Leaping ‘Into the Next Unknown’: Robert Lyons on the End of New Ohio Theater

The last performance of the last show at the 74-seat New Ohio Theater, on Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village, was “Ultra Left Violence,” a poetical, political, work-in-progress play by the company’s artistic director, Robert Lyons. Wrapping up the New Ohio’s final Ice Factory festival on Aug. 12, it was thrillingly, even touchingly, weird.

Mid-show, members of the convivial audience were given chalk — a motif in the production design — to cover the black-painted walls with their memories of the New Ohio and its predecessor, the Ohio Theater, on Wooster Street in SoHo. After the spectators returned to their seats, the performance continued with the frenzied, prolonged smashing of a watermelon, which sent chunks and juice flying. (Tarps and rain ponchos were provided.)

Experimental work was the soul of the New Ohio, a producer and presenter that closed for good on Aug. 31. The publicity line has been that the shutdown is the end of 30 years, but that’s a give-or-take number. It rounds up the life span of Ice Factory, the festival of new works that Lyons founded in 1994, and rounds down his tenure, which started at the Ohio Theater in 1988, when the owner of that space, Bill Hahn, hired Lyons, then 28, to run it. He served as the building’s super, too, and got a rent-free loft in exchange.

“My wife says it wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle choice,” Lyons said. “We lived upstairs. My daughter was raised there.”

In 2011, after the Wooster Street building was sold, the Ohio was reincarnated as the New Ohio. Cumulatively, the two stages saw a jaw-dropping profusion of downtown artists (Taylor Mac, Mimi Lien, Knud Adams, Sam Gold, Lee Sunday Evans, James Ortiz) and companies (the Mad Ones, Half Straddle, Target Margin, New Georges, Ma-Yi Theater Company, Rude Mechanicals, Clubbed Thumb, Ping Chong and Company, Elevator Repair Service, Vampire Cowboys, the Talking Band).

The shows Lyons remembers most fondly include “Surrender,” by International WOW; “Boozy,” from Alex Timbers; and “Particularly in the Heartland,” by Rachel Chavkin and the TEAM. Back in 1988, Lyons recalled, Anne Bogart’s “No Plays No Poetry” put the Ohio Theater on the map.

As for the rented space that was home to the New Ohio, it will remain a theater, renamed 154 and run by the nonprofit ChaShaMa. In the coming season, 154 will host the company Out of the Box Theatrics, which focuses on marginalized communities.

Three days after the final performance of “Ultra Left Violence,” Lyons arranged two chairs on the New Ohio’s immaculate empty stage and sat down for an interview. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What’s your own favorite memory of those 30 years?

Definitely one of them was when we did the Vaclav Havel festival, and he came to the [Ohio Theater] two or three nights in a row. Edward Einhorn did the festival. I directed one of the shows, and Havel came and saw it. Then he just hung out, and I bought him a beer at the concessions, and he was telling me about this play he was working on.

That seems to epitomize what theater is to you: art and politics and hanging out.

Exactly right, yeah. The thing I love the most about these 30 years is the community of people that I’ve got to know and bond with.

What grabbed you about the old Wooster Street space?

It was spectacular. It was 5,000 square feet of raw space with the old creaky floors, the columns, the barn doors that opened out onto the street. It was falling down around us. It had no air conditioning. It was famously hot during the summer, and it didn’t matter. People were willing to suffer for their art — to consume it and to perform it. It was a different time. I don’t think you could get away with that now.

The other night here, what were you thinking as you watched the final show?

It was very emotional, of course. I was trying to hold it together. [laughs] But I was just surrounded by so many of my friends. So it was a very warm, safe room to be in. It was a crazy show, and I was very happy to finish on that note. Like, let’s just do a bonkers intellectual circus, and see if it works.

Why go out with a work in progress?

I was consciously trying to make a statement to myself and maybe to everybody that I’m going to continue to do theater past this date. I’m going to stop running a theater, but I’m not done making theater. Now we’re spring-boarding into the next unknown.

I’ve been getting a very steady flow of people telling me how sorry they are that we’re closing. But it was the right time. I’m 64, you know. For me, it’s not so much of a sad thing, but —

Is it really not a sad thing?

Talk to me in a month. [laughs] I’m still sitting here. I’ve had a key to a theater for 35 years in New York. I could always open up the door to a theater and go in. And Sept. 1, I won’t. The reality of that is going to hit.

But it’s the right time?

I was kind of done with the day to day of keeping a machine going. There was a point where I said, OK, we have the funding to get through this year. Then next year is a complete catastrophe. Because that’s where the field is, and all that PPP money and Covid money is ending. I would rather go out and [be able to] meet all my obligations and enjoy it instead of do one more year and be chasing money the whole time and worrying about “Can I keep it open?” and then maybe closing in the middle of the season.

Your audience stuck around, but the funding got scarcer and —

And the cost of making the work and the cost of staffing. That’s the combination.

Is there still room for the truly experimental?

Here [a downtown producer and presenter] is very good at it. Their work is very strange. They’re also paying people living wages. But I do think it’s harder. We’re always on the margin of a marginal form. I don’t know if we’ve ever been more than that, really.

But you seed the wider theater.

I agree. This is where everyone gets their chops. This is where everybody learns what they have to say and how to say it and what their aesthetic is. That translates throughout the regional theater system and uptown in the larger spaces. All of those have gotten more adventurous over the 30 years, because people are bringing their aesthetic — maybe not as wild, but still carrying it with them.

In your final show, so much was drawn and written in chalk, meant to be wiped away — ephemeral, like theater.

It’s very fleeting. Part of the magic of it is you do all the labor that goes into making a piece — the design team, the cast, the stage management team, the writers. Putting all that effort and creativity and thought and commitment into this, and we did it for four performances. You just think, who does that? And it’s theater people. That’s who.

What makes it worth it?

What do I want the fabric of my life to be? If it’s playing with other people as though it’s the most serious, important thing in the world, that’s a pretty good way to spend your time.

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