Dig Your Own Hole

Claudia La Rocco at the Collapsable Funeral

The Collapsable Funeral. (Photo: Andrew Dinwiddie)

“WHO DIED?” the kid stood on the sidewalk on Metropolitan Avenue, just off Berry Street in Williamsburg, staring in through the raised garage door.

Outside was a funeral announcement. Inside were such things as: a table of booze; a mound of dirt sunk into a coffin-shaped cutout in the floor; and a man in a smart black hat, veil, and plunge-neck, slit-to-the-thigh dress that showed off an awful lot of body hair.

“The real estate,” replied the man, one Eric Dyer.

The kid, maybe in his mid-20s, nodded and craned his neck a little further. “Looks like it was pretty nice.”

Dyer nodded, too, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. “Yeah, it was. Don’t worry, pretty soon it’ll be something cool, like a bar.”

This rather spectacularly New Yorkian exchange happened a little before 8 PM, on a recent Saturday, when the world—well, one very particular world—paid its final respects to the Collapsable Hole (December 1, 2000–September 14, 2013), a rehearsal and performance space that incubated a dazzling who’s who of progressive theater and performance folks during its lifespan. Elevator Repair Service, Banana Bag and Bodice, Sibyl Kempson, Big Dance Theater, Young Jean Lee, Cynthia Hopkins—the list goes on and on.

But the central names are Erin Douglass, Eric Dyer, Scott Gillette, and Maggie Hoffman of Radiohole and Iver Findlay, Jim Findlay, and Amy Huggans of Collapsable Giraffe. These two companies started renting the space for $1000—at first for one month, simply to make one show. Then, over a series of drunken bar meetings, they decided to stay, renovating it, making most of their work there, performing in it, and loaning it out to fellow artists in need of a place in which anything goes—or, I guess, went. The Hole has now truly collapsed, after the landlord at first sought a significant rent hike and then simply said they had to go, to make way for something else.

Unlike the trajectory of a lot of artist-founded spaces in this city, the seven of them made a decision not to institutionalize. There were no staff members or expansion plans. There wasn’t even a sign on the door.

“It was great for us to run that way, and to be able to pass over the keys to so many people,” Douglass said. “They could bring in their own shit, they had twenty-four-hour access. That was how we worked; we had a loose calendar”—she laughed—“that was all we had.”

The Collapsable Funeral. (Photo: Paula Court)

When I arrived a little early Saturday night—just in time for the “who died” exchange—the Findlay brothers were stationed at the raised gate as if sitting shiva or standing guard, sipping alcoholic beverages and painting their nails black. But soon enough the room was full of New York performance luminaries, the adults gravitating to the alcohol and the kids to the coffin, repurposing the potting soil into a sandbox.

At a space like the Hole, a pile of dirt has the import of a gun in a Chekhov play. Inevitably, the adults finished what the kids started, the founders dog-piling onto the fresh grave. Ululations were made, clothes shed, alcohol sprayed; I might have predicted I’d go home with dirt in my cleavage.

I got off easy; several days after the party, Douglass reported that she was still cleaning grime off her feet, a result of having walked barefoot through the streets of Williamsburg during a band-led parade that even included “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A loose mass of people strolled around the block, disrupting traffic and attracting a gaggle of cell-phone wielding documenters.

My indelible memory from the night is of dozens of people (including the barefoot Douglass) dancing in the middle of the Berry and Metropolitan intersection, while irate cabbies laid on their horns and the sign on a nearby food truck advertised an “Endless Summer.” Actually, it was one of the first cold nights of the season, and as the Hole denizens chanted “Who died? Williamsburg died!” and a stick-thin blonde passed by in a white mini-dress and cooed “So cuuute,” it sure felt like something was ending.

It’s not so much that Williamsburg died as that it became horrifically douchey. And that’s been coming on for awhile. I found this article published in 2005 (ancient history) in the New York Times, describing the neighborhood as a theater district of sorts, and it ends like so: “Ms. Huggans of Collapsable Giraffe is philosophical about her group's near-inevitable exile: ‘We love our space in Williamsburg,’ she says, ‘but the second we can no longer find a good dive bar to drink at after rehearsal, we’re out of here.’ ”

The Collapsable Funeral. (Photo: Young Jean Lee)

Indeed. And yet the Collapsable Hole folks are profoundly disinterested in the “woe is us” real-estate narrative. Their landlord is a good guy, not, as Iver Findlay put it, a “scumbag asshole.” And, as Jim Findlay pointed out, artists themselves are implicated in the gentrification process.

“Thirteen years is a damn good run,” he said. “People saw things here that changed what they thought was possible. Thirteen years in New York and we never spent a dime on admin. Blow that out your hat, New York Theater Workshop.”

I agree with them that the “another theater succumbs to rent hike” story isn’t worth telling again. The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot instead is why institutional spaces have to be so far removed from artist-run models, and why, as Temporary Distortion’s artistic director Kenneth Collins said, the field is pushing him and his colleagues toward “elevator-pitch art.” I mean, it’s not like “the professionals” are necessarily running tighter ships; just look at bankrupt Dance New Amsterdam and its criminal plea for $50,000 from the community, so it could keep its doors open for a little while longer and strategize with its lawyers. Imagine what the Hole could have done with $50,000—even if it all went to beer and potting soil it would have been a more productive expenditure of resources.

Too late for that now. But as folks were saying Saturday night, the Hole is less about architecture and more about a state of mind. (Look, it’s a funeral, people are allowed to wax expansive).

“It’s about not having to be beholden to anyone about what I want to do,” Iver Findlay said. “We all owe a tremendous amount to this space. It’s good to give it a good send off.”

He took a philosophical sip of beer. Yet another person ambled over, wrapped him in a bear hug, said “sorry for your loss.” Meanwhile, behind them, someone’s toddler pulled the fake roses off the Jesus hologram at the head of the grave.