All the world’s a stage: Matthew Gasda brings living room theater to Greenpoint
The Brooklyn Center for Theater Research heralds the off-off-broadway revival
GREENPOINT — In living rooms across Brooklyn, people barrel towards each other, like particles in an accelerator. They collide and spin apart, in directions hard to predict… Understandings emerge, and where understanding isn’t possible, a recognition of the human condition…
Sorry, what? I’m talking about independent theater. I’m talking about such independent theater that it makes other users of the term seem the first wave, sponsored by Big Oil and embezzlers. At the heart of the DIY revival is Matthew Gasda’s Brooklyn Center for Theater Research, where he’s the playwright-in-residence.
With over a dozen plays to his name, including an underground hit, Gasda’s rise to fame seems tied in part to skillfully preserving the feeling of a time and a place… and uncorking it at the exact right moment. Dimes Square premiered during the cultural lull of the pandemic in makeshift spaces, profiling a certain scene concentrated around keystone haunts in Chinatown. It caught the mainstream media’s eye and sold out repeatedly. It’s now been published, along with three other plays: Quartet, Minotaur and Berlin Story.
Born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Gasda liked sports (the Eagles) and read widely (Gaddis, Joyce, Ashbery). He graduated with a philosophy degree from Syracuse, where he played keyboards and sang in a band called Preludes, a band I dug up because that’s what reporters do, and found mesmerizing. Their sound is kind of a rapturous slowcore, reminiscent of the emotional palates we had before the information age and its associated numbing solutions. In-person, Gasda is laidback and soft-spoken. He carries a burner-looking flip phone and is wary of the effect of technology on his work. He wages the war against ‘Twitter Brain’ by not getting WiFi and writes about the desire and neuroses of keeping creative output pure on his substack Novalis, a reference to the German Romantics he studied at school. Gasda kicks off a performance with a signature “Say Hi”, which sends a ripple of fourth-wall cognizance throughout the intimate cluster of people in the room. During the day, he teaches drama at a middle school.
Dimes Square came out at a time when oceans of spilled type tried to capture what was at the heart of the eponymous downtown scene. To me, not quite a Ph.D. in sociology but someone who has seen considerable reality TV, it’s just a perfect storm for curious observers of the weather of hypermodernity. At the surface, it’s a fun subculture of artists, skaters, content creators and scenesters; a kind of pseudo-café-philosophique headquartered around established establishments: Clandestino’s, Cervo’s, Kiki’s. Deconstructing further, you might find curious motifs: backlash at overwrought political correctness and dogged pursuit of edginess evoking a nu-right shift (with reported connections to Thiel-backed decentralization), internet culture’s trompe l’oeil into the real world, the personafication of self and hyper-ambition to ‘make it in New York’, however loosely defined that is. As one regular puts it “There’s an ache to be at the center of things, and I’m not even positive what those things are, that pulls me in.” One can rest assured that this ache will spin up similar whirlpools for centuries to come, long after this one has dissipated. Its critics, moralizers and secretly hopeful enlisters bring up that point and reference ‘speed-addled pseudo-intellectuals’ and – yes, but – like any so-so scene or worth-their-weight internet troll, the subculture is immunized against critique by just making memes of it. All good slides are slippery.
In Gasda’s portrayal, a crowd drapes itself over a sofa at a loft, drinking Fernet, doing bumps, and talking shit about the scene and each other whenever they’re out of earshot. They are charming, whether inherently or in a well-practiced way. They say “Enchanté’ and shelve Schopenhauer and Deleuze. Like fragmentary embodiments of the corporate culture, they want to scale. They want wider influence. As one character says “A lot of people here are out to be seen; talk to be heard; create to promote.”
The gravity-inducing, self-transcending events of the real world can’t seem to reach them in this state of viscous submergence, they filter in warped and desaturated. Cosmopolitan recently reported there’s a widening chasm between youth and families: 27% of Americans over 18 are estranged. There are many factors that drive such a statistic, but you see traces here. In Dimes, a character confesses “Yeah, I’m also avoiding going back home to see my family. There’s just so many disconnects; I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.” The self-cultivation and reality suspension required to be a persona, a name in a scene, can be all-consuming. But societally, we tend to forgive these attempts that are successful. We tend to permit myopic self-involvement as an ingredient in the cult of personality. Well, we do if it works.
There is an element of talking past each other in a balanced way. Yet anguished witticisms function as a kind of connective tissue. Being hit on, a female character says “You should see through all my tricks; there’s no reason to like me, I promise.” Then elaborates. “Asking you all those questions on the roof? Performing close listening. Inching closer […] It’s just me on auto-pilot.” Later, the male pursuing her counters with “I’m not honest. Not even close. The fact that you’re even at the point where you’re saying that is a sign that I’ve manipulated you a little bit. Being a good guy is my grift.” Gasda has an incisive eye for rendering the psychophysical in sharp but natural dialogue.
Dimes and other Gasda plays were held in living rooms, churches, and parks: makeshift spaces, as well as Beckett Rosset’s (Samuel Beckett’s publisher’s son, named after the playwright) smoky literary salon in West Village. Among the cast were Christian Lorentzen, former critic, and Fernanda Amis, daughter of the late Martin Amis. It’s a bit low reaching, but I briefly recalled that Shakespeare, whose career was quite literally plagued by constant resurgences of Bubonic Plague, tore down an indoor theater to build the famous outdoor Globe with its motto “All the World’s a Stage.”
Gasda and friends have established a dedicated performance space: The Brooklyn Center for Theater Research occupies an inconspicuous loft on 249 Huron St behind an industrial taxi cab parking lot. The rooftop spans several buildings, offers the sun’s travails across a wide sprawl of Manhattan, and is patrolled by cats. Inside: a living room, a cream-colored couch, about thirty metal chairs, and bookshelves boasting the works of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon. Upstairs, Light and Sound Studio shares the space. During our interview, as we drank Fernet on the rooftop, the studio owner, Kyle Garner popped his head out the upstairs window to joke “We have the potheads upstairs and the alcoholics downstairs.” The studio manager, Benji Iyer explained that they host “listening sessions, jazz shows, meditation, kung fu, pasta making —” “— Pasta making?” I asked. “Gnocchi,” he nodded seriously. It’s the kind of jack-of-all-tradesism that experimental creative spaces allow. Once during a play at the Center, marimba beats floated down, rattling the furniture, but the actors did not seem to register the turbulent outer world for a moment.
The Center holds regular classes in playwriting, acting, fiction writing, and photography. Matthew Weinberger, a nightlife photographer in NYC, taught a class there on improvisational photography which featured a visit from “The Cobrasnake” Mark Hunter. Mark has captured the New York indie scene for decades cataloging the rise of mega-celebrities like Karen O and Katy Perry. Anastasia Wolfe, a leading actress in the Center’s repertoire, initially took an acting workshop at the center. One of the most poignant aspects of the space is the spirit of community and the potent message of lowering bureaucratic and self-imposed obstacles towards pursuing creative work. Albert Kunze, the main sound technician, describes how folks brought crutches to his apartment after he twisted his ankle. Izabel Mar, another prominent member and talented actress, describes being driven to the ER by her Dover co-star Meg MacCary, after getting sick on set and feeling adopted by her thereafter. George Olesky, who teaches a recurring acting workshop there and has starred in several Gasda plays such as Ardor, Still Life, and Minotaur, told me about finding meaning and love for performance here again, amidst the notoriously disillusioning grind of acting in New York.
Small theater spaces have been an integral component of the City’s cultural landscape for well over a century. By luck, I ran into Joel Eis, a lifelong theater historian, and actor who has been devoted to small-scale productions for the past fifty years. Joel was a part of the Workers Theatre in the ’60s, which produced plays about and for working people and was closely tied in with the Labor Movements. He recalls performing on the backs of trucks so that setup could be easily moved when riots occurred. In Harlem in the 1930s, the Suitcase Theater, founded by Langston Hughes, was dubbed so because that’s what carried everything needed for the performance. In the 1950’s “off-broadway” was born in response to the commercialization of Broadway, followed by “off-off-broadway” in the 1960s, promoting greater independent production and diversity of voices in the theater space.
Theater spaces are still struggling to come back after the pandemic. Why not check out some hyperlocal art this summer? As Joel says “Theater needs to be vitalized, experienced outside of dry statistics.” Just nobody mint the term Grimes Square, okay? Later this month, Zoomers, Ardor, This Time, and Salt will premiere at the Center. Be sure to check their website which is regularly updated with new shows.
Janna Shaftan is a writer and journalist living in the best city in the world: Greenpoint. During the day, she’s an engineer at Google and at night she covers Brooklyn independent arts. Follow her at jannavrs@.
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