Just before a recent performance of Dan Fishback’s musical The Material World (held-over, full house, many turned away), Dixon Place’s omnipotently attractive founder/creative director Ellie Covan took the stage to thank “those of you in the audience who are holding drinks” and then warmly encouraged everyone else to also visit the upstairs bar during intermission. Every little bit helps when you deliver 15 shows per week with tickets running only from $10-15, rarely $20, and you insist on paying your artists (even writers eager to read for free) while providing them with space, audiences, and the “resources and support to create new work.” Covan explains, “Our focus here is more on the concept than the product.”
Others may have shuttered their doors or survive by renting out to commercial ventures, but Covan’s almost unnerving de- termination to stick to her mission as “New York’s laboratory for performance”—showcasing virtually every art that can be performed and representing as many communities and demographics as possible—has kept Dixon Place thriving, more or less, for 26 years, the past five at 161A Chrystie St. with a main stage theater downstairs and a cabaret space and bar on ground level. “Surviving financially becomes the priority,” admits Covan, who has won two Obie Awards. “We opened this new place right when the recession started, so it was questionable whether we could make it. It’s a combination of old-fashioned hard work, willpower when you’re exhausted, and determination when you’re going against the odds, and then keeping the importance of the vision right in front of you. Because if you don’t hold onto that vision when you think of all the challenges—financial, with the space, with artists, or artistic challenges—you can get discouraged really quickly.”
It all began when a very young Covan sublet a Paris apartment from a businessman who was subletting from the owner, Mr. Dixon. Though the businessman forbade her to invite people over, Covan promptly held a salon of women friends so she could read a story about her first boyfriend. Back in NYC, she worked two jobs to do the same for others at the first Dixon Place, a tiny First Street storefront with an admission price of $1.98. All proceeds went to the performers. “Remunerating artists has always been a priority,” says Dixon. “It’s also symbolic and meaningful.” For the next 20 years, Covan shared a loft on the Bowery with Dixon Place—or was it the other way around? “I thought it would be for six months, a performance art experiment in living,” she says. “My door was street level, open all day until 10 o’clock at night, and people were coming in and out. It was right in my space, and after a few years, it became very challenging. But there were certain points where I didn’t even have a choice. This made it possible for us to survive when other spaces were disappearing because of real estate. I didn’t have to pay rent; living there was part of my salary.”
So it is infuriating to learn that that choice turned the woman who was instrumental in developing the early work of such luminaries as John Leguizamo and The Blue Man Group into one of Manhattan’s modern dispossessed. Covan faces eviction because her loft home is zoned for commercial use. And it’s ironic that Mr. Dixon of that apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement would help, if only he could. When Covan finally told him five years ago of the venture named in his honor, Dixon invited her to curate a space he planned to create in the ballroom of his San Diego mansion. Unfortunately, he passed away shortly before that could happen, and his many millions went to Amnesty International. Thankfully, Covan is not easily discouraged.
Up through Aug. 26, Dixon Place is featuring the first Lower East Side Music Festival, 12 nights of music covering virtually every genre, including “eccentrica”; Thursday through Sunday, three acts per night.
Check www.dixonplace.org for additional information.
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