When news came in February that the New Ohio Theatre was closing, it felt like the latest fatality in an Off-Off-Broadway slaughter that has been going on since the early 2000s. Robert Lyons founded the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street in 1993, and reincarnated it as the New Ohio in 2011 at 154 Christopher Street after the Soho space was sold. Under Lyons, both Ohios were home to a string of game-changing ensembles: the TEAM, Les Freres Corbusier, Vampire Cowboys, Clubbed Thumb, and Tina Satter’s Half Straddle. But after the Aug. 12 performance of Ultra Left Violence—the last show in the final Ice Factory festival—the New Ohio is gone.
Cue silver lining: The 74-seat space in the West Village will remain a home for nonprofit theatre, thanks to the building’s landlord, Rockrose Development. In a recent conversation, Lyons revealed the next occupant: Chashama, the multidisciplinary organization that for decades has turned vacant commercial square footage into art galleries and performance spaces.
I sat down with Lyons one recent afternoon to discuss how the impresario of the downtown avant-garde got lured into playwriting (Ultra Left Violence is his latest text, directed and performed by Daniel Irizarry), and what his next act might be.
DAVID COTE: Are you a playwright-director who started a theatre, or did you start a theatre and then got drawn into making plays?
ROBERT LYONS: I was a writer first. I was an English major, living in Rockport, Mass., writing poetry and painting houses—you know, a beach bum, in my early 20s. And Rockport is a dry town, so I had to hitchhike to Gloucester to go to the bars. One night I was going to see some blues band, and instead of an opening band, they had a theatre performance. It was a scene from Key Exchange, the old comedy about relationships. The actors stayed for the band. I walked over, introduced myself, and we hung out all night. So I hitchhiked back to my apartment in Rockport. I took out a short story I was working on and said, I’m gonna make this a play. I had no experience in the theatre.
What about that performance sparked it for you?
In a way, it has much to do with the time after the show as watching. I like the idea of doing theatre in a bar. So it was a certain vibe, and then hanging out with those people. And they were talking about theatre, and I was asking a lot of questions, and I thought, This seems pretty cool.
Then what happened?
I moved to Philadelphia and got a job at the Wilma Theater as a telemarketer selling subscriptions. Blanka Zizka ran the Wilma. I took a playwriting workshop there and from then on, I’ve been writing plays. Also in Philly, I learned how to ASM at People’s Own Theater, and at Walnut Street Theatre I learned lights, and eventually in London I got a job at a basement theatre in Camden, under a bookstore. I had this bag of skills I picked up in Philly, so they hired me for stage managing, lighting design, and sound design in this little 70-seat theatre. And they had a bookstore on the floor above me, right? So I was reading everything. I kind of read through the entire canon of contemporary plays. Caryl Churchill was maybe the biggest influence at the time; it was the political part of it.
That’s something I noticed about the Ohio in the 1990s. At the Ontological or P.S. 122 we were doing really abstract, postmodern stuff, but your work was political.
Yeah, politics have always been in there. The first show I did in New York was called Dream Conspiracy. It was this crazy farce, but about Third World debt. So I try to layer human comedy into the politics. Even back then I was already thinking about what was going on in the world.
When you started the Ohio Theatre, it was a sort of golden age for downtown experimental groups.
Sure, Kristin Marting was here with her company Tiny Mythic, and Karin Coonrod had Arden Party. We all knew each other; we were hanging out, trading actors and designers, everyone supporting each other.
Everyone had at least one gig at the Ohio in their bio.
You acted there in [Robert Cucuzza’s] Rich White Farmers.
I remember it well. You’ve run the Ohio, and then New Ohio, for 30 years; you’ve had more than 20 plays produced in New York. Why is the party coming to an end?
It’s a confluence of things. One is the arc of my own life. I’ve been doing this for 30 years—we’re using 30, because that’s when we incorporated Soho Think Tank, doing business as Ohio Theatre. I just turned 64. Then there’s the conversation going on in the field: Why’s this cis-male heterosexual running a theatre for 30 years? Make space for other people. And then, financially, as every article is pointing out right now, it’s just a brutal landscape. For us, the audience being down is not such a big deal. I have 75 seats. If the show gets good word of mouth, I’m selling out. A lot of money came in during the pandemic, as it did for a lot of people. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, the PPP loan—they kept everybody going. It was weird, because everybody had more money from not making theatre. Now that money is over and everything is way more expensive to produce.
New Ohio Theatre will cease to be, but you have a 501(c)(3) as Soho Think Tank. What happens to that?
We have a house up in Pine Plains, east of Rhinebeck. It’s small but sweet. And there’s a performance art center that just opened nearby called the Stissing Center. I’m in discussions there. I might try out a program called Downtown Upstate, bringing shows from downtown New York to the Hudson Valley.
As someone who made experimental work for decades and saw a lot come through the Ice Factory, how much has percolated up to the mainstream?
Take two examples: Rachel Chavkin and Alex Timbers. They’re directing on Broadway. Rachel with Hadestown and The Thanksgiving Play and Alex with Moulin Rouge! and Here Lies Love. They worked at the Ohio toward the beginning of their careers, Rachel with her company the TEAM and Alex with Les Freres Corbusier.
Does that mean Broadway is getting weirder?
That’s how it works. We keep doing the work, and it expands what people accept. I don’t know about you, but I see something, it doesn’t seem weird to me. When you take a little step out of our bubble, audiences are like, Wow, that’s so weird! But that bubble keeps getting bigger and bigger, and more and more people are used to crazier and crazier storytelling devices.
Your new play, Ultra Left Violence, is definitely within the bubble; it’s super-duper absurdist. Where did this one come from?
Out of a specific trajectory that involves [actor-director] Daniel Irizarry. He has me write text for him and then he takes it into the rehearsal room and expands with techniques derived from clowning and physical performance. A few years ago, Daniel asked me to write a short piece when he was in residency. So I wrote something called Yovo. I was in Benin, West Africa, at the time, and I wrote it as a very dense, poetic, image-based piece. “Yovo” means “white man” there. We turned it into its own show. And that show has been performed in Cuba and Poland, and South Korea last summer at an international theatre festival. Then I wrote My Onliness for him, which we produced last September, and it was a huge hit. A musical with seven songs. We got great reviews from the New York Times and the New Yorker. My favorite quote was from Theatermania: “the most singularly insane show in NYC right now.” Yovo and My Onliness are included in a collection of my plays published by Mercer Street Books last year.
What inspired Ultra Left Violence?
We’re conceiving it as an academia of the mind—another dense, poetic-political text with a demented professor, two students free-associating an anti-capitalist manifesto, and a privileged poet. I started writing it with no stage directions, just text. I knew I wanted to make another show with Daniel for my last Ice Factory. Coming out of My Onliness and Yovo, I felt this great liberation in terms of my relationship to text and storytelling. You know, I like writing narrative. My other plays have characters, but I’m on a journey right now. And it’s all because of this amazing collaboration with Daniel. This is a workshop presentation and we have two development residencies scheduled in the fall at Mercury Store in Brooklyn and then NACL in the Catskills.
Previously, what sort of style were you working in?
I’ve always been more into a satirical comedy style. Years ago I wrote a play called Vater Knows Best, which was Wilhelm Reich’s theory of mass psychology of fascism mixed with an episode of Father Knows Best. Another play, PR Man, was about a guy who has to manage a scandal around a toxic dump in a small town. He arrives with a suitcase, opens the suitcase, and his PR team comes out like clowns from a car. I was always into that kind of surrealism.
Rehearsing your last play at Ohio while closing down the theatre—sounds like you have a lot on your plate.
Since I’m kind of an accidental artistic director, I wanted to end doing the part of the job I love the most: being in a rehearsal room, with all the tension, everybody freaking out. That camaraderie and collaboration makes me happy. Rehearsals keep me narrowly focused on a fun thing. And then I’m taking care of all the business of the handoff of the space, all the mechanics of funders and all that. But that’s the day job. This is the fun job.
And not your first rodeo; you had to close the original Ohio Theatre in 2010.
When we lost the space on Wooster Street, we thought that was the end. I did the exact same thing: I took the last slot in Ice Factory. It was a play called Nostradamus Predicts the Death of SoHo. I love how we started that: There was a fancy clothing store across the street, and the show started with our actress in a wedding dress in that storefront window. The audience was kept out in front waiting, we wouldn’t let them in the theatre. And then she started performing. We let everybody in the theatre. And they sat in the risers, looking through the barn doors to see her in the window across the street. After, we had an epic dance party. I’ve been through this process before. We thought that was the end. And then, miraculously, we got this space here.
Will there be another epic dance party on Aug. 12?
You know there will.
David Cote is a journalist, playwright, and opera librettist based in New York City. His reviews and reporting also appear in The A.V. Club, Observer, and 4 Columns.
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