In March 2020, the playwright and director Raquel Almazan was frantically prepping the premiere of a play titled La Paloma Prisoner. Set to open the following month in New York City, the play tells the story of the female prisoners of El Buen Pastor in Bogotá, Colombia as they prepare for the prison’s annual beauty contest. It is a tale of resistance and subversion, reimagining Colombia’s national narrative through the lens of incarcerated women. As in most experiences making theater in New York, there wasn’t enough time; resources were spread thin. “I was under the gun,” says Almazan.
Then, Covid-19 brought about what many have characterized as an existential crisis of the performing arts. Outside of 9/11 and the immediate years following the financial crisis, the pandemic has constituted the greatest economic fallout in the live arts in recent decades. All shows were canceled. Day jobs and night jobs disappeared simultaneously. And the structures and institutions that propped up New York’s rich communities of playwrights, musicians, dancers, and composers went into remission, with many less rigorously funded institutions led by BIPOC communities breathing underwater right alongside the artists they collaborate with.
Now, almost two years later, one new institution is seeking to heal and reimagine the city’s live arts scene. Enter Chelsea Factory, a 9,000-square-foot performance and residency space envisioned by founder and board chair Jim Herbert which opens for artists today. Located on West 26th Street in the former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet home and Annie Leibovitz 1990’s studio, the sprawling center welcomes artists, community groups, and targeted arts nonprofits with low-cost studios, alongside rehearsal, exhibition, and performance spaces. Chelsea Factory aims to center artists from communities that have been historically marginalized within the live arts. It’s built to work nimbly over a five-year initial pop-up stage (a significant departure from your typical large arts institution), keeping its calendar clear after July so performances and organizations can slide in and out regardless of variant.
“When we look at our residency artists, we are really [looking at] how we can help folks at specific moments of need in their career—where there was some sort of momentum shift or a commission that was earned, then the premiere date was canceled,” explains Donald Borror, managing director of Chelsea Factory.
“Our hope is that all of the resident artists who come through this space will have some sort of experience where they can say, ‘Oh, and after my residency at Chelsea Factory,’” continues executive director Lauren Kiel. “I hope that we are playing a very key role in moving as many of those voices that we can to a more central place in the field.”
Among these artists is Almazan, who is preparing La Paloma Prisoner, along with a second work in the same play cycle which links back to her female lineage in Costa Rica. Beside her, esteemed Alvin Ailey dancer Hope Boykin is workshopping her choreography. Leonardo Sandoval and Gregory Richardson (known by their choreo moniker, Music From The Sole) are working on I Didn't Come to Stay, a tap live music piece which utilizes tap as percussion and movement with instrumentation, reaching into Afro-Brazilian traditions and contemplating the mood of the pandemic. “The feelings that resonate in the process are the feelings we are having throughout this time,” says Sandoval. “A weird kind of nostalgia, a lot of isolation, this slow awakening of social racial justice.” It will premiere at the Guggenheim on April 11.
Then there’s Troy Anthony, the Kentucky-born composer, director, and theater maker who is developing a choir ensemble as well as a piece of theater titled Antioch Mass. “This is the piece I can’t stop thinking about that nobody cares about,” he says. “Chelsea Factory has given me the luxury of producing my own reading of this piece. It is about Jesus and Peter in the Bible. It has a big, old queer twist. It’s not really about them. That’s why nobody’s checking on it. That’s not going to sell any tickets.”
The space is first and foremost a pandemic response, but it is arguably also a workshop for reimagining the ways in which the performing arts are developed in formal spaces.
A look inside the space at Chelsea Factory
“One of my lifelong goals is to decolonize,” says Almazan. “It is a lifelong process. I may not even get there at the end. But through this work I realize that it's not just in the content of the work, it's how we make the work.”
Alongside the artists in residence, Chelsea Factory is also inviting BIPOC-run and BIPOC talent development non-profits into the space, such as the National Black Theater, the Studio School for Design, and Opening Act, which does after-school improvisation for schools with the lowest possible funding.
“We are not institution building. There isn’t an artistic director. And that’s a really important thing to us, because the space isn’t about a specific style or aesthetic or being pitched the best, coolest project,” says Borror. “It really comes from a place of need and that really helps keep our mission central, because that’s the thing that we are dedicated to as compared to a specific person or point of view or taste.”
Some of the works that are being developed now will premiere this spring or the following year; others have no set agenda, existing outside of a pure product-driven model.
“In the past, I think people thought it was enough to invite people of color into the room, to invite queer folks into the room, and somehow we have a seat at the table and we were really doing something,” reflects Anthony. “Now, as people become more interested in programming, I’m finding I’m going into these institutions and I’m like, you said you wanted my work, these are all the things that go with it. Who is this for? How are we asking these fundamental questions at all the different levels? And then there are the things that I personally am responsible for. When we are talking about decolonizing and dismantling, the other part of that is the hope work. If everything is dismantled tomorrow, what comes next?”