Theater festival celebrates 15 years

NEW YORK Sometimes it pays to think small. That’s partly how Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory Festival has gotten to its 15th anniversary, making it one of the oldest summer legit fests in New York.

Founded in 1994, Ice Factory furthers Soho Think Tank’s mission to support a broad spectrum of avant-garde legiters. The fest specifically seeks artists on the verge of breaking out, granting their new work a weeklong berth at the funky Ohio Theater in Soho.

Alums include downtown darlings like Elevator Repair Service, Les Freres Corbusier and New Georges. This year’s installment, which bowed July 9 and runs through Aug. 23, features everything from a staging of Neil Young’s song cycle “Greendale” to “Victory at the Dirt Place,” a media satire from emerging company the Riot Group.

But with festival heavyweight FringeNYC unleashing hundreds of shows every August — and relative upstarts like the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) growing more prominent by the year — Ice Factory is always at risk of being overlooked. After all, there are only so many theatergoers, even in Gotham.

“These festivals just keep coming,” says Robert Lyons, Soho Think Tank’s a.d. “And the idea of what’s new always brings its own hook. But I think of us as grassroots festival. There’s a core group of people who are interested in being here and seeing what’s happening here.”

He notes that for the past five Ice Factory installments — which have an annual budget of around $50,000 — each have averaged an 85% capacity crowd.

Of course, with 88 seats and a $15 ticket, even sell-outs can’t make a fortune. But considering the fest’s experimental bent, the turnout is solid.

And it’s not like Ice Factory is aiming for its own “[title of show],” which began life at NYMF and just opened on Broadway. “Our shows tend to go on to the Edinburgh Fringe,” Lyons says.

Ice Factory grads are increasingly finding a sustainable life on the alt-theater circuit. After bowing at the fest in 2006, for instance, The Team’s political comedy “Particularly in the Heartland” did indeed go to Edinburgh, where it won a Fringe First award for new work. It also landed a run at Gotham’s P.S. 122.

And sometimes, Soho Think Tank imports an Ice Factory show to its mainstage season. John Clancy’s drama “Fatboy” played the fest in 2004 and returned for a full staging in 2006.

However, aside from continuing to help grads find additional productions, Ice Factory may never grow beyond its current level.

Economically, it has no plans to charge an application fee, nor does it retain an interest in a production once it leaves the festival. (Soho Think Thank provides rehearsal space, a theater and marketing support, but individual productions are responsible for all other costs.)

Plus, Lyons says he has capped the fest at seven productions to help each show feel “completely supported.” As it stands, each group gets a full week alone in the Ohio Theater, meaning artists have round-the-clock access to the space and its equipment.

By most festival standards, that’s a luxury. Sponsored by Nobody mounted the absurdist comedy “The Position” in Ice Factory 2005, and it returns on Aug. 13 with “W.M.D. (just the low points),” a multimedia piece exploring how Americans get their information about wars.  Without unlimited access to the theater, the creatives couldn’t have sorted out the show’s various technical challenges.

 “At Ice Factory, you get to work and rehearse on a more humane schedule,” says Kevin Doyle, Sponsored By Nobody’s a.d. “Festivals like the Fringe can be a nightmare, because you’re tearing down your set 15 minutes after curtain to let the next show come in.”

He adds, “Here, you get a chance to prove that you’re professional.”

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