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BY TRAV S.D. | By many measures, 1993 was a pretty wretched year. The World Trade Center was bombed (the first time); the siege in Waco occurred, resulting in the loss of 76 lives; the US military saw action in Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti; Arthur Ashe died of AIDS; River Phoenix OD’d; and Colin Ferguson shot up the LIRR. But that same year, in Lower Manhattan, something wonderful happened. Two Downtown theatre companies, Tiny Mythic and the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art, joined forces to create HERE Arts Center. The 2017-2018 season will be HERE’s 25th, which means the company will be celebrating its Silver Anniversary — no small feat given the failure rate of small arts organizations.
“It was just a raw space when we found it,” said co-founder Kristin Marting, of their location at 145 Sixth Ave. “It was 13,000 square feet of storage, full of refrigerators and appliances, with a loading dock. We had to gut and rehab the whole space ourselves, and our family and friends, with just sweat equity.”
As originally configured, HERE had three theatres, a large art gallery on the ground floor, and a cafe space on the Sixth Ave. side. The space was initially considered a vessel for its two main companies, Tiny Mythic and the Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art, and the various artists and companies they sponsored and hosted through their core programs. The two founding companies merged in 1997 and Marting was named Executive Director, a post she held for a decade. In 2007, her job title shifted to Artistic Director, with Kim Whitener coming on as Producing Director.
“I came on during on what we call our ‘teenager with braces phase,’ ” recalled Whitener. During these years (2005-2007) the building’s owners announced that they going to convert the building to condominiums. “They didn’t want us here anymore,” said Whitener. Nevertheless, HERE persisted. They raised the money to get out of their current lease, condensed their footprint, and purchased the smaller square footage. Work on the conversion was completed in 2008 (with the entrance on Dominick St., one block south of Spring St.).
It was a bold and risky gambit, but it paid off, solidifying HERE’s financial position even as it supported hundreds of artists and helped change the face of the neighborhood.
“No one used to go beyond Sixth Avenue,” said Whitener, “Now the neighborhood is bustling. All those artists moving in made a difference. HERE has made an impact.”
It has also grown. Initially an organization with a $350,000 annual budget, that number has grown nearly sixfold. Once entirely volunteer based, HERE now employs nine full-time and nine part-time staff members.
Equally impressive is the high quality of the work the company has produced over the past quarter century — including such groundbreaking productions as the premiere of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” Basil Twist and Joey Arias’ “Arias with a Twist,” Young Jean Lee’s “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” Trey Lyford & Geoff Sobelle’s “all wear bowlers,” Taylor Mac’s “The Lily’s Revenge,” and several works created and directed by Marting. Other artists with a close association with the space have included Labyrinth Theater Company, Elevator Repair Service, Target Margin Theater, and The Talking Band.
This year’s season will present three world premieres of works developed through the HERE Artist Residency Program, or HARP: “Stairway to Stardom” by Amanda Szeglowski/cakeface, “Thomas Paine in Violence” by Paul Pinto, and “American Weather” by Chris Green. There will also be a new original work by Marting and co-creator Purva Bedi and Mariana Newhard entitled “Assembled Identity,” and a revival of a seminal production from HERE’s past: Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which will soon be celebrating its own 20th anniversary, and has traveled to cities from San Francisco to London.
Said Twist, “The original production of ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ was part of HERE’s puppetry program and presented in the little theatre downstairs [now named the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre in honor of Twist’s grandmother]. After the HERE run, I developed a touring production and the show got a bit bigger, and this time we’ll be bringing that bigger version of the show to the upstairs space [the Mainstage Theatre]. I really do hope to recreate the magic of that original production, the sense of discovery. It means a lot to bring it back here. It’s thrilling. It’s like coming home.”
For more on HERE’s 2017-2018 season, visit here.org.