It’s Far From Over for UNDER St. Marks

A new lease on life worth noting: UNDER St. Marks is safe and secure for another seven years. | Photo by Erez Ziv

BY TRAV S.D | What is it that comes out of the ground? Lore and science tell us: good things and bad. Diamonds, gold, silver, and oil wells! Life-sustaining water! Root vegetables to get you through the winter! Archaeological revelations about extinct species and civilizations! But… also, monsters: vampires, mummies, zombies, and mole people! On some level, theatre is what you get when you mix all those things together. And one particular subterranean venue, UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Pl., btw. First Ave. & Ave. A), has been unearthing dreamstuff and nightmares for over two decades. Downtown audiences will be delighted to know that the process of excavation won’t be stopping any time soon: FRIGID New York, the parent company of UNDER St. Marks, as well as The Kraine Theater, has secured the use of this much-cherished basement theatre space for another seven years.

This development is significant because there were times in recent memory when UNDER St. Marks’ future as an arts venue seemed uncertain. In 2011, a lease re-negotiation necessitated an emergency scramble (a crowdfunding campaign called “Save UNDER St. Marks” saved the day). Last year, ownership of the building changed hands, and it briefly seemed that such an effort would need to be revisited. But according to Erez Ziv, Managing Artistic Director, the danger has passed, at least for a while.

“We’ve been in negotiations for like a year,” Ziv said. “Fortunately for us, the real estate market’s a little rough right now, so we were able to get a two-year lease with a five-year option. We’re also planning a bunch of renovations, including a second bathroom, and some other more cosmetic changes that will improve the look of the place.”

A ground level sign beckons theatergoers to the basement. | Photo by Erez Ziv

Not bad for a literal hole in the ground. Ziv says that he first fell in love with UNDER St. Marks after seeing shows there during the New York International Fringe Festival in 1998. Given that the space is just a few dozen yards from the other two venues he then managed, The Kraine Theater and The Red Room (both at 85 E. Fourth St., btw. Bowery & Second Ave.), his company “took it and ran with it.” In its two decades under Ziv’s management, a long list of distinguished performing artists have trod its basement boards.

“It is rare that I sit through an evening of TV without seeing someone I saw on our stage at least once,” he said, citing a wide range of successful actors, comedians and writers from Broadway and television: Ilana Glazer (“Broad City”), Joshua Conkel (“A Series of Unfortunate Events”), Netflix staff writer and playwright Ming Peiffer, Tony winner Ari’el Stachel (“The Band’s Visit”), Christopher John O’Neill (“The Book of Mormon”), and — full disclosure — your humble correspondent.

Another “repeat offender” is multiple threat Clay McLeod Chapman, whose popular theatrical horror series, “The Pumpkin Pie Show,” will be returning from Sept. 2 to Oct. 7 in a risky iteration called “The Pumpkin Pie Show: One-on-Ones.” (He’s performing the show for one audience member at a time.)

“UNDER St. Marks is worth its weight in gold,” Chapman told this publication. “Erez has given me his faith and trust and access to the venue for 20 years, with the onus on me to give a good show. Places like that are so important now with theatre spaces all going the way of the dodo. It’s a black box for all the black sheep!”

A slice just for you: Clay McLeod Chapman serves up a one-on-one version of his “Pumpkin Pie Show” Sept. 2-Oct. 7 at UNDER St. Marks. | Photo by Antonia Stoyanovich

While it’s wonderful to know that his organization is stable, Ziv is eager to point out that it also is not static. All manner of positive changes are afoot, and have been for some time. The most seismic for longtime fans of the organization will be the knowledge that they are moving away from “Horse Trade” — the brand name we have always associated with the company that manages The Kraine and UNDER St. Marks.

“This is probably the last year we will use the name ‘Horse Trade,’ ” Ziv said. “We incorporated as a not-for-profit called FRIGID New York six years ago.” Previously, “FRIGID” was the name of the annual theatre festival put on by Horse Trade, which had, by design, never been a not-for-profit. “It was not exactly profitable,” he joked, “but not being a not-for-profit allowed us to do a lot of things we might not have if we’d been one. But it’s even nicer to be able to pay people, and now we can qualify for foundation and government grants that have allowed us to start doing that.”

Also on the horizon: long-term plans to purchase their own permanent theatre complex with the participation of Indiespace, an organization Ziv co-founded with Randi Berry and Paul Leibowitz, which helps New York theatres with the difficult task of acquiring real estate in the toughest real estate market in the world.

But until that day, the company remains snug in the home it has known since the Clinton administration. In an age when most other Off-Off theatres have been folding or moving to the outer boroughs, that can be counted as a major victory.

“The Pumpkin Pie Show: One-on-Ones,” written and performed by Clay McLeod Chapman, takes place Sept. 2-Oct. 7 at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Pl., btw. First Ave. & Ave. A). Sessions are 20 minutes each, and reservations are required. Audience members will receive an email questionnaire that will help select a story best for their experience. Personal requests are welcome. For tickets ($15) and info, visit FRIGIDnewyork.info. Artist info at claymcleodchapman.com.

FRIGID New York Managing Artistic Director Erez Ziv has been giving voice, and a stage, to Downtown performers for 20 years. | Photo by Benjamin Spradley

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