Keeping It Small at The Chocolate Factory
Claudia La Rocco, New York Times

PERHAPS it’s the name. When people speak about their experiences at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, Queens, they inevitably mention food.

The choreographer Tere O’Connor, who created his critically acclaimed “Rammed Earth” there in 2007, enthused about the vine-ripened tomatoes. The composer Chris Peck, who has been presented there and ran a series with the choreographer Chase Granoff from 2005 to 2009, received freshly baked goods. Audiences get assorted sweets. The bounty comes from the garden and kitchen of Sheila Lewandowski and Brian Rogers, who live just a few doors down from the Chocolate Factory, which they run. (She is the executive, he the artistic director.)

“We came along at a moment where there was definitely an enormous need for an alternative place,” Mr. Rogers said. “People want a different way to do it, I think.”

Since opening seven years ago the Chocolate Factory — which got its name from its first brief home, a former confectionary nearby — has become a leader among a new generation of scrappy, homespun artist-run spaces and is viewed by some as the spiritual heir to bigger, more entrenched institutions like Dance Theater Workshop. But Mr. Rogers and Ms. Lewandowski, who initially set up shop as a way to produce their own performances, have one grand ambition for their multidisciplinary space: staying small.

It’s a tricky balancing act. Increasingly the theater is commissioning work from the same pool of artists that larger institutions tap (including veteran choreographers like Mr. O’Connor, who approached Mr. Rogers). The Chocolate Factory won an Obie last year and just received its first National Endowment of the Arts grant, for $20,000, to support its artist residencies.

Still, it remains a true mom-and-pop operation, with no full-time employees except its founders. While the theater’s budget has more than quadrupled in the past four years — to a projected $350,000 in the coming year, from $80,000 in the 2006 fiscal year, its first full season — the number of productions has decreased: the current roster has 13 works, down from 17 the first season. The money has gone toward better equipment, salaries for Mr. Rogers and Ms. Lewandowski and increased support for artists, including multiweek residencies, more generous than those of many of long-established institutions. (Its modest but growing commissioning fees run from $2,000 to $8,000.)

“As an artist or artist-curator going into that space, it’s just the best possible situation,” Mr. Peck said. He, like several other artists, likened it to a second home. “They give you the keys and are there all the time helping you with stuff. I’ve noticed over time that their responsiveness to artists’ needs isn’t just an attitude. They really figure out what people need and figure out how to get it for them.”

Though the theater presented its first international commission this month (“The Work The Work,” by the young Irish duo Fitzgerald & Stapleton) and welcomes the occasional established name, it more typically features local artists who are often still finding their voices.

The choreographer Aynsley Vandenbroucke, who founded the Catskills performance hub Mount Tremper Arts in 2003 with her husband, the photographer Mathew Pokoik, described herself and her peer presenters as “a new model and also a very old model.”

“I was thinking a lot about this almost super local movement,” she added, likening these theaters to the locavore food movement. “It’s not provincial art, it’s very forward thinking and alive art. But there’s something about really basing it in a home, partly because our generation is realizing there’s not that much touring and just really looking at where is our support coming from and realizing probably it’s going to need to come from ourselves.”

The Chocolate Factory is sitting on a comfortable financial reserve while other nonprofits have been hamstrung by debt. Dance Theater Workshop, $2.9 million in the hole as a result of its pricey home in Chelsea and considering a merger with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, is the starkest example. (Mr. Rogers worked there from 2005 to 2009, before volunteering for a round of layoffs; Ms. Lewandowski had 15 years of nonprofit management under her belt before the Chocolate Factory.)

“There’s a whole generation of people that subscribe to this idea that if you make something larger, the other things will come up to meet it, the ‘if you build it they will come’ idea,” Mr. Rogers, 37, said seated across from Ms. Lewandowski during in an interview in their diminutive office space. “I have nightmares sometimes about being 50 years old and suddenly having this midlife crisis thing of ‘Oh, my God, my legacy, I’ve got to do some big thing.’”

For now Mr. Rogers and Ms. Lewandowski are weighing how best to serve themselves and their field. They are warily eyeing a capital campaign, conducting feasibility studies and growing their board (which now numbers seven) as they consider purchasing their current 5,000-square-foot facility, finding a comparable space once their lease expires in 2019 or, more radically, closing up shop altogether.

“Sometimes you create something that’s really important in a given time,” Ms. Lewandowski said, emphasizing that their mission is to support performing artists, whose work exists in time, not on museum walls. “Maybe you’re there just to support that and then you go away. It’s not always a bad thing.”

Mr. Rogers added that size was often an enemy in this effort. If your audience “is really engaged and is informing the conversation in the field in a larger context in some way, why does it have to be big?” he asked.

Kate D. Levin, commissioner of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, said Mr. Rogers and Ms. Lewandowski “have a very canny way of understanding how culture fits into the imaginative and social lives of audience members” and contrasted their “forward-thinking approach” with more typical mindsets. “It can be very tempting to think just of your institution and get very protective of it, as opposed to thinking more broadly,” she said.

One advantage to staying small is that the box office can’t make or break the budget, which allows for greater freedom in programming. The dance and theater artist Andrew Dinwiddie, whose show “Get Mad at Sin!” is running at the Chocolate Factory through next Saturday, asked Mr. Rogers how many seats he usually puts in his theater (the maximum is 74) and was amused by the response. “He said, ‘Oh I don’t care how many seats you have, you could have five seats if you wanted.’ ”

Difficult to fit into neat categories, Mr. Dinwiddie is typical of the artists presented by the Chocolate Factory.

“I tend to feel challenged and surprised when I do go there,” Mr. Peck said. “It seems like it’s all over the map, and I really appreciate that. I think a lot of people appreciate that.”

The Chocolate Factory can seem like a work of art in itself. A sloping entranceway and shaft connecting the main white-brick theater and low-ceilinged basement performance space distinguish the building, which has no formal stage, making most work presented there seem site-specific in some measure.

Mr. O’Connor quickly fell in love with the theater, describing it as having an almost spiritual energy.

“It feels a little bit like the first New York I knew in the ’70s and ’80s,’ ” he said. “Not in a retro way at all, but art and residence and commerce were in a more balanced relationship than they are now. It’s not a reference to that time, just a little place where that is occurring again.”

And those tomatoes don’t hurt.

Claudia La Rocco for the New York Times – May 28, 2010