By Wendy Blake
Stepping through an unmarked door and downstairs into an intimate, dark space to see a multimedia theater piece, I was reminded of the underground arts scene in Soviet-era Budapest, where I studied linguistics in the mid-‘80s. We’d furtively attend performances that would spring up wherever room could be found despite the risks in that era of Soviet rule. The creative energy of the dissident artists was like steam under pressure.
But this place with the familiar feel, the same sense of urgency and vitality, was on West 106th Street: It’s home to the award-winning New Stage Theatre Company, which last year celebrated its 20th anniversary and is perhaps the only off-off-Broadway theater on the Upper West Side. After meeting Ildiko Nemeth (right), the Hungarian-born founder and artistic director, my déjà vu made sense.
As a teenager in Budapest, Nemeth also attended those underground shows, and she was inspired by the use of theater as a form of resistance. “Oppression is always good for art,” she says. At 16, she decided theater would be her life’s work, not medicine, as her parents wanted. When the Iron Curtain fell, she helped launch R.S.9, a still-active independent theater company in Budapest.
She moved to New York in 1998 and studied at the prestigious Actors Studio—in part, she says, to improve her English(!). Upon graduating, she founded New Stage; her work would incorporate drama, music, visual art, performance art, and movement. A major influence was Polish director Jerzy Grotowski—considered a founder of experimental theater—for whom theater was not an end in itself, but a means of self-exploration.
For years, the company was homeless. Nemeth’s works were performed by invitation at downtown avant-garde venues like La MaMa and Dixon Place. Then, in 2017, one of her board members (the board includes Nemeth and five others, all of whom got involved after seeing one of the company’s shows) offered her free rehearsal space in the basement of a building he owns, at 36 W. 106th, just off Central Park. She ended up negotiating a long-term lease. With support from the city and state, she remodeled, installing HVAC, lighting and sound systems.
Every year, Nemeth premieres original work she’s written or adapted and directs others’ plays, often collaborating with first-generation immigrants. She stages one or two plays a year but wants to make the 1,150-square-foot space a year-round cultural center. “I want to make this a home for artists with bold, original voices to make multidisciplinary, experimental works,” Nemeth says.
Though she is worlds away from Soviet-era Hungary, Nemeth’s work still feels subversive. She explores more insidious forms of oppression, with a focus on society’s treatment of the marginalized: women, the mentally ill, the powerless, dissenters. Hers is not a vision without hope, though. “Overall, I deal with meaningful connections and the obstacles to finding harmony within oneself and in the world,” says Nemeth.
New Stage’s current production, The Singing Sphere, written by Marie Glancy O’Shea, will run through May 12. It explores the intertwined stories of seven women in a barren landscape—Waiting for Godot is explicitly mentioned—and touches on topics from motherhood and gender discrimination to the impact of war and politics.
Last year’s luminous Cosmicomics (the show I stumbled upon) reprised Nemeth’s 2014 adaptation of Italo Calvino’s short story collection, an audacious dramatization of a world of nonhuman entities seeking connection against the backdrop of the evolving universe.
New Stage has won two awards from the Innovative Theatre Foundation and been nominated for 10 others.
Behind the scenes, Nemeth is essentially a one-woman show. In addition to writing, directing, casting, hiring crew, making videos, etc., she manages the performance space and, of course, applies for funding. (Her latest show was supported by the city Department of Cultural Affairs, the state Council on the Arts, and the Puffin Foundation.) She gets some administrative help: For each project, she’ll hire a grant writer to finalize the applications and a press agent, and she has assistance from interns. One board member even helps with accounting, and another with sets.
“Theater is a village,” she says on the phone from her Broad Street office (the space was donated by a board member), even as she works there solo. “But people are always surprised, knowing what I’m doing, that there isn’t a bigger infrastructure behind me.”