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Storied experimental theater company closes

East Village It's curtains for one downtown theater company, and not just for the season.

Incubator Arts Project, an experimental theater company that has staged new, creative works by emerging artists at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery on East 10th Street in since 2005, closed on July 1.

The decision not to renew its lease, which was first announced in April, was mostly financial, and came amidst the organization's growing awareness that too many artistic concessions would have to be made in order to stay financially viable.

"[Each year] we pursued a different financial structure to find the right balance between what we could offer artists and what we needed for our own bottom lines," said Samara Naeymi, producing director and one of the organization's five artistic curators. "It reached the point where we knew we didn't have the capacity to move forward any longer."

Incubator Arts Project relied on a combination of city and grant funding, along with foundational support and donations, though drumming up individual supporters was always a challenge, Naeymi said. Audience attendance also waned in recent years, she added.

New York Theatre Ballet, a small dance company that recently lost its studio space on East 31st Street, will fill the vacancy, but the loss of Incubator Arts Project will leave a void in the experimental performance community.

"Having access to any kind of space is huge," said Scott Blumenthal, a playwright and performer who co-created "Katorga," the final production from Incubator Arts Project. "It's often the biggest struggle working as an artist in New York City. And Incubator in particular has shown itself really willing to take chances on people who are still figuring their work out and working out their work. They're bringing people there who have really strong ideas but they're also trying things that are hard to find a home for elsewhere."

Originally an offshoot of regarded playwright and experimental theater pioneer Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which occupied the St. Mark's space until 2010, Incubator Arts Project took over when Foreman's company vacated. The legacy of the stage and the artists whose work came through the space, including Young Jean Lee and Richard Maxwell, partially lent the company its personality.

"So much of the identity of the programming that we did was tied up in the history of that room," said Naeymi.

The space poses certain challenges for artists, who, Naeymi said, have developed a "love-hate" relationship with the room. The electrical in the aging building doesn't always cooperate, and sharing calendar time not only with a working church's weekly services, but with other resident art organizations, including Poetry Project and Danspace, often delayed or paused production. But since the company and the space are so intertwined, Naeymi and her fellow curators aren't seeking a new home.

"I feel the art responds to the space that it's in and the space informs the work," she said. "It's really about matching that work to that space, and I feel that if you're not conscious of the space that you're presenting work in, I think that you're ignoring a major part of what making performance work is about."

Blumenthal, whose music and performance art collective OZET has presented eight pieces with Incubator Arts Project since 2008, said he and his collaborators have produced pieces specifically for the space, with all the room's quirks in mind. For their 2012 production, "Common Hall Village 20," they reconfigured the room to emulate a tavern, with a raised bar where audience seating typically went.

"We just do our best to capitalize on the idiosyncrasies," said Blumenthal.

Nicky Paraiso, director of programming at experimental theater venue La MaMa on East 4th Street, acknowledged that the dissolution of Incubator Arts Project leaves a hole in the city's arts scene.

"It really does not bode well when a vibrant young arts institution like this disappears from our midst," Paraiso said in an email. "It is a great loss to the cultural life of not only the downtown arts community, but to the cultural life of New York City as well."

But Naeymi, while saddened by the loss of the company she's worked with since 2007, remains hopeful that other venues, including La MaMa, will continue staging cutting-edge work by talented emerging artists.

"We're working on an ephemeral art form so we're just mirroring that by shutting down our space," Naeymi said. "There are other spaces that are doing really wonderful work, and even though this is a particularly magical room in the East Village that's in a historical building, there are other ones that have built their own history."

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