Dramatic Explorer Settles in Hillman
Michelle Stern settled in Hillman Housing after years of pursuing unique theatrical experiences ‘round the globe
by Frances Madeson
When actress/producer Michelle Stern moved into Hillman Houses five years ago, her elderly neighbors wondered if she weren’t the previous tenant’s granddaughter. They were surprised to learn that this lovely, young woman actually bought a co-op all on her own. But she wasn’t alone for long. Several of her friends now own apartments in Seward Park and Hillman Houses, her mother bought a place in East River three years ago, and she and her boyfriend are peeking at two-bedroom apartments. Her community of longtime friends and respected colleagues is flowering around her as their roots and tendrils continue to entwine in new soil.
After graduating from NYU with a degree in Drama, Michelle Stern formed, with a few dedicated others, an experimental theatre company named GAle GAtes et al, and enjoyed a lively and distinguished 8-year run. They were first housed in the financial district, then got pushed to DUMBO, landing in a 40,000 square foot space where at times more than thirty artists would collaborate on installations and performances. The group received early funding from Dixon Place, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and, once, a surprise $25,000 Bloomberg arts grant.
She served GAle GAtes as both producer and performer, and was rewarded with one amazing creative experience after another.
In rural Japan, she and some colleagues lived and worked on a farm while studying Butoh, a post-modern dance form, from master teachers of the art.
“The geography of the town and farmland was such that all of the rice paddies were in one section and the soybean fields in another, and we’d ride bikes between them,” she relates. “We were up at dawn, harvesting garlic, scallions, potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and flowers, and I was responsible for milking the two goats as well.” The schedule was intense and included both daytime and evening rehearsal periods filled with hours of jumping and coordination exercises. She lost 15 pounds her first two weeks there and eventually cut her hair off almost to the scalp, because there was simply no time to groom it.
In 1993, she traveled with 20 members of her group to Prague, to stage an original show about the plague. “Everything went wrong. We lost our rehearsal venue to flooding just days before we arrived, and were forced to rehearse outside when we could, or in other spaces as we found them. It rained almost every day for 6 weeks and when the sun finally shone, we rehearsed in a city park a scene with plague victims writhing on the grass. Later, everyone in the troop broke out with poison sumac.”
But the show went on, and Michelle stayed in Prague for several months, living with a Czech family and teaching English in an elementary school.
Since then, Michelle has performed in New York with the acclaimed Wooster Group in a show called North Atlantic, and toured with Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi and Kate Valk, in the US, Brussels and Paris. Now, she’s producing special events such as the Fifi Awards (for the perfume industry) on a freelance basis, and pursuing work as an actress on stage and in film and television. She produces and performs a regular show at Mo Pitkins, called The Smart and Stern Variety Show (see the Entertainment Column), on the second Wednesday of every month.
“I’ve had to turn down some producing opportunities because they would be too all-consuming,” she says. “The challenge is to find and maintain the balance” between working to satisfy the soul and working to pay the bills, “and it’s not always easy to do. I often remind my artist friends who want me to help produce shows for them, you know, I could perform in that show too!”