Ellie Covan in her domain, Dixon Place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

 Ellie Covan in her domain, Dixon Place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Dixon Place: New York City’s queer theater haven

It has hosted one of the world’s longest-running LGBTQ festivals and after 30 years, Dixon Place still makes space for the city’s avant garde performers

AM Brune

Friday 12 August 2016 04.00 EDT

The accolades hang all over the walls of Dixon Place in New York: “Greetings and love” from the Blue Man Group, “Thank you for the great home” signed Martha Wainwright and kudos delivered on the book covers of authors Eileen Miles and AM Homes. But as she walks by them to check up on some window sealing and a seven o’clock production, Ellie Covan seems neither wistful, nor nostalgic for her theater’s days gone by.

Minutes later, sitting behind her cramped cinderblock desk in the office of the Bessie- and Obie-award-winning nonprofit experimental theater – the perch from which Covan has overseen nearly every play, dance piece, book reading, music performance or mix-and-match for the last eight of her 30 years in production – she rattled off a list of several of the works currently in incubation.

“Not everything is going to be Broadway-bound, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth seeing” says Covan, a pixie-ish, mercurial 60-year-old. “Everyone has a story to tell; they just need to figure out what they want to say and how to say it. That’s where my role comes in. And I am happy to see it fly off – as long as it comes back for a visit.”

Going vogue: a performance at Dixon place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

Going vogue: a performance at Dixon place. Photograph: Adrian Brune

For the past month, Dixon Place’s darling has been the Hot! Festival and Monstah Black, a self-described practitioner of “Afrofuturism soaked in psychedelic funky, occasionally topped with a socio-political twist”. His work Hyperbolic! The Last Spectacle, a dance/monologue/music pageant about extreme personalities and over-the-top self-absorption headlined Dixon Place’s Hot! Festival – one of the longest-running annual LGBTQ arts and culture festivals in the world. After six weeks, it closes on Saturday.

The festival showcased plenty more gay theater, as well, including Boys Who Tricked Me, a musical about love disguised as preteen sleepover,Ignorance is No Excuse by Reno, the standup comic and former reality star of Bravo’s Citizen Reno, andUnearthing – Plus – A Girl in Rags, a semi-autobiographical play that dissects blackness and transgenderism.

Even Covan can’t quite figure out the reasons Dixon Place still has a LGBTQ festival when the theater is imbued all year round with “the spirit of queer … community, intimacy, sensualism. What could be hotter?”

Covan is the daughter of two community theater directors and was brought up in a suburb outside Houston, Texas. After acting at university in Austin, then moving to Paris, Covan arrived on the Lower East Side in the mid-80s, when downtown theater had its second coming in New York. Dixon Place officially began in 1986, based on a poetry and fiction reading salon Covan had hosted in Paris, and named after the publisher of her favorite books.

AM Holmes says that Covan has aways been at the heart of the venue. “The secret sauce to Dixon Place is Ellie herself, her accordion playing, her eccentric and exuberant selfless joy and passion for the performing arts, for arts and performers who truly bare their souls – and sometimes a little more.”

Monstah Black says that Dixon Place enabled him to direct a show and write dialogue for the first time, describing it as “a laboratory for artists, where we can explore new places and new territory and create the chaos without having it in front of us all the time”. The place encourages artists to take risks – to push themselves and their material into places that might be uncomfortable or unknown and to do with with the full embrace of the room.

The artistic disarray, however, was one of the chief reasons Covan moved Dixon Place from her former home – a small terraced apartment whose cleared living area served as a stage and a corner kitchen doubled as a bar – eventually into its current abode in the Lower East Side.

Covan started charging about $2 for admission, giving the proceeds to the artists who included the likes of the Blue Man Group, Deb MargolinDavid CalePenny Arcade and Reno. Realizing her untenable business model, she eventually established a nonprofit, bought and renovated the Chrystie Street location and opened in 2009 with a liquor license, a lounge and space for rental, in addition to the theater.

“When it was in my living room, Dixon Place was a lot simpler and sometimes a lot more fun because there was no pressure to keep the lights on, so to speak”, Covan says, as a photograph of Arthur Rimbaud looked down at her desk. “The struggle here is to balance the sale of tickets – and to keep those as rock-bottom as possible – with the ability to explore new work that’s diverse.

“The math just isn’t there when you have a theater that costs $1,500 per day to run and tickets at $15 each. We have to push the artists to bring in people. Our donors generally understand the value of our project, but educating the public, who like to categorize things, is sometimes a different story. That’s why we have the bar.”

One a recent Friday night, visitors who found the small storefront and walked past the bar – and the same Dixon place staffer who served as hostess, bartender and occasional box office proprietor – were treated to a performance by Dandy Darkly, a burlesque and satiric vaudeville clown in a glittery 70s disco suit and platform shoes. Downstairs, Black and his troupe were vogueing through a Prince-inspired soundtrack during the “very last party on earth”.

The theater was full, as well as the bar. Saturday night would prove a bit tamer with Folking Awesome, a trio of acts on the New York alt-folk country scene, and Cleaning Out the Closet a performance based on the ways people come out.

On both nights, Covan was in attendance, if only for a little while, before bicycling to the East Village and her new apartment. “I get exhausted. It happens all the time. Then I go into the theater and get revived.”