Surf Reality

New York, New York

Surf Reality Theater (1993-2003)

Once upon a time in the mythical and magical realm known as The Lower East Side of the big bright light filled cosmopolitan city of New York there was a little theater known as Surf Reality. It wasn't much more than a small hole in the wall, just a 2nd story walk up in a 100 year old building on the corner of Stanton and Allen Streets. Directly downstairs was a dreary crack dealership fronting itself as a deli. You could tell the bodega was bogus by the decades-old products lined up in the dusty windows and by the jumpy energy that would spook the counter guys any time someone accidentally tried to buy a real Coke or Pepsi.

Our building had it all: The basement featured a brothel; next door to the crack deli was a pawnshop, and on the corner was a real honest-to-goodness Ghetto Deli that sold the world's worst sandwiches, highly overpriced beer and if you knew how to ask crack pipes. Sad hookers in the twilight of their careers trolled the traffic island on Allen Street and, to top it all off, the neighborhood featured 2 notorious drug gangs: The Allen Street Boys and The Ludlow Street Crew.

I used to think of our building as a downtown shopping mall for urban outlaws. You see, in those days it was theoretically possible to exchange merchandise of dubious origin at the pawnshop for cash, grab condoms, a six pack and a stem from the Arabs on the corner; cop some rocks from the Dominican crack dealership, slide downstairs for a 'date' and then come upstairs to Surf Reality for a show. All in one building!

The cops busted the coke deli 6 times during our first 3 years, usually while a show was in progress. Imagine: you are a performer honing a monologue or crafting a nervy-yet-subtle little moment of performance art when suddenly ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE beneath your feet as narcs with crowbars and flashlights rip apart the drug den's ceilings looking for contraband in the ducts and crawl spaces as the subdued and confused cocaine crew is led out into the street under galaxies of swirling red and blue lights.

The busts were pure cop opera with large production values, complete with exotic military style costuming, various emergency vehicles and oversized casts featuring the NYPD, The NY State Police and the entire federal drug war alphabet soup: the DEA, ATF and FBI.

Within a week a new crew would take their place and business would resume as if nothing had happened at all, except that the new counter guys seemed a little jumpier and a little sadder as if they knew they were living on borrowed time and that the blade would eventually drop; the only question was: when?

It was a very different neighborhood then. There were times I'd have to go downstairs and explain to the plainclothes narcs that the people they were frisking were here to see a show, not to score drugs. There were condoms and syringes in our gutters and some nights we'd hear gunfire. Life was funny, sad and a little scary, too.

I marketed Surf Reality to artists. We featured a 65 seat venue with a good light and sound package, as well as the added bonus of an inexpensive professional video taping option. The idea was to provide a reasonably priced Manhattan venue as a performance lab to artist, writers and producers. I figured that if I could get the artists the audiences would follow. It worked. By 1995, I was booking 40 shows a month.

Surf Reality was home to a vibrant bohemian performing arts community that was known as the downtown 'Art Star' scene. We featured the world's greatest open mike, 'Faceboyz,' (which I co-produce to this day at Mo Pitkin's on Avenue A). And we were producing 2 comedy/variety shows a month in house: 'Serious Pratfalls' and 'The Witching Hour'.

Our reputation was 'anything goes.' We were known in the NYC entertainment industry for nontraditional comedy, performance art and edgy unclassifiable theatre. The New York Times wrote in May 1996: "At Surf Reality a form of comedy is being worked on even more alternative than alternative comedy." The folks at HBO invited me to attend 3 U.S. Comedy Arts Festivals in Aspen Colorado. And over the years we produced 3 Surf Comedy Festivals of our own.

Want to see a guy paint his penis purple? How about cutting edge political commentary? Stand up comedy? Performance art? True life confessions? Scatological country western music? Surreal and psychedelic characters like St. Rev. Jen, The Purple Organ and Chocolate Puddin' sharing their inner worlds? Faceboyz Open Mike has all that and more.

Faceboy came to Surf Reality in March of 1995. His original venue, 'The Collective Unconscious' on Avenue B, had just been burnt out. Evidently someone had left a bunch of flammable material on top of a projection unit of some kind, and someone neglected to turn the projector's power off. At any rate, 'Faceboyz Open Mike' was homeless.

He pitched the show to me as a 2 hour open mike from 9-11pm on Sunday nights. That format lasted a couple of weeks. First, we decided to open the doors at 7:45 for an 8pm start and then very soon thereafter we killed the closing time for the show altogether. Very often, we were still going strong at 2 am and sometimes the show would not end until 3 or 4 in the morning.

Faceboyz quickly became the heart of our community at Surf Reality. Faceboy had 3 simple rules: No heckling, no singling out individuals in the audience (a standard stand-up comedy technique) and respect the space. Rule #3 became necessary after the fire at The Collective Unconscious. Faceboy's 3 rules are based on an old American Indian ritual known as the 'Talking Stick'. Whoever has the stick gets to talk, everybody else listens. Those 3 simple rules are all about respect and that, along with Faceboy's incredible talent as a host, is the reason 'Faceboyz Open Mike' is still going strong to this day.

The open mike was a perfect fit for Surf. I can not tell how many times a person would get inspired by the performers and then decide to give the stage a try for themselves and then before you can say 'Showtime' that same person would be booking a one man show at Surf Reality.

When Surf first opened its doors to the public in 1993 with 'The Children of Pujol' (a Waterline Theatre Company production), there were very few places for people to hang out at in the neighborhood. Aside from Surf, there was Aaron Beal's theater 'Todo Con Nada' and across the street from him was the bar Max Fish. By 1997, there were six theaters in the neighborhood, and thus the first NYC International Fringe Festival was born.

Surf Reality was a venue for the first three NYC Fringe Festivals. In those first three years the Fringe Festival brought tens of thousands of people and millions of dollars into the neighborhood and in retrospect, that was the beginning of the end of our temporary autonomous zone. The writing was on the wall.

In 1998 Surf Reality was featured by the MTA along with Nada on their neighborhood maps that hang on the walls in subway stations. In fact, to this day if you were to check out the map at any East Village or LES subway station and look for the intersection of Stanton and Allen Streets you'll see the corner labeled 'Surf Reality Theater'. Is that cool or what?

In 1999 after my ex-wife left, I co-produced with Tom Tenney (the sound artist currently working on the Surf production of 64 Paintings/64 Plays) a Friday midnight show called 'Grindhouse A Go-Go' that Tom first produced as a variety show at the music venue Tonic. At Surf, 'Grindhouse' morphed into a semi-improvised long form psychedelic comedia that featured Surf Art Stars like The Purple Organ, Faceboy, St. Rev. Jen, Chocolate Puddin', Bex and the Reverend Hank; 'Grindhouse' also featured live music, strippers and free beer. One Art Star would write a treatment or story outline, Tom would produce it and cast it and I would direct two or at most three rehearsals, and then we'd stage it in front of the Surf audiences. We were glorious anarchy incarnate and for two-and-half years, 'Grindhouse A Go-Go' was SRO. Those who were there still talk about 'Gindhouse'.

2000 was Surf Reality's busiest year. I booked the theater to its fullest capacity. That year, Surf was home to 545 shows and I guesstimate close to 20,000 people climbed the stairs for a Surf Reality event.

I lost the lease in 2003 when the landlord asked for a 150% increase in rent. Gentrification had come to Allen St. Today none of the original 6 theaters that were the local nucleus of the NYC International Fringe Festival are left in the neighborhood and only one still exists as a theater in another neighborhood. The Fringe Festival is of course still growing strong but has moved on to other neighborhoods.

Our final event was held on April 7, 2003, a 28-hour long open mike marathon hosted by Faceboy that we called "Surfstock. Faceboy and I wanted to make sure that everybody who wanted to would have one last chance to perform on the Surf Reality stage. While a hardy crew of 8 to 10 open mikers kept the show going through the early morning and afternoon and even though a freak snow storm made travel miserable by the time the last open miker performed at midnight on Monday the 8th of April Surf Reality was SRO one last incredible time.

Today the drug crews are long gone. The brothel in the basement is now a mosque. The famous activist Bluestockings Bookstore occupies the old crack deli and pawnshop storefronts and the Arab ghetto deli no longer sells crack pipes and instead of proudly displaying photos of their preschool relatives in Yemen brandishing AK 47s the deli is covered in murals painted by the famous LES graffiti artist Marcos. The old Surf Reality space is now home to a corporate yoga franchise called Bikram where clients pay $20 to practice a copyrighted 90 minute Hatha yoga routine in 105+ degree heat. I intend to attend a Bikram Yoga session one day. I figure it's an opportunity to be in 2 places at once.

---Robert Prichard