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Occupy Broadway Draws Artists, Protesters To Theater District

Occupy Broadway

First Posted: 12/04/11 02:37 PM ET Updated: 12/04/11 11:30 PM ET

NEW YORK -- A diverse group of performance artists and protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement headed to the Theater District this weekend to stage a 24-hour demonstration called Occupy Broadway.

The protest aimed to reclaim public space through creative resistance. Beginning at 6:00 p.m. Friday, more than 60 acts performed in Paramount Plaza, an open area on Broadway between 50th and 51st Streets.

Organized by members of the Occupy Wall Street Performance Guild, an offshoot of the Arts and Culture working group, the event drew a long list of names from the downtown New York theater scene and beyond. Performers from Elevator Repair Service, the New York Neo-Futurists, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Living Theatre and the Civilians all appeared, as did actress Kathleen Chalfant, "Hair" co-author James Rado, and Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.

Ben Shepard, an activist who co-wrote "The Beach Beneath the Streets," a book about privatization and public space in New York, said he and the other organizers came up with the idea for the event in early November.

"We had a conversation about bonus plazas and social movements," Shepard said. "My friend Andy Velez from Act Up, the AIDS coalition that uses a lot of theater in their direct actions, said that we should do theater in one of these bonus plazas on Broadway. That was it."

Like Zuccotti Park, the space in downtown Manhattan where the Occupy Wall Street movement began, Paramount Plaza is a privately owned public space, one of hundreds located throughout the city. Most of these spaces, which developers create in exchange for permission to make their buildings taller, are uninviting, inaccessible and underutilized, organizers said. They decided to hold the event so that the public could "take back the stage" -- in other words, reclaim the space that is rightfully theirs.

"We're occupying it because public space should be used by the public, and we think it should be used for performances," said Claire Lebowitz, a member of the Performance Guild and one of the organizers of the event.

Lebowitz said that the group hoped to continue to use the space after the 24-hour Occupy Broadway event concluded. During a General Assembly meeting held Saturday morning, led by political activist Lisa Fithian, protesters voted to rename the plaza for future use.

"We renamed it, by consensus, the People's Performance Plaza," Lebowitz said. "So that's the new name and now we actually have to program it all the time."

The size of the crowd fluctuated, ranging from several dozens of onlookers to many hundreds. Small clusters of police officers were stationed on the sidewalk outside the plaza; they kept an eye on the activities but did not intervene.

Each act received up to 20 minutes to perform, and audience members had opportunities to go onstage and contribute as well. Organizers led a reading of the First Amendment every hour, on the hour. Sporadic mic checks punctuated the performances.

Actor and director Tony Torn, a son of the actor Rip Torn, served as one of the event's MC's. He and his wife, the poet Lee Ann Brown, led the crowd in a rousing rendition of the song "Nothing" by The Fugs, with lyrics adjusted to fit the Occupy movement.

"There's this ongoing line between these sort of movements and stuff that's been going on, not only for the last 50 years in this country, but as long as there's been social conflict in civilization," Torn said. "So when people say, 'Are these people just recycling stuff that went on in the 1960s?' -- I mean, as long as there's been society, there have been rebels and people in power."

Torn said he was happy to see the Occupy protests embrace art as they continue to evolve.

"I just like the fact that this movement continues to bubble up in strange, odd places. That's what keeps it alive," Torn continued. "The monolithic culture tries to pretend there are no cracks in the system and no places to ooze out, but there's plenty of that. It's not a single thing, it pops up everywhere, and that's what I support."

Benjamin Cerf, another co-organizer of the event, said that its success showed that it is possible for the Occupy Wall Street movement to thrive even now that it has been evicted from Zuccotti Park.

"This is really an experiment on the mobility of this movement, because we have brought all the working groups here. We had sustainability, we had the kitchen, the lawyers guild, we had medics -- we had everything that a civilization needs, really," Cerf said. "So we show that we can mobilize this kind of thing in an instant, in a day, and we can respond to any necessity. Here, there was a need to make theater for the people. Tomorrow it will be to support a foreclosure, or any other thing you can imagine."

"The whole point is that if you kick us out of the park, we're going to take it to the city, everywhere, and that's part of what we've been doing with this thing," said Shepard. "I mean, [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has been trying to tell us that the show's over. But he's not really a very good stage manager, because we're all still on the stage. And at this point you can't tell the difference between the performers and the spectators, and everyone's joining in and there are occupations around the world."

Some of the acts were particularly memorable. Brooklyn-based performance artist Lopi LaRoe surrounded herself with orange plastic mesh fencing, creating a "Free Speech Zone," and silently held up signs bearing slogans for the crowd to recite back. Dette Glashouwer, an actress and musician from Amsterdam, performed "21 Bars of Bach" on a harmonium, a keyboard instrument that uses pedals to produce sound. When one of the pedals broke less than halfway through her performance, three of the organizers rushed to the stage with a Swiss army knife to fix it.

Culture jamming activist group The Yes Men posed as members of the 1 percent and performed in SurvivaBalls, inflatable ball-shaped costumes they have used in past protests.

"This is a tool for surviving climate calamity in the future," said Mike Bonanno, a founding member of the group. "If we don't address these problems, we can expect a lot more storms, a lot more unusual weather, and this is a way for us rich people to survive it, inside this self-contained six-foot orb that's like a gated community for one."

"What the 99 percent are asking for is just too much," Bonanno continued. "Clearly, people don't deserve a livable future if they're just going to sit around and protest all the time. They should build their own SurvivaBalls. Noah had it right: He built an ark, and look at what we have now. He got a monopoly on the animals."

Perhaps the most powerful moment came just before midnight on Friday when Mike Daisey, the monologist and author who is currently appearing in "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at the Public Theater, delivered an impassioned speech about consumerism, Mayor Bloomberg and Occupy Wall Street. An enormous crowd of people formed as he took the stage.

"I'm very sympathetic to the desire to not only have there be protests, but also protests that incorporate an artistic movement and incorporate the skills of the artistic community," Daisey told The Huffington Post on Saturday between performances of his show at the Public. "And I think that it's a really exciting thing to see the arts become civically and politically engaged. I'm just intensely interested in all of it."

"I think it's an important moment for people to stand up," Daisey continued. "There's a huge number of people in New York who profess belief systems that coincide with or overlap with the concerns of the protesters, but they don't feel sufficiently stirred yet to go and have a conversation. And if they want to have a conversation, if people want to talk about the nature of equality and the lack of equality in this country, and if they want to talk about economic power and about corporatism, this is a platform to talk about those things. They're all topics that I've been talking about for years in my monologues."

"I think it's a really crucial time, and the more and more people sort of stand on the sidelines, gawking, the more they are going to find that they're on the wrong side of history."

Watch Mike Daisey's full monologue:

(Video by Peter Shapiro)
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