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New Victory Blog

The New Victory Blog is a place to learn more about New York's theater for families and the shows we produce. Find out what we do and what we're passionate about—exploring the arts as a family.

 

Sara Zatz Ping Chong + Company's Sara Zatz Photo: Adam Nadel
In the rehearsal room are seven folding chairs with music stands in front of them, arranged in a semi-circle. A poster titled "Community Agreements" hangs on the wall. Seven young adult New Yorkers, in hoodies and caps, stand in the corner, waiting for the music for their entrance. Courtney, the stage manager, starts the sound cue, and one by one, Edwin, Syl, Monica, Porscha, De-Andra, Rafael and Mohammad walk onto the stage and take their seats. It's the opening of a run through of Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ

"You're walking on stage for the very first time!" Sara Zatz, the co-director and co-writer says. "Take your time and really own the space. Don't rush it."

Owning the space, and owning your own story, is at the center of Ping Chong + Company's award-winning theatrical series, Undesirable Elements. Since 1992, the New York-based experimental theater company has created over 50 interview-based theater works that explore issues of culture and identity in specific communities. The basis of the script is in the participants' own words; stories gathered from intensive interviews are interwoven with historical research. While the form—the chairs in a semi-circle, the use of clapping as interludes—is in the same in each production, the results are always vastly different because of the nature of stories told. Sometimes the cast, who are non-professionals, are telling their stories for the very first time. 

For the 25th anniversary of Undesirable Elements, The New Victory Theater commissioned a show that tells the coming-of-age stories of New York City's diverse youth. The recruitment process took over a month: Sara Zatz and artistic collaborator Kirya Traber reached out to over 50 community organizations and schools in New York City, hoping to find 18-21 year olds from a wide range of backgrounds and neighborhoods, willing to share their experiences.

 

The Performers The performers of Generation NYZ, left to right: Edwin, Rafael, Mohammad, Monica, Porscha, De-Andra and Syl. Photo: Adam Nadel
Thirty people filled out the participant questionnaire, which included questions about personal background and reflections on living in New York. From these packets, Sara and Kirya invited 20 people in for individual two hour interviews. 

"We were thrilled to receive such an enthusiastic response to the call for participants," Sara said. "We knew we wanted the cast to reflect the kaleidoscope of experiences in New York City, and was especially mindful of finding stories across the five boroughs. Choosing the final ensemble was tough—we were originally thinking of a cast of five, but expanded to seven because we met so many amazing young people with important stories to tell." The company hopes to keep in touch with the young adults ultimately not selected, offering acting workshops and tickets to company performances. A few of their voices will also be included in a pre-show lobby installation that can be experienced during the show's run at The New Victory's smaller venue, The Duke on 42nd Street theater. 

There was excitement and some shyness when the cast of seven met each other for the first time. Between them, they know seven languages (including American Sign Language) and hail from all over the city, from East New York to the South Bronx. After a quick introduction excercise, Kirya sat everyone in a circle and asked the group to make a list of community agreements.

 

Ping Chong and the New Vic Ping Chong + Company in one of their first planning sessions with the New Vic
"Respect each other's boundaries," someone said. Sara wrote it on the poster in marker. 
"One voice, one mic."
"Be open, ask questions."

"Has anyone heard of the yellow zone?" Kirya said, after a pause. Everyone shook their head. She explained, "Green zone is those things you share easily with the world. Like your name, where you're from. Red zone is private stuff that you can't share with anyone. The yellow zone is a space with a bit of risk, things that you don't normally share that make you feel vulnerable." 

For a show that includes personal stories about serious issues like mental health, bullying, LGBTQ+ identity and homelessness, it was important to Kirya and Sara to form a safe, open environment. Before every rehearsal, they check in with the cast—how is everybody feeling? And the Community Agreement poster stays on the wall, which they review. Soon, the stories that the cast has shared with each other in intensive interviews and group conversations will be shared with the world at the Duke on 42nd Street.
 
Undesirable Elements Thumb From East New York to West Harlem and from the South Bronx to Far Rockaway, witness the jubilant victories, recent discord and distant dreams of coming of age in Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ.

 
Posted by Beth Henderson
November 27, 2017

Magic on 42nd Street


In celebration of Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic, coming soon to The New Victory Theater, we spoke to Manhattan's resident history buff Tim Dolan about one of Jason's idols—Harry Houdini—and his time on 42nd Street.
 

Paradise Roof GardenWhile Broadway is mainly known for big budget musicals and plays, magicians, like the The New Victory's upcoming illusionist Jason Bishop, have always been in the mix. As early as 1899, Harry Houdini was performing his handcuff escapes in vaudeville theaters all over America, eventually appearing throughout his career at a handful of Broadway theaters in Times Square. He made his last Broadway appearance in 1926 alongside his wife Bess just one block south of The New Victory at The Nederlander Theatre (then called The National) on 41st Street. 

While Houdini never performed on the mainstage of the New Vic, he did perform on the roof! Rooftop garden theaters began to pop up in Times Square to provde open-air entertainment during the hot summer months in a pre-air conditioned world. Always incorporating some sort of floral element for a "garden feel," each rooftop presented small revue shows, magicians, acrobatic performances and famous comedians of the day. Oscar Hammerstein I, who built The New Victory in 1900, created the Paradise Rooftop Garden atop his theater to rival others in the area. It was outfitted with over 600 seats (over 100 more seats than inside the New Vic today) and a metal covering overhead to protect patrons from rain. Houdini and Jennie

During the summer of 1912, Houdini erected a 5,500-gallon water tank centerstage at the Paradise Rooftop Garden. In front of a packed audience, he escaped from leg shackles and handcuffs while in a submerged box that had been nailed shut and encased in chains. After performing this trick successfully the week prior in New York's East River, this was the first performance of the act inside of a theater. He would later perform the same feat at New York's largest theater, The Hippodrome, on Sixth Avenue—just a few blocks to the east of The New Victory Theater.

The "overboard box escape" wasn't the only act Houdini performed at The Hippodrome. On January 7th, 1918, Houdini walked onstage in front of thousands of World War I soldiers in uniform who were preparing to embark on their first tour overseas—he carried with him a few different sets of handcuffs. To thank them for their patriotism, Houdini prepared an educational performance. It's widely known that magicians like Houdini and Jason Bishop never reveal their secrets, but for this performance, Houdini did just that. He demonstrated how to escape the restraints of German handcuffs, how to free oneself from jail cells and what to do if trapped under water.

 

Gizmo and Jason! Gizmo and Jason! Photo: Alexis Buatti Ramos
While the performance was meant to be educational, Houdini unveiled a new trick at the conclusion for an entertaining twist. The troops watched as stagehands brought out an enormous cabinet and placed it center stage, followed by one other performer: Jennie, the daughter of P.T. Barnum's world famous elephant Jumbo. Jennie, Houdini explained, would be the first elephant he would ever make disappear. After having Jennie perform a few of her standard circus tricks, Houdini loaded her into the cabinet, placed a curtain over the front and waited. After a few minutes Houdini removed the curtain to reveal…an empty cabinet. To this day, Houdini's notes for the vanishing elephant trick have not been found, and it is his only act that remains shrouded in mystery. While Jason Bishop's animal assistant, Gizmo, is quite a bit smaller than Jennie, you can still expect some mind blowing illusions starring the pint-sized pup. 

As audiences settle into the plush seats of The New Victory Theater to enjoy the magic of Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic, they are joining the millions of audience members before them who have been fascinated by other illusionists on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in vaudeville theaters all over the United States—and are just a few floors below the same spot where Houdini conjured up his magic 105 years ago! 

 
 
Jason Bishop Thumb Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but this show is so delightful! Back by popular demand after last season's sold-out run, Jason Bishop returns with even more tricks (and wry one-liners) up his sleeve. Get your tickets to Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic today!

 
Posted by Beth Henderson
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