Summer’s Coolest Theater Festival: Ice Factory

Robert Lyons of the New Ohio Theatre keeps his festival young and weird.

Photo courtesy of Marina McClure Photography

For the first time in the past two decades, there will be no New York International Fringe Festival this summer. That downtown tradition—showcasing nearly 200 shows from around the globe—is on hiatus as administrators rethink the artistic mission. Know what’s older than the Fringe and doesn’t take a break? Ice Factory. Celebrating its 24th year of new and weird theater, the beloved annual smorgasbord returns to the New Ohio Theatre, from Wednesday, June 28, to Saturday, August 12.

The festival was created by downtown elder statesman Robert Lyons, who has run the New Ohio since it was the plain old Ohio Theatre (until 2010, when it vacated its home on Wooster Street). What made Lyons think, back in 1993, that the city needed a summer festival? “It’s hard to imagine New York summers in the early ’90s, but there was nothing going on,” Lyons says. “This is pre-Fringe, pre–Lincoln Center, pre-everything. Conventional wisdom said everyone leaves town in the summer. But none of the artists I knew where leaving town. So I guess I started Ice Factory to give theater artists something to do in the summer!”

This year’s Ice Factory is dependably eclectic and far-ranging: an art-world love triangle/thriller set in Spain (Fernando); a play about Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut (A Footnote in History); a raucous reimagining of Sam Shepard’s True West played by two nonwhite women (True Right); a rock concert about three generations of an Afghan family (Tear a Root From the Earth); stories of people changing society (The Anthropologists Save the World!); a tale of female soccer players in an African town (Yellow Card Red Card); and a fantasia about the ways we cope with war (Danger Signals).

Photo courtesy of Andrea Reese

Given that Lyons has seen so many artists come and go through his doors over the years, you’d expect him to have a big-picture take on the current state of downtown theater. He admits that Ice Factory provides “kind of a snapshot of a moment,” but shies away from generalizations about the state of the weird.

“One great thing about the downtown scene is there’s not a dominant aesthetic,” the artistic director explains. “That’s why it’s exciting: no grand narrative! That said, I think there is a sense of artists trying to respond to our political moment. But not in a ‘current events’ way. The artists I’m interested in are digging a little deeper to get at what’s under or behind the everyday news cycle.”

I don’t want Lyons to play favorites, but I had to ask if there’s one show he’s extra-excited about. “I love all my children equally,” he responds diplomatically. “One of my favorite moments is after the somewhat tortured process of making the final decisions, the brochure comes back from the printer, and I sit and read it. And I think, Boy, I really want to see all these shows. Somehow, the system works!”

Come on, Robert: What’s your must-see event? “Put a gun to my head and I might say Tear a Root From the Earth,” he concedes under his breath.

But, hey, the space is small, the runs are short, and word travels fast. If you can’t make it to Tear a Root or something else, maybe try the late-night cabaret series, Fridays on Ice. It’s a performance salon that showcases work more typically found in nightclubs, bars, and private apartments. Whatever show you get into, it’s bound to be a great place to chill.

Ice Factory 2017
New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street (between Greenwich and Washington Streets), West Village
Through Saturday, August 12

Make it your day as cool as ice cold with this custom made itinerary: