From the Basement to Broadway

11 Nov 2014 | 01:13

    It was a late summer night in June and Bridget Everett was atop the bar at Sing Sing, a karaoke joint on St. Marks in the East Village, belting out the lyrics to “Piece of My Heart.” Everett’s a big-boned gal originally from Kansas who’s not shy about her size or her foul mouth. She has an infectious personality that can easily dominate a room, and the sight of her tipsy and tearing into a song immortalized by Janis Joplin would put a lot of people off. But it was exactly the mix of talent and balls-to-the-wall attitude that Jason Eagan, a producer for Ars Nova, was looking for.

    At the time, Everett occasionally auditioned for musical theater and felt anxious about where her career was going. “I’d been waiting tables forever. I was trained in opera, and I didn’t know what kind of performing I could do outside of musical theater.” But it was her rock star play-acting that finally got her noticed.

    Eagan later invited her to do a show at Ars Nova, the intimate 99-seat theater located on West 54th in an out-of-the-way area of Hell’s Kitchen. He paired her with Kenny Mellman (of Kiki & Herb) and they began hosting Automatic Vaudeville, a variety show that included performances by other Downtown acts. A “typical” night of Automatic Vaudeville could include Neal Medlyn crooning without pants, wacky choreography set to pop songs by Varsity Interpretive Dance Squad, burlesque by Dirty Martini and Everett singing one of her semi-confessional ditties about one-night stands and casual sexual.

    Earlier this year Eagan invited Michael Patrick King, executive producer of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” to attend a show, and he was hooked. King is now collaborating with Everett and Mellman on “At Least It’s Pink,” a raunchy rock ’n’ roll musical based on many of Everett’s experiences since coming to New York.

    “Ars Nova has definitely nurtured me. No one cares who I am, but they encouraged me and helped put me in touch with people I would have never had access to otherwise,” says Everett. “It’s a Downtown aesthetic with a nice, Uptown theater feel. It was the first place I performed in New York, and they are doing a lot to foster my career after my run there. They want to see me grow as an artist.”

    New York has no lack of talented performers with charisma and creativity, but acts like Everett’s usually toil for years—unknown and unappreciated—except for a core group of friends and fans who show up for a backroom bar gig, often lacking the confidence and connections to sustain them long enough to get to the next level of personal and professional success. But Eagan, along with producers Jon Steingart and Jenny Wiener, are trying to grease the wheels—to allow their artists access to the movers and shapers of popular culture that once seemed unreal and unattainable.

    The four-year-old non-profit theater is an anomaly: a new, edgy, fully-funded venue on the performance space circuit that blends oddball culture with wacky comedy. Part of their freedom to program unknown talent is a result of how the theater came about. Jenny Wiener inherited the space when her brother, classical music producer Gabe Wiener, unexpectedly died in 1997. She decided to convert it into a non-profit theater dedicated to finding and fostering emerging talent. It’s an unusual location for this type of venue: “The Colbert Report” is taped next door, and it’s a block away from Sony Music Studios and the famous Hit Factory (now being converted to condos). Even more unusual is the fact that they’re free from the shackles of exorbitant rent and therefore can focus on performers they believe in—rather than the bottom line. Three years ago, Jason Eagan, with his media connections and eye for performers with flair, joined Ars Nova and brought with him artists such as Sandra Bernhard and the Wau Wau Sisters.

    Their Thursday’s at Ten line-up has since become an incubator of new talent that attracts audiences who would be more adverse to trekking to one of the dingy alternative spaces in the East Village or Brooklyn. Members of the entertainment industry mix with the upwardly mobile, fashion trendy crowd with no worries of being reviled as they sit in comfy chairs surrounded by tasteful wood paneling, recessed lighting and antique 19th century vaudeville memorabilia. The theater feels more like a trendy nightclub, with thirtysomethings sipping Negra Modelo or red wine in plastic cups while pop music blares. The entire establishment is remarkably high-end: The “penthouse” on the fourth floor is like a chic hotel room with a bedroom and public space where visiting producers can crash or swanky gatherings—Liza Minelli had a birthday party here, Rufus Wainwright used the space for a recent tour launch—take place.

    Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the stars of Freestyle Love Supreme, an ensemble that mixes improv games with beatboxing and freestyle rap, credits the space as one of the reasons the shows are of such high quality. “Each venue has its strengths and weaknesses, but here at Ars Nova, they really have the nicest staff; you feel really taken care of.” He adds the top-notch lighting and sound systems to the list of benefits as well as another luxury: “They also have the nicest green room in the city.”

    Miranda had been performing with his group and various venues when Ars Nova recruited him. Freestyle Love Supreme has since flourished and is now invited to perform internationally. Miranda’s also made connections through the space and is currently working with producers Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Sellers, of Avenue Q and Rent, on a hip-hop/salsa musical set in Washington Heights, which premieres early next year.

    Last Thursday, a group began to form nearly an hour in advance to snag seats for another of Ars Nova’s hottest tickets: Creation Nation, a mishmash of sketch comedy, video segments and musical numbers crafted into a subversive celebration/rant against pop culture. The energetic star of the show, Billy Eichner, and his co-host Robin Taylor, riff on everything from Beyoncé’s wardrobe to Middle Eastern politics.

    While struggling to find work as an actor, Eichner developed the idea for the show and had been performing it around town when Eagan saw Creation Nation in the basement of a restaurant and invited Eichner to bring it to Ars Nova.

    “Coming to Ars Nova was definitely a good thing. We’d been performing in cabaret spaces, bars and basements,” says Eichner. “Now we have the gift of this beautiful stage, all this equipment, a staff that helps us to get props … an incredible production designer. It’s such an unusual thing; to have a classy joint like this in an Off-Off Broadway venue.”

    The Creation Nation team has recently signed a development deal with Bravo and Eichner is working on a television pilot for the cable station that will be an edgy, late-night talk show based on their live performances at Ars Nova. Similar opportunities may be in the future for other shows at the space: NBC has signed a two-year “first look” agreement with Ars Nova in order to obtain access to its roster of young talent.

    Of course, with all the attention from corporate honchos, there’s the risk of losing that elusive creative edge. But the producers say they’ve maintained their autonomy. “We made it clear that we program the talent,” explains Steingart. “It’s mainly a great thing for those artists who haven’t had an opportunity like this: to get paid real money, to get cast in shows.”

    Eagan doesn’t see it as a problem and predicts that, in five years, there’ll be an entirely new crop of artists onstage, doing ever more ambitious productions. Don’t worry, he’s already scouting at a bar or basement near you.