In March 2020, playwright and director Raquel Almazan was feverishly preparing the premiere of a play entitled Prisoner of La Paloma. The play, slated to premiere in New York City the following month, tells the story of El Buen Pastor’s female prisoners in Bogotá, Colombia, as they prepare for the prison’s annual beauty pageant. It is a tale of resistance and subversion that reinterprets Colombia’s national narrative through the lens of imprisoned women. As with most New York theater experiences, there wasn’t enough time; Resources were thinly spread. “I was under the gun,” says Almazan.
Then Covid-19 caused what many have called an existential crisis in the performing arts. Aside from 9/11 and the immediate years following the financial crisis, the pandemic has represented the greatest economic impact on live arts in recent decades. All shows have been cancelled. Day and night jobs disappeared at the same time. And the structures and institutions that supported New York’s rich communities of playwrights, musicians, dancers and composers declined, with many less tightly funded institutions run by BIPOC communities submerging alongside the artists they work with breathe water.
Now, almost two years later, a new institution is trying to heal and reinvent the city’s live arts scene. Enter the Chelsea Factory, a 9,000-square-foot performance and residency space designed by founder and CEO Jim Herbert, which opens to artists today. Located on West 26th Street in the former home of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and the studio of Annie Leibovitz 1990, the sprawling center welcomes artists, community groups and targeted nonprofit arts organizations with affordable studios, rehearsal, exhibition and performance spaces. Chelsea Factory aims to center artists from communities that have historically been marginalized in live art. It’s designed to work nimbly over an initial five-year pop-up period (a marked departure from a typical large arts institution) and keep its calendar neat past July, allowing performances and organizations to come and go no matter the variant be able.
“If we look at our residency artists, we really are [looking at] how we can help people at certain moments of need in their careers – where there was some kind of momentum shift or a commission was earned, then the premiere date was cancelled,” said Donald Borror, Chelsea Factory Managing Director.
“We hope that all of the resident artists that come through this space will have some kind of experience where they can say, ‘Oh, and after my stay at the Chelsea Factory,'” continues Managing Director Lauren Kiel. “I hope we play a very important role in bringing as many of those voices as possible to a more central place in the field.”
Among these artists is Almazan preparing Prisoner of La Paloma, along with a second work in the same cycle that traces back to her female lineage in Costa Rica. Alongside her, acclaimed Alvin Ailey dancer Hope Boykin conducts workshops on her choreography. Leonardo Sandoval and Gregory Richardson (known by their choreo name Music From The Sole) are working on it I didn’t come to stay, a live tap music piece that uses tap as percussion and movement with instrumentation, intervenes in Afro-Brazilian traditions and reflects on the mood of the pandemic. “The feelings that resonate in this process are the feelings that we have during this time,” says Sandoval. “A strange kind of nostalgia, a lot of isolation, this slow awakening of social racial justice.” It premieres on April 11 at the Guggenheim.
Then there’s Troy Anthony, the Kentucky-born composer, director, and theater maker who is developing a choral ensemble and play titled Antioch Fair. “It’s the piece I can’t stop thinking about, that nobody cares about,” he says. “The Chelsea Factory gave me the luxury of producing my own interpretation of this piece. It’s about Jesus and Peter in the Bible. It has a big, old queer twist. It’s not really about her. That’s why nobody controls it. That won’t sell tickets.”
The space is primarily a response to the pandemic, but arguably it is also a workshop to rethink the way the performing arts are being developed in formal spaces.
A look inside the Chelsea Factory premises
“One of my lifelong goals is decolonization,” says Almazan. “It’s a lifelong process. In the end I might not get there at all. But doing this work makes me realize that it’s not just about the content of the work, it’s about how we do the work.”
In addition to the Artists in Residence, the Chelsea Factory also invites BIPOC-powered and non-profit talent development organizations to the space, such as the National Black Theatre, the Studio School for Design and Opening Act, which provide extracurricular improvisation for schools with the least amount of funding possible.
“We are not building institutions. There is no artistic director. And that’s very important to us, because it’s not about any particular style or aesthetic or being the best, coolest project,” says Borror. “It really comes from a place of need and that really helps keep our mission focused because that’s what we’re committed to versus any particular person, viewpoint or taste.”
Some of the work now being developed will be premiered this spring or the following year; others have no set agenda and exist outside of a purely product-centric model.
“People used to think it was enough to invite people of color into the room, invite queer people into the room and somehow we got a seat at the table and we really did something,” reflects Anthony. “Now that people are more interested in coding, I find that I go to these institutions and I think you said you wanted my job, those are all things that come with it. For whom is that? How do we ask these fundamental questions at all the different levels? And then there are the things that I am personally responsible for. When we talk about decolonization and dismantling, the other part of it is the hope work. If everything is dismantled tomorrow, what will happen then?”