Springtime Festivities: An Inside Look at the Downtown Urban Arts Festival

Anthony J. Piccione

Both as a playwright and as a critic, I frequently get invited to review many shows – and also get chances to present my own plays – in many theatre festivals in New York. Many of these shows that I’ve seen featured in these festivals are a beautiful tribute to the diversity and multiculturalism that is reflected throughout America. However, it’s not every day that I see a festival that not only commits itself to capturing such vibrant diversity through the works that they curate, but also does so through film, music, and poetry, in addition to theatre. Yet over the next five weeks in lower Manhattan, that’s exactly what the Downtown Urban Arts Festival is aiming to achieve.

Founded in 2001, the festival first started out as the Downtown Urban Theatre Festival, before evolving to include other artistic disciplines, thus leading to it being renamed the Downtown Urban Arts Festival (DUAF) in 2002, with one of its primary goals at the time being to revitalize the arts scene in lower Manhattan, which at the time was still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11. Its self-described purpose is to “build a repertoire of new American theatre that echoes the true spirit of urban life and speaks to a whole new generation whose lives defy categorizing along conventional lines.” Since then, hundreds of writers have seen their work presented to audiences through DUAF, with dozens more about to see their work presented this spring.

This year’s festival kicks off on April 7th at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, with a special musical performance from Wé McDonald, whom some theatergoers may remember for her success as a finalist on The Voice. Later in April, a poetry event at Nuyorican Poets Cafe – Words Matter – will feature the opportunity for local poets and audience members to recite their poems, while also serving as a forum for some of the most important social issues of our time. In between all of that, however, there are several creative new theatrical shows being staged at Theatre 80 St. Marks and New York Live Arts in April, before the festival showcases a series of short independent films at the Tribeca Film Center in May.

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Among these titles which stood out to me right away was GAY. PORN. MAFIA, which is a collection of short comedic plays by Joe Gulla. As he puts it, “[i]t seemed a shame to have them live simply as rarely produced novelties. So, I organized them into a series, a full theatrical evening. I slapped on a provocative title… and GAY.PORN.MAFIA was born!” He adds humorously that one should “give your Aunt Johanna the EXACT ticket link if she wants to buy tickets to the show! Googling “GAY.PORN.MAFIA” may not be the best option for her!” Meanwhile, The Vast Mystery of Who You Are is “an irreverent, hard-hitting exploration of love, sex parties, and death” by Kim Yaged. Ms. Yaged says they are merely “performing the first half of the play during this year’s festival,” and that “[it] is a dramedy that poses the question: What happens when you find out the woman you hooked up with at the sex party isn’t a woman?” She goes on to say that “[a]fter the festival, our goal is to find a home for a production of the full play.” Each of these two productions are staged at New York Live Arts at this year’s festival.

The bulk of the theatrical shows being presented this year, however, are at Theatre 80 St. Marks, including American Tranquility, which playwright Daniel Damiano describes as “a multi-character solo play which focuses on 4 very different Americans who reflect on the human divide in 21st Century America.” Describing its inception, he says “it was born out of a combination of my desperation to get back on the stage and not wanting to wait for someone to hire me combined with the post-election climate that fed into some of the themes in the piece, along with other themes that I thought meshed well in terms of how they relate to modern America.”

Similarly, The Diplomats also tackles issues that have increasingly been in the public eye during the Trump administration. Playwright Nelson Diaz-Marcano says it was inspired directly by the reaction to the 2016 presidential election. “[It was] the desperation I saw at 3 am as I walked down 30 avenue in Astoria as Trump was announced as President. The people crying, the distrust that sneaked in, the way people pointed fingers. I knew society could not be the same after, and I wanted to capture the time when it changed,” going on to say that the play “focuses on the way relationships were changing, and the shifting reality a bunch of us had to confront and adapt to from it.”

Meanwhile, Sailing Stones by Juan Ramirez, Jr. tackles themes of religion and faith. “The play is about faith and non-faith characters but not about whether one or the other is right but exactly how one behaves,” says Ramirez. “We are completely entitled to believe what we want and yet it is important that we ask ourselves if what we are committing to may in any way hurt us. I tend to create plays with a few characters, in one location and acting in real time. It's very theatrical to me.”

Two seemingly very different one-acts being presented alongside each other – Help Me Get Over You by Rollin Jewett and A Civilized World by Anghus Houvouras – explore themes of romance and drugs, respectively. Jewett says his play “was an idea that germinated in my head several years ago, that I thought would make a funny screenplay, stating he “was thinking about how timing is so important in a relationship, as several relationships I had been in didn’t turn out well because of where we were in our lives,” while Hourvouras says the concept for his story came as he became “obsessed recently with society's ambivalence to the disenfranchized.  A world where we live in relative comfort while people suffer and die needlessly.  The average American puts more thought into their lunch order than those in a state of perpetual suffering.  I thought this was obscene, disgusting and utterly fascinating.  So i decided i needed to write something that felt honest and real about what we're willing to tolerate so long as we're allowed to live in a civilized world.”

Finally, The Strong Man by J.E. Robinson goes particularly deep into a heavy issue that all of us must one day face: death. Robinson describes his play – a tale of gangs and murder – as a story about “how real men die”, as he puts it, before going on to say that “[i]n our middle-ages, everyone contemplates the meaning of their end. I have found myself contemplating mine. Hardly morose, it serves as a way for human beings to prepare for our death. Writing a good play has greater meaning in the preparation than splurging on a crotch rocket, don’t you think?”

Meanwhile, among the short films being presented at the Tribeca Film Center this coming May is In Private, a story of two couples and a revealing texting error that occurs during Christmas time. Writer Zina Wilde was mum on further details about the film itself, but did say that the film was “very much inspired by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Hanna and Her Sisters, which should make it intriguing for some viewers out there. Meanwhile, Bob Jr. by Dilek Ince tells the story of one man’s “strong but strange” relationship with his pet fish, the only thing his late wife Christina left him. “The biggest influence on making this movie was my mother. Growing up, I watched her suffer daily with the death of my father,” says Ms. Ince. “Her life turned upside down after she lost him. I felt her depression and pain, but I could not help her as a teenager. She wanted to isolate herself. She felt she did not fit anywhere anymore, as if she was a fish out of water.  I experienced this suffering from a female perspective and wanted to explore what it would be like for a man who lost his wife. I wanted to create a film that showed a person who lost a loved one being able to eventually move on.”

Then there is The Virgin and the Prostitute, the inspiration for which the twin creators Maria Jose and Karla Noriega say “came from the realization that we were judging as well. Coming from an all-girls’ Catholic school in Mexico, we were very close-minded coming to America. We learned to find similarities and embrace the differences in the American culture after meeting many amazing people,” adding that “everybody has been victims of prejudices and stereotypes, either because you are a Woman, Hispanic, Gay, Black, Handicapped, Asian, Arabic just to name a few. Unfortunately, we came into this world predisposed with a label and that idea is essentially what lead us to create The Virgin and the Prostitute. In the end, we all come from the same seed. We all possess the potential to be saints and sinners; therefore, we need to stop judging and start loving.”

Whenever there is such a large gathering of independent artists – either in theatre or in film – the feeling I’ve always gotten, both based on my own personal experiences and on conversations with other artists, is that vibrant creativity and making a difference with one’s art is something that matters to many of us. That’s something that seems to be reflected in the answers I got when I asked them for their general thoughts on the importance of independent art. “Independent art by nature holds a purer and more honest view of the individual, as well as society as a whole, [and] it’s so powerful because so many times it becomes the beginning of a new movement and a new way of thought that ends up becoming mainstream,” says Ms. Wilde. Mr. Diaz-Marcano says “art in its essence is independent. It's one person's vision. In theater we get to collaborate to make that vision come to life,” while Mr. Houvouras adds that “[t]here are plenty of places to see run of the mill, traditional theater where the audience can escape and be entertained. But sometimes people want more. To step outside their comfort zone, to see something thought provoking that pokes them in the cerebellum and demands consideration.” Then, as Mr. Robinson puts it, “it seems to me that Bertolt Brecht conveyed the correct sentiment: as the fiber for the human soul, art ought not rest in commercialism. Commercialism kills art.”

Given how passionate each of these artists come across, it should come as no surprise that being part of a festival that offers such opportunities to a wide variety of different artists is something they are grateful for, and the answers I received seem to prove that. “The Downtown Urban Arts Festival, to me, is the greatest,” says Mr. Gulla. “[They are] a truly supportive group that cares about playwrights…the words! They allow us to produce our work at incredible venues.” This sentiment was shared by Ms. Yaged, who says “the entire DUAF team are all about putting playwrights and their work first. It’s an absolute joy collaborating with them.” Meanwhile, Mr. Jewett says DUAF “is becoming a legendary festival that is growing and expanding year by year to include theatre, poetry and film. I think the audience is going to be very pleased and surprised at the amazing talent that will be showcased,” while Mr. Damiano says “it’s exciting for me to have a piece that is represented by what’s become an NYC institution.”

The more I read about this festival, the more intrigued I became. Indeed, while there are plenty of festivals that showcase indie theatre and film in NYC and all across the world, this is one of the rare festivals that seems to truly put an emphasis on the inclusion of a wide variety of artists from a wide variety of artistic disciplines. It struck me as a true gathering of artists and audience members who love theatre, film, music, poetry, and more broadly speaking, art. As a reviewer who’s recently had the pleasure of being invited to a number of these events, I look forward to seeing and offer further description of much of the art being presented here.

In the meantime, with the festival opening in just a few days, as of this article, the artists involved couldn’t be more excited, it would seem, for audiences to see their work. “It’s truly an honor to be part of this year’s festival,” say the Noriega twins, adding that they “are very excited because we are actually going so we will be able to experience it fully. Thanks to these types of festivals, our work is exposed and we can continue creating these wonderful stories.” Ms. Ince says of her film “I hope to reach as many people as possible with this movie,” adding that “my intention with any project is not only to entertain audiences, but also to touch their hearts.”

Then, as Mr. Ramirez simply puts it, “I hope you got your tickets.”

 

The Downtown Urban Arts Festival runs from April 7 to May 12, For more information and a full listing of events, please visit www.duafnyc.com.

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Anthony J. Piccione is an award-winning playwright, producer, screenwriter, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His eclectic canon of plays have previously been presented in NYC at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the Hudson Guild Theatre, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His short drama “What I Left Behind” was named the NYWinterfest’s Best Short Play of 2018, while his avant-garde one-act “4 $tages” is set to premiere this summer at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. His work as a playwright has been published at Heuer Publishing, and his columns and reviews are frequently published at On Stage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.