Street Theater tour boroughs into our consciousness

“Election Selection, or You Bet!” — TNC’s 40th annual Street Theater musical — tours the five boroughs through Sept. 18. Photo by Julia Slaff.
“Election Selection, or You Bet!” — TNC’s 40th annual Street Theater musical — tours the five boroughs through Sept. 18. Photo by Julia Slaff.

BY TRAV S.D. | “Nothing’s ever gonna change!” sings the chorus, in “Election Selection, or You Bet!” — the current summer Street Theater production from Theater for the New City (TNC). As far as the show itself goes, that’s a wonderful thing.

Now in its 40th year, Theater for the New City’s Street Theater is a sui generis (much like “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” the company prefers to leave the word “show” or “production” implied). While its avowed mission is “to raise social awareness” and “create civic dialogue,” the styles that inform it pull it in many directions besides conventional urban agitprop: community theater, musical comedy, vaudeville, puppetry/mask, and more than a little Bertolt Brecht. For the past four decades, this unicorn of a show, which is performed in parks and blocked-off streets in all five boroughs, has been the brainchild of TNC’s artistic director, Crystal Field, who writes and directs every edition.

According to Field, who spoke with this publication just days before “Election Selection” had its debut, the Street Theater can be traced back to 1971, when poet/playwright/architect/activist Robert Nichols approached her to direct a piece which he had written. Nichols was co-founder of Judson Poets’ Theater, architect of the 1969 redesign of Washington Square Park’s playground, and, since the early 1960s, a frequent collaborator with Bread and Puppet Theater. The new play, titled “The Expressway,” was designed to protest Robert Moses’ controversial plan to build an elevated highway that would cut through Little Italy. It was the first production of the Public Theater, and was presented outside their building on Lafayette St. The production had 35 actors and a breakaway stage that was designed to fall apart when a car rammed into it.

Her collaborations with Nichols became annual summer affairs. But, Field said, “After a few years he decided he didn’t want to write the whole thing, so he’d write the first line of a scene or the first couple lines of a song and I’d finish the rest. In 1975 he moved to Vermont and the following year I started doing the whole thing myself, from start to finish.”

The first full-fledged Crystal Field Street Theater show was “Mama Liberty’s Bicentennial” (1976), and this well-oiled, complicated touring machine has performed every year, without interruption, ever since — 40 productions, 12–15 locations a year across five boroughs, thousands of audience members, and hundreds of performers (including, for six years, a young Tim Robbins in his first professional acting roles).

Another actor who started with the Street Theater as a child is Michael-David Gordon, who has remained with the show for the past 32 years. “The Street Theater is the greatest place in the world for beginnings,” Gordon said, as part of a conversation with several cast members during an “Election Selection” rehearsal at TNC’s home base (155 First Ave., btw. E. Ninth & E. 10th Sts.). “I got my start here,” he recalled, “and now I return every year as a way of giving back.”

Emily Pezzella, a cast member for the past seven years, called the Street Theater “a gift to the community.”

“Audiences love this Street Theater so much,” said four-year company member Danielle Hauser, who added, “We’ve had shows where people jumped up and joined in the performance, and shows where audience members helped strike the set. At one show, the sound system cut out during the pre-show and the audience joined in singing until showtime.”

The story of our lives: “Election Selection” showcases a succession of people and events responsible for changing the American landscape. Photo by Tim Esteves.
The story of our lives: “Election Selection” showcases a succession of people and events responsible for changing the American landscape. Photo by Tim Esteves.

The key is Field’s rapport with audiences. She credits her adroitness in writing and directing for the masses to an illuminating, if harrowing, experience she had in the Street Theater’s early years. The company was performing in a Lower Manhattan neighborhood, working from a script with a lot of local lampoonery and rude elements (one of which, a purposefully off-key vocal chorus, seemed to set the crowd off).

“People started throwing stuff at us, and chased us and we had to get the hell out!” Field said, remembering that moment as “an eye-opener. It taught me a lot about how to approach a neighborhood and how to write street theater. They don’t want to be talked down to or patronized. But they do want the issues covered.”

Since then she’s gotten more sophisticated about the art of persuasion. Her mission is “to bring really serious subjects to the audience, but with no preaching. I want to hit a beautiful balance between the zany and the serious.”

The emphasis is on change at the local level, Field emphasized. “It’s like Bernie [Sanders] says; political power starts at the bottom, the school board, the city council, the block association; fight for the small things and the change will begin to fan out.”

The Aug. 6 performance of “Election Selection” was a testament to the public’s devotion to this local institution: I saw faces on the stage and in the audience that I have been seeing regularly at Street Theater performances for the past 15 years. People who were children when I first saw them are now adults; toddlers are now teenagers. Kitchen chairs and milk boxes used as seats make it feel even more like home. Another old friend is back: the beloved “cranky” — an enormous crank-operated scenic scroll with a large, changing backdrop of painting settings, a mainstay of the Street Theater for many years.

Puppetry and masks are part and parcel of TNC’s summertime Street Theater productions. Photo by Julia Slaff.
Puppetry and masks are part and parcel of TNC’s summertime Street Theater productions. Photo by Julia Slaff.

Not surprisingly, the theme of this year’s show is the upcoming presidential election. Interestingly, while Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are mentioned, they’re not the focus of the show, despite their great potential for satire. The focus is on “The People” more than the politicians. A worker is suffering due to the “Jobless Recovery.” He finds a job working at the polls, where he meets a bunch of disaffected citizens, and one African American gentleman (Gordon), who supports Trump and dislikes Affirmative Action. Field plays an old lady whose constant refrain is “Nothin’s gonna change.” Our heroes fall onto the subway tracks and have a near-death experience. A fantasia ensues, containing a succession of people and events who brought change in American history: converted Muslim Muhammad Ali, the Latin culture organization the Young Lords, the suffragettes, and the rioters at Stonewall. The experience causes an epiphany in Gordon’s character. He emerges from the experience committed to change. But first there are battles: Pikachu and his cartoon comrades fight against a “Monster of War, Poverty, and Global Warming.” Finally, the characters organize and make strides to improve their community — and exhort the audience to do the same.

This year’s Street Theater stands in welcome contrast to the withering negativity and anger we encounter daily in social media. One walks away with the refreshing thought that perhaps everything isn’t hopeless after all. I highly recommend it as an antidote for these troubled times.

Through Sept. 18. Free and open to the public. Runtime: One hour, 15 minutes. Manhattan performances of “Election Selection” include Sat., Aug. 13, 2pm at Tompkins Square Park (E. Seventh St. & Ave. A); Sun., Aug. 14, 2pm at the Central Park Bandshell (72nd St. crosswalk); Sat., Sept. 10, 2pm at Washington Square Park (Fifth Ave. & Waverly Pl.); and Sun, Sept. 18, 2pm at St. Marks Church (E. 10th St. at Second Ave.). For the full schedule, visit theaterforthenewcity.net or call 212-254-1109.