BY SEAN EGAN | In New York, it’s become an unfortunate fact of life that undeveloped land will be inevitably snatched up and renovated — so much so that few would give a second thought to the development of the Municipal Parking Lot near Ludlow and Broome Streets. Few, save for the creative team behind Shakespeare in the Parking Lot — a long-running, free summer festival that takes to the asphalt to bring Shakespeare to the community, and has called that particular parking lot home for two decades.
“The city, in the spring, notified us that last summer was gonna be our last summer, because there would be no more parking lot there,” says Hamilton Clancy, the Artistic Director of The Drilling Company, the theater company which has co-produced the festival since 2001, and produced it since 2005. “So then we thought, ‘Where are we going to go?’ ”
And so began the search for a new space for their 2015 season. “A lot of people on the Lower East Side reached out to us, because we’d been there for so long, with some other potential venues for us,” recalls Clancy, adding that many were eager to keep the festival on the Lower East Side. “It was really heartwarming, a sort of terrific thing, to have the community reach out to you like that,” says Clancy, noting that some patrons took him and others on a walking tour of various potential locations, such as a bandstand (though he was adamant on keeping the festival running in an actual parking lot). This led Clancy and his colleagues to conduct their own walking tour, in hopes of scoping out a new space. After having to pass on a neat looking fifth floor municipal parking lot due to a broken elevator, they serendipitously discovered the perfect lot — mere blocks away from their previous location.
“We were extremely fortunate that when we walked just four more blocks away, we happen to see this parking lot behind this large building, which just happens to be a cultural arts center — The Clemente Solo Vélez,” says Clancy.
“When we passed by, we saw graffiti on these two walls, and I looked at that parking lot and I thought to myself, I said, ‘This is the place.’ ” Fortunately for him (and the company), things worked out about as well as they possibly could. Clancy simply knocked on the door of the building then and there, and luckily managed to work out an arrangement with those who run the Clemente. As artistic neighbors, they had heard of the group’s work, and were receptive to letting them use the space. “They really welcomed the idea that we would make it happen,” he says.
Thus, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot found a new home for their upcoming season — with the change of location promising a festival that will be both familiar and new. “It’s interesting. We’re still figuring out artistically how it’s going to change our approach to the shows,” reveals Clancy, noting that in one way, “there isn’t a big difference, we’re surrounded by cars.” Still though, the space offers unique benefits for the festival. “We have access to some of the resources there at the Clemente, which makes it kind of interesting for us,” Clancy says, citing their increased control over the space, and their newfound ability to utilize electric lights (rather than simply using streetlights, as they once did). Plus, “We’re gonna have bathrooms for the first time in twenty years,” he observes with a chuckle.
On a more serious note, though, the Clemente’s parking lot has, in fact, started to affect the ways that The Drilling Company approaches shows. “For example, we’re taking a production of ‘Macbeth,’ and we’re setting it sort of in a banana republic,” says Clancy, describing the second show. The play, which is directed by Jesse Ontiveros, has a Latin American spin, and takes cues from revolutionaries like Ché and Fidel. This was all inspired by the Clemente parking lot — the combination of walls covered in graffiti and the new neighborhood sparked the artists’ imaginations to reinterpret this well-trod work.
The festival’s first show, however, will be a steampunk-inspired version of the comedy “As You Like It,” directed by Clancy himself. “I’d been thinking about the steampunk aesthetic, in conjunction with this ‘As You Like It’ play, and this play just seemed to be a journey into a fantastic land,” he divulges of the gender-bending romantic comedy. Clancy describes the style as “futuristic Victorian” as well as fittingly “sensual,” which complements the play’s themes well. In addition, the play boasts original compositions by a “dynamite singer” named Natalie Smith, and Clancy says that the production designer will be “taking all these old vintage trunks and turning them into all these little spectacular wonderlands that open up and are surprising.”
Still, the connection to the steampunk style runs deeper than aesthetic, and has significant resonance to Clancy and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot during this particular season. “I love the idea that we were journeying forward into a fantasy land, but also reaching backward — because in a way we are doing a lot of the same thing, in going forward, but trying to reach back and maintain our legacy and some of that,” Clancy muses.
And with a legacy as long as Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s, change is inevitable. “The Lower East Side has obviously been gentrified, that wouldn’t be saying anything radical or revolutionary to anyone,” Clancy states. He laments that this development, and the changes in real estate, helps to drive out artists, and alter the landscape of an area that was once, “littered, literally littered, with small theater companies, with productions everywhere.
All is not so bleak, though, as Clancy says he still sees an audience hungry for risk-taking theater — specifically further down on Delancey St. where the festival has moved — and praises the Clemente as being “a little bit of an island” that’s holding on to the spirit of the old Lower East Side.
“We’re opening ourselves, in a way, to a brand new community, and still making ourselves available to our old community,” he asserts positively. And with this new location secured, Clancy strives to continue the good work of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, and to provide accessible, quality theater for the neighborhood.
“We always hope to bring the plays to people in a way that are clear and fun and with a slight new twist,” he says, insisting, “We’ve never turned a patron away, because there’s always room for an extra chair.”
Free. The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Education Center is located at 107 Suffolk St. (btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.), and its parking lot is at 114 Suffolk St. “As You Like It” runs through July 26, and “Macbeth” runs from July 30–Aug. 15. Shows are performed Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m. Visit shakespeareintheparkinglot.com.