‘Balloons’ from The Set NYC. Reliving the Heyday of New York Artistic Chic-Poverty

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Columnist

People talk in hushed tones about the days of New York gone by. About Prohibition era New York, Golden Age Broadway New York, Beat New York, Psychedelic New York and Punk New York. New York in its modern state, particularly Disneyfied midtown Manhattan, can seem to pale in comparison. The old and the young alike long with anarchic nostalgia for the days of Patti Smith, Sam Shepard and the heyday of a scummier city where the streets were paved with poems, heroin needles and broken bottles of alcohol. I generally frown on Golden Age thinking, and this situation is no exception. You can still be poor and on drugs in New York, in fact it’s probably easier than ever before. Not that I recommend it, but the option is there. The grander idea amongst all this, however, is that the indie art-scene in New York has stagnated. And it’s just not true. It’s all just shuffled around. Its been pushed out of the village, and in to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Lower East Side. I know this because the other day I took in some of weird and wonderful New York at an event simply titled ‘Balloons' at The Lovecraft on the Lower East Side. A mixture of fine art, dramatic monologues, stand up and good company, organized by The Set NYC as a charity event to raise money for New York’s homeless. It did not disappoint.

As a theatre writer I’m not entirely certain I’m fit to judge this event (as much as any critic is fit to judge anything). I’m no fine art scholar, I’ve never done stand-up, I’m still not entirely certain what qualifies as installation art work and what constitutes a ‘happening’. So my glancing over a large portion of the evening may seem, glancing. If you are an arty art type and were there, do feel free to send us a postcard with your thoughts. I will not being going in to detail because… I don’t know how. The art on display featured the works of Leo Soto, JA Lex, CreatureCraftsNYC and many more. Everything from sculpture, to photography to watercolors. The general mode seemed to be pop-art, as is trendy to look at when you’re in a bar in a basement named after an occult horror writer. I took in as much as I could process and thought, as God did when he was at a loss for a thesaurus, that it was very good. Sitting in a space like that, surrounded by art like that, you can’t help but simultaneously feel cooler, and also that you’re about to be found out as a poser at any second.

Then came the performances, and finally I have something I can write about in my chosen field, even if for a split paragraph. A young performer by the name of Jonathan Vanderzon came on stage and spoke a monologue from ‘The Laramie Project’. Contrary to popular belief, you can still miss if you have good material. Watch a dyslexic fifth grader try and do ‘Hamlet’ and you’ll see what I mean. But Vanderzon proved the old truism that if you give a prodigy a Stradivarius, then the music will be sweet. His rendition of the piece was short, but measured, thoughtful and emotional. His easy connection to the material allowed him a quiet freedom with the text, and gave a simple honesty to his performance. His work was powerful enough that he drew a room full of noisy bar patrons in to silence by measure of his acting alone. Not a feat easily replicated. Like a flash in the pan, it seemed to be over, almost as soon as it began, but like that same flash, everyone saw it, and were not likely to forget it any time soon.

The evening then moved in to stand-up comedy, which was at once refreshing and jarring after Vanderzon’s dark, yet warm, digression in to the world of verbatim performance. As stand-ups go, they were a decent bunch, above average for a New York cellar, with one stand-out. I never wrote down his name, and I was never given a program, so I apologize for not crediting him here. He spoke candidly about his bi-polar disorder, and evoked, with his manic energy, the spirit of a young Robin Williams. Again, I’m not likely to be any good judge of stand-up. Like most people, I know what I like, and that’s about the limit of my expertise. But I definitely liked what I saw in this particular comedian. Whoever you are, nameless man, I look forward to your work going to bigger and better places.

So, if you, like so many, lament the artistic scene in New York and wish for it to be stranger, more mysterious and, well… artier, I advise following The Set NYC and working out how to get involved with them. They may not be able to transport you to the Chelsea Hotel and allow you to relive the heyday of chic-poverty that New York used to boast, but they do, at the very least, muster up that spirit of expression and myriad bag of ideas mixed with alcohol that went a long way to making those times what they were. Powerful monologues, great stand-up, impressive fine art… you’d be a fool not to go at least once to see what all the fuss is about. And believe me, there is fuss.

More information about ‘The Set NYC’, including upcoming events, can be found at their website www.thesetnyc.com.

This piece was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)