In this episode of Press Play we talked with Brian Rogers, co-Founder and Artistic Director at the Chocolate Factory Theater. The Theater works with both local and international performers, it is located in Long Island City and you can watch their video content on nyxt.nyc/chocolatefactory.
NYXT: How did you get started working with the Chocolate Factory Theater? How does your personal vision resonate with the Theater's perspective?
Brian Rogers: I co-founded The Chocolate Factory (with Sheila Lewandowski, our Executive Director) in 2004. Prior to opening The Chocolate Factory, we created and performed our work independently, without access to a space of our own or any significant institutional support. Since acquiring our current space in 2004, and soon thereafter opening our doors to a community of like-minded interdisciplinary artists, we have operated according to values that were formed in direct response to the challenges we faced (lack of affordable space and time, lack of project funding, lack of professional documentation of our work that might help us to secure that funding, etc.) and the lessons we learned as independent artists and producers. We continue as an artist-led company striving to fully and properly support our own work while simultaneously providing a comparable level of support to a local, national and international community of visiting artists - welcoming them not as guests, but as equal partners in a shared endeavor. And we have attempted to sustain these values as we have grown from an all-volunteer operation with a $25,000 annual budget in 2004 to a more “established” organization with a full-time staff of five and its own permanent facility. We find ourselves living in a kind of gray area between producing, presenting, and residency.
Since opening our doors, we have supported the work of hundreds of early, mid-career and established artists working across disciplines, with a particular focus on experimental theater, dance and related practices. We are often the home for radically experimental projects by theater artists who also work in more mainstream / commercial environments (recent prominent examples include Daniel Fish, Big Dance Theater and David Neumann) and for artists working outside of a traditional theatrical context who experiment within the form.
NYXT: What are the main challenges of your job or that the Theater has?
BR: In July 2017, CF (with funds provided by the city of New York) completed the purchase of a permanent facility in LIC. This accomplishment will afford us the opportunity to operate long term without the pressures of an extremely volatile real estate market; and will enable us to expand our services to artists in deeply important ways (our new facility is 3x the size of our current rented building; and will include dedicated and accessible spaces for performance, rehearsal/residency, and community activities on an ongoing basis); but it also poses enormous immediate challenges. In past years, CF was able to make firm commitments to artists 2-3 years in advance. But presently, the uncertainty around the future of our current rented space (lease currently set to expire June 30, 2020) combined with a constantly shifting schedule for construction and occupancy of our new permanent facility, has made it very difficult to plan effectively. This is perhaps our most pressing artistic challenge. It is unsettling for the artists we serve, the local community and for our team.
NYXT: What are the main topics and issues represented in the performances and shows at Chocolate Factory? How does the selection process work?
Our work with independent artists began informally in response to an overwhelming demand for supported development and performance opportunities outside the network of established institutional presenters and presenting models. When we acquired our current facility, our plan was to use it exclusively for the development and presentation of our founding artist’s work; but the immediate interest in using our space, by a diverse community of artists, presented a unique opportunity to broaden our reach, develop stronger ties to our artistic and geographic communities, and function more sustainably long term.
I curate all of CF’s artistic programs in collaboration with Assistant Curator Blaze Ferrer, who joined our full-time staff in 2018 and has had an administrative relationship with us for 4 years. We are drawn to artists working at or around the edges of several disciplines; artists seeking to expand the notion of what progressive theater, dance and performance can be. We support artists working at all stages of their careers. We are fiercely devoted to the NYC experimental performing arts community (especially as supported opportunities for these artists is diminishing); but we also regularly engage in national and international collaborations.
We often invite artists to create new work for CF 2-3 years in advance of their premieres, based on work seen in performance (Blaze and I attend 5-6 rehearsals and/or performances each week) and relationships developed over time. We welcome unsolicited proposals; and aim to be easily approachable by artists and members of the wider artistic community. The process of bringing an artist into the fold is both instinctual and time consuming. We are generally less interested in the parameters of a specific project than in an artist’s long-term trajectory and their potential to make artistic progress over time. Artists who work with us are encouraged to consider and control every aspect of their experience here – the arrangement of the space, the number of audience members who can see a given performance, etc. This approach has inspired many artists to consider us an artistic home, even as their careers lead them to high profile and nationally acclaimed institutions such as BAM, On the Boards, Walker Arts Center, the Wexner Center, and as of this year, Broadway.
NYXT: How is the Chocolate Factory Theater different from other theaters in NYC?
In its 15 years of existence, CF has earned a strong reputation - among its artist community, its peer institutions, and the field at large - as an organization that is truly “by artists, for artists”. We have also cultivated an intensely devoted audience base, many of whom self-identify as artists based in NYC, but include arts-goers from all five boroughs and a growing number of national and international visitors. CF's performances typically sell out far in advance. Since we started paying artists as employees, many presenters and arts venues have contacted us asking how we do it. We share our process and hope these efforts help to progress the conversation and practice of valuing the labor of artists with the pay and the benefits that come with being salaried.
We are committed to providing affordable access to all of our activities (tickets are subsidized to an average of $20; and many of our events are free); and offer free and unlimited access to our online archive of performance documentation (viewed by more than 75,000 individuals all over the world). In our current space we take extra efforts to make the facility accessible to all but; it has its limits.
Since the beginning, CF has actively engaged in community development and organizing activities. Three of our 5 full-time staff live in Long Island City; and we are active community participants and organizers (our Executive Director sits on the local community board and is deeply involved in numerous non-arts-related community initiatives). We produce a number of large scale local community on projects including the annual costumed Halloween Parade (over 2000 marchers - mostly children & families) and Taste of LIC (in which we work closely with more than 50 local businesses). We plan and host smaller events with the local Girl Scouts, local schools (LIC Bard HS in FY19), We are involved with the upkeep of our local parks and community gardens, as well as street fairs, memorial services, street co-namings and other local events.
NYXT: You are located in Long Island City. Can you share some of the main changes that the area has been through in terms of culture? Do you work with other organizations in the area or in the city?
LIC is the fastest developing area in the United States. The neighborhood has been radically transformed, and continues to transform, in ways that are both good and bad. It's a less diverse neighborhood, and a less artist-friendly neighborhood. Our work now is to (try to) maintain and remain connected to a vibrant cultural scene that is (outside of certain very established institutions) rapidly disappearing. We partner regularly with community groups in LIC, and with cultural institutions around the city; for our 2019/2020 season, we will co-commission and co-present new works with Abrons Arts Center, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, and several other organizations.
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