A Horse! A Horse! My Horse for a Theater!


The Kraine Brain: Theater mastermind Erez Ziv selects plays randomly!
The Kraine Brain: Theater mastermind Erez Ziv selects plays randomly!

By Micah Kelber

Published July 16, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On cold winter New York nights in the late 1990s, Erez Ziv could be seen driving a horse-driven carriage and smiling as big as the moon. A rare Israeli among the otherwise Irish population, he excelled at the act he performed for tourists seeking romantic turns in the park or through Times Square. Regaling them with stories about the city, he made his riders feel like they were in the most important and exciting place in the world. It was an act of generosity, really, because they would have paid just to listen to the clop of the horse beneath them, but he wanted to make their experience extra special.

Before long, Ziv was approached by a friend who dreamed of starting a theater in the East Village. Without any experience in the business (but with a lot in showmanship and customer respect), Ziv traded in his horse and buggy for a partnership in what has become Horse Trade Theater Group. Now solo, he currently owns three theaters — the Kraine, the Red Room and Under St. Marks — and is a stable yet energizing presence in the downtown theater scene.

In June, Ziv announced a new crop of residents, each of whom will produce his or her own plays and learn the business of the theater. The resident program has been successful both for his theaters and for those chosen. According to Ziv, this year alone, resident productions have had four positive reviews in The New York Times.

All in all, Ziv runs hundreds of plays every year, and the range of productions is vast. This summer, Horse Trade is staging not only a poppy multimedia production about Internet confessions, but also the high school favorite “Arsenic and Old Lace.” One production, Ziv is particularly excited about: an all-female version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

During the winters, instead of trying to keep his horse moving and his hands from freezing, Ziv produces the Frigid New York Festival from his warm office under the KGB bar in the old Ukrainian Socialist Worker building. Sometimes these shows take the form of experimental hyper-sexualized craziness, while others are well-crafted operations such as the spooky “Pumpkin Pie Show” and last year’s critically acclaimed “Hostage Song,” an indie-rock musical.

Ziv receives hundreds of applications from all over the world for his festivals. And every year, following the Canadian Fringe Festival model, he “lets God decide” and pulls titles from a hat. Even though a particular show from Japan or a weird one from Texas might round out the festival nicely, he doesn’t fudge the process.

In the same way that you wouldn’t call “indie-movies” “off-off-blockbusters,” Ziv and the downtown theater community no longer refer to what they do as “off-off-Broadway.” Theirs is a different product with different goals.

“We don’t feel the need to please investors with flashy spectacles. We’re more interested in allowing experimentation and providing messages with integrity,” Ziv explained.

Because of his commitment to this, Ziv’s theaters have become known as places to see “something different.” They also have become known as places where young actors and directors will be treated with respect, and that, Ziv believes, leads to better performances.

“If they don’t have to worry about the operation or the relationship with the theater management, they can concentrate more on what is going onstage,” he said. His ethos has attracted many new actors and directors because of his reputation for creating an unintimidating space — something uncommon in the New York theater scene.

Ziv isn’t feeling the pinch of the economy, in fact just the opposite. Audience members no longer want to gamble a lot of money on expensive ticket prices, and so they are gravitating toward the unexplored. Since Ziv’s shows are usually priced at less than $20, he has seen an upsurge in attendance.

Furthermore, the shows that are coming his way are more polished than ever. “Because people have less money to produce shows, directors and actors who ordinarily would have preferred a bigger space are coming to our smaller theaters and improving our product,” he said.

And if the quality of downtown theater keeps improving, Broadway may have to thank the alternative theater scene for not making it refer to itself as off-off-off-off Broadway.

Micah Kelber is a writer and freelance rabbi who lives in Brooklyn. He is currently writing a screenplay about divorce in New York in the 1940s.

Micah Kelber speaks with Erez Ziv about his transition from stagecoach driver to theater owner.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.