Saturday, December 17, 2016

On Cold

Devon Turchan is the Emcee in Cabaret (Blank Canvas Theatre)
We work in the city. The spaces we inhabit for our art and our the nourishment of our souls are made of cement and brick and glass, those man-made substances least likely to trap or keep heat. And yet, that is where we go, to occupy empty storefronts where we scheme and build, so close friends and friends we haven’t met yet can huddle against the elements to have our little moments before scattering to our various sectors once again.

Last week the wife and I went to the 78th Street Studios, once the design headquarters of American Greetings, then another largely vacant warehouse in the largely vacant near west side. Today it is a feature of the Battery Park district, an artists’ haven with spaces for galleries and also private functions (I have attended a wedding reception there) the site of several temporary Theater Ninjas installations and currently home to Blank Canvas Theatre.

We were attending a sold out performance of Blank Canvases’ acclaimed production of Cabaret. They had sent an email message to all those who had reservations (God, the things we could have done with email back in the day) warning us that parking would be an issue, as the entire building would be packed with interested shoppers taking the Holiday Bazaar. They recommended we arrive early, as to have time to find a parking space and then leisurely browse the wares of dozens of local artists.

I have seen a couple of shows at Blank Canvas, a tiny space with roughly ninety seats on three sides of the stage. Have you ever seen Cabaret in someplace the size of an actual cabaret? It is a rare treat, I will tell you that. They had a wait list, the best of their shows often do. It doesn’t matter how many seats a theater has, you want it full, people like to know they are part of something special, something in demand.

We (not me, the collective we) used to create these spaces, carving them out of the unhappy emptiness of urban abandonment. A storefront in Tremont with a single light over the door lighting a hand painted sign that read “The Actors’ Gym.” On any given Saturday evening we would wait for five or six the trickle in. Then there was the coffee shop carved out the space between two buildings with a metal roof over it, “The Brick Alley.” They offered folk music and the occasional dramatic offering.

John Coltrane's Christmas Meditation (Moko Bovo)
12 Bands of Christmas Sing, 12/22/1992 (Cleveland Public Theater)

Our new theater company used this space to produce a modern-dress yet otherwise pretty traditional three-hour Hamlet which was surprisingly well received and was also selling out its run, filling each of its ninety seats. People would drive in from their homes in the suburbs, park on St. Clair or 40th Street, see the show and then promptly vacate the area.

Cleveland used to have one major urban entertainment center at a time. Once, you had the Flats. Then it was the Warehouse District when everyone began fleeing the Flats, later East 4th. It was as though the number of people coming downtown weren’t enough to accommodate two neighborhoods at once.

Last week there was a public hearing regarding Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s decision to eliminate the Creative Workforce Fellowship, and many opinions were expressed regarding how these individual artist grants contributed to the cultural strength and vitality of neighborhoods like Tremont, Ohio City, Gordon Square, Waterloo, Hingetown -- those last three are names that were made up in the past ten years, they used to be called the Detroit Shoreway, Collinwood and, uh, Ohio City (?) as they have each become distinctive downtown neighborhoods where people actually hang out instead of scurrying right back to their homes.

So, we were seeing Cabaret in this tiny space in the middle of a large warehouse. Audience members with beer and popcorn jostling for position in our seats, remaindered from some defunct movie theater, trying to find space for all of our large, poofy coats. It was happening, the dream is real. I was reminded of that strange opportunity we received, almost twenty-five years ago. This guy owned the Union Gospel Press Building and wanted our company to move in. He wanted us to do our work there, we’d be pioneers, the rent would be seriously cheap and we could do whatever we liked.

We also wouldn’t have a lease, because he didn’t believe in those. I can only imagine what it would have been like if we had moved the entire operation, lock and stock, into that space on the edge of Tremont, overlooking the only recently completed Interstate 490.

We would have had off-street parking but no one would have stepped foot into that place just to see us, and even if we were able to turn it into a success we’d be out on our asses the moment the guy decided he didn’t want us there any more. That's not urban homesteading, that's like subletting on the surface of the moon.

Jean-Jacques Sempé (2005)
The other night I began a new project in the service of another writer, we had our first read-through in a former storefront, part of the massive Cleveland Public Theatre complex. The mercury was in the teens, but a fragile pane of glass was keeping us from dense, muscle-deep and piercing cold. We gather together to read a new play script.

This evening my wife and I will welcome folks into our home for the final salon of the calendar year (more on that some time) building a wall against despair and disillusionment, against the cold. It's what we do. It is what we have always done.

One of my very favorite New Yorker covers is by Jean-Jacques Sempé. Published in January, 2005, it features a street in the city, winter, cold, snow falling. The neighborhood is dark except for one street-level club, the lights are on, the band is playing, people are heading in wearing their heavy winter coats.

Outside, it is winter. In there, it’s so hot.

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