NEW YORK CITY: What people used to call New York’s “downtown” theatre scene has now shifted so far south that it’s slid right off the island of Manhattan. A glut of original, experimental, and genre-bending new works can be found these days in Brooklyn, a fact that writer/director/performer Theresa Buchheister decided to celebrate by inaugurating the Exponential Festival.
Running through January 30 in four different Brooklyn venues (the Brick, Bushwick Starr, Cloud City, and Silent Barn—all in Williamsburg and Bushwick), the Exponential Festival is a showcase of local (meaning New York-area) artists and a tribute to Brooklyn’s fertile underground theatre scene.
“I love the other festivals,” says Buchheister, referring to such well-known longtime downtown theatre fests as COIL, hosted by Performance Space 122; American Realness at Abrons Arts Center; and (the granddaddy of them all) Under the Radar at the Public Theater.
Yet what the other festivals lack, according to Buchheister, is that “there aren’t always a great deal of local artists. They’re missing out on what I see all the time living here.” She also hopes Exponential will promote artists who are “truly emerging or mid-career,” rather than the more established artists who often show up in the festivals on the other side of the East River.
For the rest of the month, Exponential will have a rotating schedule of seven shows, plus one dance piece (not officially part of the lineup, though tickets can be purchased through the website), and one panel discussion on the topic of making art in New York. “The panelists are all people whose work I have great love and respect for,” says Buchheister.
She says the genesis of the festival was “a series of conversations with artists, venue owners, and audiences.” One conversation in particular, with her friend Eliza Bent (who is, full disclosure, a contributor and former editor at American Theatre), spurred the idea of remounting exciting recent pieces that unfortunately had all-too-short runs. “We had just missed each other’s shows and we were really bummed. I asked her, ‘When are you going to do your show [Toilet Fire] again?’ Out of that conversation sprang the idea for the festival.”
Of the seven shows, only one—LongYarn, a madcap feminist folktale by the ensemble Banana Bag and Bodice—is completely new. The rest are remounts, including Title:Point’s Biter (Every Time I Turn Around), a “slapstick gorefest” directed by Buchheister, the company’s founder.
“I never do remounts, but with this one, I thought it seemed like an interesting challenge,” Buchheister says about the show, which ran last year at the Silent Barn. “There were things that weren’t exactly right about it, and now we get a chance to go back into it.” Hopefully there won’t be too many changes; last year’s run was a Time Out New York‘s critic’s pick.
Other Exponential offerings include two solo shows, Black Sheep by Darian Dauchan and The Goddamn Truth by Jeff Seal; Bent’s Toilet Fire, a sermon on indigestion; Dr. Glassheart, a musical comedy by Jason Trachtenburg; and Rise and Fall, an irreverent adaptation of a Brecht/Weill opera by Bread Arts Collective. Audiences can expect a preponderance of clowns, audience participation (or at least confrontation), general mayhem, and what the folks at Banana Bag and Bodice call “experiments in visceral storytelling.”
Is there any particular aesthetic that ties all the work together? “It’s all stuff that I like,” admits Buchheister. “And it all falls into an experimental take on even the form of experimental theatre. A lot of it has a great deal of humor that’s sort of rubbing against the idea of experimental theatre.”
Trachtenburg, who performs around town with his vaudeville rock band, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, agrees that “experimental theatre” is an inadequate term. Dr. Glassheart, is, he says (without irony), “a contribution to the canon and genre that is American musical theatre.” The show—which he wrote, directed, and performs in—is a “modern-day medical musical,” featuring a singing doctor and nurse having an affair, a patient with PTSD, and the president of the United States.
“When you go to see a show, the three things you want are humor, music, and comedy. All of them are in my show. There are three laughs a minute,” promises Trachtenburg.
Dr. Glassheart was previously done in cabaret-type settings, where Trachtenburg and his team read the script and performed the songs with nary a prop in sight. Now they’re gearing up for their first full staging at the Brick in Williamsburg.
The beauty of Exponential, he says, is that it’s driven by art, not profit. “You take your show to other places and they ask, ‘How many tickets are you going to sell? How many fluid ounces of alcohol are we going to pour tonight?’ With this festival, it’s actually about the show.”
Buchheister notes that Trachtenburg, like most of the writers and performers in the fest, came on board by virtue of being part of an extended network of underground artists. “One of the reasons we called it the Exponential Festival was that it just organically continued to grow,” she says.
For example, Buchheister knew Trachtenburg from years of seeing him perform at venues such as Bowery Poetry Club in the East Village. Similarly, she reached out to Darian Dauchan because she had seen his “low-tech but virtuosic performance” at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side.
And she was already hooked on the music of Dave Malloy from his earlier work for Banana Bag and Bodice. The composer is set to make his Broadway debut in September with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, but that doesn’t mean he’s left his Brooklyn buddies behind; he’s doing the music and sound design for LongYarn. “If you had a dial that was controlling traditional musical theatre harmony and melody, and you turned it the wrong way just a degree, then you would have Dave Malloy’s music,” Buchheister enthuses—and she means it as a huge compliment. (In a further example of how interconnected that underground theatre community is, Malloy will make a guest appearance in Bent’s Toilet Fire on Jan. 16; the two are married.)
Since this is Exponential’s first year, Buchheister is trying to stay focused and not wonder too much about what the future of the fest will bring. But she does imagine that eventually it might expand beyond the theatre scene to include other types of venues, such as local art galleries. (She refers to this expansion as the “tangential Exponential bump.”)
In the meantime, the spirit of the festival is captured nicely by Trachtenburg, who insists that good art doesn’t have to be planned to a tee, or expensive: “How about some fun songs and some hard work from everyone who really believes in the project?”
For the next couple of weeks in Brooklyn, that should be more than enough.
Pamela Newton is a freelance writer and college writing teacher living in New York City.