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Theater For a New City -- How Crystal Field Secured a Home For Her Uber-Progressive Theater

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Theater for the New City is unique because of its existence in a city where real estate prices run rampant. The huge building, consisting of 30,000 square feet, contains 4 stages, office space and comfortable lounging areas. It is a nice alternative from the typical microscopic black box theatre spaces that often house original work from budding young playwrights. I found the drama behind the formation and survival of TNC, as compelling as the plays they grind (up to 30 per year) out.

Founded in 1971, the material consists of all genres, with progressive, experimental, political and musical - as well some (A Christmas Carol) family friendly fare. At this count they have been awarded 43 Obies.

Early on in its history, works by Richard Foreman, Charles Ludlam, Miguel Piñero and Maria Irene Fornes were presented. Major movie stars such Vin Diesel and Tim Robbins got their start on the stage of TNC. Crystal Field provides street theatre, operetta and a home for the "Bread and Puppet Theatre," and TNC is now serving as home to the up and coming Japanese American women's group "Cobu." Perhaps most notably, TNC commissioned Sam Sheppard's hit Buried Child in 1978, and the TNC production went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Harvey Fierstein has worked there and TNC commissioned five of Romulus Linney's plays and presented world premieres of eight of them. The list of luminaries and programs is just too long to list!

Crystal Field, who, along with George Bartenieff, Theo Barnes and Lawrence Kornfeld, originally founded the theatre. Only Field remains today. It was a cold day in December and our dialog was inspired. We quickly found that we had as much in common ethnically as we were opposite sides of the same Russian Jewish coin - she being progressive - I remaining somewhat traditional in my artistic tastes.

Avoiding the almost certain death by conscription to the Russian Army, our elders escaped (leaving much of their more stoic family members behind) to find relative safety in the USA. While it was no picnic for immigrants in the early 20th century, the opportunities afforded people to reach their own level, whether it was to slave in the Garment District sweat shops, or to go on and have their children become professionals and businessmen. Others had more modest fates, but even among the "workers," education was stressed obsessively.

This leads me to the indomitable Crystal Field. As she told me about her Upper West Side existence, I was regaled with stories of the open house theatrical soirées leading to her unshakeable determination to live in the world of the theatre - NO MATTER WHAT - obstacles be damned.

Mel - When I was a young(er) hopeful, setting out on auditions, performing in Off-Off-Broadway and such, I never, ever thought that I had an option to be in charge of my own career. Most actors don't think towards having their own theatre from the start...

Crystal - I certainly did!

M - You knew that? Tell me about it!

C - I did Lucy in the play Dracula Sabbat (which I later found out was quite naughty!) - it received New York Times and Village Voice attention.Village We decided at that time to form our own theatre. I went to Music and Art and have an Associate Degree from Juilliard in dance (I was a dancer) and a BA from Hunter in Philosophy.

M - So you are highly educated.

C - Well, I only have a BA - that is not much these days! But I am educated through my experiences as well.

M - Let's go back to the "beginning".....

C - I started out on stage at three years old. I was a dancer 'til I realized that I wanted to be an actor. You see, as a dancer I would get lots of applause one night and the next not so much. I wanted that type of reaction consistently.

M - Ok, let me get it straight - is the audience reaction what prompted you to go into acting? How old?

C - Very young - 17

M - Oh that's an age, yes; it makes sense that you hit upon that feeling (laughing)

C - I had gone from doing dance to choreography at the 92nd St. Y...

At this point in the interview, I wanted to understand what made Crystal tick. There have been thousands, millions of girls who have come to this city to make their way in the theatre. How and why did she get to live "a life in the theatre" without ever having to put it aside and join the ranks of the masses?

It was made clear very soon. Although her folks came to the poverty ridden Lower East Side at the turn of the century, they were made of some incredibly strong stuff. In a story that echoes the childhood of Citizen Kane, Crystal's mother went on to become an MD when she left the family to be sponsored. Her mother had died in childbirth and she had a tubercular father.

Her mother's side of the family came from the archetypical village shtetl, while her father was born in Palestine with very ancient roots leading to the Dutch Sephardic community. So basically her mother was a peasant and her father was royalty, directly descended from King David.

We conversed about the cultural decay of NYC - as the new buildings go up, and the music clubs and small theatres shut down. Even a decent old fashioned Chinese meal (one from Column A and two from B) has gone the way of the Native American. I chimed in with my mantra about how it was better in the depths of the late 70's and she mentioned the loss of the charm of other 'hoods, beside the Upper West, pointing out the decline of the Yorkville area to the sterile mall it was all becoming. The irony of the whole thing, is how Crystal Field, Upper Westside actress and theatrical muse, ended up outwitting the developers by getting them to work for her - ultimately securing her final and permanent home in the heart of the East Village. The story is like something out of a Trump induced nightmare, but like the proverbial turtle who won the race, she ended up sitting on gold.

M -Tell me more about your parents.

C - Father, a published poet, taught languages to make living, Mother an MD, the house we lived in was a "theatre" in itself.

M - Sounds like a great upbringing, but your grandmother died in childbirth, and your grandfather had TB, yet their child, your mother, ended up being an MD - only in America

C - Yes (nodding) only in America...

Crystal told me about her early studies in acting, which were quite disciplined and structured. They sounded enjoyable as well - first year with just improvisation, the second, line running and finally some O'Neill and such.

M - Why did you want your own theatre? I mean you were just starting out...

C - At 18 I already knew that I wanted a theatre.

M - Why - was it mainly about independence?

C - Plays are not done in a vacuum - there are the writers, the members of the cast - you need a home for that. I got that right away I never cared for solo vehicles. I do like John Leguizamo though.

M - Yeah, well he IS so many characters, maybe he is just saving money on the cast (both of us nodding and laughing)

C - But I am not crazy about that genre - I want plays with lots of people, lots of characters - I was always like that. Having a theatre company is the only way to assure it.

M - So how did you end up here?

C - This is a very long story, the first space being Westbeth (a dedicated artists housing colony in the extreme west side of Manhattan) in 1971, rent free for two years, approximately. The building was empty, the telephone company had owned it. One of the spaces was the sound stage for the Jazz Singer (the original, of course) but had been empty ever since. The place was run at that time by an artist colony (the board of Westbeth), and what happened was that we heard through the grapevine that we were going to get a $12,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, so we went to the Westbeth board and tried to actually rent the space. But the Artists Board wanted us out - saying, number one, we don't believe you, and we also can rent it for several years to a TV company. I cried and cried.

M - So much for the "cooperation" between "artists," when one group had a chance to make a buck...

C - Yes - And the board said, isn't it wonderful that artists can work, succeed AND do business. As it turned out the company had to do $17,000 of renovations, which they didn't do, and the TV company did not pay rent for three years. That is the great business they did! It turned out we got the grant and went over two blocks to the Jane West Hotel, and got a FIVE year lease, so we stayed there, but after 5 years, the neighborhood changed and they would not renew. When we first went there, it was nothing but warehouses.

M - So gentrification sent you east...

C - Yes, then we moved to a former key club on 2nd Ave. I had performed there earlier, and knew there were good theatres there. But it had turned into a porno movie house, a key club and eventually a murder happened at the club. It was very run down. Got a great deal at $1200 a month, and with the eventual gentrification of THAT area they wanted $8,000 a month. We went to court won a stay and the $8,000 was nullified, since in those days rent gauging laws were in place, but we still had to get out, so we had the $2500 rent for a few months and then had to leave.

At this point, Crystal was still stoic, telling the story, not as a victim, but as a participant in an almost inevitable war story, what was to follow was somewhat controversial, a marriage between the real-estate developers and the stalwart Ms. Field. But I am jumping ahead. GOALS was an activist group led by the folks who helped her find TNC's final destination on First Avenue. The building had been abandoned by the city, not even on the rent rolls. It was an old market-place and still had the original signage. The sanitation department was actually doing a "squat" there, parking vehicles and doing some department business unknown to the city, as one agency did not know what the other was doing.

M - Ok, so you now are settled there with a condominium perched over you like a praying mantis!! Are you finally safe? What went down...?

C - We had a rally, arm-in-arm from 2nd Avenue to 1st Avenue, it was very beautiful. We got the building at fair market rate but we had to buy it.

M - OH!!! Great at that market price (in the 70s, it was relatively cheap by today's standards).

C - Our independent appraisers came in at $350,000, but the city decided to appraise it "in house" and came in at $717,000. $71,000 down. And we had a mortgage.

M- That was a big mortgage for you guys.

C - Yes $6,000 a month, and after a few years, we could not sustain it. We were granted relief by the city for $2,000 a month to go to $4,000, which we never could pay and went into default. At that time Giuliani was selling everything. WE were afraid. You see, they had never sold us the air rights.

M - That eventually saved you though?

C - Yes - (a dark haired handsome man walks by) oh that is my son...

M - Oh, handsome! You had time to do THAT as well.

C - Yes, anyway they said we will sell you the air rights and get you out of default.

M - OH!!! The city worked with you!

C - Yes, and what happened was they restructured our mortgage and by 2018, we will be mortgage free. The people who worked with us were the EDC - Economic Development Corp. And the people who worked with us were wonderful. And now the building is worth over $2,000,000, and we just got a grant towards the mortgage, and we will be finished paying even earlier...

M- Twenty years in the making, what a magnificent story. A New York survival story -
How do you selected the plays, since they're of varying quality. (She did not deny this, since they presented much work by emerging playwrights).

C - It's always a bet, of course - we look for a larger canvas, a deep vision and a poetic quality to the work. We nurture and develop writers - we do not have to have a "hit" - we want to see where they are going and what they have to say.

I, being a more "conventional" theatre-goer asked her why, with 4 stages, they did not keep one for established classical hits. She explained to me that it was just not possible due to the work load, and it was not the mission of the company. I asked her if she could slip in some O'Neill or "something like that," and got a firm but very patient "no - you can't do everything." And she told me that Chekov was her real métier, but you just can't do everything. If you want to find the next new classical writer, you have to do a lot of work to find them...you can't just do five or six plays a year and think you are going to find a genius - It just doesn't happen. You've got to do 30 plays a year.

One of her many helpers interrupted us with some down to earth business that required a plumber, and she quickly dispatched the issue like a contractor.

If anyone thinks running a theatre is a lark, or is just an avocation, this lady proves that show business is a business, even in the most progressive seemingly "bohemian" of ways.

It was a revelation...