Storytelling: Warrior Rage in New York City

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New York City, circa 1980. Little Cathy Jo becomes an urban warrior.

Warrior Rage in New York City

…or, Maybe We Need to Get out of Town for a While

by: Zoe V. Speas

When my mom moved to New York City in the 1980s, she was almost exactly the same age as I was when I moved in 2011. Her name is Cathy Jo – “Cathy” not being short for “Catherine” or “Katrina” or anything remotely mysterious or romantic, much to her dismay. And to add insult to injury, her parents tagged on “Jo” as a middle name  – again, not an abbreviation of “Josephine” like in ‘Little Women’ – just “Jo.” Cathy Jo, a baton-twirler from Medina Ohio, the doughiest of the Midwestern breadbasket states.

When her parents dropped her off in the fiery, hot-glue heart of Hell’s Kitchen in 1982, it was the last they spoke for a year. She didn’t call, and neither did they. And that’s how it was.

Check out this gorgeous archive of Richard Sandler’s photography from 1980s New York City.

My mom – twenty years old and a dropout from her final semester Senior year of college (she literally had something like three weeks and one exam to go, but when you have to get the hell out, you have to get the hell out – I get it). She was homecoming queen-majorette pretty and green as grass. They plopped her unceremoniously into the city with shallow pockets and a dream of dancing on the Broadway stage.

I, on the other hand, stray from the parallel between our stories beyond the factors of age and Hell’s Kitchen as a dropping point. I talk to my parents every day. 8th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan – where she eventually would live with my dad – has lost almost all of the seductive, dangerous allure that it had in the 1980s. You know, the kind of charm that comes with being a rat’s nest for prostitutes and crack addicts and crime and artists of experimental theatre. Now, it’s just Starbucks and Shakeshack as far as the eye can see.

Don’t get me wrong: there is still danger in New York. The minute you think there isn’t and you let your guard down, bad things – very bad things – can happen. But compared to what my mom – Cathy Jo – must have seen thirty years ago, I feel like a pathetic little baby living up here with my whining about rent or loneliness or the impossibility of success in the face of commercialism.

Blah-blah-blah.

Warrior-rage in New York City

I pictured her as an urban warrior with a ‘Farrah Fawcett’ hairdo and orthodontics-perfect smile.

But imagine my mom – pretty little Cathy Jo – in pre-Giuliani Big Apple, all on her own: in my mind, I envision her as some kind of urban warrior with a Farrah Fawcett hairdo and orthodontics-perfect smile.

And this vision of my mother is mainly due to a particular story, one she’s told me numerous times when impressing upon me the importance of assuming the Gotham-toughened persona a single girl must adopt while living up here. It goes as follows:

Cathy Jo moved to New York in her busted, 1960s Volkswagen Beetle. I think she said it was yellow or baby blue, but whatever it was, it was covered in rust and the leather seats were ripped and leaking their foamy stuffing. She used to get whiplash driving over the most miniscule of potholes because her tires were so thin and never quite aligned properly to the chassis of the car.

I think it would be safe to say, in a nod to her Ohioan roots, that tipping a cow from her Dad’s Angus farm was a feat of Samson compared to the sneeze it would take to flip this little Bug.

So, she’d been living in New York for a brief enough span of time to still not quite know “up” from “down” and after having settled into her first (of many) apartments – just off Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn – Cathy Jo, with her glorious feathered mane and tiny dancer’s waist, took a drive in her Bug to Manhattan, to the Upper West Side to visit a friend. She stayed out late, well after dark, and as you’d expect, simply got turned around in her direction.

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The Volkswagen Beetle – baby blue or yellow – but definitely covered in rust.

Cathy Jo ended up plumb in the middle of Harlem. Little Cathy Jo, with her paper sailboat of a Beetle, cruised through the dark of the wrong part of town, white-knuckling the warped steering wheel.

She was doing okay for the most part – it was late enough at night for the traffic lights along the Avenues to be all green lights and she finally got back on track.

Then, she downshifted to a stop for a red light at a virtually empty intersection. She didn’t like this. Her whole body was a livewire of nervous energy; she tried to release some of it by drumming her fingernails on the steering wheel.

(drumdrumdrum) “I’m not gonna die here. I’m not gonna die here.” (drumdrumdrum)

And WHAM! Out of nowhere, four huge, monsters of men – although anybody looked colossal standing next to that car – shot out of the shadows into her intersection, encircling Cathy Jo in her Volkswagon.

It was dark and she couldn’t see their faces, but they could see hers well enough from the glare of the traffic lights and I bet they could smell the Ohio farmgirl on her like manure.

Warrior Rage in New York City - Black Box Arts Blog

Warrior rage in New York City can be triggered by the least little thing – or by the adrenaline of danger and fear.

The giant thugs put their hands on the shell of the Beetle and began to push the car back and forth, rocking it like a baby’s cradle. Cathy Jo knew and thought to herself, as she clambered around inside like a trapped hamster, that once they tipped this car over, she’d be lost.

So Cathy Jo – whose mother once washed out her mouth for using God’s name in vain at the dinner table – clenched her hands onto the steering wheel and the gearshift, braced her body against their growing momentum and screamed at the top of her lungs:

“Get your MOTHERFUCKING hands off my MOTHERFUCKING car, you GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKERS!”

She tumbled down into her seat when the rockers abruptly quit their rocking. She waited through a tense, delicious moment as the four men stared into the car at her and she glared right back into their faces.

Oh, the sight she must’ve been! They would’ve seen a hairdo, some Spandex, and my mother’s flaring nostrils, blazing eyes, and tight lips pulled back from her perfect, sparkling teeth.

I’ve seen that look before. Trust me, it’s terrifying.

“Okay, momma, okay.” One muttered.

“Easy, momma.” Another.

They backed away from the car – “okay, momma, okay” – and in that moment of uncertainty and as soon as there was enough space from them to do so, Cathy Jo dropped the Beetle into gear and gunned it through the intersection, headed downtown.

How, I ask you, am I supposed to compete with that?

I’m extremely grateful to the powers that be that I haven’t been in a comparable situation where such an explosion of warrior rage has been compelled from me out of fear or life-threatening danger. The closest I’ve come is walking home late from work with keys stuck between each knuckle of my fist, stiff with awareness of some dude walking a hundred feet behind me who, in my late-night paranoia, I logically assume might want to turn me into a Law and Order: SVU case the likes even Detective Benson has never seen before.

But I do know a little something about the City’s warrior rage, about the kind of lunatic Gotham can make of you sometimes. It’s a dwarf of a story compared to my mom’s, but this is Gotham 2014 not 1982, and it’s my story, my tale:

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How awesome do you feel when you see this sign at 2 in the morning on a Wednesday?

Rehearsing a non-Broadway production in midtown Manhattan can be a spastic, slightly schizophrenic experience. None of the artists at my level have theatre spaces belonging entirely to themselves like you’ll find at the Pearl Theatre or the Ensemble Studio Theatre. We nomads of theatre hop from lily-pad to lily-pad across the city, taking the most economically friendly studios that are available to us.

In fact, there’s a network of these commonly used spaces: Ripley-Grier in the 30s, Ripley-Grier (another one) in the 50s, the Pearl offices, Shetler Studios, Clinton Cameo, etc. They punctuate the thirty-block 8th Avenue stretch from Penn Station to Columbus Circle and God forbid you show up to rehearsal at one Ripley-Grier studio only to realize too late you were called to the OTHER Ripley-Grier thirty blocks downtown.

God forbid it, but it happens to me all the friggin’ time. I operate from an honest-to-
Pete pen-and-paper datebook that I carry in my purse to hold my schedule because iCal stresses me out, but the drawback here is that my Moleskine doesn’t send me ”Push Notifications” when the location for a rehearsal has been changed.

So last week, I head to rehearsal on W. 43rd Street (Clinton Cameo) after a long, freezing, stupid kind of Thursday, and I’m clinging to the excitement I have for the rehearsal process like a life vest to keep my spirits afloat.

I get to W. 43rd twenty minutes early and ring the buzzer. Nothing. Again – buzz, buzz – nothing. Not a damn soul. I’m standing outside an empty studio, my script in hand and something has gone very, very wrong.

Warrior Rage in New York City - NYC - Black Box Arts Blog

Okay. iCal stressed me out. But then again, notebooks don’t send you “push notifications.” WARRIOR-RAGE.

Full of dread, I reluctantly take out my iPhone and check iCal to see what iKnew was going to be there. Notice: new loc. for rehearsal; Ripley-Grier Studios.

I look up from my phone. Ripley-Grier. The building near 36th with the giant ’520′ in art-deco lettering on the front. Seven blocks away and I’ve got fifteen minutes to get there.

Like an idiot, I’ve worn my 3″-heeled boots because I’d planned on strolling gingerly and cautiously at my own pace to work and to rehearsal. My ankles are throbbing and threatening to sprain, but at last “520″ appears above the stream of avenue traffic just a block away and I continue to sprint. The end is in sight.

I’ve just pushed into the revolving door of “520″ when the familiar hand of doom closes around my heart again and forces me to take out my phone again. I’m on my second circle-through in the door when I find the notification:

Notice – new loc. for rehearsal; Ripley-Grier studios – 939 8th Avenue.

The other one.

The one between W. 55th and W. 56th. And I’m walking in circles in a revolving door twenty blocks away with seven minutes before rehearsal starts.

Internally screaming (okay, not so internally), I try to hail a cab, but it’s snowing and much colder now and in the deluge of taxis flooding 8th Avenue, not a single one of them has their call light illuminated.

Because that’s how it works in Gotham sometimes. Seven minutes. To sprint twenty blocks.

I’m half-weeping in frustration and agony over my stupid choice to wear these stupid shoes because I wanted to feel pretty and in my crazed state of mind it doesn’t make sense to try to catch a train because the ACE trains never come for me when I want them to and so I send a harried text of warning to my stage manager and begin to power walk North.

Warrior Rage in New York - Black Box Arts Blog - NYC

Internally screaming (not so internally). Richard Hambleton. “Shadow Man.” 1982.

Sweat is pouring down my face and neck and chest but it’s at least ten degrees below freezing so I’ll probably catch pneumonia and die. Calves burning. Every crosswalk I happen upon is permanently stuck on “Don’t Walk” so I jaywalk them and flirt casually with death.

42nd street – 43rd street (again) … 47th – 48th. Somehow I have made it ten blocks in six minutes, in heels, so calculating my lateness at this pace, I’ll only be about ten minutes past time, and that’s not too bad, is it? That’s not too late to arrive for someone to never want to work with me again after the show is over, ten minutes late, right?

It’s important to note that I’ve been muttering all of this out loud, from the complaints over my style choices to the commute math that becomes the most intense mental aerobics your mind-calculator does in a day. Counting and sobbing as I climb up the mountain that is 8th Avenue, like a madwoman surely, and then -

The blockade. I see them half a block ahead. It’s almost 8pm on Thursday (which counts as Friday), and the first of the 4-person-wide parades up sidewalks in stilettos and skirts has its Grand Marshall blocking off the path ahead of me.

Warrior Rage in New York City - Black Box Arts Blog - NYCThey’re tall and skinny, with long, carefully touseled hair and they probably weren’t all blonde but in my head they were. Fur coats, they wore, ones that puffed wide around their waists but then went no further down, leaving not a shred of fabric to protect their stilt-legs from the cold.

I’m right behind them now, peering desperately through their linked elbows to find a way through. All their heads are bent forward, and I see the bluish glow of cellphone glare glinting off the feathery fur of their jackets. The opposite flow of traffic squeezes past single file to accommodate the blissfully ignorant blockade. They shoot dirty looks at the girls but don’t stop to confront them. They, too, have places to be.

My boot heels are slipping and sliding across the grid of a subway vent, but these Amazons march right across the same grate as steadily as they might walk through soft, green grass in bare-feet.Warrior Rage in New York City - Black Box Arts Blog - NYC

“HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?!” I cry aloud to myself. I’m late, late. Cold and crying, nine minutes past call and so many more blocks to go, stupid city, stupid girls, I miss home, why is January eleventy billion days long – oh my god these fucking girls and their smartphones -

I snap.

“Would you PLEASE get off your GODDAMN cell phones and WALK LIKE HUMANS?”

They glance behind, over their pointy shoulders at me, startled, ugly surprise spreading across their beautiful painted faces. But they’ve broken their ranks now and I spy a gap between the two of them. I seize the opportunity and push through, limp-running up towards W. 50th.

“Ohmigod, Demi, did you fucking hear that?!”
“Fucking crazy bitch.”
“Little cunt freak! Like Jee-zus.”

Their voices are louder when they’re trying to whisper – have you noticed that about girls? – so I pivot on my heels, running backwards up the avenue now, and let the carnal noise erupt from inside my guts like molten rock spewing from a volcano.

“BLAAAARGHLEAHRRAHHAAA!!!”

 

Not even words. Just the joy of that sound releasing and the spit flying from my mouth, fingers clenched like bearclaws, miraculously not tripping as I continue my backwards flight.

The girls gape at me, eyes bulging even more noticeably due to the cat-eye makeup they’ve applied. I see them freeze in places and someone collides into them from behind and one girl drops her cell phone to the sidewalk.

For a moment I’m tempted to apologize, to assure them I’m not a lunatic normally, but it’s one of those days and the fault is the City’s not mine, but instead I face forward and run flat out before someone tries to commit me to a home or tazer me.

I made it to rehearsal eventually and it turned out we hadn’t even gotten started (most people were stretching on the floor and chatting lazily), but I think the point here about warrior rage and the lunacy of Gotham is clear:

Maybe we need to get out of town for a while.

angry bowery boys

25 Ways to Be Happy at Christmas

Being Happy at Christmas: A How-To

A Not-Entirely but Pretty Much Serious Guide to the Holiday by Zoe V. Speas

Christmas - Happy at Christmas - Black Box Arts Blog

Rockefeller Center, New York City. Surviving Christmas isn’t just about breathing and staying alive.

It’s the last few days of the year 2013, but more specifically we have arrived upon that ever-anticipated evening before Christmas Day. As children, the hours of darkness between sunset on the 24th and (if we could wait that long) sunrise on the 25th were the longest and most arduous hours of the entire year, oft spent with eyes half-cracked “to see if reindeer really know how to fly” and all of that.

Now, I don’t remember when exactly I stopped believing in Santa Claus (sorry, Virginia), but I do remember when Christmas started to evolve into something greater than presents and an over-abundance of turkey and digestive aids. At its core and in my eyes and at its most practical essence, Christmas is most about people, the links that tie us together, and the nature of our acceptance and resistance of these links.

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Christmas shopping in New York City. Not quite the paradise of Miracle on 34th Street, but we can still hope.

Though I’m writing from my home state of Virginia, the New York City days that have led up to tonight have been decidedly ambivalent. In the media, I was bombarded with the news of Megyn Kelly’s outrageous commentary about the ethnicity of Santa Claus, the ceremonial debauchery of SantaCon, and the none-too-jolly practice of the Knockout Game. Streets were full of exhausted, over-worked New Yorkers burdened with crisp, cardboard bags full of Christmas gifts. Traffic raged, impeded by the omnipresent and never-progressing construction that lines 9th Avenue and Houston Street (to name a few). Weather yo-yoed from the low 20s to the upper 60s within a matter of days to the point that I was so confused by the temperature and general mood of the city that there was really no point in leaving the apartment to celebrate the holidays at all.

Mixed signals, Gotham, mixed signals. Seriously.

So, in an effort to convince myself (and you) that it is possible to be happy at Christmas, despite the drunkenness and the spending and the cold(?), here is an if/then guide to surviving the holidays in some semblance of happiness.

Christmas - Happy at Christmas - Black Box Arts Blog

How to be Happy at Christmas – this guy seems to have figured it out.

HOW TO BE HAPPY AT CHRISTMAS:

  1. If you love the city at Christmas, stay in it.
  2. If you hate the city at Christmas, leave it.
  3. If you have nowhere to go, try the South. Hotels are really cheap. And tobacco, too, if that’s your bag.
  4. If you love your family and it brings you joy and almost-spiritual rejuvenation to be with them, go there.
  5. If you can’t stand them, find a reason to stay home instead of spending half the month of December resenting a two-hour train ride to passive aggression and alcoholism.
  6. If you believe someone was born on the 25th of December, worship Him. If you don’t, avoid casting dirty looks and being offended by those who do and respect each of your rights to celebrate accordingly.
  7. If the only lights and illumination you’ve seen have come to your retinas through a pixelated screen, walk up to 5th Avenue and gaze upon the Bergdorf-Goodman window displays. Stare at each window for at least 30 seconds (more is strongly encouraged), then cross over to 6th and buy a hot chocolate and banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery and return home.
  8. If nobody buys you a present, buy someone one. Along with the thrill of surprising them and the resulting guilt you’ll inflict that they didn’t think to do the same, wrapping a box with pretty paper and doing that job well will make you feel like a Christmas elf ninja from Santa’s workshop.

    Christmas - Happy at Christmas - Black Box Arts Blog

    Fresh (?), live Douglas firs, starting at $40 for a two-footer, and then upwards! Merry Christmas!

  9. If you’re a writer and you hate Christmas, write a one-act play about how Christmas is a joke.
  10. If you’re a writer and you love Christmas, write a one-act play about how Christmas is a joke, but use the holiday as the punch-line of your comedy or the death-blow of your tragedy.
  11. If you have roommates and no privacy in your apartment, decorate the quarter-inch of space that is yours alone to the point of perfection and holiday wonder that only you can achieve.
  12. If you live by yourself, buy a Christmas tree (allow at least $80 for this), install, then decorate it to the nines while buck-naked. That last part is important.
  13. If you love holiday music, install Pandora or IHeartRadio on your phone. Listen obsessively while waiting for the perpetually tardy F-train.
  14. If you hate holiday music, follow the same instructions. Only, relish in your hatred of the Rat Pack Holiday Top 40 and plot your scheme to steal the Roast Beast from Who-ville.
  15. If you’ve sworn off alcohol (as a bet, New Year’s Resolution, etc.), I got nothing for you other than cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.
  16. Christmas - Happy at Christmas - Black Box Arts Blog

    If you’ve never tried it, make eggnog from scratch. Honestly, alcohol is optional. Just say you’ve done it. Christmas win.

    If you’ve never done it before and you drink alcohol, purchase rum, heavy whipping cream, a dozen eggs, confectioners sugar, and vanilla extract and brew a cauldron of eggnog. Drink.

  17. If you’ve never done it before and you don’t drink alcohol, purchase heavy whipping cream, a dozen eggs, confectioners sugar, and vanilla extract (with rum on the side) and brew a cauldron of eggnog. Serve and become the most impressive of holiday champions of your circle of friends.
  18. If you’ve never seen it before, watch A Miracle on 34th Street.
  19. If you’ve seen it before and know someone who hasn’t, watch A Miracle on 34th Street with them.
  20. If you love someone, tell them you love them. If this is not possible (due to the fact that they don’t know yet or possibly you don’t know yourself), bake them cookies.
  21. If you despise love or have been spurned by it, watch Love Actually with one of those blog entries elucidating the pitfalls and hypocrisy of the movie as a guide. I recommend___________
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    Christmas a la “When Harry Met Sally.” Wonder how much that sucker set them back?

    If you overpaid for a Christmas tree from a sidewalk vendor, watch When Harry Met Sally.I usually come up with a myriad of reasons to watch this movie, as it’s my favorite, but watching Meg Ryan tote a tree 2x her size down the sidewalks of New York City somehow makes that 2-foot/$40 tree you bought worthwhile.

  23. If Christmas is painful for you and there’s nothing I can do to help it, print out this blog post and acquire a book of matches. Burn while standing outdoors and preferably while drinking something that will knock your socks off.
  24. If you’re lonely on Christmas, know that I’ve been there, too, and there’s nothing for it but to relish in it and thank whoever you want to thank that it’s only one day of the 365 each year.

    Christmas - Happy at Christmas - Black Box Arts Blog

    Merry Christmas, Gotham. Sugar plums and snowflakes and sweetest dreams to the lot of you, with all my love.

  25. And if you set up a tree each year, even though it has been many since your parents drove you to the Christmas tree farm (or closest street vendor) to get one, and you’re just starting to understand that you’re in your 20s (30s, 40s, 80s) and life was a hell of a lot easier and simpler and plainer when you lived in a house you couldn’t wait to escape, buy the tree again and put lights on it. Ornaments are optional, honestly. Turn off all other sources of light in your apartment except for those on the tree. Drink wine or cocoa and stare at them and realize that Christmas is the anniversary of your growing up and it never stops once you start to wish it would finally get around to happening.

Merry Christmas, Gotham, and a Happy New Year.

A Little Night Music: musician Matt Nakoa and the NYC piano bar

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Brandy’s Piano Bar – New York City. View from the window.

Singer/songwriter Matt Nakoa and the New York City piano bar

There’s something hauntingly beautiful about a New York City piano bar during the holiday season. You can find them scattered across the boroughs, but my New York City piano bar of choice is Brandy’s, located on E. 84th between 3rd and 2nd Ave. It’s an easy trip up the island on the 4-5-6 trains, getting off at Lexington and 86th, and particularly during the month of December, it’s a trip you’re going to want to take.

The clientele is mixed; ages range from late 20s to late 50s on any given night – in fact, I’m usually one of the younger ones when I come in on weekends. But it’s this diversity that makes Brandy’s such a hotbed of pathos and personality, especially in the holiday season. The bar is modestly sized (tiny) but always packed. The walls are rich, burgundy red with lots of age-worn wood paneling throughout.

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Matt Nakoa at Brandy’s Piano Bar – New York City.

People lean against any available surface with second and third drinks in their hand, absorbed in talk (I rarely see people in there by themselves) and in flirtation, occasionally distracted by the stage-lit centerpiece of the bar – a gleaming black upright piano which singer/songwriter Matt Nakoa and most of the other musical staff at Brandy’s complain about as being the worst piano on earth.

You wouldn’t know it, once Matt’s fingers start to move.

Matt Nakoa - piano bar - Brandy's Piano Bar - Black Box Arts Blog - New York City

Matt Nakoa’s new album releasing now – “A Dozen Other Loves”.

I think of visiting Brandy’s as being akin to gazing into a fishbowl – one of those old school, spherical fishbowls where the view is distorted by the curve of glass and polarity of water. I guess the music would be flakes of food fluttering down upon the surface of the water and the dance of it is watching this school of fish strain for just a taste before they go belly up.

During the holidays, the fish are more agitated. Highs are higher and lows are lower. Emotions run hot and quick as lightning, and often Matt’s playing and singing are just barely enough to keep it contained.

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“Light in the Dark”, debut album from Matt Nakoa, available for purchase and download online.

He arrives at this particular fishbowl of a New York City piano bar at 9:30pm and doesn’t leave until 4:00am – playing and singing and taking requests for Journey and “Walking in Memphis” all the while. Propped up on the upright piano are a handful of copies of his first album, “Light in the Dark“, and his second – “A Dozen Other Loves” – will certainly join the ranks in the next few weeks.

And adjacent to these, of course, is a plastic reconstituted condom bowl waiting to be filled with tips and offerings for requests.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to play those “fan favorites” night after night (‘Don’t Stop Believing’, ’500 Miles’, ‘I Would Do Anything for Love’) – I’d probably throw the tip bowl across the bar and tell people to take the money and buy a decent record with it – but something about the way Matt spins the go-to requests makes it seem like he’s commenting on them and feeding the crowd a little more than what they asked for.

They’re hooked on it, whatever he’s got.

I’ve seen couples lean over to Matt (you sit basically in his lap, the way the floor seating area is arranged) with tears in their eyes and cry over the chaos, “You’re so talented! You’re amazing! Why are you here?!”

When we sat down at The Bean in Union Square and chatted for a bit, he explained his response to this often-posed question:

Piano Bar - Matt Nakoa - New York City - Black Box Arts Blog

Brandy’s Piano Bar, after hours. New York City.

Fans of music don’t want a good time—they want blood and guts and sweat. Take Brandy’s Piano Bar, for instance. The audience wants to see something they’ve never seen before. The seduction of familiarity and escape is in play,” explained Matt Nakoa.

 ”People will come up to the piano after I play an original song from the album—and I always keep a few at the piano for people to purchase—and they’ll say that line, the ‘You’re so talented – why are you here?’ But they don’t buy the album. Why am I still here? Because you want me here.”

Matt and his fellow Brandyians fit into a delicate yet highly volatile chemical equation that just barely protects the balance between the fish, their hunger, and the bowl that contains them.

See, and he’s young, too, and a compelling performer. Having discovered the instrument on his own as a kid in upstate New York, he manipulates the piano as though it were an extension of himself. There’s a phrase in acting courses about “not pushing” when you’re onstage, in order to make the audience lean forward in their seats as opposed to sitting back. That’s what Matt does.

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Matt Nakoa on the keys at Brandy’s Piano Bar – New York City.

Half the time, I’m not sure he’s aware of the swarm of people that engorge the piano bar, watching him, waiting connect – but then he’ll look up, maybe encourage them to sing along and the crowd pulses with pleasure.

He plays Thursday and Saturday nights, giving them the blood and the guts and the escape they’re looking for, that I’m looking for, too, honestly. Soon the Christmas garlands will adorn the walls and multicolored lights will cast their overly cheerful hues on the faces of not-drunk-enough patrons who push the piano bar way-too-many bodies over capacity.

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Brandy’s Piano Bar, New York City – E 84th Street b/t 3rd and 2nd.

They’ll bellow Journey and Cyndi Lauper and Joni Mitchell and Coldplay as if their lives depended on it (maybe they do), and their throats will constrict as the air in Brandy’s becomes thick with nostalgia and the holiday and waves of heat radiating from their insides, compelling them to sing. And Matt will sit by the condom bowl, reading requests from bar napkins, in it but not of it – and we’ll all survive Christmas, safe little fish swimming in our Upper East Side fishbowl called Brandy’s Piano Bar. 

Behind the Stage Door: Celebrity Culture in NYC

Behind the Stagedoor: Celebrity Culture in New York

Theatre and Celebrities and New York City.

Celebrity Culture - New York City - Black Box Arts Blog

What’s behind the stage door? Debunking the celebrity culture code in New York City.

Stagedoor etiquette and celebrity culture have always been a fascinating study to me.

In high school and college, trips up to New York City for shows usually revolved around what stage legend or celebrity with whom I was going to come into contact. For a while I begged my parents to take me to whatever show in which Ralph Fiennes was cast. This resulted in fifteen-year-old me sitting through Henrik Ibsen’s Brand or Brian Friel’s The Faith Healer, bouncing in my seat to stay awake through the dense text, awaiting the final concluding applause, eager to be the first person out of the theatre. Or more specifically, the first person to get to that metal barricade separating ‘them‘ from ‘us.

I remember like it was yesterday the experience of waiting by the stage door, my first taste of celebrity culture in New York City.

I remember huddling against the all too familiar metal barricade, playbill in hand and pen uncapped as my chosen celebrity of the day exited the stage door. I remember how slight he seemed up close – how delicate and fine his features were. The actor’s eyes seemed unnaturally large and overbright in their setting, like thinnest ice or panes of blue glass. His voice, I recall, was so quiet and deep that I had to practically lean over the railing of the barricade to hear him.

Celebrity Culture - NYC - Black Box Arts Blog

Ralph Fiennes in Brian Friel’s ‘The Faith Healer’. New York City.

I don’t know when the movement of celebrity-propelled theatre hit New York City – I suppose it has always been a natural fuel for ticket sales and box office revenue. But overall, the need of society to come closer to its famed members, the ensuing celebrity culture has intensified and grown over the years. Shakespearean pieces, especially, seem to vitally require a celebrity presence in order to merit a Broadway marquis (Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad or Twelfth Night/Richard III with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry).

Celebrity Culture - Black Box Arts Blog

Daniel Radcliffe signing playbills at the stage door of his production of ‘How to Succeed at Business’.

Heavy-hitters of film and television like Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen lead the star-studded cast of absurdist and avant-garde plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. I’m a huge fan of Pinter and his work has influenced my own writing since I discovered him years ago, but would I have been less willing to lay out the cash to see Mike Nichols’ production of Betrayal at the Barrymore had Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall not comprised the cast?

I’d like to think I would have. But probably not. I’ll admit it

On my commute, I sometimes cross 53rd Street between 8th Ave and Broadway which is significant due to two favorite landmarks of celebrity culture in Midtown Manhattan: Roseland Ballroom and the stage door of The Late Show with David Letterman. At about 5pm on weekdays, the celebrity guests are usually on their way out of the Ed Sullivan Theatre – common knowledge, apparently, because a row of metal barricades line the south side of the street in anticipation for a queue of street traffic and fans that arrive and wait for a glimpse of whatever actor or musician or politician is on the roster for the show. Celebrity culture in action.

Last week, Academy Award Winning Actress Jennifer Lawrence of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Silver Linings Playbook fame visited The Late Show as part of her New York City promotional tour of the release of Hunger Games. The night of her guest appearance happened to be one of the first real “cold ones” of the season. I usually pass by the waiting fans – not because I look down my nose at their fandom, but because it’s been a long day at work, it’s practically midnight by how dark it is outside, and all I’m thinking about is heating up dinner in the microwave.

Celebrity Culture - Black Box Arts Blog - NYC

Celebrity culture on Broadway and beyond.

But I stayed that night – partly due to my actor-hero-love of Jennifer Lawrence, but also due to how struck I was by the dedication of these fierce fans, standing in too-thin coats with stacks of glossy photographs in one hand, cameras at the ready in the other.

I stood against the colorful walls of Roseland’s exterior and watched them. They weren’t just young people – teenaged fans of Hunger Games, for example – or seasoned celebrity culture addicts who have been playing this scene for years. The queue accumulated curious bystanders leaving the 7th Ave Subway Station, neighborhood people, theatre-goers of Cinderella which was playing around the corner.

On the other side of the street, the paparazzi claimed territory. Sometimes there are only a few of them, dressed in black with thousands of dollars worth of technology strapped to their shoulders and necks. Tonight, for Ms. Lawrence, they stood on top of one another, it seemed, a mountain of paparazzi waiting for their shot.

Kind of sad, to measure your success by the amount of press who come to take your picture. But then again, the smart ones wouldn’t, would they?

Celebrity Culture - Black Box Arts Blog

Celebrity Culture in New York City – Jennifer Lawrence promoting the release of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

So there we were, the civilian celebrity culture brigade on the south side of 53rd – and the paparazzi mountain on the Ed Sullivan Theatre side, next to the stage door. Crew waited, shivering, smoking cigarettes to keep warm next to the stage door. Every time it swung open, the crowd of fans leaned and stretched for a glimpse inside. Nothing.

I must have waited with them for over an hour.

And nobody even complained, really. Not about the cold, not about the wait, not about the often-obstructed view as delivery trucks and shiny black SUVs idled in the street between us, waiting for the light on 8th Ave to change. In fact, they were all quite talkative and happy, as though this were some grand tea party/social gathering to which they’d all received an unspoken invitation.

I was just about to throw in the towel and trek home when the shiniest of shiny black SUVs pulled up to the curb of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, prompting a chorus of screams and camera flashes from either side of the street. Fans waved fortified cardstock photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and the paparazzi rather calmly began their tattoo of photography as the young, 23-year-old starlet became visible inside the SUV, lit by interior lights of the car.

Celebrity Culture - Black Box Arts Blog

Paparazzi outside Lincoln Center, New York City.

She looked out at us, on the Roseland side of the street and gave a happy little wave. After a moment’s hesitation, she was ushered out of the vehicle and into the fluorescent spotlight of the paparazzi mountain’s photo-attack. She posed for maybe thirty seconds, turned back to us across the street, waved again, and began to enter the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

In a matter of seconds, the scene changed. Instantly the cheers and cries of “Jennifer! Jennifer!” were drowned by an aggressive chorus of ‘boos’ and ‘jeers’. The fans realized that the actress would not be stopping by their barricades to sign anything and as soon as that realization registered, they became an angry, disappointed, freezing, and vocal mob.

I quickly made my exit.

I don’t think the fans stopped being fans, simply because their heroine couldn’t stop and take a couple photos and sign a few posters. I also don’t believe J-Law’s decision to avoid the crowd was her own – I’m sure there’s a tight schedule to maintain and I wouldn’t want to switch places with her for the world.

But the fury of that crowd really struck me. That’s the question I wanted to pose:  Where did it come from?

What does it say about celebrity culture in general that we can become so wholeheartedly invested in the presence of the chosen few who appear in tabloids and on the silver screen?

There’s a larger issue at play – whether it’s a need for a pop culture messiah to idolize when political and social leaders fall flat, or some visual form of escapism, I’m not sure. But something’s happening here. In New York, in the United States, and beyond.

Hello, world! We’re the Black Box Arts Blog.

New York City art blog - Black Box Arts Blog - Photography

NYC Skyline view from the Lower East Side. 35mm black-and-white film

Let’s talk about art. Or theatre. Or music. Books, even? Maybe a little about New York. Okay, maybe a lot about New York. But mostly, let’s get talking.

Welcome to the Black Box Arts Blog. My name is Zoe V. Speas. I’ll be your emcee for the duration of this cultural soiree and I’m delighted to have you here. Here are some things about me:

  • I’m a writer.
  • I’m an actor.
  • I live in New York.
  • I enjoy the arts and telling people about it.

If you’d like to know a little more than that, feel free to visit me at my tumblr and twitter sites. 

A little about the blog:

The concept for this blog was born of a partnership I developed through my editorial/content-related work for the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts. I contribute to their online presence, particularly through their blog which you may find here.

New York is packed with life. But sometimes it can be too much. It can knock you over. Black Box Arts Blog works to explore the beauty of what’s right in front of us, a little at a time.

New York City art blog - Black Box Arts Blog - Theatre

An empty black box theatre space. Exploring New York City arts culture just a nibble at a time. How can we make the city intimate?

In theatre, especially educational theatre, the black box studio theatre is often reserved for student productions, experimental work, or maybe pieces that demand a level of intimacy or simplicity you typically don’t find in the grandiosity of a proscenium stage. 

I want this blog to provide a similar service, but with our crazy, beautiful city as a focus.

New York City art blog - New York City - Theatre

All the grandeur of an old, proscenium theatre.

Sometimes New York City can be the most magnificent of proscenium stages when all you want is the closeness and the quiet of a Black Box.