By Maria Rocha-Buschel
An old furnace room in St. George’s Church on East 16th Street in the past year has become gathering place for New Yorkers to experience the arts on a budget. Known as the Cave, the space has played host to jazz concerts, literary readings and plays, and until recently the programming operated parallel to each other but separately. But the three organizers have now come together to create the Olmsted Salon with the combined goal of getting the community more involved in the arts.
“That’s the core of the program,” said Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, which has been working with organizers Alex Nguyen, Dusty Brown and Maria Bowler. “There are underserved populations and we want to connect people through art, culture and conversation.”
The GPBA voted to donate $10,000 to Olmsted at its last board meeting, a financial commitment that Harrison said will begin next January and will be reconsidered after a year.
Nguyen, Brown and Bowler all have different areas of expertise within the arts but Harrison said that their specific experiences within their fields has helped them grow the salon.
“All three of them are very accomplished in their areas and all have a network of people we go to for programming,” she said.
Nguyen, who is the music director at St. George’s Church, started doing one-off jazz concerts last fall, but he said that the shows were so popular that they decided to turn it into a series and they have been able to draw musicians who have performed throughout the city, including at Lincoln Center. Since it became a more formal program, Nguyen said that the focus has been on bringing in a variety of musicians.
“We try to have diversity in style but also in age,” he said. “We’ll invite up-and-coming musicians and also some of the older, more established artists.”
He noted that there ends up being diversity in the audience as well, with some of the shows bringing in an older audience, but some of the shows will also attract kids.
“We’re striving for diversity and inclusiveness,” he said. “There’s a cover to pay the artists but it’s a suggested donation. We want to provide an experience for people who can’t make it up to places like Lincoln Center.”
The Reverend Dr. Tom Pike, Rector Emeritus of Calvary Church, has a long history of connecting people to the arts and he has also been working with Olmsted’s curators to solidify the programming. Brown, who is the director of Olmsted and who develops the theater programming, ended up getting involved with Calvary through Reverend Pike’s relationship with actor Tony Hale, known for television shows “Arrested Development” and “Veep.”
Hale had organized a Christian support group for those in the artistic community called the Haven and Reverend Pike encouraged him to bring the group to Calvary. When Hale booked the part on Arrested Development in the early 2000s, Brown, who is an actor himself with a background in theater, took over. Although the group no longer meets, Brown continued his relationship with Pike and the church, organizing the plays at the Cave since last year.
Brown said that the plays tend to be unique productions, with world premieres of new plays and new translations. Last year, they did a production of a play called “Veritas,” which got the attention of a New York Times critic and had a sold-out run. The next production will be a new translation of a Bertolt Brecht play, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” a satirical allegory about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Brown said that they were working on the play so it would be performed around the election because he felt there is an “obvious correlation” to Donald Trump and it will run until Saturday, November 5.
Brown noted that the productions usually cast professional actors and they are currently only offering the roles to Off-Broadway and Broadway actors but he said that as the programs expands, they would like to open up the audition process.
Bowler, who curates readings for Olmsted that vary from discussions on non-fiction and fiction to poetry and criticism, is the assistant digital editor at Commonweal Magazine, an independent journal edited by lay Catholics. This month’s reading, which will take place on November 18, will feature writer Darcey Steinke, who will be discussing her fiction with Bowler.
Readings take place every third Friday of the month, with jazz performances on the second Friday of the month. Olmsted’s event coming up in December, on the third Friday of that month, will combine the music and literary programs for an evening of Christmas music and readings curated by Bowler.
While the concerts and readings are regularly scheduled, the theater performances are periodic because the plays take longer to produce. The most recent production, prior to the premiere of the Brecht play, was a reading of new play “Fall Down Seven” by Dean Poynor, which was performed at the end of last month.
Although the programming takes place in and is supported by St. George’s and Calvary Church, the Olmsted Salon is less about religious affiliation and more about a common appreciation for arts and culture.
“Religious institutions are integral to building bridges between themselves and the community and the arts are a great way to build those bridges,” Reverend Pike said. “There’s a long history of people using the arts to build bridges. It’s transcendent of the agenda of the religious community. It allows people to be exposed to quality artistic work.”
For more information about upcoming events, visit the website.