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The WOW Café Theater in the East Village: Surviving and Still Surprising at 30 Years

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In a city where artsiness—and even meta-artsiness—manages to be its own cliche, the WOW Café Theater is a relic and a stronghold in uncertain times. As downtown theaters such as the Ohio and the Perry Street Theater have shuttered their spaces in recent years after losing the great New York City battle of Art. vs. Rent, the WOW Café is not only still alive—it's celebrating its 30th year as a non-commercial women’s theater.

What exactly a “women’s theater” is, and what it has been for 30 years is up for debate, according to Kate Davy, a scholar on the WOW Café who worked on her book “Lady Dicks and Lesbian Brothers: Staging the Unimaginable at the WOW Café Theater” for 20 of the 30 years that WOW has been in existence. During that time, the venue went from a place where local East Village women would perform pieces infused with the neighborhood’s burgeoning punk scene in the 1980’s to a place where women who have studied the theater in colleges across the country stop by to learn more.

Davy, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, stumbled upon the theater in 1984, when it was a storefront space barely capable of seating 20 audience members. Davy was then a student of the avant garde, and felt that the work she saw was creating an entirely new theatrical language.

“When you’re doing something that is really sincerely outside the box, it takes a while for people to wrap their mind around it,” Davy says of the time it took her to write the book. She adds that the WOW Café Theater has always challenged its audience to think of gender roles as well as of performance in difficult and different ways. "That’s their significance to the avant garde, and that’s their significance aesthetically.”

Each Tuesday night, the women of the WOW Café come together with the clockwork precision of no-frills support groups in church basements and community centers city-wide. Weekly meetings are open to the public and used to organize the main currency between members: labor and helping hands. The productions depend on sweat equity, meaning that those schlepping sets or folding programs are wanna-be stars or directors with a script in their back pockets, staffing shows so that their own will be staffed.

Notable alumni of the WOW Café include playwright Lisa Kron, whose play "In the Wake" began previews this month, as well as performance artist and author Carmelita Tropicana. If making waves is making power, performance artist and WOW Café alumna Holly Hughes is known for being one of the "NEA Four"—'90s artists whose work was deemed too explicit for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When explaining what the WOW Café means by being a "women's theater," Davy says definitions are constantly shifting and relative to the participants. “I’ve interviewed hundreds of women who have been part of this over the years and it’s difficult to believe that they are all talking about the same entity,” she says. The bottom line, Davy says, is that men are welcome onstage as well as in the audience—the lack of definition is part of the punk-rock inspired anarchy that got the theater going in the first place, she says.

Since CBGB's closed in 2008, the gritty haunts of the WOW Café—East 4th street near the Bowery—have become the haunts of the well-heeled martini holders of the area's designer colleges. But what hasn't been destroyed, according to WOW member and burlesque performer Honi Harlow, is the theater's genuine spirit of cameraderie.

As she gears up for her first solo burlesque show at WOW, Harlow says the support she feels from the theater is sincere—whether gay or straight. “I am a heterosexual woman who has been married for 20 years,” Harlow says. “Everyone there knew who I am and what’s going on with me and nobody had any judgments. I never felt any negativity.”

The feeling at WOW Café may be more "Kum Ba Yah" than a 1980's anarchy anthem, but 30 years after it came into being, the doors are open and the lights are on in this theater. But as long as would-be performers wither at day jobs and ballooning rents shut down theaters, a little "Kum Ba Yah" might just be the right idea.