Recently I entertained a guest from Israel who works as a tour guide. We discussed at length how a tour guide can shape your understanding of a place, and this prompted me to explore the tour options that exist in New York. Since this is New York, there are a range of marvelous options, which can be perfect for both residents and their guests.
Levy’s Unique New York packages their ‘unique’ tours around specific themes and eras of history. They ran the first tour I ever took in NYC, a walking and eating tour of the L.E.S. focusing on the Jewish history of the neighborhood. I remember dill pickles and bialys. It was an exciting glimpse into the world my grandmother grew up in, years before I discovered the Tenement Museum. Since then I have attended several of the tours they’ve done in conjunction with The Strand, including a fabulous tour of the village, which they titled “Bohemians and Beats of Greenwich Village Literary Tour.” The guide, one of the Levy brothers, managed to find remnants of generations of artists, writers and musicians, within the highly sterilized environs of NYU. It was exciting to hear about all the madness that had once taken place on the streets where I was a college student. I particularly enjoyed a story about a wild party in the room on the top of Washington Arch. Thanks to Marcel Duchamp et al. you won’t be getting up there anytime soon, but Gothamist was granted a private tour and their pictures are stunning. Here’s one from the top.
View from the top of the Washington Arch, (Evan Bindelglass / Gothamist)
For those of us without press credentials, our access to the hidden spaces in NYC is limited to the weekend of Open House New York, which is coming up very soon. They’ll be announcing the list of spaces on October 6th and preregistration will be open on the 7th. This is a very exciting opportunity to look inside some of the amazing buildings that are usually closed to the public. In some cases you will have guidance, and in other cases just an open door. This video gives you a taste of the positive (gorgeous spaces!) and the negative (long lines!) aspects of this annual event.
In addition to the always entertaining Levy brothers, I have noticed an uptick in the number of tours that seem to be aimed at residents, rather than tourists. I have tickets for one upcoming tour being run by the Obscura Society. They have titled the tour “Into the Veil: An After Dark Exploration of the Green-Wood Cemetery.” From what I can tell based on the description, this is somewhere between immersive theater and historical tour.
Where Green-Wood’s Gothic arch rises above Brooklyn there exists a portal between the land of the living and the realm of the dead. Since the 19th century, that brownstone gate has represented the connection between those two spaces. On this special autumn evening, cross that portal and join Green-Wood and Atlas Obscura for a night of exploration and discovery. Attendees will make their own ways, on their own unique adventures, weaving together stories from the 560,000 lives interred across Green-Wood’s historic 478 acres.
Navigating below the silhouettes of thousands of starlit trees, curiosity will lead you through winding pathways, revealing hidden spaces of music, history, and experience. Music performances, readings, stargazing, and other activities will unfold over the course of the night, and each attendee will choose where their own night will lead.
Just as Green-Wood was designed as a place for Victorian New Yorkers to step between the veil of life and the afterlife, so too will modern visitors transport into a liminal space where the city’s past and present meet.
Another great choice for New Yorkers and tourists alike are Other World Tours. I loved their tour of Lower Manhattan. I learned many fun facts but my favorite story involved the fence around Bowling Green Park. It was originally erected to protect at statue of the king before the revolution. Afterwards not only did they remove the statue but they all hacked the crowns off the fence posts. The fence that is currently standing is the original, and you can still feel that the posts are uneven because the crowns were hacked off by revolutionaries. Next time you’re downtown cop a feel of those posts.
Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan
My favorite Israeli tour guide tells me that a big part of his job is creating ‘magical moments’ that help the people on his tour feel connected to Israel. While I’m not certain that there are tour guides in New York who have that goal when it comes to tourists, I think many of the tours aimed at New Yorkers are very much about helping us to find the magic in our normal surroundings. We live in a city with many layers of history, numerous fascinating stories and interwoven lives; the magic is there just under the surface.
When Sleep No More opened in 2011 it presented New Yorkers with a new kind of theater experience, one in which we were expected to interact with the characters and the set, to build our own story, to choose our own adventure. I remember when I first visited the McKittrick Hotel I was baffled by the lack of dialogue and confused by the labyrinthian set. I felt like the piece failed to truly tell the story of Macbeth and I missed the familiarity of the dialogue. At the same time I was fascinated by the layers of detail evident in all aspects of the sets. I remember riffling through file cabinets in the psychiatrist’s office and finding hundreds of detailed case files. At times some of the rooms felt crowded and towards the end I wished we could sit down to watch the final dramatic death scene. Perhaps the most brilliant innovation by the theater company Punchdrunk were the masks. All audience members wear masks and this somehow makes the audience into part of the set; looking around you stop seeing the other audience members, they blend into the scenery. This gives each audience member the strange feeling that they are alone, that they are the only person watching this drama unfold. I loved that feeling. I remember it made me feel much more part of the play, and though this could be a frightening feeling it was also very exciting.
Photo of Sleep No More, borrowed from i-docs.org
In the years since the opening I have heard many of my friends relate their experiences at the McKittrick Hotel. There has been a proliferation of guides to the show, which give you details on which characters to follow to witness certain key scenes. Some of my friends have gone multiple times so as to see the whole play from each possible perspective. I think the impossibility of doing this in a single visit is a real weakness for this sort of immersive theater. I think we are all burdened as audience members with a deep fear of missing out, something we do not usually cope with when it comes to theater. The fact that each member of the audience will have their own unique experience can also be positive- your experience is special. As immersive/interactive/exploratory theater goes I think Sleep No More remains the gold standard. The sets are exquisitely detailed and fun to play with; the acting is professional and the choreography beautiful. All this comes with a price tag- $120 per person, including no food or drink, but you can see where your money is going.
I have recently attended two other theater pieces that fit into the immersive/interactive category. Both had some of the same problems as Sleep No More and some of the same successes. Queen of the Night aims to be a very sexy sort of interactive theater. The actors flirt and touch and place audience members at the center of sexy dances. Plot is almost nonexistent in this piece but all of the circus performances are stunning. Their promo video gives you only a brief glimpse of the amazing tricks being performed on stage, and sometimes even on your table, but it does give you a taste for the atmosphere.
In this case individual experiences can be extremely different. My closest interaction with a performer was when one of them performed a sexy dance behind me while I watched, as instructed, via a fragment of mirror. On the other hand one of my friends was taken under the stage for a blind date with another audience member, moderated by several performers. Another friend was passionately kissed at the table just before dinner. The strangest experience I’ve heard of was that of an acquaintance who was taken back stage and directed to take a milk bath in a giant claw foot tub (she complied of course). This range of possible adventures is tantalizing but can also lead to the aforementioned fear of missing out. Your individual adventure, with or without milk bath, will cost you $150 per person, including decadent but somewhat DIY food and drink. In contrast I have seen similarly amazing acrobatics performed by Company XIV for lesser sums, but the performers stayed onstage and I stayed in my seat.
The second interactive/immersive piece I saw recently was Cynthia Von Buhler’s latest creation, Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic. This lavish bit of performance tells the story of the death of Olive Thomas in Paris in 1920. The audience follows the cast from one set to another, witnessing (if you manage to follow along) the death scene performed in three different ways, leaving you to wonder which was the true version. The actors stay in character throughout the evening and you are encouraged to talk with them and try to glean more information about the mystery of Olive’s death. The sets are very lovely but less immersive than those of Sleep No More. There are wires and stage lights that break the spell a bit. The dance numbers are fun and the amazing aerial performance hanging from the chandelier is spectacular, but there are no acrobatics equal to those performed at Queen of the Night.
Dancers hanging from the chandelier at Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic
In this case the audience was encouraged but not required to dress up for the occasion. My friends and I were there in full flapper regalia but many of the audience members were not, which I found a bit distracting. In fact I found myself wishing we had masks or that costumes were required, so that I would feel more immersed in the world of the 1920s. This is a real problem for this sort of show; how do you make the audience feel like they are part of the show if they’re not willing to dress the part? If you require costumes how much of your audience will you lose? The ticket price here was a bit lower, $75 per person, but included no food or drink. Would it be impossible to sell tickets at that price if it was necessary to dress up? Queen of the Night requires ‘festive clothing’ and that seems to be no deterrent. Perhaps the creator wanted this to be more casual fun?
The idea that theater can be immersive and interactive is exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing more shows of this variety. I am hopeful that future productions will learn more from their predecessors and make conscious decisions about how to handle the fear of missing out and the need for the audience to look the part. What experiences have you had with this form of theater? How do you believe it can be improved?
In most places circus means one of two things; one involves elephants and clowns and the other is called Cirque du Soleil. In NYC the genre of performance we refer to as ‘circus’ has been expanding over the last decade and has now reached an amazing level of variety. On the one end are amateur recitals featuring regular folks like you and me and on the other are fully professional theater productions featuring some elements of circus. This exciting genre now includes all manner of aerial apparatus, fire performance and such esoteric skills as ‘trick jump roping’ and burlesque infused clowning around (or clowning infused burlesque). Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending two shows- one on either end of the spectrum.
At Big Sky Works in Brooklyn the great Tanya Gagné trains the next generation of aerial performers and gives them the opportunity to try out their new moves in front of an audience during frequent variety shows. They also host more professional productions starring many great aerialists. This weekend I was able to see some excellent performers, some newer to the stage and some veterans. They soared through the air on ropes, silks, trapeze, lyre…
Aerialist on rope at Big Sky Works
It was fun to see amateurs trying out new moves and gaining confidence as their routines continued. It was also wonderful to see seasoned performers playing around with the apparatus and truly exhibiting artistry. In this setting performers are able to experiment and craft an act of their own. Talking to one of the performers after the show I could tell that she was passionate about her art and loved sharing it with an audience. This version of circus is very inclusive; the audience feels connected to the performers emotionally (they also tend to be very very close). It is also inclusive in the sense that you know classes are available and that you too could become such a performer; the thrill of being 20 feet up dangling on a rope feels immediately attainable. I myself used to take silks classes at Skybox aka House of Yes when it existed out in Bushwick (they are supposedly opening a new space soon). It was wonderful being up high and learning to wrap the silks around myself for a drop. I gave it up because the cost became too high but I hope to find a way to take classes again soon.
The night after the show at Big Sky Works I went to St. Anne’s Warehouse for a much more professional, though not very traditional show. This was a KNEEHIGH production of Tristan & Yseult adapted and Directed by Emma Rice, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. The NYTimes reviewer wrote that
“This crossing of emotional boundaries, which sabotages our typical programmed responses as an audience, is the shaping force of “Tristan & Yseult.” And I can’t think of another company that achieves this dynamic as vividly and unexpectedly as Kneehigh does.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the story I would suggest reading the New York Times review in full; the reviewer was absolutely smitten with the production, as was I. This preview will give you a taste; sadly the run is finished but I’m sure the company will return with something just as delightful.
In this show circus accompanied more serious theater; you could say the drama was infused with circus. The lovers were lifted off the stage using harnesses; they capered and embraced above the ground delighting in the first overwhelming flush of infatuation. There was a great deal of clowning including balloons distributed to the audience and silly glasses. There were fight scenes choreographed like dances and a man playing a woman pretending to be a queen. I think it’s simply wonderful the way the circus arts have become part of the mainstream and I think that theater in New York is the better for this addition.
I am very much looking forward to seeing how circus continues to creep into serious theater and how amateur circus performances continue to draw more audience members into their community.
The opera is in English, which always throws me off a bit as I’m used to reading subtitles and hearing the music without being distracted by individual words within it. The music is very similar to the other piece by John Adams that I’ve seen- Nixon in China. It can be harsh but is not unpleasantly dissonant (unlike Hugo David Weisgall’s Esther, which is actually painful). This trailer will give you a good sense of it, although I think the music loses a lot by being recorded this way; in person it’s much more immediate.
Modern classical music is not for everyone, and purely as a piece of music I don’t know that I would recommend this particular piece. The choral numbers are very powerful but do not move the plot forward and start to feel tiresome as the opera drags into its third hour. The strongest moments in the opera are two of the arias, one in which Klinghoffer confronts the terrorists, and the final aria sung by his wife after she learns of his death. These two characters are, in my opinion, the only really three dimensional characters in the piece. They feel like complete human beings and the audience cannot help but empathize with them. It was astonishing to me that people felt the opera was anti-semitic, when really the only characters who resonate are these two victims. The final aria focuses not on Klinghoffer’s death as a political event, but rather on the loss of a husband, partner and lifelong companion. It is rare that loss at the end of a lifetime together is acknowledged in art. We hear a great deal about the loss of young love, but an older character singing about loss at the end of their life is less common. I felt that this piece was so powerful it could stand entirely on its own.
I had an unusual opportunity a few weeks after seeing the opera to talk about the controversy with none other than one of Klinghoffer’s daughters. Lisa and her sister have been vocal opponents of the opera since its original production at BAM. Lisa happened to be at a social function I was attending and when I mentioned I had seen the opera she told me about her experience with the BAM production. Apparently there was a scene, which has since been removed, portraying a Jewish family as bourgeois and only interested in their own comfort. This scene really skewed the opera’s message in favor of the Palestinian cause and led to Lisa’s feeling that it was anti-semitic and offensive. I told her about my experience with the Met production and she was very touched to hear that the characters of her parents came through so strongly. It was clear that the production she saw had been deeply upsetting for her and for her family. She told me she wished that she could attend the Met production but just felt too scarred by the experience. The idea of her mother’s aria standing alone as a stunning love song was very emotional for Lisa. At the end of the evening she gave me a big hug and told me she was so happy I had enjoyed the opera and that she’d loved hearing about it from my perspective.
It was wonderful to be able to talk to Lisa in person because so much of the dialogue about this opera has been vitriolic. So much of public debate is based on mistrust of the other side and I wish that this opera had been used as more of a conversation starter, and less of a way of dividing groups. Art should provoke conversation and argument. Art should have a message but I don’t believe it should be one of hate, and I don’t think that that is the case with The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera’s run at the Met is finished now but I hope that the next time something controversial comes to the stage the debate will be between two sides that are more respectful of each other’s opinions and more open to having their opinion changed.
Of all of my friends I think I am the most enthusiastic about visitors; this is probably because of my vast enthusiasm for New York. It is tremendously exciting to show newcomers all the things I love in NYC and to find things that they will love as well. Having visitors gives me an excuse to see places I have not been to recently and motivates me to discover new restaurants and entertainments. At the same time moving around and interacting with the city is fundamentally harder with non-New Yorkers, especially if they hail from any part of the U.S. other than San Francisco (the only other city with decent Public Transit). Visitors have many challenges in New York, from food issues to noise levels, fear of the subway, fear of unknown food, and most of all the amount of walking. We walk a lot here. Most New Yorkers are likely to walk at least two miles a day, not to mention all the stairs we climb in and out of the subway. Even the most fit visitors are likely to find this challenging, and the less fit visitors may find it next to impossible. I recently hosted my father and his wife for a weekend. This is an account of the highs and lows of their visit.
They slept in after arriving late the night before and we made breakfast in my apartment. It was wet but not actively raining. We took the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn up to the Museum of the City of New York. I actually hadn’t been there before and I was very impressed. They currently have an exhibit of photographs by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao that are really stunning (it’s just opened; you should definitely go!). He uses a process that combines many photographs digitally to create one final image. This video shows his process:
The photographs on display are all of NYC and it was fun to point out places I had been and give further information about different places in the city.
We also looked at the ‘Activist New York’ exhibit, which is very text heavy. This was a bit challenging for my visitors because they found the amount of information hard to take in and they soon tired of reading large blocks of text standing up. I thought some of the information was interesting, and in some cases new to me, but it was hard to retain much. My favorite new factoid is that one of the largest suffragette rallies took place in Union Square. I actually lived right on Union Square in an NYU dorm for two years and it was odd to think that I was living in such an important historical space without being aware of its history.
After a couple of hours in the museum my father requested that we see a movie for our next activity, since this would involve lots of sitting. They wanted to see something that they wouldn’t be able to see in their hometown so I looked at the listings for the various artsy theaters. I generally look up the Landmark Sunshine, the Anjelika and the IFC. Finding something they will like but will also qualify as something they can only see in NYC is not easy. My father tends towards action films and his wife is more interested in romance. In the end I decided to hope something dark and funny would be unusual enough to be enjoyable and we saw My Old Lady (I really love Maggie Smith). They were both a bit neutral on this but at least they weren’t adamantly dissatisfied. With other guests I often try to get tickets to a dance performance or a concert but these are not art forms that particularly interest this pair. If they were more willing to experiment with questionable theater I would have taken them to this crazy Shakespeare thing at BAM that I was actually very sorry to miss. The New Wave Festival at BAM is always full of totally ridiculous gems like that. Ah well. Visitors often require somewhat more normal entertainment.
I finished up Day 1 with dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen. I figured this was a real New York experience worth having- a mountain of deli meat and a plate of sour pickles. Now if your visitors have dietary restrictions, and this pair does have some, this experience might not be the best. My visitors did fairly well, surviving the ordering experience and managing to eat their enormous sandwiches, but they complained about the noise and ended up with half sour pickles. The cost was also a bit upsetting. Everything costs more in New York and the sticker shock can be very difficult for visitors. Best to warn them in advance I think. The subway ride back was long and they both fell asleep on the D as we crossed over the Manhattan Bridge; it was pretty cute.
We ate breakfast at home again (I was missing the bloody mary brunch experience but since they don’t drink breakfast at home seemed just as well) and then went into the city to the start of the High Line. I was very excited to show them the length of the park and the new section that I had not yet visited. It was crowded, which made them nervous and uncomfortable. My stepmother had no concept of how to get out of the way while taking pictures and I often felt like I was herding sheep. We scored one of the lounge chairs and they were able to rest for awhile in the sunshine. I think this was probably their favorite part of the whole day. Pressing northward again through the crowds they were tired and had trouble appreciating the interesting landscaping details and artwork. When you don’t live in a big city, surrounded most of the time by steel and concrete, you are less likely to be impressed by a handful of reeds and wildflowers. Something to remember when bringing visitors around- you and your visitors may find different things novel. However we all agreed that the final section, which has been left very wild, was beautiful in its openness and connection with the past.
Final section of the High Line.
By the time we completed our walk (the High Line is about one and a half miles in total) my visitors were completely exhausted. The High Line ends far on the west side, nowhere near public transit. The final trek eastward felt like a forced march. It was almost impossible for me to move slowly enough for them. New Yorkers walk fast and tend to move in competition with other pedestrians so that if you’re walking slower you feel like you’re losing. Keeping at a pace they could handle was super aggravating. Playing tour guide requires patience. We finally reached the train and once again they fell asleep on the trip home. This time I left them to finish the trip without me while I bought groceries for us to cook together. They were very nervous about this and I had to give them directions several times although we had already done this together. Anyone who does not take public transit on a daily basis is likely to find it confusing and at times unnerving. I frequently give directions to strangers in subway stations who appear lost or helpless. The service changes on the weekends always seem a bit sadistic towards tourists; if New Yorkers can’t figure them out how do you expect Midwesterners to manage?
I am lucky enough to have an honest to goodness kitchen in my New York apartment. It doesn’t have a dishwasher of course but the stove is full sized and there’s plenty of counter space and even room for a table. This means I can actually make lasagna with my father without us stepping on each other. For those of you who are not so lucky I recommend introducing your houseguests to the joys of Seamless Web (as per the ubiquitous subway advertisements).
On their final day my stepmother requested that we revisit “that restaurant you took us to once with your boyfriend at the time that was very good.” Hmm. Luckily I have introduced them to only three boyfriends so this was not too hard to figure out. In the future I may make a note to either document restaurants with pictures or keep some sort of list. If you’re likely to have repeat visitors it may be useful to keep notes on what they liked and didn’t like to avoid similar errors in the future. The restaurant in question, Miriam’s, is a lovely Israeli place in Park Slope. My father poked at the labneh cheese suspiciously and they both complained about the inattentive waitress, but on the whole it was a successful restaurant experience (very rare for this pair in NYC).
For our last activity I took them to MOMA to see the Matisse Cut-Outs. If you frequently have visitors in NYC it is well worthwhile to be a member of MOMA. You can get in free and you can bring your guests in for only $5/each. MOMA is such a standard part of the NYC tour that anyone who has guests a few times a year will make the $80 individual membership more than worthwhile. I was not expecting to be a big fan of the Matisse but I was pleasantly surprised. It is a riot of color with many pieces full of shapes reminiscent of sea creatures. It’s fun and bright and a pleasure to walk through.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Tate Modern. April 7 – September 17, 2014. Installation view at Tate Modern. Tate Photography. With Composition (The Velvets) 1947, The Propeller 1945, White Alga on Orange and Red Background 1947, Composition with Red Cross 1947, The Eskimo 1947, Amphitrite 1947 and a selection of other works. Photo from the MOMA website.
After many art exhibits that seem draining or require a great deal of careful examination, this one felt very accessible and positive. I left feeling full of energy and enthusiasm. After feeling quite exhausted by playing tour guide it was refreshing. The best experiences with visitors are always those that both you and they really enjoy; I was glad that this visit ended with such an experience. The Matisse exhibit has only just opened so you should certainly make time to check it out (with or without visitors).
I am on the whole looking forward to my next visitors but I am also looking forward to attending events I love without feeling the need to care for someone else. Independent exploration can also be rewarding.