In Greek mythology, the Sirens perch atop their island home and, with their irresistible song, lure sailors to their deaths upon the rocks. As I sit across from Rebecca Robertson in a charming East Village coffee shop, watching her graceful fingers unwrap the red foil from a dark chocolate candy heart and listening to her melodious voice describe her “courting” of artists and musicians, I understand perfectly how this timelessly beautiful and entrancing woman is the pioneer of a new kind of performance haven for budding musicians and vocal artists – fittingly named the Siren Den.
My first experience with the Siren Den was on a chilly November evening in Manhattan. The sun about to set, I crossed Avenue A into the eastern twilight, headed for a place called Bar on A from which I could hear a faint strumming of chords. Someone had drawn the curtains over most of the windows, and the soft light from the bar left a hint of a glow around the curtains’ edges. Everything about the place beckoned me toward it. I swung open the door and was greeted by the final chords of a keyboard and guitar, which gave way to a hearty round of applause. I scanned the room and saw a sea of faces, simultaneously attentive and at ease.
Settling into one of the only empty seats at the back, I watched the next performers take the stage. With just a banjo and a far-reaching, 1940s-era female voice, a duo called Houseboat filled the room with a sound as warm as the bar’s spirits. A variety of acts followed, including a poet who painted pictures of sex and toes and collision, a blues singer with a voice rich as whiskey, and a pair of women who sang in harmony and percussed on their bodies. I left the Den that night in a haze. Its spellbinding song trailed me to the A-train and then all the way home where it sank into my pillow, echoing through the deepest halls of my subconscious.
Rebecca Robertson, the person I hold responsible for my transformation that evening, first fell in love with the songs of her peers in a vocal composition class she took at the Experimental Theatre Wing, a studio in the Undergraduate Drama Department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts that encourages innovative performance and experimentation. During each vocal composition class, acting majors improvise melodies and harmonies of various forms and styles, freeing their voices from obstructions of criticism and self-doubt, allowing creativity and self-expression to thrive. Students then share their creations with one another, establishing trust and building community so that the act of offering up creation becomes an art in itself. Robertson calls the class the “perfect embodiment of the ETW spirit” and regards the sharing of artistic work to be an invaluable part of the creative process, prioritizing it above any end result or product.
In the months after her graduation, Robertson experienced a sort of post-college blues: like many of her fellow artists and performers, she felt a deep void left by the sudden cessation of what had been for four years a daily vehicle for creativity and communal participation. So instead of losing herself to that void, which, in one’s darker moments, can masquerade as a bottomless pit of despair, Robertson, in true ETW-fashion, decided to invent her own vehicle for sharing creative work. Cue the song of the Sirens.
Initially a smallish gathering of mainly ETW alumni, Siren Den had its premiere in the fall of 2010 at Smalls Jazz Club in the West Village. After nine months in that venue, one of the club’s proprietors decided he liked Robertson’s idea so much that he’d start his own open mike night. The catch: he unfortunately could accommodate the Sirens no longer. Not one to be foiled by fourberie, Robertson turned to good friend Joey Merlo (now recurring emcee of the Den). A stalwart supporter of the Sirens’ song himself, Joey pitched Siren Den to Mitch, the owner of Bar on A in the East Village (170 Avenue A). Captivated, Mitch offered his bar’s performance space for a revival of Siren Den in fall of 2011. The Den has had a home there since – and what a cozy home it is! Following the warm lamps around the bar, patrons light upon an adjacent room that hosts an intimate stage complete with a red velvet curtain. Here Robertson’s Sirens make musical magic on a chosen Sunday each month (if you’re lucky, she’ll be among them, crooning a sultry jazz or blues number). Each performer or group of performers is limited to one song or short act, which allows audiences a satisfying sampling of thirty or so unique artists and the artists themselves a chance to highlight what they’ve obsessively been working on that month.
At first, it was a bit difficult for Robertson to harness enough Sirens to fill the Den. You’d think young artists would be clawing at the chance to perform in a Village venue, but that wasn’t so, says Robertson: “I was reaching out to performers. I knew they wanted to perform, so why the reticence?” Chalk it up to insecurity, maybe, or performance anxiety. Whatever it was, it didn’t last long. Robertson threw herself into marketing the event, phoning and emailing artists she believed had something special to offer. Soon enough, she was filling Smalls Jazz Club – and subsequently Bar on A – with loads of performers in their early twenties, all of whom held more talent than they knew what to do with.
For Robertson, who beams like a proud mom at the mention of every one of her Sirens, “the fuller the room is, the more magical it seems.” And she’s right: there is something infectious about being in a room packed with artists eager to share their stories. Their enthusiasm seeps into your blood and invigorates you, moving you in the audience to worship art and celebrate life along with them. It’s like church – but better. Robertson calls the celebration “agape,” which is literally “love feast.” (If she ever again has a problem filling the Den – which I doubt she will – all she has to do is summon that delicious term, and she’ll have a resultant crowd spilling into the street).
And that it really does feel like a love feast is the best thing about the Siren Den. At the heart of this feast, providing a safe space for creativity and freedom of expression, is an unmistakable sense of group generosity. The performers give it all they’ve got, and the audience applauds the flawless acts and the mess-ups equally – because both are brilliant. Both are examples of human beings bearing witness to one another. For a few hours, they can step outside of their lonely souls and connect with other lonely souls who share their same stories. And it is in this connection where the song of the Siren Den really resonates. After all, to echo the words of Robertson, “Isn’t connection the point of live performance?”
The next Siren Den will take place at 4 p.m. on May 20th at Bar on A. Be there!
For sample performances visit Siren Den.
Photos, from top:
1. Credit: Sasha Arutyunova. Pictured (from Left to Right): Audrey Hailes, Emma Koenig, Rebecca Robertson.
2. Credit: John Jalandoni.
3. Credit: Carissa Matsushima. Pictured: Houseboat (Members: Ella Zoller and Will Notini).
4. Artwork by Katie Eisenberg.
5. Credit: Katelin Marie Gibbs. Pictured (from Left to Right): Amelia Rose Grossman, Rebecca Robertson, Matthew Robert Gehring.