Downtown Dramatics VI: HERE Arts Center

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By Emma Gold, Highlighter staff columnist

The second I walked up to HERE Arts Center in SoHo for the first time, it immediately evoked images of “Rent.” The multicolored glass windows that comprise its exterior are reminiscent of the Life Cafe, a pseudo-bohemian, urban, and colorful space of expression. This is an apt definition for HERE itself, a not-just-performance space that fosters new and experimental artists of all kinds.

I’ve only gotten the chance to see one production at HERE thus far, but I sense that it was exemplary of work that cycles through its venues. “O, Earth” by Casey Llewellyn ran from late January through February, and was, by the most basic definition, a queer spin-off of “Our Town.” Narrated largely by the character of Thornton Wilder, this play was a commentary on modern LGBTQ+ culture and cultural staples from our past. It began with the framework of “Our Town,” but branched off to the “Ellen Degeneres Show” and guest appearances by the ghosts of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Although there were issues with the script and the performances weren’t particularly exceptional, it was an incredibly inventive and topical play that was able to connect with multiple demographics and generations.

HERE was founded in 1993 and prizes itself on its diverse, young demographic and diversity among its offerings. Even though it primarily features performative works like “O, Earth,” there is a plethora of programs available to artists of all disciplines. These include a broader artist residency, a program that provides puppet artists with performance opportunities and collaborations, an incubator for theatre for young audiences, a visiting artists program, an opera-theatre platform, and a program for art curation. Of course, the utilization of these programs has been somewhat staggered over the past few years and they aren’t all in action simultaneously, but the existence of their infrastructures alone is impressive, as well as the total range of artistry HERE fosters.

HERE’s two performance spaces are the Mainstage, a flexible blackbox that seats 150; and the Dorothy B. Williams theater, a smaller, proscenium space that seats 99 and largely resembles the former. No matter where you’re seeing work at HERE, you’re guaranteed an intimate experience. The aforementioned art curation program finds its home in the lobby of HERE, with the entryways to the theaters serving as exhibition spaces. There is also a lounge area, where patrons can get food and drinks before the show; the lounge is also home to community-based events like readings and symposiums.

Other works that have found a home at HERE include performance artist Taylor Mac’s 5-hour epic “The Lily’s Revenge.” This was a piece inspired by anti-gay marriage sentiments, and is defined as a Noh play-musical-verse play-installation-film-dance piece. Again, this merging and redefining of genres is emblematic of HERE’s mission. Debuting in April is “Science Fair: An Opera With Experiments,” which has been developed through HERE’s artist residency program. Opera singer Hai-Ting Chinn will explore scientific inquiries and wonders through song, including actual experiments and singing a libretto written from the words of scientists.

On top of this ingenuity in artistry, HERE is impressive administratively as well. A vast majority of the leaders of this company, including both of the leading directors, are women, something that can’t be said about many downtown arts organizations. Additionally, as their demographics are essentially artists and young arts lovers, tickets never exceed $25. Rush tickets for students are absolutely free and are available shortly before curtain, depending on availability.

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