but this festival proves it doesn't take a stupid amount of money to make theater - it takes creativity and courage.