The theater is a spiritual and social x-ray of its time.
This past summer, a black box theater went up adjacent to the parking lot of Water Street Market in New Paltz, New York. New Paltz is a small town (population approximately 14,000) in upstate New York—exit 18 on the Thruway on the West side of the river—and, like all towns, has a culture particular to the town and its European settler and slave-owning history. As a newcomer, resident for less than a year, I was still trying to decipher the mores of the community when construction of the theater began. Most egregious to any outsider—or new insider—are the odd demographics of the town: The SUNY New Paltz campus is diverse; the town itself is not.
I had written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal about a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus. The controversy is an a echo of the monuments discussion we are having in the country: 2,000 students had signed a petition after African-American students voiced their discomfort at sleeping in buildings named after slave-owning families. And though the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers all owned slaves, the town celebrates the French Huguenot settlers with an historic site; many streets in New Paltz are also named after them. It's a difficult ancestry, one not chosen by descendants still living in the town. Discussions are charged. Or there is silence, or avoidance, or anger. Facebook pages, in particular, attract thoughtless, ignorant venom. The urban open-ness and respectful discourse I have been familiar with all my life is absent here , as in our nation at large for that matter. Can a new theater encourage a healing, inclusive spirit, I wondered, as Greek theater of ancient times? Or will it reinforce insularity and provincialism, prejudice and divisiveness, by appealing only to an elite who can afford the seats?
Water Street Market, built on the site of an old lumber yard near the Wallkill River, is now in its 20th year. It's especially congenial in the summer months with outdoor seating areas, boutiques, and various food options. It attracts tourists, but also residents. I've hung out there, met people, and been grateful for the communal space. But when the construction of the theater began, I heard grumblings, dismissive guffaws, and bewilderment. Harry Lipstein, the owner and developer of the market and the new theater, was blamed for the disruption. Questions, as shallow and vicious as town gossip over a white picket fence, were voiced openly: Is this theater a tax write-off for Harry Lipstein or a cultural give-back to a community? Will the theater be sustainable, or is it a vanity project of some sort that he'll pour money into forever? Will the prices be low enough? Why isn't he building a cinema instead? And what about the parking lot above the market, the one we use? What about that? Will he be taking it over for the theater? And so on.
I have interviewed many people over the years but never a man who closed his eyes as he thought about my questions, or began to cry as he answered them. So I was a bit taken aback when Harry Lipstein, worry beads on his right wrist, closed his eyes and wept at the memory of his painful childhood in Queens, NY—an alcoholic father who abandoned his first family, and a bi-polar mother. The ellipsis in the recording of our conversation tells its own story: silent moments as memories surfaced, including what he calls his first acting job with his sister at age 4 as they created a make-believe "normal" family. I asked if the story he'd just told me was off the record and he said, " I'm an open book."
We were sitting in a work room between the theater and the lobby and were interrupted often: the stage manager, a photographer, Harry's artist wife, Wendy. Lipstein's long, lithe body outsized the folding chair, sliding this way and that in an athletic restlessness. His face is tanned and angular, framed with a thick shock of black hair. No publicist was around to control the flow of stories and this was refreshing for a seasoned reporter. At the same time I worried when I was asked if I'd like to become a "Denizen Insider?" @ $55 per year. Not a question to ask a reporter. Naive enthusiasm, I thought, and said, gently, "That would be a conflict of interest."
I got a press ticket for the second play of the season, "Adaptive Radiation," by Hannah Benitez. During my first foray into the intimate space of the theater, designed by Lipstein, who is also an accomplished architect, I was less interested in the play than the experience of watching a play in close quarters with actors and audience, "denizens" of the community as we are now called, thus Denizen Theatre, a utopian vision. The building is aesthetically pleasing, inside and out, and environmentally conscious—as little paper as possible, just a pull down screen with all the information one usually finds in a printed program, a blanket of green planted on the roof, "and insects, too," Lipstein adds. He has never written a play, but was smitten with the theater about seven years ago when his wife suggested he take an acting class. Since then, he's acted, directed and opened two black-box theaters, the first in Sarasota, Florida where he has a second home. That explains the winter tan.
"In life, most of us play personas," he says earnestly. "Very little of our life is spent in truth—it happens with loved ones—not as much as we want. Actors that are vulnerable, give a part of themselves, regardless of the role..." He drifts off, taking a breath, closing his eyes.
My appreciation of Harry Lipstein deepened at an event in the lobby of the theater a few days later which he hosted with his two thirty-something co-artistic directors, Ben Williamson and Brittany Poira, both MFA graduates from Florida State University. They are engaging, social media savvy, gracious , friendly and as energetic as Lipstein, or perhaps he is as energetic as them. The father of four grown children—two boys and two girls—it seems that the theater is yet another family Lipstein has created and nurtured, the perfect antidote to his own, long-ago lost family. But perhaps I am interpreting too much and the theater is just a theater. Either way, it's obvious that Lipstein loves what he is doing, that his effort is sincere.
It was a gracious, pleasant evening, painted guitars hanging on the walls above our heads, a thematic curation inspired by the third and final play of the season, "The Arsonists," by noted playwright, Jacqueline Goldfinger. I arrived for the dress rehearsal on a frigid and squally night as the play's fire roared. The space had been reconfigured and the set was compelling. My first thought was that it must have been expensive.
The continuing success of regional theater depends on many things: solid, interesting plays (contemporary, classic, or classic reimagined), good actors, a committed local audience, but, most of all, money. The economics of live theater production are daunting; the first three plays at Denizen cost more than $90,000 to produce and the artistic co-directors do not, as yet, even have medical benefits. Workers need to be sustained also, of course, especially if they are not native to the area. Young people move on easily, and a life in the theater is, by definition, peripatetic. When I asked Brittany about medical benefits she said, "We're working on it."
In this era of searing cutbacks in arts funding, New Paltz is blessed with a wealthy, caring benefactor. Let us hope that Denizen Theatre becomes both financially viable and well integrated into the community in the months ahead. We need it.