Dixon Place Founder Reflects on 25 Years Downtown

photo by thelodownny.com

Ellie Covan, founder and executive director of Dixon Place, in front of their new home at 161A Chrystie St.

I stopped by Dixon Place recently to check in with founder and executive director Ellie Covan as she was preparing for the 20th Annual HOT! Festival. An exultant LGBT theatrical extravaganza, the festival runs through August 6th and features over 40 different shows.

Looking at the treasure trove of photos and old programs that cover the walls in the Dixon Place Lounge, I was reminded that the company, itself, is celebrating 25 years of championing new and experimental work in the heart of lower Manhattan. It’s clear that what started out as a small literary salon in Covan’s living room on East 1st Street has become an essential creative space for artists from all walks of life.

Dixon Place quickly became a quintessential avant-garde, solo performance space that offered two shows a night almost seven nights a week in the ’80’s. Covan soon included development of larger works of theater, dance, literature, and performance art to the roster. John Leguizamo, The Blue Man Group, Lisa Kron and Peggy Shaw all made appearances at Dixon Place in their respective “early years.” Covan has won two Obie Awards, in 1990 and in 1999, as well as a 1989 “Bessie” – a New York Dance and Performance Award – for her service to the NYC arts community.

“It’s always been a laboratory for work in progress,” Covan told me.  “It’s place where performers and writers can feel safe and take risks and create something. And really work on something.”

What’s changed for Dixon Place in the past 25 years?  “Everything,” Covan said.  “Everything, except our mission.  The mission’s still intact. So there’s that. And that’s what matters.”

During our conversation, we sat at the bar, located in the lobby of the new theater, which opened two years ago.  The road leading to the creation of Dixon Place’s first “official” home was a long one (for years the theater operated out of Covan’s living room or shared spaces). The non-profit started out in a store front (live/work space) on East. 1st Street and then moved to the Bowery in the ’90’s. For a few years, they used the old Vineyard Theater’s space.

Survival has never been easy. From the very beginning, Covan successfully navigated the perils of running a small theater in Manhattan by winning government and foundation grants and appealing for private donations. In 2002 she decided, with her growing team, to embark on a capital campaign to raise enough money to buy a space of their very own, with a real stage and an actual dressing room.

The Dixon Place stage at Ellie Covan's place on the Bowery in 1999

In 2008, after years of planning, fundraising and construction (plus a few large grants from the city) Dixon Place moved into its new home at 161A Chrystie Street. They took over the first floor of the building and created underground space and a beautiful new stage. Then, the economy tanked.  Dixon Place was suddenly struggling to keep the grants and funding coming in.

“I just didn’t want to raise ticket prices once we moved,” Covan said.  “I still wanted everyone to feel comfortable and for the shows to be accessible to everyone.” Most shows will run you from $10-$15, sometimes $20, if it’s a rare, finished piece.  The majority of the work is still presented in a laboratory style, except now the performers have a gorgeous stage with fantastic lights and sound to work with while they develop their productions.

“Keeping the lights on here is a lot more expensive than I think any of us imagined,” Covan said. “Just paying the electric bill is an enormous cost.”  It was clearly easier to make ends meet when everything was taking place in her living room.  She admits it’s been an unexpected challenge.  Worrying about programming that will fill the seats had never been part of the plan — quite the opposite was true in the past.

The new stage at Dixon Place on Chrystie St. - April 16, 2008

Over the years the programming has expanded impressively, however, and now includes 12-14 different curators – who put on over 400 shows a year. They vary from literary, to dance, multi-media, puppet shows, and more. (The Secret City Sunday morning artists’ salon recently moved to Dixon Place.)

Covan, who has lived in NYC for 32 years,  is still adjusting to “commuting” from her living room to the new space.  And her own living scenario is now uncertain. Covan’s commercial lease on the Bowery has been in a precarious state for the last few years, and it seems inevitable that she’ll be forced out soon.

“I’ve always lived by the seat of my pants (and didn’t want to be tied down…) I was living in the moment. And somehow I forgot to put myself first,” she said.  She is hoping she won’t have to move to Brooklyn.

Covan, more than most, understands the importance of maintaining creative spaces for artists within a community.

“You know it’s because of Dixon Place, and other organizations like it, that this neighborhood became what it is.  That was true in the East Village, in the West Village – it’s true everywhere.”

She is dismayed by the change in the quality of life on the Lower East Side.  Talking about the Bowery, Covan says,  “It’s just a nightmare, really.  It’s a parking lot, it’s honking and sirens all day.”

Although she may be fretting about what might happen to Dixon Place in the future, Covan is able to smile when she talks about the HOT! Festival.

“I started it in 1991 because there wasn’t anything else like it in the city,” she said. “A festival that is specifically LGBTQ focused, you know, 100%.  At that time it was definitely an under-served community. It was a really important time…in the ’80s we did an AIDS benefit every month.

It’s not like we raised a lot of money in my little place, but we raised money for small organizations and it was just for the awareness, to keep it out there…We’re not the only gay festival in the city anymore – there’s Fresh Fruit, Gay Fest and maybe a few more — but we’re certainly the longest. It’s six weeks long and there’s like 150 artists in it.  For me it’s still really important – even though LGBT artists are everywhere now…The most important thing is, it’s still fun.  It was always fun, it was like a big party every night – or two parties a night. The community really comes out and supports the work. I’m really proud of it.”

The 20th Annual Hot! Festival continues through August 6th. The Lo-Down is pleased to be a local media sponsor for the festival.