On April 2, more than a year after the COVID pandemic forced the shutdown of all Broadway theaters, 150 lucky people filed into the St. James Theatre to enjoy a pair of short sets by Savion Glover and Nathan Lane. The attendees had all been invited and tested for the virus, and they were masked and socially distanced in the 1700-seat venue. It was perhaps the most high-profile event yet in a festival that’s still in its early stages: NY PopsUp, which is set to deliver hundreds of free performances to live entertainment-deprived audiences across the state between now and Labor Day.
In coordination with the New York State Council on the Arts and Empire State Development, NY PopsUp was conceived as a pilot program to introduce the arts back into the daily lives of New Yorkers, safely. “The whole thing was based on wanting to be the spark towards a robust recovery,” says Zack Winokur, the festival’s curator. “We want to really revitalize the ethos of this state and city we love so much, by centering live performance as the motor for how we build culture back and come together as a community—as well as getting New York artists up on their feet in front of audiences, and paid for it.”
Winokur, a director whose interdisciplinary work encompasses dance, music and theater, assembled a council of advisors representing the artistic spectrum to put together programming through August 11. (The festival will continue at the public park Little Island, opening in late spring, through Labor Day.) “The thing that was important to me was that it be really artist-centered, so I put together a council to co-curate with me, so that we could have artists asking other artists asking other artists to enter the fold in a kind of ever-widening coalition.” Council members include several artists whose work is familiar to Broadway audiences, such as playwright Jeremy O. Harris—author of Slave Play, currently up for more Tony Award nominations than a Broadway production of a play has ever earned—and Tony-winning set designer Mimi Lien, whose credits include Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and 2019’s revival of True West.
Performers who have taken part or are scheduled to appear in NY PopsUp events also include many stage (and screen) favorites in addition to Glover and Lane, among them Hugh Jackman, Alec Baldwin, Billy Porter, Kelli O’Hara, Idina Menzel, Jessie Mueller, Sutton Foster, Mandy Patinkin, Danielle Brooks, Taylor Mac, Gavin Creel, Jonathan Groff, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Shoshana Bean and Amber Iman, who turned up at the Broadway Theatre on April 9. (Participating artists are each being paid a daily rate of $1000, regardless of perceived star power: “We contract them individually, and it was really important to us that we built it on an equality model,” says Winokur of the pay scale.)
“The Broadway community is obviously a really critical part of the ecosystem,” says Winokur. “As exciting as it was to see the performance at the St. James, and to feel a live audience of 150 tested folks, I was also hugely moved by just watching the ushers reunite, and the crew backstage. It takes an enormous amount of people to make these things work, and they’re all so important to the heartbeat of the city.”
Most NY PopsUp events will be, as the festival’s name suggests, unannounced, and unticketed. “Safety is paramount for us, and we are still in a pandemic,” Winokur explains. “While it’s hard to gather en masse, we wanted to bring events to as many people as possible all over the state, as well as in every borough of the city—between subway stations and parks and sidewalks and plazas, so that people are often happening upon things. The main idea for the first part of the programming is to have hopefully delightful surprises in your community, on your way to work, during a lunch break, that kind of thing.”
Prominent venues are set to include the Apollo Theater, Park Avenue Armory, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Harlem Stage, National Black Theatre, and La MaMa—and various spaces that are being converted into performance sites. Renowned tap dancer and choreographer Ayodele Casel, a council member, is holding a series of performances in the lobbies of free museums throughout the city.
Performing in February to help launch the festival, Casel noticed the (socially distanced) crowd at the Bronx Museum of the Arts “had the option to leave after we did 10 or 15 minutes, but they just stayed. They were so generous, so vocal in their appreciation. And at the Brooklyn Museum, all the little kids were running around, trying to move their feet the way they saw us doing it. As artists, we’ve stayed connected to our art, but sometimes it doesn’t mean as much when you can’t share it with people, so that’s the thing I’m so grateful for.”
Winokur had a similar experience, from a spectator’s vantage point, on Easter Sunday, the day after Glover’s and Lane’s appearances at the St. James. “We had an unbelievable afternoon in Albee Square in downtown Brooklyn, taking over an abandoned Century 21 with (Frozen and Waitress alumna) Aisha Jackson and other extraordinary Broadway performers. It was one of the happiest New York moments I’ve had in a long time—just watching these performers in a storefront, with the music amplified outside; so many people got magnetized and literally started dancing. It was a beautiful reminder of what a necessary part of our health and well-being performance is.”
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