Theater in the Wild: The Motor Company at Large in NYC
It’s a Saturday evening in June at the Cope Brothers & Sons Laundromat. The last wash cycle has just ended and the laundromat is technically closed, but the day’s action is far from over. Actor Sydney Ronis bursts in covered in green goo, claiming to have just arrived from another dimension. Ronis’s entrance has caught the eye of a young boy of about six years old who is walking by the laundromat. He runs over to press his face against the window and watches with rapt attention as Ronis rants about a utopia that can only be accessed by crawling into Washer 23. The little boy has stumbled upon The Motor Company’s production of LaundryFest, a theater festival of short plays written to take place inside this particular Bushwick laundromat. Artistic director Lillian Meredith has already noticed the boy and is on her way outside to talk to him and his parents, who have been keeping a skeptical distance a few feet down the sidewalk. She gives them flyers and explains what they’ve found. They chat for a bit, then stay and watch for a while longer before continuing down the sidewalk and on with their evening.
LaundryFest is the third iteration of The Motor Company’s mission to create site-responsive theater—a type of theater that is written especially for, and because of, the space in which the play will be performed. Before LaundryFest came Intimate Bar Plays, a series that rather obviously takes place within bars in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Before Intimate Bar Plays came Communal Spaces, the series that bore The Motor Company into existence and has continued every year since.
The origin of Communal Spaces and The Motor Company is thus one and the same. In 2011, Meredith was looking for a project to occupy her summer before she left for a job in Louisville, KY. It had to be simple to produce; it had to be quick; and, importantly, it had to be free.
The native New Yorker who had grown up rooted within the community of the Upper West Side was inspired by the gardens she’d walked through as a child. “I’d been thinking a lot at the time about how, because of the way that the economics of the city are structured, people have increasingly become able to—but also forced to—move all around the city,” she explains. “As a result, people are unable to connect with their community as deeply as they were when I was growing up.” Nostalgic for the communal spaces of her childhood, Meredith hoped to engender that sense of community in others. Community gardens, of which there are over 600 in the five boroughs, felt like an obvious choice as neighborhood hubs. “It’s a chance to explore the community-building aspects of theater in the context of a space that was built by community,” Meredith says. Plus, the location fit all the parameters for her quick and cheap summer project that, unbeknownst to her, would still be going strong eight years later. And so Communal Spaces was born, as was the model of site-specific theater that became The Motor Company’s brand.
While “site-responsive” is the technical term, another name for what The Motor Company creates might be “found theater.” In a similar way that graffiti is meant to be encountered in the wild to serve as a sort of counterpoint to the type of paintings found in galleries or museums, so too is the work of The Motor Company. Many people who don’t consider themselves theatergoers are put off by the idea of a formal theater space. “People don’t go to the theater because it feels like a place where they’re not included and there are rules that you have to follow,” explains Meredith. “Creating more room for people to interact with theater the way they interact with something like graffiti is really valuable, so people can understand that live performance is not a thing that is separate from them or separate from the spaces in which they exist. A play can happen in a bar or in a laundromat or in a garden or on the subway, and that’s just as much a play as something that takes place in a traditional theater.” Playwright Nora Sørena Casey, whose fourth collaboration with The Motor Company will be featured in this year’s production of Communal Spaces, echoes this sentiment as well. “The space of a stage and formal theater were created to mute out everyday life,” Casey explains. “But Communal Spaces depends on interacting with everyday life. It tries to highlight that life and channel it into something new.” By removing the largest barrier to theater—the theater itself—as well as any financial barrier that may be off-putting—all of The Motor Company’s performances are free to watch—The Motor Company strives to make art accessible in an incredibly unique way.
For Meredith, finding art in the wild is part of the quintessential New York experience. “I’m a person who’s always liked ‘showtime’ on the subway,” Meredith explains. “That’s New York to me. The experience of all of these people having to navigate one another together, and then suddenly there’s this art, and you’re either like, ‘I hate this. I just want silence,’ or you’re enthused by it. There’s something thrilling to me about having art suddenly happen to you in a space you’re familiar with.” These sudden experiences of found art allow audience members the opportunity to see a familiar space utilized in a new way. It breaks the monotony of routine, transforming a boring commute—either via subway or a walk through a garden—into a brand new way to interact with what you had likely never paid much attention to before.
Though Meredith appreciates that many people intentionally come to see the work, she’s most pleased when strangers happen upon it going about their day to day. In fact, those most familiar with the gardens are likely to have the richest experiences since they’re bringing all of their past associations of the space with them. If a passerby once attended their niece’s birthday party at a cluster of picnic tables where actors are now performing a scene exploring the meaning of childhood, the play’s meaning expands to incorporate a person’s previous memories and knowledge of the environment, creating a unique artistic experience for each individual audience member.
Creating those experiences, however, largely hinges on what sort of inspiration strikes the playwrights when they first encounter the space for which they’ll write their plays. Casey explains that one of her past Communal Spaces pieces, Absolutely Somewhere, took place in a long, thin garden. It evoked for her a similar feeling to that of a subway car—a connection upon which she built the play, eventually choosing to layer and juxtapose many explorations and contradictions of those types of spaces within the play itself. But ultimately, Casey shares a similar objective and hope for her work with The Motor Company as Meredith does. The process of creating the art within a community and its effect on its members are paramount. “For me, it's about two goals that go hand in hand,” Casey explains. “Writing something good and creating an event that is meaningful and has a positive impact outside of just the content of the play. The entire process of building Communal Spaces is just as important as the final play, and the play matters most in what it brings to the environment.”
Though sometimes the environment the actors are faced with at show time is not entirely what was anticipated. Often the idyllic garden spaces are interrupted by the sights and sounds of good old unpredictable New York City. Meredith describes a particular incident where a deeply meaningful examination of the afterlife was unexpectedly underscored by blaring salsa music. But for Meredith, these disruptions and disturbances just come with the territory of performing in public in New York. “It’s about dealing with the space as it is, and New York City’s a crazy place,” Meredith recognizes. It’s also a bit of a reality check that keeps her humble and cognizant of the space she occupies as an artist. “I think theater is vitally important, but so are many other things,” Meredith acknowledges. “It’s useful to remember that just because you make art doesn’t mean that everything needs to stop for you and your work.” So, if you’d like to set aside some time to watch a play from beginning to end, that’s great, but don’t feel bad about just craning your neck as you walk by to catch a glimpse or needing to leave in the middle of a play if you have to. Communal Spaces offers audiences the freedom to interact with the plays in whatever way works for them.
Now entering its eighth year, the newest iteration of Communal Spaces takes place in East Harlem with four new plays in four new gardens over the course of September. Nora Sørena Casey’s play will be featured alongside the work of another returning playwright, David M. de León, and newcomers Catherine Weingarten and Matt Barbot. Communal Spaces is also in its second year of partnership with the New York Restoration Project, an organization that creates and maintains public green spaces in the city and shares The Motor Company’s desire to develop strong local communities.
As for what’s next for The Motor Company, Meredith has plenty of ideas for new endeavors but admits there are quite a few logistics to hammer out before any of them become reality. She imagines a series of plays on subway trains that follow commuters on a single line through Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. She also imagines a series that audiences watch through the windows of a building from outside on the sidewalk.
So, keep an eye out as you wander around the city. You just might stumble upon The Motor Company’s next project. And if you’ve never explored that garden around the corner from your apartment, check it out sometime. You never know what you might find.