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New York - Big City, Strong Communities

April 29, 2011 2:01 PM
 
On a recent trip to New York, I decided to see what a few of our producers were up to, and was able to sit down with Jeff Lepine from the People's Improv Theater (the PIT) and Larisa Fuchs from Gemini and Scorpio. They put on different types of events  the PIT is an improv theater branched off from the Upright Citizen's Brigade, and Gemini and Scorpio throw awesome parties  but their goals are similar. They both emphasize supporting, nurturing and welcoming newcomers into their respective communities.

Jeff has been involved for two of the PIT's eight-year history, after being involved in the theatre and improv scenes from Seattle to LA to Manhattan. When he came aboard, the PIT was located in a tiny, second-floor Manhattan theater, but in January was able to move to a ground-floor space with a coffee shop, offices and two separate theaters for different kinds of events.

After the founders' experience with the Upright Citizen's Brigade, they knew their community well, and knew they had a niche to fill, one with an open philosophy. They work within the ethos of "Craft, Community, Career" - people come to the PIT to work on their craft. In the process, they become involved in a larger community. Ideally, the combination of building craft and fostering community helps the participant's career. Their programming is a combination of classes and performance, and their house improv teams draw from their classes.

"If I can stress one important thing," says Jeff, "It's the community." The performers, the students, the audience and their potential audience are all important parts. "You have to know who your community is and treat them the best they can be treated."

He also emphasizes the value of treating your talent well  performers at the PIT spend their free time assisting the programming because it's what they love to do. "It's important to them," says Jeff, "so it's important to me."

Another active producer in the New York area is Larisa of Gemini and Scorpio, who throws, in her own words, "themed costume parties with live entertainment."
Gemini and Scorpio started ten years ago, when Larisa and a friend were writing a book about online dating. Eventually, not being able to find events that catered to them, they started throwing their own events. "We started out creating the kind of events  we wanted to go to, " she said. For a while, they ran a listing service of events to take your online date to  events that are conversation pieces, where you'd have a good time, even if your date was less than ideal, because "dinner and a movie is the worst."

Their first party was in 2006, a Valentine's Day party at a Russian bathhouse, completing the ambiance with hookahs and a live band. "The aim was to throw singles parties that didn't suck," says Larisa, and it was an overwhelming success  so couples started wanting to come, too.

The rest is history: Larisa expanded her Russian Bath parties to beyond Valentine's Day  they now happen around once a month during the colder parts of the year - she also throws all kinds of parties, and has a devoted following of attendees.

"Having your own audience... it's invaluable," she says. "No amount of curation will replace that." And indeed, the event-listing service she still runs has an insane social list. "Building your audience," she says, and gaining the trust of that audience that you're going to do amazing things, is the most important thing  it builds loyalty.

The next step for Larisa is trying to put together a venue that will be easier for independent producers like herself to put on events, because New York needs a space that's "artistic, creative and off-beat." She has a lead on a 19th century church that she wants to turn into a community performing arts space, taking the guesswork out of the venue search and focusing more energy on making sure events go smoothly. She hopes to still put a strong emphasis of the surrounding community of the space, and to "establish relationships on big and small scales everywhere."

Event-wise, she wants more "participatory, immersible events" -- she cites Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" as an influence.

My last night in town, I saw the earlier stages of this community-building in action. I visited another producer  the Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg. While they haven't been around too long, their Cahiers du Cinema event (put on with local film enthusiast group CineBeasts), showing early, short work from French New Wave filmmakers, was totally packed. They're still in their beginning, scrappy stages, but by working with community film groups, and encouraging everyone in their local film community to get involved with their venue, they're doing amazing things.

All of these venues are great examples of what happens when you have an investment in your community, nurture that community and help it grow. By knowing who they were working with, they knew what their needs are  and by filling those needs, they're all making their city a better place.

Posted by Sarah
 

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