Randi Berry is realistic about COVID and its effect on theatermakers.
“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic,” the co-founder and Executive Director of IndieSpace reflected. “Artists are still reeling … there’s a deep impact on mental health and feelings of stability and safety, and their work hasn’t come back at one hundred percent. We can’t stop supporting artists where they’re at.”
Enter IndieSpace, an organization that provides New York-based independent theater artists with everything from real estate advising to mental health aid to grocery and ConEd money. IndieSpace’s recent Milk and Eggs microgrant program awarded 250 dollars each to forty theatermakers to use toward food, housing, or any bills that have increased over the last year. “We know inflation has been hurting everybody, but especially artists trying to claw their way back from the changes COVID has put on all of us,” Berry said.
IndieSpace also awards 500 dollar mental health grants for therapy, medication, and insured artists’ copays. “We’d heard from people who were cutting medication in half or not using it anymore,” Berry said. “This has been a critical, critical program. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, having 500 dollars you have to spend on mental health means you prioritize yourself.”
Applying for grants is often a long process, but IndieSpace’s applications are the opposite. Potential grantees need only list basic contact information, proof that they’re consistently working in independent theater in any of the five boroughs, and one to two sentences describing how they’ll use the funds. According to Berry, artists have timed themselves and completing the application takes ten to fifteen minutes.
“Our application can be filled out in 10 minutes or less on your phone from the bathroom during break at your second job,” Berry said. Grants are awarded depending on how many IndieSpace can afford. “We fund by lottery, not by merit.”
IndieSpace blends Berry’s unique skill set and copious experience in independent theater. “I come to the work as an artist who created the service organization I needed,” she said. Berry co-founded Wreckio Ensemble Theater Company in 2000, while also working as director of operations for an investment property group. Soon, art met commerce. “We were rehearsing in the vacant spaces of the buildings we were selling, we wrote a couple of our shows in the conference rooms, and we took promotional photos in the bathrooms!” Berry recalled.
Eleven years ago, Berry left the commercial real estate world to stay home with her child, but joined the League of Independent Theatres board. She then founded the Indie Theater Fund to support independent artists, and co-founded IndieSpace in 2016, using the connections she made in commercial real estate with an eye toward long-term sustainable spaces for theater makers. The two organizations “have worked together as one unit since the beginning of COVID,” Berry said, and officially merged last year.
Most prominent among IndieSpace’s real estate work is the West Village Rehearsal Co-Op: a low-cost space (no more than 10 dollars per hour) for the indie theater community, in partnership with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, HERE, and New Ohio Theatre. According to Berry, the space was procured at “a ninety-nine-year lease for a dollar a year. I’m excited about it!”
IndieSpace’s staff consists of Berry and two others, including Programs Manager Veshonte Brown. “I review applications, hold the grant lotteries, and send out the Mental Health Newsletter each month,” said Brown, who joined the organization in September of last year, and relishes the organization’s responsiveness to the community. “If IndieSpace sees a need that we can help alleviate, we work as quickly as possible to design, create, and launch a grant or program that helps the most … people in a real, tangible way.”
Like any arts nonprofit, IndieSpace has significant challenges: dealing with the inconsistency of organizational funding and staying on top of the challenges artists face, whether that’s the aftereffects of nationwide police brutality or a significant increase in cost of living. Still, Berry and company persist, knowing the cyclical nature of live theater, where many Broadway actors start small on the Lower East Side and often return—and just as many aspire to stay indie.
“We don’t work in a vacuum,” Berry said. “The more we can spread around resources so everyone’s doing a bit better, the better off we all are.”