Doing, doing, doing: Two places, one idea

On a given day in the Hudson Valley, you can meet wildly different people doing practically the exact same thing. Such a sprawling area and, yet, the missions are always intertwined.

Friday I had two meetings to fulfill. Early on Friday, I drove out some thirty minutes to Newburgh, the city of tragic headlines and uncertain futures. Torn down and run down, Newburgh resembles a ghost town that still cloisters inhabitants. They walk like zombies to scrounge another cigarette, purchase a slice of pizza or start trouble with an unsuspecting pedestrian. It’s not as violent as the masses believe, but it’s violent enough to keep the masses from stopping in the city limits. Only the waterfront sees regular business, and that business occurs Friday and Saturday nights, with intoxicated and gyrating boys and girls spilling drinks and advances about the dance floor. Beautiful venues, beautiful people.

Lately Newburgh has experienced a small uptick in artistic attention. The top-notch Ann Street Gallery continues a run of quality presentation, while the nearby restaurant The Wherehouse pulls in dedicated musicians with a penchant to rock hard and heavy. Locals with an edge buzz about these buildings, waiting for the next big thing to appear, hoping the sun hasn’t quite set on Newburgh.

But every couple generations, people show interest in a place that was once neglected. I held the thought for some time that Newburgh would come around, sparked by twenty- and thirty-somethings tired of the hipster hampster known as Brooklyn, plus their weary cousins: Parts of Queens and Sections of the Bronx. At a certain point, the same MGMT song won’t cut it, and similar shlock played by mediocre artists with keyboards and droning voices starts to feel like the one-hundred and eleventh time you’ve snorted cocaine. Weren’t things better the first time? So they’d travel to the Hudson Valley seeking home, warmth, sobriety. And they’d see untapped potential in Newburgh, a city – a real city – that is nowhere near ready for prime time, but certainly giddy for a go.

The Soloway marriage – led by Jen and Seth – was strong enough to do that very thing. I met Jen at the Feast of the Arts, a regular Newburgh shindig that poses as an art auction but truly is a meeting of the minds, where those hoping for change see glimmers and mumble that might could be right. Jen passed me her card – Railroad Playhouse. They were converting the West Shore Train Station, a gorgeous great hall on the Hudson River – but not quite the Waterfront – into a playhouse. Workshops, readings, development, residences, classes and some performance. In Newburgh. A theater. In Newburgh. Run by young people. In their twenties and thirties. In Newburgh.

Friday morning I reconnected with Jen, and she showed me around the station, which was undergoing the transition. They’d be ready by September for an open house, then October to showcase works. I gave her the rundown of the Hudson Valley arts scene; the conversation was hopeful and delightful – both of us knowing full well the arts could thrive in Newburgh, that we weren’t wishing on distant stars, and that those stars weren’t even just in Beacon anymore. They were here. Very close.

I spoke with Seth this morning and had the very same feeling. Already Jen and Seth understand the story and hope to see it out. I’m more than excited.

Time to kill, Catskill 

Between those conversations, on Friday night, I trekked over mountain and by winding road to Highland Lake, New York. A sleepier than sleepy rural paradise in the Catskill Mountains, this spread of land plays host to the North American Cultural Laboratory, holding its almost-annual Catskill Festival of New Theater. Founded by Tannis Kowalchuk and Brad Krumholz, NaCl (which I gladly and giddily call “Sodium Chloride”) was created to give contemporary theatrical performers a venue for development outside of New York City. In time, NaCl added regular performance, which occurs in a beautiful and renovated Franciscan church. Next to that is the lifeblood of the organization: The Lakewood House. A gorgeous white temple of a house with a wrap-around porch, the house is meeting place A for artists who turn to NaCl. Artists live there, eat there, sleep there and collaborate there.

When I arrived, shortly after the dinner bell, the artists were settling down to dinner on picnic tables lined in the Lakewood House backyard. They handed me a plate and I filled it with noodles, peanut sauce, greens and carrots, and with a steady drip threatening overhead, I sat at the tables and chatted with Kowalchuk and Krumholz. Kowalchuk’s infant son sat at the head of the table, surveying his kingdom of artists with a bowl of noodles and a brilliant smile. He’d later tumble and throw himself playfully about the theater lobby, the “pre-show entertainment” as later described by his mother.

When the rain picked up we picked our things up and headed inside, but artists took to the porch and chatted, drank lazily and expressed excitement about the week ahead. The Festival of New Theater would occur over ten days, with seven performances taking place for the viewing public. That night’s show was “Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man” a one-man performance by Brett Keyser. He plays a man sworn to be a descendent of the great Charles Robert Darwin, and spends the seventy-minute show trying to convince the audience that he is such, and that he will apologize for committing a heinous crime, and that he is a good man, and that he is sexy – picture him naked – and that, again, he is such.

The performance was brilliant – a tour de force that Keyser never turned down. Funny when necessary and serious when deftly necessary, the show raised plenty of questions about natural selection, fate and the origin of man, but more than anything, it showed to me the power of the stage. This stage, in the church, was a floor, surrounded by the audience, whose members had to practically sit straight and stay focused for the entire performance without an intermission. A boring stretch could cause some to fall asleep, but that wasn’t the case with “Darwinii.” Not even close. Clearly NaCl chooses high quality shows, and clearly its formula works well.

The Soloways in Newburgh represent what can be, what we really hope – the bright and big future. But the North American Cultural Laboratory already is, and it’s an incredible diamond in a large rough. They don’t mind being in the middle of nowhere, nor do they mind gettting small audiences. They’re more about the experience – communication, collaborating, creativity, ideas, organic thought and food (Kowalchuk is a farmer and brings her bounty to the house), lending a hand for a community always needing that lift. 

In time, I see Railroad becoming something like NaCl, though with a twist, as it’s urban, a tad younger and a little more visible. But together, and in one day, these two enormously wonderful ideas show that to keep creativity alive, one must be prepared to drive, meet others and follow through on his or her goal. Sitting idly won’t help. Writing from a desk won’t help. The real reward is in doing. Thinking, then doing, then doing some more, then thinking again, then doing.

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