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Subversive Theatre: Where pissing you off is only the beginning

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  "Even though the old laws of convention be broken: may we get a free theatre where one has freedom for everything, except the freedom to lack talent and be a hypocrite or a fool!"

-August Strindberg
1889
BUFFALO NEWS' GUSTO MAGAZINE  9/5/08

"Subversive Theatre gets a place to call its own"

By Colin Dabkowski BUFFALO NEWS ARTS WRITER

It's tough to be subversive without a home base.  But for six years, Kurt Schneiderman's roving Subversive Theatre Collective has been the shining example of theatrical subversion, challenging the status quo of local theater and drawing crowds despite the fact that it had no theater to call its own.

Tonight, that will change when Schneiderman's Collective opens its brand new Manny Fried Playhouse.

The modest theater, tucked into the immense third floor of the Great Arrow Building, a former car factory on Elmwood Avenue, will play host tonight to a theater-warming of sorts.  The party will feature musical performances from Joni Ruff and the Burning Humvees, the Blood Thirsty Vegans, Jean Dickson and Robb Nesbitt.  The Collective's season will kick off in the theater on Sept. 18 with a production of Judith Thompson's "Palace of the End."

After six years roaming the local theater scene and often performing in cramped spaces like the back room of Allentown's Rust Belt Books, Schneiderman is breathing a sigh of relief now that his collective finally has its own space.

"It's such a nightmare trying to do shows when you don't know where the next show is going to be or where you have to entirely depend on somebody else's good graces to let you in the door," Schneiderman said.  "We always wanted a room of our own to do our own thing."

As an unabashedly left-leaning organization, Subversive's decision to name its theater after Buffalo's reigning pro-labor activist and playwright Emanuel Fried -- 95 and sharper than a tack -- shouldn't come as much of a surprise. In Fried's honor, the group will present the first full local production of his lauded play "Drop Hammer" in November.

"Manny Fried is one of the famous subversives of Buffalo history," Schneiderman said. "His whole history as a labor activist and union organizer as well as a playwright and an actor seemed like the perfect living embodiment of the connection we'd like to build between our theater and the labor movement and working people in general."

The same goes for the new space, one that could hardly be more closely tied to Buffalo's blue-collar history.

"It has a very proletarian history," Schneiderman said.  "It's a place where they actually made the [Pierce Arrow] cars, where the workers actually sweated away and did their work and spent their time.  In that building, I swear, if you look right, you can see the blood of the workers still on the walls."

Fried was pleased that the theater was inside the storied building and sees it as a suitable closing bracket to his extensive career.

"At 17, I graduated from high school and went to work at Dupont," Fried said. "And now, 78 years later as I'm capping my career, they're naming a theater after me in a factory."

Subversive Theatre's intense left-wing, pro-organized labor bent makes it a true loner in a scene -- indeed a national culture -- where most theater is aimed squarely at the sensibilities and pocketbooks of the upper-middle class.

"I think the vast majority of people out there have no interest in hearing about the dinner parties of the blueblood elites or finding out about whether Chekov's Cherry Orchard will be demolished or that sort of thing," Schneiderman said in a not-so-subtle dig at Buffalo's own A. R. Gurney, whose plays often focus on the rarefied concerns of Buffalo's WASP elite. "I think the vast majority of people are interested, like everybody, in stories that talk about things they can really relate to and deal with questions that actually matter to them."

To that end, Subversive's 2008-09 season will focus on the war in Iraq (Judith Thompson's "Palace of the End," Sept. 18 to Oct. 19), Buffalo's labor unions (Fried's "Drop Hammer," Nov. 13 to Dec. 14), the 1991 Los Angeles riots (Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight," Jan. 15 to Feb. 15) and the controversial use of waterboarding by U. S. troops (Schneiderman's "Waterboarding Blues," March 19 to April 19). The season will also feature readings of "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" on Sept. 23 and Bertolt Brecht's "The Days of the Commune" on May 1, as well as a collection of short plays from May 14 to June 14. Finally, there will be a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Hairy Ape" during next year's Infringement Festival.

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