The golden age of large-scale, site-specific outdoor New York theater was the 1990s. The tsunami of hypermonied gentrification hadn’t hit yet, so while the city was getting safer, it still seemed made of its original, if decaying, fabric. There was an abandoned elevated railway (curently the High Line) on the West Side that no one knew what to do with; there were generous donations from big philanthropies like the heroic Ford Foundation and now-departed Altria; and no one was worried about terrorism. Producer Anne Hamburger and En Garde Arts were able to stage crazy spectacles near major New York attractions.
From 1985 to 1998, En Garde Arts produced 22 site-specific productions in places ranging from the Natural History Museum to an abandoned Broadway theater to a lake in Central Park to four square blocks of the Meatpacking District. The group produced major artists like Mac Wellman and Anne Bogart, won six Obies and made theater history. Now Hamburger is back in town with a new festival of emerging artists called BOSSS, or Big Outdoor Site Specific Stuff. To welcome back her city-spanning vision, we talked to Hamburger about her greatest hits. Click through to see some of the great works of that period, and be inspired to make your own.
“We commissioned six performance artists to make pieces in the Chelsea Hotel, but we got shut down by the fire department! The audience would come to the lobby, and then there was a performance in each room. Squat Theater was in the first, Penny Arcade and then David Van Tieghem. Squat absolutely had to have a goat for some reason, so we snuck it into the hotel in a sound case. And it lived there—I remember at one point we were worried the goat was pregnant [Laughs]."
"We got a lot of press, and so the fire department got wind of it. We weren't paying attention to room capacity and that stuff, and the Chelsea Hotel was famous for fires. The fire department said we'd have to be in just the lobby—so we moved the whole thing to a party loft. The show, by then, was Ann Carlson and John Kelly…and every night the audience would go to the Chelsea Hotel, and I'd tell them what happened, and then we’d walk down the street together to the party loft.”
“We did Mac Wellman’s Bad Penny in a lake in Central Park. I have a certain force of personality [Laughs], and it was an easier time then to get the guy in charge of special events to just say, 'Okay.' Honestly, I tend to ignore the 'No' until I hear 'Yes.' If I had to look back to say what are the most important pieces I did over those years, one would be that for sure. I think that one was really important; Mac once told me he was ready to give up writing when we did Bad Penny."
"We did three shows in the park, and Mac picked the Bow Bridge. His was the one that really got attention—it was amazing: Jan Leslie Harding sitting on a rock talking about the lunacy of the city, a man in a boat, then someone on the Bow Bridge screaming. You know Reg E. Cathey was in that show? Now he’s a[n] [Emmy-winning] regular on House of Cards. Ah, Reg once waded into a lake for me.”
“Mac Wellman’s Crowbar was a really interesting experience because in 1990, 42nd Street was a wasteland. There had been no live show below 47th Street in 60 years. At the time, Douglas Durst owned the Victory Theatre [now the New Victory], and I met with him, and I said I’d like to do a show there. Mac wrote Crowbar as the history of the Victory—the actors were in the boxes and aisles and balconies singing, ‘All theaters are haunted.’ It was beautiful! But when we got into the theater, there was nothing there. People were going into the boxes and finding condoms [Laughs]. David Van Tieghem wrote some incredible music, and so in this way a haunted theater was coming alive, and we were paving a new path. It was so impossible, and that characterizes what we were doing exactly: I remember it as just such a positive statement about the city.”
“I met Reza Abdoh through Norman Frisch—I spent a day with Reza, and I just fell in love with him. This was a person with a grand vision; this was an auteur visionary. [To find a location for Mira-Lani Oglesby and Abdoh’s loose adaptation of Brothers Karamazov], we walked around the Meatpacking District—and back then it was really just meatpacking during the day and transvestites at night. Reza fell in love with it. For some reason, the Community Board let us shut down four square blocks. I couldn't have done it without [designers] Kyle Chepulis and Brian Aldiss; they were magic makers, mad scientists. We used 16 locations, and we put a huge table down Little West 12th Street. The only horrifying moment was when a performer popped out of that table, looked my mother straight the face and growled, ‘I wanna fuck you.’ Look, I told her not to come…!”
“We wanted to hang a chandelier across Little West 12th Street, and so we were walking into meatpacking offices to see if anyone could help us. One guy said, 'Get out, I’ve got a gun in my pocket.' But then Jim Ortenzio [a meatpacker and Republican Party chairman] took a shine to us, and it opened everything up. This was before the High Line, and Reza hung a red theater curtain from the train tracks. Jan Leslie Harding was standing on them, and she'd jump off the train tracks, and the curtain would part—and there were 60 dancers behind it doing a mad bacchanalian dance. It was nuts but it was wonderful, too. Most people were honest: Some people came and paid [the box office was in a red convertible parked on Little West 12th Street], and you could get free tickets if you were a working transvestite.”
“So for Another Person is a Foreign Country, Chuck Mee wrote this piece about being an outcast. His cast list included a ‘woman who’s emotionally disabled,' a ‘woman who can fit in a box’ a ‘blind choir.’ We did it at the Towers, which looked like an abandoned castle in the Loire Valley. It was a cancer hospital, then a nursing home; now it's high-priced condominiums."
“It was so beautiful, so emotional and moving, I think because all artists have some deep-seated feeling of being an outcast. It plugged into a place within me, and ever since I’ve been aware of how difference is shunned, even among liberals. It captured Chuck's sense of difference. Then the building was entirely empty, and Anne Bogart did such a beautiful job of making it come alive. My favorite moment was the blind choir sitting in rows of chairs with their German shepherds. And Anne—ah, Anne made the building cry. Kyle Chepulis took a pipe and put holes in it and attached it to a hydrant nearby, and so when the choir started singing, it would start to rain. This is one of those moments that you realize that film just doesn’t capture what we did.”
“Orestes was another Chuck Mee play, and Tina Landau directed it on a twisted metal pier in the Hudson River. Jefferson Mays [A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder] was Orestes, and I will never forget the night it was raining—it was pouring, and there was a floodlight washing the road, and while we sat in the car, Jefferson was out there with an umbrella redoing his blocking. That’s part of the serendipity of outdoor work—when it rained, I had to give everyone a ticket to another night, and I remember [Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director] Todd Haimes walked up to me and said, ‘I could never do that.’"
"But at the same time, Jefferson would do these monologues, and a cruise ship would go behind him at just the right time—and you'd think, It can't get better than this. On Orestes, we met with Donald Trump’s executive vice president, and he was asking, ‘How could you do a show out there; there's nothing out there?’ And then he told us, ‘You have to build a fence from the entrance of the Trump property to the pier’ because—get this—he was worried people would jump in the water. We did it; we built the fence out of plastic. And nobody jumped in.”
“Ah, Marathon Dancing was an Anne Bogart piece about exactly what you think it was about! It was in the Masonic Hall ballroom, which is now a party space. It was beautiful. We had incredible performers. And some of the actors [like Tom Nelis, pictured] became part of Anne’s SITI Company. You know, before I was interested in theater, I was an artist."
"In 1980, I was doing photographs in a tai chi studio, and Anne Bogart was doing The Emissions Project [a roving soap opera throughout the city], and she asked me to be in her show as an actor. I became totally inspired by how she was staging the pieces so beautifully in relation to the environment, so I applied to the Yale School of Drama in management. Anne is very much my inspiration, because while I was still at Yale, I had to come up with a thesis—and I decided I wanted to start a site-specific theater as my thesis project. That’s how it all started.”
“This was Stonewall, which Tina Landau wrote and directed. It was amazing what she did and how she staged it: We had a whole pier, and she made miniscenes on individual stages. There was a preshow, and people then watched the reenactment of the Stonewall riots with music by Ricky Ian Gordon."
"There wasn't a show we did that didn't have its set of complications. In this one, we had professional actors and 50 transvestites we picked up in the neighborhood. Equity just didn't know what to do with us…they let us go as long as nobody complained.” [Laughs]
“We did JP Morgan Saves the Nation [book by Jeffrey M. Jones and music by Jonathan Larson] outside Federal Hall."
"I feel very lucky that I got to know Jonathan before he died. He was working at the Moondance diner off Sixth Avenue, and he had no money. He would come across the street to my office and give me cassette tapes from Rent. I remember saying, ‘Why are you waitering?’ And he said, ‘I know I’m going to make it as a composer some day.’”
“For Chuck Mee’s Trojan Women, we were in the East River Park Amphitheater. I had to get permission from the Parks Department, and on the phone, they said: ‘You can't do a piece in the East River Park Amphitheater; there are sinkholes!’ And I said that we'd build the set over the sinkholes. I don't take no for an answer."
"What's changed most from that time isn’t the city, though—it’s the funding community. The model that the arts survived on has gone by the wayside, so now the funding priorities that are handed down tell artists how they should think and what they should do. It's so bureaucratic! So much energy and time in forms! Only big development departments can do that. For someone running a small organization, you can work for weeks and weeks and get nothing. Even the city hurdles can be overcome—it's about finding resources, finding money.”
“For The Waste Land, it was [director] Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw [pictured above in 2013’s The Testament of Mary], and I knew we needed to find an incredible place where she could do this poetry. I had a relationship with 42nd Street, and I discovered the hidden away Liberty Theatre [then sealed up behind other businesses]. At the time, it was like Sherlock Holmes: knock three times and enter. You could only have 77 people in there; now it’s a luxury club. Shaw’s a brilliant actor, and she and Warner made it come alive—they brought that theater to life. Again, it was dust off the cobwebs, spray a lot and pray for the best. Tom Nelis once said, 'Oh! It’s another En Garde Arts show; I better get my tetanus shot.'” [Peals of laughter]