Miracles Made From Simple Materials: Design Team Deserves Props for ‘SHAME!’

From “Access Upheaval,” TNC’s 2002 Street Theater production. Everybody’s a puppet of a higher power, and the president of Worldcon Corporation is no exception. Hand puppet by Zen Mansley. | Photo by Jonathan Slaff

BY TRAV S.D. | We say it every year, but this time may be truer than in the past: We need Theater for the New City’s annual street theater production more than ever. In its 42 years of existence, this annual topical production — written and directed by TNC’s co-founder and artistic director, Crystal Field — has had much to sound off about: Reaganism, nukes, the excesses of capitalism, the evils of racism, and several wars. But nothing to compare to the present, when everything evil seems to be happening all at once, and a crucial midterm election is just three months away.

Preparing for 2018’s Street Theater production, scenic designer Mary Blanchard paints a cranky backdrop with a scene of immigrants at the Statue of Liberty. | Photo by Trav S.D.

This year’s edition, “SHAME! Or The Doomsday Machine,” will talk about all of that and more as it tours New York City streets, parks, and playgrounds in all five boroughs from Aug. 4 through Sept. 16. Longtime fans of this free, large-cast, small-budget annual production will be glad to see many familiar faces amongst the cast and crew. Unlike most American workplaces, turnover at TNC and its street theater is low, the surest possible indication that the job is a labor of love. But some might say the biggest star of all in this show is not a human being, but a machine. That’s the scenic device affectionately dubbed “the cranky,” which provides the backdrops for every street theater production. The hand-cranked contraption (more formally known as a “running screen” or a “scrolling backdrop”) is very old school theater technology that allows 10 (9′ x 12′) painted backdrops to be positioned on the same piece of scrolled canvas, which can be changed quickly and efficiently during the production. According to TNC production manager (and cast member) Mark Marcante, the cranky takes four crew people to operate: two to crank it, and two to support it at the bottom. It comes apart and breaks down for travel, and needs to be clipped in the middle to prevent sagging.

Scenic painter Mary Blanchard has been the principal designer for going on three decades. She points out that the use of moving panorama technology goes back at least to the early 19th century. Theatrical tradition informs every aspect of the street theater production, as each show embraces such diverse disciplines and styles as commedia dell’arte, puppetry, agitprop, vaudeville, mask, and the great American musical. Prop designer Lytza Colon, who’s been with the show for 10 years, demonstrates what makes designing for the street theater special when she shows me a judge’s gavel she is working on for a courtroom scene. It is a clown’s gavel, made of foam, and easily five times larger than a naturalistic prop would be.

Prop designer Lytza Colon creates a piano for TNC’s 2018 Street Theater production. | Photo by Trav S.D.

“The street theater is epic realism,” Marcante said, channeling Bertolt Brecht, a major influence on Field. “Everything has got to be larger than life,” he noted, with Colon adding, “Plus, people have got to see it from the back [of the audience]!”

It’s quite rare for Off-Off Broadway companies to achieve anything like the scale Theater for the New City puts into its street theater shows: A cast of 28, a crew of 10, and five live musicians (led by “SHAME!” composer Joseph Vernon Banks at the keyboard) are the hands-on company, in addition to a director (Field) with three assistants, and a design and production team of about a dozen. But making life easier in this daunting task is the fact that TNC has its own scene shop, and storage for hundreds of costumes and props. For a show like “SHAME!,” team members like Marcante and Colon (and costumier Susan Henley) have the luxury of pulling ready-made items from the vaults. Some of it is quite fabulous; an Egyptian style sedan chair from a recent Charles Busch production, for example, is being repurposed for the current show.

But playwright Field works strictly from her imagination, which means that much of the time, new elements need to be fabricated from scratch, and on a tight budget. Miracles are made from simple materials. A wormhole in space in a fantasy sequence is devised from black fabric and garbage bags, for example. But such is the spirit of play that in the whirl and excitement of performance those materials will be transformed into a phenomenon of deep space physics.

And physics is the touchstone for this year’s show. Street theater veteran Michael David Gordon plays a high school physics teacher whose students hit him with difficult political questions like, “What’s your relative speed to prison if you are an American criminal or a Guatemalan immigrant?” Like many a street theater hero before him, the professor goes on a journey of discovery, taking the audience with him. Among the show’s most telling didactic elements is a sequence in which a certain evil TV reality show host (Alex Bartenieff) is transformed into an African American, a woman, and a Middle Eastern immigrant and a welfare recipient, in hopes that he can learn a little empathy. And there is also a nod to Therese Patricia Okoumou, the activist who performed that eye-catching protest at the Statue of Liberty this past Independence Day. In a third scene, the ghost of Albert Einstein appears, and quotes from a famous letter he wrote to his daughter, in which he said that the most important energy force in the world is love.

From 2016: “Election Selection, or You Bet!” was TNC’s 40th annual Street Theater. Hand puppet by Zen Mansley | Photo by Julia Slaff

“The street theater is very important this year,” Marcante said, noting, “We’ve got this bully, this narcissist, turning the country into a Fascist state, separating children from their parents. It’s important that we get people out to vote in the midterms, to change this path we’re on.”

Marcante, who is celebrating his 34th year with the street theater, is a veteran fighter who has lost none of his enthusiasm for the fight. He and the whole company will be giving their all to inspire us all over the city with performances through Sept. 16.

Free and open to the public. Manhattan performances, all shows 2pm, include Sat., Aug. 4 at TNC (E. 10th St. at 1st Ave.); Sat., Aug. 11 at Tompkins Square Park (E. 7th St. & Ave. A); Sun., Aug. 12 at the Central Park Bandshell (72nd St. crosswalk); Sat., Sept. 8, at Washington Square Park; and Sun., Sept. 16 at St. Marks Church (E. 10th St. at 2nd Ave.). For the full schedule, visit theaterforthenewcity.net or call 212-254-1109.

“SHAME! Or The Doomsday Machine” is production manager Mark Marcante’s 34th year with TNC’s annual street theater tour. | Photo by Jonathan Slaff

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