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The Flea Theater, experimenting again, walks a new tightrope
Diana Oh during a rehearsal for “Arden — But, Not Without You,” at the Flea Theater in New York, Jan. 27, 2022. Back from the brink of extinction, the Off Off Broadway fixture is testing a new structure that gives artists the autonomy they demanded. Nina Westervelt/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs



NEW YORK, NY.- Since its inception in the mid-1990s, The Flea Theater has positioned itself as a haven for experimentation, an unpretentious home for risk-taking and for young actors eager to get their start.

But for years, discontent simmered beneath the surface.

Actors were frustrated by the fact that the theater asked for lots of work with no pay; Black artists felt mistreated even while working on shows meant to center Black experiences; artists felt exploited, intimidated, voiceless.

In 2020, the bad feelings bubbled over when an actress who had performed at the Flea, Bryn Carter, published a letter detailing her experiences, pointing out what she described as elitist, racist and soul-crushing encounters and attitudes.

When the reckoning at the organization collided with the pandemic shutdown, the survival of the Flea became uncertain.

But now, the off-off-Broadway nonprofit theater is fighting to come back — this time with a new hybrid structure built to give complete artistic autonomy to a group of writers, directors and actors that has spoken out against the old Flea. That group, now known as The Fled Collective, is being given funding by the Flea to stage its own programming in the theater’s Tribeca space. In addition, the Flea will produce shows of its own, but now all actors will be paid and there will be a focus on work by “Black, brown and queer artists.”

The first Flea-produced show at the theater in two years, “Arden — But, Not Without You,” took the stage last month and just extended its run.

But major challenges, chiefly financial, remain. When the organization’s longtime producing director, Carol Ostrow — a target of much of the criticism — retired after calls for her ouster, about half of the Flea’s board members followed her out the door. The departures resulted in a loss of trustee donations and fundraising that depleted the organization’s $1.5 million budget by about one-third, said Niegel Smith, the organization’s artistic director.

Dolores Avery Pereira, a leader of The Fled Collective, which is trying to build a new future within the reconfigured Flea, said she is not discouraged.

“I believe that the money will come,” she said. “I choose my artistic freedom every time.”

When the Flea was born in 1996, the founders, who included theater couple Jim Simpson and Sigourney Weaver, viewed it as a passionately edgy alternative to the commercial imperatives of Broadway.

From its beginnings, the Flea was seen by aspiring actors as a place they could exercise their talents without needing to present a long resume or a fancy degree at the door.

“If you didn’t go to Juilliard or Yale or Brown, this was a place you could start,” said Adam Coy, a Fled leader who joined The Bats, the Flea’s resident acting company, in 2017.

The new iteration of the Flea pushes the parameters of that kind of experiment a good bit further in its effort to dismantle traditional hierarchies — think autocratic impresarios — that have long ruled over theater spaces. In its push to democratize the production of works, the Flea is echoing the sorts of demands heard in theater communities across the country over the past two years as the pandemic’s threats to the industry and urgent calls for racial equity have spurred collective organizing among artists.

But to pull it off under new financial constraints, the Flea’s leaders have had to reckon with the reality that its output may not match what it had been in the past, especially now that all actors will be paid. (In March 2020, for example, the Flea had 13 employees; it currently has two.)

“We do a whole lot less now, and we’ll probably do a whole lot less for a long time,” said Smith, one of few Black artistic directors at New York City theaters. “But at least what we’re doing is driven by our mission.”

The issue of pay for actors had been kicking around the Flea for years. Some recalled receiving no payment except a single stipend of $25 or $75 after spending weeks in rehearsals, on top of a requirement to spend several hours a month doing unpaid labor around the theater.

The issue became particularly frustrating to actors when the Flea opened a new three-theater performing arts complex in Tribeca that cost an estimated $25 million in 2017. As the Flea was transitioning to the new building, the phrase “pay the Bats” appeared written on the walls of its old theater, said Jack Horton Gilbert, who had been a member of the Bats for about five years. Beyond the question of surviving in New York, the lack of pay focused attention, critics said, on the demographics of who could afford to work for free.

“By not paying actors, the diversity of the company suffers because the people who can actually be around and invest are privileged,” Carter, who had been part of the Bats troupe, wrote in her June 2020 letter. “Many actors of color have not felt welcome or safe in your doors.”

Much of Carter’s criticism was directed at Ostrow, who she said had mistreated her, generally was patronizing toward Black creatives and did “not know how to speak to Black people.” Once, she said, Ostrow had touched her hair without permission. Another time, she said, Ostrow had mixed up a Black lead actor and her understudy.




Flea leaders apologized. Ostrow wrote Carter in June 2020 to say that she was “accountable for the behavior that you describe” and was “deeply sorry.”

Later that month, a group of artists with the Flea posted a letter on social media condemning the theater for, among other things, creating a culture of “intimidation and fear.” The letter cited a case in which Black artists who took issue with a “trauma-centered” season of works about race were told, the critics said, that they could be replaced; it also repeated the concerns about expecting actors to work for free.

“We have seen these same artists paid to cater your events and galas, rather than for their creative work,” the letter said.

In response, the Flea’s leadership declared it would pay all artists for their work and said the theater needed to “reckon with the intersection of racism, sexism and pay inequity.”

Later that year, the artists collective delivered demands to the Flea’s board, which included involving artists of color in planning the season, making sure there was board representation from their ranks and getting rid of Ostrow.

In November 2020, Ostrow, who had been working without a salary for years, announced her retirement.

Soon after that, five members of the board resigned, Smith said, resulting in a loss of about $475,000 in annual contributions. (Ostrow and her husband, board member Michael Graff, had been major funders: The couple was listed as having donated more than $500,000 to the Flea’s new building.)

Neither Ostrow nor her husband responded to requests for comment.

Relations only soured further when the board, in what it said was a cost-saving measure, decided to dissolve its resident artist programs, including the Bats, infuriating the artists’ collective that had worked for months to try to shape an organization that they would be willing to return to.

In a statement posted to social media, the artists group, now operating as the Fled, made a bold appeal to the Flea to “hand over the keys.” In a statement to New York Magazine days later, Simpson and Weaver threw their support behind the idea.

Later on, Smith shocked Pereira when he told her that he and the board would be willing to explore actually transferring the property in Tribeca to the Fled.

The agreement that was actually struck was more modest but still extraordinary. The Flea, which continues on as a nonprofit, will still own the building. But the Fled, which is made up of about 100 artists, will operate there under a three-year residency, whose costs will be underwritten in part by the Flea. The theater will also provide production and marketing support.

Separately, the Flea is producing its own content, including “Arden,” which was funded by a collection of grants. “Arden” includes sculpture and video by visual artist Carrie Mae Weems, music by the multihyphenate artist Diana Oh, as well as improvisational song by choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili and designer and director Peter Born.

Smith’s own segment of the show addresses the Flea’s recent turmoil head on, something he felt was necessary to do in the first work under the Flea’s new mandate.

Wearing a white robe and no shirt, Smith walks around the stage of the small black-box theater in a ritualistic trance, muttering — and eventually shouting — the phrase “this place is fraught.”

“This place has held oppressive structures fueled by coercion and ambition,” he says in the show.

Some artists say they are still skeptical that an organization with the same artistic director can truly start anew. Others are simply uninterested in performing, or even sitting in the audience, at the Flea again after their personal experiences there.

“I just moved on from wanting to be involved in any way in that space,” Carter said, noting that she nonetheless supports the Fled’s work.

The leaders of the Fled, which plans to host its first developmental workshop at the Flea in May for a play by Liz Morgan, are unsure whether it will go beyond the three-year contract. The goal right now is to hold the Flea to the promises it has made and to create a model for an effective artist-led theater collective, said Raz Golden, one of the Fled’s leaders.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Pereira said. “But it’s a relief to be at the art-making part.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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