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June 28, 2013

Robert Lyons, stronger than ever: The Ice Factory Turns 20

WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE NEW OHIO THEATER in The Archive Building on Christopher Street in New York City, artistic director Robert Lyons eagerly encourages me to view their video promo for the 20th anniversary of The Ice Factory Festival, which opened this week. I watch as familiar names of companies flash across the screen: Banana Bag & Bodice, Rude Mechanicals, Elevator Repair Service, and Pig Iron Theatre. Some troupes, like The Foundry Theater, and New Georges, are also celebrating their own 20th anniversaries. Some are long gone, memorialized in this video tribute to downtown theater history.
Mr. Lyons knows all too well the temporary nature of theater. Just three years ago, The Ohio was on the brink of extension. The owners of the building on Wooster Street sold the building, and Mr. Lyons fought for his theater’s very survival. After receiving an extension of a year and a half, so they wouldn’t close in the middle of a season, Mr. Lyons bid SoHo adieu.
“Hey, you get your moment, you have your run, then life goes on,” said Mr. Lyons. “Good run…probably lasted longer than it had any right to.”
Then, Kevin Cunningham at 3-Legged Dog threw The Ohio and Mr. Lyons a life preserver. He offered a residency that would allow The Ohio to continue limitedly producing. According to Mr. Lyons, the residency at 3LD gave them away to reinvent themselves.
But the real reinvention came when the old Wings Theater, which worked out of The Archive Building for 20 years, lost its lease. As an historical building, one of the stipulations was the underground space must remain a theater. Robert Lyons applied for the lease, and in 2011, The New Ohio was born.
Now, as he ends his second season on Christopher Street, Robert Lyons feels at home. They have a great relationship with the landlord, and audience and artists like the space. There are some similarities to the Wooster Street space. It has columns in the middle of the stage. It also has an elevated portion that might feel like a no-mans land off stage left. But Mr. Lyons says that just encourages creativity.
“Like the old space, there’s an architectural idiosyncratic quality,” says Mr. Lyons. “Artists like to push against that. People like to start with something creates limits or problems to solve. And, I think that makes work more interesting.”
Mr. Lyons also enjoys the new neighborhood more than his old SoHo digs. He muses about the past, but he loves talking about his new neighbors. The literal ones in the building – The Archive Building is also residential – and those in the neighborhood. He laughs when he talks about telling the owner of the bar across the street about the theater.
“I didn’t even realize there was a theater there until about two years ago,” the bar owner said to Mr. Lyons.
“Well, that’s when we took over,” replied Mr. Lyons with pride.
The New Ohio’s business model is actually very similar to the one they had on Wooster Street; they present other companies and rent to them, with an emphasis on presentation.
The biggest shift is its partnership with IRT Theater, which is the other theater in the Archive Building. Together, they’ve created The Archive Residency. Companies receive a month upstairs at IRT to workshop their show, then they move it downstairs for The Ice Factory in the summer. In the fall, productions head back upstairs for more workshopping, and the following spring, they return to The New Ohio for a full production. For the first year, this invitation only residency features The Mad Ones and Collaboration Town. This fall, two more companies will join the program.  At full force, it will be four companies in residency.
 Having a new permanent home for his theater has allowed Mr. Lyons to return to something he’d almost forgotten when he and the theater got booted from Wooster Street three years ago: being an artist.
Mr. Lyons is also an accomplished playwright, and earlier this year he traveled to Italy for a residency at The Bogliasco Foundation, where he wrote a new play. He’s working with Kristen Marting, artistic director of HERE, on here new piece, a six-playwright collaboration titled Trade Practices, which is currently receiving a workshop at Mass MoCA.
“I lost a couple years of writing in the whole transition,” Mr. Lyons says about his time after The Ohio was evicted. “I also lived in that building. It was a very disruptive and traumatic time. I just didn’t have the time for it. So, it’s great to be back. The fact that I’m writing again is that this is now stabilized. It’s here. It’s working. Good work is happening.”
When asked how he imagines The Ice Factory in another 20 years, Mr. Lyons smiles and replies:

“I don’t know, maybe it’ll be exactly the same.”
Whatever it becomes, Robert Lyons seems to be focused on the goodness of now. He’s happy to have a home that supports groundbreaking new theater as he has for the past 20 years. They are booked for next season, and seem poised to help shape the future of American theater for years to come.
The Ice Factory runs at The New Ohio from June 26 – August 3
JAMES CARTER is a dramatist, experience designer and producer whose recent work includes FEEDER: A Love Story (terraNOVA Collective/HERE, NYC), NY_Hearts: LES (One Muse Presents/The Brick Game Play Festival) and other writings about the intersection of art and technology on his blog at @jdcarter

Posted at 5:25 PM

< Savion Glover's STePz at the Joyce Theater | Main | Unlock'd off-Broadway >

Awesome feature on the Ice Factory and Robert Lyons!
Posted by David Runco Gibbs
On Tuesday July 2, 2013