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Best Off-Off Broadway venues

They're small, cheap and out of control—the city's coolest experimental stages. (Click through to see what's on at each.)

Ars Nova

There aren’t many entertainment options along Tenth Avenue, but one is worth the trek: A jewel box of a theater stages a heady, well-selected repertory of comedy, cabaret and music shows in an environment that’s focused more on the performance than on the cash register at the bar. The schedule is erratic, so call before heading out. The semiregular Jewcy provides some kosher laughs for Jews and those who wish they were.

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Hell's Kitchen

The Brick

This scrappy 70-seat space—an erstwhile garage—popped into the theatrical scene in 2002 squished into a vanishingly tiny spot on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg. Its founders, Robert Honeywell and Michael Gardner, have maintained a rattling schedule of tartly themed summer festivals (The Moral Values Festival), pieces by low-budget, high-concept avant-gardists like the Debate Society and Ian W. Hill, and works helmed by Honeywell and Gardner themselves.

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The Bushwick Starr

Don't get nervous at the "Bushwick" in the name: This comfortable 60-seat black box (up some seriously steep stairs) is a mere block and a half from the subway, and only 15 minutes from Union Square. The space is largely a rental venue, attracting avant-garde fare like Target Margin's Tennessee Williams festival and a variety of performance art and theatrical performances.

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The Chocolate Factory

Critics' pick

Brian Rogers and Sheila Lewandowski founded this 5000-square-foot perfomance venue in Long Island City in 2005, converting a onetime hardware store into two spaces: a low-ceilinged downstairs room and a loftier, brighter upstairs whitebox. The Factory is not for rent: Rogers curates his season, inviting artists (from midcareer playwrights like Mac Wellman to rising directors like Alice Reagan) onboard—and the space pays them. It's a welcoming spot (buy your chocolate chip cookies at the box office), and the spot won an Obie for its programming, which tends towards the highly physical, the interdisciplinary and the avant-garde.

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Long Island City

Dixon Place

More than 22 years after it started hosting experimental performances in a loft on the Bowery, this plucky organization has finally opened its gorgeous new space a few blocks away on the Lower East Side. A lounge, mainstage theater and studio all support the work of emerging artists.

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Lower East Side

Flea Theater

Founded in 1997, Jim Simpson’s cozy, well-appointed black-box venue has presented avant-garde experimentation (such as the work of Mac Wellman) and politically provocative satires (by the likes of A.R. Gurney and Jonathan Reynolds). A 40-seat basement theatre is home to the Flea’s resident young acting company, the Bats.

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After a recent refurbishment, this downtown stalwart is now one of the most comfortable experimental spaces, what with its cozy lobby café (1 Dominick) and relatively impressive multimedia capacity. The upstairs space—long, wide and low—has played host to recent smashes like Taylor Mac’s epic The Lily’s Revenge, while the downstairs 70-seat black box sees new works by everyone from Karinne Keithley to Tina Satter. HERE’s strength lies in its come-one-come-all attitude, its absurdly generous grant and commissioning programs, and a genuine warmth that is largely thanks to the venue’s doyenne and founder, Kristin Marting, and the community of artists who call HERE a second home.

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Incubator Arts Project at St. Mark’s Church

After 20 years upstairs at the historic St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater—famous for its baroquely designed avant-garde productions—will cede control to the Incubator, the adventurous developmental series with an eye for the best in local experimental theater. Tina Satter, Theater of a Two-Headed Calf and Target Margin have all done work here recently, working around the space's crazy, asymmetrical shape and weirdly placed columns to make some of the season's most exciting work.

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East Village

Kraine Theater

Part of the gaggle of theaters on East 4th Street, the 99-seat Kraine is part of the loosely affiliated Horse Trade theaters (which also include the Red Room and UNDER St. Marks), where irreverent, independent work bubbles incessantly. The venue—a sweet proscenium with creaky, back-crippling red velvet seats—can also be rented, so it's difficult to pin the spot down in terms of a unified aesthetic.

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East Village

La MaMa E.T.C.

Walk into this revolution-red theater—with its narrow First Floor Theater, its spectacularly barnlike next-door Ellen Stewart Theatre and the groovy attic Club Theater—and you are transported back in time to the New York scene's ’60s heyday. The mama herself, Ellen Stewart, first opened La MaMa's doors in 1961, and she has since produced major figures like Tadeusz Kantor, Andrei Serban and Ping Chong, along with younger multicultural, dance-theater and avant-garde artists, as well as her own exuberant riffs on classical myth.

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East Village
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