Interview with Brian Rogers, artistic director of The Chocolate Factory Theater, New York. By Mira Todorova

Brian Rogers, artistic director of The Chocolate Factory Theater, New York

The Chocolate Factory Theater is an artist-founded, artist-led and artist-focused organization in New York City which embraces artistic practice as an integral part of the artist’s whole life, an essential component of the life of the community and a key element to a larger national and international artistic dialogue. Co-founders Sheila Lewandowski and Brian Rogers began making work together in 1995 and quickly saw the need for a creative home to support their work and the work of fellow experimental performance-based artists. The theatre engages specifically with a community of artists who challenge themselves and, in doing so, challenge the whole society. The creative team behind the organization believes that by supporting the labor of these artists, it contributes to elevating New York city as a thriving and more equitable wellspring of ideas. With the support of the city of New York in 2021 the CFT got a new permanent home which opened to the public in March 2022 with the premieres of the artists James Allister Sprang and Justin Allen. Mira Todorova talks to the artistic director Brian Rogers. 

Let us begin with the history of the Chocolate Factory Theater, it’s been active in the New York scene for more than 17 years. How much time is 17 years in the life of an institution like this – an independent space for performing arts? 

In 2004 Sheila Lewandowski and I founded it together. This kind of an institution is rare in NYC. The places that we think of here as the major institutions have all been in existence for 40 or more years. There was a moment I feel in the seventies when artist-run spaces were started and grew to become institutions, but not a lot of that happened after that. When I came to New York in the 90s there was a really thriving scene of independent art spaces but they tended not to last very long, it was always shifting. Artists would start a space and either the situation with the real estate would change and they would not be able to keep it or they did not want to, because in order to have something grow and sustain you need to go down this path of increasing the administration and trying to raise money, and all of these things are a lot of work, someone has to decide they are really willing to do it. But also, through that time spaces in New York got more and more expensive so fewer and fewer of them started to pop up. Today there are really only a handful of spaces, that started around the time we started, which are still around. 

Why do you think it was exactly in the 90s that many new spaces appeared?

The 90s marked actually the end of this process. People referred to it as the golden era for arts in New York that started in the 60s with Judson Dance Theatre and extended through into the 80s when essentially New York was a bankrupt city and was much smaller in terms of population than it is now. Because the city was very rough a lot of things were possible, so artists would come and live on the Lower East Side, even squat in places, or find very cheap rents, so they can make their art and have a life without being so concerned with how to survive and make money. And then starting in the 90s it slowly began to become what it is now, incredibly expensive, which makes it hard to survive unless you earn enough money. 

So, the 70s here were like the 90s in Berlin?

Yes, I remember in the 90s people referring to Berlin as the new New York.

Propositions from the DeadWIP: tizita, from the feet up / aden (co-presented with ISSUE Project Room)

What was your vision in the beginning and how did it evolve in the course of time? 

There was really no vision in the beginning. Initially the only goal was to find an affordable space for Sheila and I to make our own work, as simple as that. But almost instantly when artists heard this space was happening, they started approaching me to ask whether they can do something here. This coincided with the moment when I had a day job at Dance Theater Workshop, which is now New York Live Arts. Through working there, I met all of the experimental independent dance artists in NYC, or most of them, and I fell in love with that community. So, when all these people started to approach me, I saw an opportunity to build a community around this place. If we were to do that, it felt really important that I could stand behind the work of the artists, so I had to start making curatorial choices, and that’s how I became a curator. I was learning to do that as I went, always by instinct; and I also had to learn to say no to some projects. The place slowly grew into this thing that it is now. From the beginning Sheila and I were working as volunteers and the artists would get paid almost nothing, a share of the box office and a little bit more. Then we started seeking funding and for 5 years we had no success; and then at some point it jumped. The budget for the first year (in 2004) was $25,000, and now it is a million.     

How did this change your perception and your responsibility to the scene and to the community?

I began to understand its dynamics in a deeper way. I began to understand the challenges that the artists were facing, what they needed. What also worked in my favor in the beginning was that I am a working artist myself, so we are on an equal basis, two artists talking about a project. I do not know if it is true in Bulgaria but I think the normal dynamic in the wealthy European countries (and the larger institions here in the U.S.) is that curators and administrators are on a very separate plane from artists, and there is a tension and a conflict in this communication – what a curator wants and what the artist wants – and here we are on more equal ground – I am an artist, you are an artist, let’s figure out how to do this. I did not have an agenda as a curator other than to feel that I can stand behind the artist and what they are doing; even if the work does not “succeed”, which is often the case, I still invite them, because I believe in their potential as artists. There is a constant internal tension here, among the staff, between trying to hold onto the DIY spirit of how it was in the beginning; and now, being more established and owning a bigger space, having to do much more in regards to administration, sort of following the rules, that we now feel obliged to follow. When you’re working in an underground space you can skip many rules, which in a way is very exciting because there’s freedom in that, but now we know we have to pay salaries, we have to do things legally, we have to fulfill requirements and make sure that the artists do that too. But still the dynamics are very positive, there is very rarely, if any, distrust, because the artists know that I am an artist too. The currency of this field is trust. There is not that much money moving around.           

What kind of artistic voices do you want to give a platform to, what are the values, the aesthetics, the ideas that you want to promote?

It’s a constellation of things. From the beginning the focus was on creation, I am interested in supporting artists in making new things and it’s very instinctual. Actually, it’s about taking risks in the work – whatever specific artistic interest that they have or whatever lineage they may be associating with in whatever discipline they are interested in and that feels unique to them. It’s not about what is the “best” work.

Do you sometimes serve as the outside eye of the artistic works? Do you also work as a dramaturg for some of the projects?

Sometimes. My participation in the artistic process is up to the artist and some artists seek my advice and ask me to be in the room and discuss their work, some never ask that. But we don’t really have the figure of the dramaturg, and I think we could benefit from that. We have not normalized the practice of dramaturgy. We do not have dramaturgs directly involved in our processes, it’s really rare. I know it is very common in Europe, but here there are only a few people in dance, actually I can think of one person in New York who has really put herself out there as a dramaturg and tries to find artists who will invite her into their process. 

What are the policies on a city and on a national level towards the performing arts and particularly the ones aimed at the development of contemporary dance and performance?

The short answer is: there is no policy. There is some funding that exists. NYC is only now developing its very first arts and culture policy for the city. In NYC we are very lucky because there is sizable funding here for arts, but the way it is spent is problematic. There are a few strands to it, there are some very large institutions that exist like the Met Opera or Metropolitan Museum of Art, BAM, The New York Public Theater etc., and because the city owns these buildings, they feel a sense of responsibility to them and they throw a lot of money at those places. Otherwise, money is in a way distributed by district throughout the city and it is a political process to some degree. We have an elected city council, so there is a person who represents each district, of which there are 51 altogether. So, the representatives of each district advocate for a piece of the pie, which raises the question: what are the political priorities? There are hundreds of not-for-profit groups in the city doing some kind of work in the arts, competing for funding, and there is no broad vision, it’s hard to see the big picture and questions of equity, representation and anti-racism also need to be addressed in different kinds of ways. Anyone can apply but it’s a kind of murky process. It’s a self-perpetuating system, people who are getting funding tend to get funding again and people who are trying for the first time could find it hard to break in; and it’s predominantly white-led institutions that are getting the most of the money, which is a problem. Within ten years, white people will not be the majority population in NYC. This is possibly the most diverse city in the USA, every recognized cultural group is represented; in fact Queens is the most diverse county in the USA, at least 138 languages are spoken here. 

In NYC the notion of community is a significant one. Your work is very much embedded in the community of the neighborhood; you work with a community of artists. In what way does belonging to a community is important for you? 

It often happens in the city, especially with the large institutions, where the average person living in the area of one of these venues possibly never walks inside of it, does not understand why it is important; and there is a feeling that the whole thing this is very elitist, it does not speak to the concerns of a working-class person living by this theater. People ask themselves: who is taking care of me, why are we taking care of this? We are trying to establish ourselves as good neighbors, and to understand that we’re a business just like any other business in the neighborhood. We live here, we care about the neighborhood and the neighborhood cares about us.   

The big news is that you just entered a new permanent space which you are in possession of. This became possible due to the support of the city. How did it all happen? What did it take to convince the city to invest in your work? 

It took more than ten years and it was a highly political process. Sheila and I were approaching our city council representative, and city officials including the mayor at the time. We made the argument that New York is rapidly changing, and if we want to think of ourselves as a cultural capital of the USA and also, in some ways, of the world – because tourists travel to NYC and one of the major attractions being the exciting art scene here – but it has gotten harder and harder to survive here. There are still a lot of artists, but you can see it beginning to decline – we have to do something. When I was a student at art school in the 90s, at that time it was clear that you would have to go to NYC, where the excitement is; and now that is less true. People are really asking themselves – do I want to live like that and struggle? For those of us who are renting the spaces that we run, it is just so clear that the day will come when it will become impossible to pay rent. The city needs to invest in cultural spaces and ownership so that organizations can think about sustainability, and the art community can continue to thrive here. And our argument is that you really need to support the bottom of the ecosystem. Artists develop new ideas and new aesthetics in spaces like ours, and these ideas trickle up into popular culture; but it can take twenty years or more. Many of the bright ideas that you might now see on Broadway, these ideas may have originated in the experimental scene and the avant garde some 30 years ago. The support of this scene is crucial for the whole ecosystem of the arts. And the city received our message: they provided funding of 4 million dollars to purchase this building and transferred the ownership to us, so we actually own it. And the city is doing this for a handful of other places. But our case actually was a precedent, it was the first time it was done in perhaps 70 years. The city prefers to support organizations housed in buildings that they already own, because it is simpler for them, but there are very few of those to be found anymore. 

luciana achugar – PURO TEATRO: A Spell For Utopia

How do you see the role and mission of the CFT in the performing arts community?

We are advocates for the independent experimental scene, which is the least supported community because it does not have a clear relationship to the capitalist economy or the marketplace. There is a really thriving art infrastructure in NYC because there is a serious art market here. Even theater has a connection to the capitalist marketplace because there is television, industries that intersect with those disciplines. Theater actors can become movie stars, playwrights can become TV writers…dance and performance do not really have a trajectory like that. Among our peer organizations, we are trying to maintain a unique position, to see what’s lacking and try to find ways to serve that. And we are very active politically.                 

Can you identify your audiences and how do you develop them?

The audiences come from all over NYC, it is not predominantly a local audience. We just moved to a new neighborhood which is very different demographically. We were very well known in our old neighborhood, we were very involved in local community issues outside of what we did artistically, and everyone knew about us. Even if they were never going to come to see a show, they liked the idea that we existed there and wanted to preserve it and to make sure that we survived. It adds to the vibrancy of the neighborhood in a good way, and here we have to start over. Most of our audience are artists who are interested in experimental art; so it is an audience that seeks us out. We have a desire to cultivate, but we struggle to have the resources to do that. We do some work with young people, we have a program with high-school students who are studying art, but it is not really about bringing them here as audiences, but rather about connecting them to working artists. We also work with the girl scouts, very young women ages 9 to 16, and we do workshops with them. 

If you dream big how would you like to see the Chocolate Factory Theatre in 5 or 10 years’ time? 

It will be in this space. Essentially, I would love to do the same scale of program that we do now, but with better financial support. We do commit a significant amount of money relative to many other places, some real money is going into the hands of the artists, which is really great, but it should be more. And I would love to have more opportunity to expand the audience, because this space is bigger and we can accompany more people. I would like to find a way to make this invitation happen. I would love for this space to be much more open to the public. We need to find ways of opening it to people who are working here, outside of the performances, and to have other things happening that they could experience. I want to maintain the spirit of what we do and how we do it while supporting it a little bit better. And this is a tricky balance, because we need to grow and have more money, but that generally leads to more institutional thinking and we are really trying to avoid institutional thinking.   

What are the major development tracks that you want to pursue?  

At the beginning we were really supporting exclusively NYC based artists and I don’t want to abandon that, but I think there is now an opportunity for different exchanges to happen. It is not about festivals, there are festivals in January for example and artists come and show their work, but no real exchange takes place and we have to figure out ways for this to happen. Artists who are based here can benefit a lot from understanding what artists from other cities and countries are doing, and vice versa; and it has to be more about research and relationship building than about the work. I want to find ways for that to happen more.     

How about showing international work? 

It is very dependent on international funding. It generally happens in situations where there is funding provided by the wealthy countries the works originates from. The reason why you see French work or Norwegian work here is because they are very wealthy European countries choosing to invest in the export of their own artistic product. There is a lot international work shown in NYC but it tends to be big pieces from big companies with big support from their home countries. So, it is not happening in an organic way as it is seen through Europe where independent artists can find 10 co-commissioning theatres to put small amounts into the work and then it begins to circulate. Here it happens very rarely and there is not very much touring withing the country either for US artists, it’s pretty rare.

What is the life-span of a production then? 

Often, it’s one weekend. I try to help the artists find additional places to present their work, through relationships that I have built and through establishing new connections. There is a festival in Austin called Fusebox, a venue in Portland, Oregon called Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), a venue in Seattle called On the Boards and the Minneapolis venue called the Walker Art Center with whom we have shared a lot of projects. But it is based on informal communication. Sometimes the artists employ someone to take care of this, but generally not. It is not like in Europe where so many artists have agencies, art managers who take care of the diffusion.

Crisis seems to be a permanent state of being – Trump, Covid, now Putin. What new meanings, new tasks, new challenges we are presented with – artistically, aesthetically, ethically?   

Politics affects so many things. In a way, New York city can feel like a bubble or even a separate country, the politics here do not mirror the politics of the rest of the country. Trump is from New York city and he is very well known here, he has always been considered a buffoon. There is very little funding coming from the federal government and if that were to disappear it would not destroy us. Most of our money comes from private funders. The danger of this funding model is that if the economy crumbles and the stock market crumbles than the funding crumbles too, because it is entirely based on foundations spending portions of their investment portfolios. And politics certainly affects the nature of what artists are doing because it affects the world.

With the financial support of National Culture Fund, Bulgaria