In 1983 I went to New York to study mime and dance with Polish Movement Artist, Stephan Niedzialkowski and Modern dancer Eric Hawkins. Early 1980’s New York was very edgy. There were homeless visible everywhere. I would step over people in the subways sprawled across the ground sleeping, their legs swollen and sore. Tompkins Square Park in the East Village was a veritable cardboard city. I worked in all sorts of restaurants; from very exclusive ones near Lincoln Center to coffee shops where the really poor New Yorkers came for their doughnuts, bagels and coffee in the mornings. One of these was a restaurant in 42nd Street, which was quite ordinary during the day but at night came alive with hookers on their break, drug dealers, numbers merchants and hells angels; all of the street dealers of the city. It was situated among welfare hotels and no matter how the owner tried to improve it, the city would reassert itself. My overriding memory is that the city’s poverty or rough edge was worn on its sleeve in the eighties. The sounds and sights of the streets of New York became the scenic backdrop of my life. It was here that I read Beckett’s Mime play Act Without Words 11 for the first time and made plans to perform it with fellow mime Nickos Apostolopolous.
It is almost 30 years since I went to New York to study. Even so every time I go there to visit or work I go back in time to that first time. The city of New York is where I learned the shape and sound of theatre and the feeling of watching with my whole body not just my eyes. So the obvious place that I wanted to present this mime piece that I fell in love with almost 30 years ago was New York, not just ‘a theatre’ in New York but ‘the Theatre of New York,’ the city itself. The River To River Festival was set up to encourage New Yorkers back on the streets downtown after 9/11. Andy Horowitz, who invited us over introduced me to this site, which was perfect for our needs.
The site was called Theater Alley, yet there is no theater in sight. It is one of the oldest Alleys left in New York and is situated way downtown NY at the other side of Broadway to Ground Zero. When we chose it we did so for it’s physical possibilities, but didn’t realize how interesting its actual history was. As happens when you rehearse on the street, people stop to engage and a local worker told us the history. The building itself was rebuilt on the site of the Barnum’s American Museum. This was a museum of oddities, of supposed scientific marvels, basically hoaxes and human curiosities. New York’s first theatre was built here and then rebuilt as the Park Theatre. Everything from high-end theatre to black face and vaudeville was played here over the years.
The Alley was dark and smelly, the walls encrusted with the long history of the place. Working in it you got to know the clientele that frequent it now, their business interrupted for the time we rehearsed. The heat was overpowering 90% humidity. There was another Beckett play going on each night, further down the other end of the Alley. Bags of rubbish were collected and hauled down past us and stuck into the bars of scaffolding to be collected the next day; we would see rats in the distance running across from one side of the Alley to the other each night. Each morning the garbage was taken away only to be replaced at 5pm each night.
So much of what Raymond and Bryan played with in this site was architectural, the scaffolding, the narrow pavement, the light shining down from above a fire escape, the entrance to the Alley, which acted like a film screen with the movie of New York moving constantly passed and the movie score of New York constantly playing. Bryan was able to pick moments of consciousness and translate them or direct them for the audience by just freezing in the direction of what he was drawn to. One night a cop car was going by the Alley entrance and the cop looked in to see what was happening. The Alley entrance framed the car and the cop sitting in it. Bryan froze in concentration looking at the cop, the cop looked back. The audience became drawn into the moment and it was as if the whole city stopped or paused for this moment, then the cop moved on and Bryan resumed what he was doing. It was as if Bryan was creating a living metaphor of the street in real time, a perfect communion of city, architecture, its pulse and Beckett. It happens with music sometimes that the sound can pull you in to a moment of pure consciousness; well Bryan and Raymond were doing the equivalent in the Alley. I watched the audience watching and they were going through every single moment with the guys; it seemed like they stopped breathing when Ray’s hand came out of his sack at the start of the piece and they didn’t take another breath until he said his final prayer at the end. It was an extreme experience for the performers and for those watching them.
This performance was part of a larger project of performances and ongoing touring funded in part by Culture Ireland.
By Sarah Jane Scaife
Sarah Jane Scaife, Artistic Director, Company SJ: River To River Festival, New York, June, 2012. Performers: Bryan Burroughs, Raymond Keane; Lighting and Design: Aedin Cosgrove; Stage Director: Lianne O’Shea, Producer: Polly O’Loughlin.