BY STEPHEN WOLF
Birthed in Paris, now on Chrystie Street: Dixon Place endures
For those of us born elsewhere, New York City lured us here with a promise — not always kept and always with deep shadows winding through our collective dreams, but nonetheless a promise for something new, something possible nowhere else — and to which we willing surrender the best of ourselves.
A quarter century ago, delicate and tough like the Texas wildflower she is, Ellie Covan arrived in Manhattan to create something similar to what she had experienced fortuitously in Paris. Like many young Americans before her Ellie for a while lived there — not because of Hemingway or Joyce but Jane Bowles — and lived rent-free in an apartment owned by a businessman named Dixon. One Tuesday night, other young expatriate women came over for a potluck dinner, then they persuaded Ellie to read from a story she’d finished. Another potluck dinner and reading was planned for the following Tuesday, and the Tuesday after that — and so dreams begin.
Though a city achingly beautiful — purchased bouquets not taped but tied with ribbon — Paris is the past. But in New York at that time a new, restless energy boiled in the East Village. This part of town seethed with young talent in all the arts at a time when legends still lived among us (Allen Ginsberg sipping borscht at Christina’s on First Avenue, Larry Rivers struggling on saxophone at Continental Divide).
In ’86, Ellie rented the full length (but only half the width) of a storefront in a five-floor walk-up tenement on East First Street — that brief, lively three blocks just above Houston, beginning at Bowery and ending at Avenue A.
There was a filthy yard in back with laundry drying overhead. The back third of the half-wide storefront became Ellie’s kitchen, bathroom (actually just a water closet), shower stall, and a platform bed beneath which she had a desk, some books and personal treasures, and a manual typewriter.
What she made in the front two-thirds was her vision those Tuesday nights in Paris — an intimate setting where works in progress were performed before an audience friendly enough for the artists to feel as if they were in someone’s living room (which, technically, they were). There may have been thirty chairs all mismatched and off the street but patched, cleaned up and, like she did with the storefront, the block, then the neighborhood, given a new life. A clip-on light served as the main spot, then she hung a small wood sign out front — Dixon Place — and on Tuesday nights charged $1.98 (all proceeds to the artists). Simple but charming handbills circulated the neighborhood and the phone number was for Ellie’s phone in back. The distance between Dixon Place and the rest of her life was thin as a curtain.
She was young, slender, lovely — with short hair, curly and very black. Unpretentious and funny and stylish when she wanted, Ellie above all conveyed what we find in only a few people throughout our lives — confidence and absolute faith in her vision. Not that she may have actually had such faith in herself, only that what she wanted and how she wanted it seemed to all of us to be so clear to her. Male, female, straight or not we loved her, for she enchanted us all with her brilliance and style, and her faith gave us confidence in ourselves. Working tirelessly as only the young and inspired can do, she dedicated herself to her vision with a passionate, singular focus.
Soon Dixon Place wasn’t open only Tuesdays, and a few years after that the theater half a storefront-wide could no longer contain either the energy on display or the audience there to see it. Ellie and Dixon Place moved to the Bowery — her bedroom jammed in a corner so the rest of the 1700 square foot loft could evolve into a legendary performance space known far beyond the Lower East Side. In 1989 Ellie (or rather, Dixon Place) won a Bessie — the New York Dance and Performance Award — an Obie in ’90 and again in ’99, as well as the Edwin Booth Award for Excellence in Theater that same year. Eventually with this recognition from the success of her relentless efforts Ellie took the boldest step of her life: to raise enough money to build a Dixon Place exactly as she wanted it to be.
She wanted a lounge for the audience with a bar that has a real brass rail. And a soundproof rehearsal space, and a dress rooming where the performers could sit at tables with mirrors surrounded by light bulbs (back on E. First Street, it was a sheet enclosing the space beneath her loft bed). She would chose the overhead lights in the hallway and staircase, the tiles and fixtures in the bathrooms, the paneling and carpeting, commission a stained-glass art piece at the entrance and relief sculptures rising from the rock foundation. She wanted the perfect performance space of her own design (fifty feet by fifty) with great lighting and sound equipment and risers and 135 chairs that match. Most of all, she wanted the performers comfortable and confident, as if they were still in her living room.
Some of us are drawn to New York merely by a whisper, guiding us nearer to the rocks. Others see a shining castle floating above the city, beckoning with something holy and mad, while a few cannot imagine life without forcing the city to keep its promise. In 2008, with more than 400 performances a year now, the new 6000 square foot Dixon Place opened just a few doors up from Delancey at 161 Chrystie Street. The Village Voice awarded it “Best Move From Living Room to Legitimate Theater,” and by mayoral citation December 2nd of that year was officially declared Dixon Place Day.
Despite the awards and fancy digs, Ellie, or rather Dixon Place, has remained unspoiled by success and absolutely true to her earliest ideals and purposes: to provide a comfortable, nourishing space for performers and writers to show new work in a nourishing, intimate atmosphere. But Ellie has sacrificed much for this. She’s still lovely and lean, though she’s more tired now, could use a break; then too, the way Toulouse-Lautrec lost the Moulin Rouge once his poster of it brought so much attention, Ellie may have lost for now the very thing she has given so many performers and writers, dancers and musicians: a home.
She doesn’t live at Dixon Place anymore, so now after the audience leaves she no longer sweeps up, locks the door, turns off the lights, and retreats to her alcove.
She may feel a little adrift. Still, she has a place to sleep with her books and few personal things — and twenty-five years following that desire in Paris, after the last night of a performance-run by Lava (an imaginative, sensual, all female troupe of acrobatic-dance), the troupe’s leader thanked the audience, the staff, the efforts of the crew, and last of all, most sincerely, “Thanks to Ellie,” she said, “who made us all feel like home.”
Now through August 7th is “The 19th Annual Dixon Place HOT! Festival: A Celebration of Queer Culture.” For tickets, call 212-219-0736 or visit www.hotfestival.org. Also visit www.dixonplace.org. Dixon Place is located at 161 Chrystie St. (btw. Rivington and Delancey).