As a cultural hub, it goes without saying that New York City offers access to some of the best theatre in the world. Theatre in which the quality is unquestionably outstanding and the forms of performance vast. An amateur comedy show, a big-budget musical, a piece of experimental performance art, cabaret –they’re all available for us to experience, and all on the same night if we plan it right.
It also goes without saying that New York City offers access to some of the best theatre in the world which, while wonderful art, is not mainstream performance. In fact, the city is full of performances that we take for granted. From talented subway buskers to performance artists in parks, Gotham brims with a different kind of theatre — the theatre of life.
Students from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts often mount full productions of the Bard’s plays, rain or shine, from February to October. Recent example include Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Their mission is “to perform Shakespeare as Shakespeare intended: under the sun, and in front of a loud, standing, possibly distracted audience.” It’s a great chance to see free Shakespeare done with reverence and talent.
Washington Square Park / Spring, Summer, Fall / Free
2 – The Bedford L Station
When we are new to the city most of us see every subway platform performer as an amazing artist at the top of their game, graciously descending from their ivory tower to mix with the rabble and give a little glimpse of art and wonder to our lives. Two weeks later they’re an annoyance and merely add to the incessant cacophony of sounds that assault us while we wait, often for hours, for our train. The Bedford L station is different. Despite feigned indifference from the hipsters, the performers at this station are almost always wonderful, original and exciting. Where else can you hear good experimental violin, heart-wrenching cello and non-ironic bluegrass for free? The terrible service on the L line means you can usually listen to an uninterrupted solo or entire song.
Bedford L train station / Year Round (best on weekend afternoons) / $2.50 to enter the MTA system.
Yes, I’m saying that there is something of value in Times Square. Almost nothing is worth braving the sights and smells of this hell on earth, but the sound installation by Max Neuhaus might be. Neuhaus was intrigued by the aural qualities of the subway tunnels, tubes and hardware. This inspired him to create a sound installation that uses those structures as instruments. Deeply resonant and ethereal, it seems to challenge the chaos and impermanence that surrounds it. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’re sure to miss this one. It hides unmarked underneath a subway grate at the north end of the triangular pedestrian island on Broadway between 45th and 46th.
Times Square / Year Round / Free
On most warm weekday afternoons the sound of an expertly played piano resounds across Washington Square Park. It is a surreal, almost magical, experience. In the midst of this megalithic, overbearing and sometimes cruel city, an oasis of beautiful music emerges. Colin Huggins is not the only person to play piano in the park, but his grand piano makes him a star attraction. Not to mention seeing a grand piano underneath the arch almost qualifies as performance art.
Washington Square Park / Spring, Summer, Fall / Donation
While sometimes sighted in the Times Square and Columbus Circle subway stations, this miraculous performer is most often found at East 72nd Street, just inside Central Park. Nearly every weekend, and some weekdays in the warmer months, this statue stands in a perfect ballet pose. At the drop of a coin, she magically begins to dance slowly and gracefully on her platform. If you need some whimsy and some wonder in your day, this should be your first stop.
Central Park at East 72nd Street / Spring, Summer, Fall / Donation
This amazing man has been connected to the Stonewall Inn since the riots that made an earlier version of this bar famous in 1969. He was a veteran of those riots and also involved with the gay rights movement through the Imperial Court of New York and other groups. Now a bartender at Stonewall, Tree can be found most afternoons giving the performance of a lifetime. Effortlessly weaving around the bar, he doles out perfect drinks and a rapier wit. You’ll know he likes you if he peppers you with mock insults and relates entertaining and scandalous stories from years past (and last night). For the mere price of a drink (don’t forget to tip!), you can see Tree for yourself. He may be the best show in town!
Stonewall Inn / Year Round, Thursday to Sunday from opening until 9pm / the cost of a drink, plus tip
7 – The Hua Mei Bird Garden
These birds might not be on stage, but they sure are performers. Located on the east side of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, near Grand Street, these glorious singers tweet out tunes that are sure to excite even the most cynical of critics. No one knows exactly when these divas started showing off, but they can supposedly trace their ancestry back to the Ming Dynasty.
Sara D. Roosevelt Park / Spring, Summer, Fall / Free
Yes, it’s another sound installation, but how many have you gone to in your life? This particular installation is presented in the awe inspiring Fuentidue√±a Chapel in the Cloisters Museum. The chapel is on permanent loan from Spain and is several hundred years older than this country. The music is split up into individual speakers, one part to a speaker, allowing visitors to walk through the piece and experience it as a physical as well as aural phenomenon. The artist is considered the preeminent sound artist of our time, and this piece is regarded as her master work.
The Cloisters Museum / Sept. 10-Dec. 8, 2013 / $25 suggested donation (free)
This city is awash in drag queens and amateur drag nights. DragNet, however, is something totally different. Hosted and organized by the indefinable Merrie Cherry, this is more a showcase of cutting-edge performance art than female impersonation. On my first night I saw the host douse herself in honey in her opening number, a faux queen summon a demonic Annie Lennox, and an amazing performer throw bread onto the audience in a rendition of “Feed the Birds” that made the crowd scream in ecstasy. The Brooklyn drag scene is far more accepting of the unconventional than its Manhattan counterpart, but this monthly event pushes even that rather flexible envelope right to the edge. This is a night where you truly never know what you might see, and what you do see will keep you entertained for weeks.
Metropolitan Bar (Williamsburg) / Every third Thursday of the month at 11pm / Free