By Paul Smart
Harry Lipstein had a vision. What he’s done with it keeps expanding, and now includes the area’s first new brick-and-mortar theater in years, as part of the innovative architect/artist/developer’s Water Street Market in New Paltz.
Denizen Theatre is a classic black box theater with flexible seating for 50 to 70 audience members. It’s opening production, Cal in Camo, is a new play having its first regional performance—the idea behind the theater’s production schedule is to include premieres of various sorts, as well as theater supporters’ ability to be in on early play readings, and production choices.
The entire idea has a radical, new economy element toit. The name, best known in reference to people in terms of the places they call home, is being referred to by Lipstein and his artistic partners Ben Williamson and Brittany Proia as a combination of the concepts of Home (Den), Individuality (I), and Spirituality (Zen). The black box concept is aimed at getting the community closer into the creativity, and emotion of theater.
Denizen Theatre has no paper tickets. Its prices are affordable. Its home is sleek, modern and green, on the one hand, but also of a piece with Lipstein’s nearby Market concept, which has become a hub of local activity over the years—in terms of those entrepreneurs able to gain a space there, for the many who visit its homey expanse of 20 shops, and for all in the region who come out for Water Street’s various cultural events, from sidewalk chalking to free outdoor movies.
The whole endeavor was partially crowdfunded, and came about in answer to earlier community objections to a possible cinema that neighbors felt would bring too many people. The idea of a live theater, with new plays being workshopped and close ties to the walkability of downtown New Paltz, was a different matter altogether. Denizen, Lipstein has said repeatedly, is a nonprofit in all ways, designed for a mission—cultural community—over profit.
It’s also been built on a growing sense of prowess, being Lipstein’s third venture into the theatrical, in addition to his continuing side career as an actor and theatrical architect. And it comes at a time when live storytelling and the dramatic arts are on the rise throughout the Hudson Valley, from TMI Project and the grand promise of Lumberyard, to the stable stages at Shadowland, Bridge Street, Woodstock Playhouse and various college and community endeavors thrilling Hudson Valley audiences week in and season out.
Moreover, its yet another step in the region’s push towards a new form of economy, and overall lifestyle where bigger isn’t better, and the underlying goal is to touch lives, and to create and strengthen community.
“Eco-village design embraces the paradigm of enough density and foot traffic to get your social and physical needs met without having to get in a car, and have all that also be within walking distance of unfettered nature,” he noted in an interview last summer. “Sprawl is a big part of how we became a detached, inhumane society where people do bizarre things like school shootings and suicide. My passion is turning the market into the village square.”
Which should, as the Greeks once idealized it, always contain a theater as well as a forum, and a market.