The rebranding process, as the new name indicates, involves an effort to make Performance Space more welcoming to a wider audience. In its grungier former life, which began in 1980 when a group of artists took over an abandoned schoolhouse on First Avenue, the space fostered a certain sense of community, but it didn’t quite scream “come in.” As Mr. Gantner said in a phone interview: “It was these giant steel doors that were locked except at quarter of 8, when the show was about to go up and we opened the box office. It was actually a bit intimidating.”
Ms. Schlenzka, who is from Berlin and moved to New York in 2002, said she hoped to reach people who might be “scared or skeptical” of performance and to attract a more culturally diverse crowd. She envisions a “vital center for community” that’s bustling day and night, with the help of free daytime exhibitions and partnerships with co-tenants. (Performance Space shares the building with several other arts and social service organizations.)
“If our audience could be a representation of the city, that would be a huge success,” she said, noting that downtown dance and theater audiences tend to be predominantly white. But the idea of separate audience-building initiatives doesn’t interest her. “I’ve been in these meetings about ‘Oh, we need to diversify our audience,’ and it’s always, ‘Let’s do a side program’ or ‘Let’s do a community day.’ But I don’t want a community day. I want the community to be the main program.”
Ms. Schlenzka plans to organize her programming around themes — to offer “a way in” for newcomers, she said — beginning with the East Village. From Feb. 17 to June 30, the East Village Series will examine the history of Performance Space and its neighborhood, reflecting on forces that have shaped them: gentrification, the AIDS epidemic, and punk and club culture. Ms. Schlenzka likened it to “the way that in psychoanalysis, you have to know your past to free yourself to conquer the future.”
Nostalgia, she added, is off limits: “We have this amazing past that in my opinion not enough people know about. But it can drag us down, and that’s a fine line to navigate.”
Straddling the worlds of dance, theater, fashion, film, visual art and literature, the series includes Performance Space regulars like the choreographers Sarah Michelson and Ishmael Houston-Jones, who jokingly calls himself one of its “ancestors.” (He has shown work there since the ’80s and recently joined the board of directors.) The performance artist Penny Arcade will revive her 1990 solo show, and the storied Avant-Garde-Arama series will return. A sub-series focuses on the feminist writer Kathy Acker, with events including a marathon reading of her 1978 novel, “Blood and Guts in High School.”
But in keeping with her anti-nostalgia stance, Ms. Schlenzka has ensured that younger generations, and more recent local history, are also represented. Members of the scene known as Kiki, 21st-century keepers of the underground vogueing flame, will host a ball to benefit the Alliance for Positive Change (formerly the AIDS Service Center), a Performance Space co-tenant. The art collective Brujas, founded by Arianna Gil, a 24-year-old East Village native, will be in residence for two weeks with political education workshops and indoor skateboarding sessions.
For the Brujas residency, Ms. Gil is working with the designer Jonathan Olivares to build a skate ramp in the theater, a statement about gentrification. She grew up skating at a nearby park on East 12th Street, which has since been closed to skaters largely because of noise complaints from neighbors, she said.
“The idea of our installation is to create something that mirrors the spaces that are no longer that active,” she said. “And we’re going to make sure that every kid in the neighborhood knows about it.”
Mr. Houston-Jones said that while Performance Space had always been home to hybrid work, Ms. Schlenzka was taking interdisciplinarity to the next level.
“I think performance is always foremost in her vision,” he said, “but she’s eager to let other forms, like skateboarders, come into that vision.”
Ms. Schlenzka, who is the third director of Performance Space and the first woman to hold the position, said that in her previous job at MoMA PS1 she became aware of her tendency to program mostly straight white men — 70 percent in her first MoMA PS1 season, she calculated. She made an effort to push back against that and highlight artists of different backgrounds.
“I don’t know if that has anything to do with being a woman, but I find it so much more interesting to bring these voices forward,” she said.
Reconciling her vision with her predecessor’s has not always been easy. When she took the job, Ms. Schlenzka canceled Performance Space’s involvement in five shows that Mr. Gantner had been shepherding, largely for financial reasons, she said in the fall.
“She didn’t offer any kind of conversation around it; she just said, ‘I made this decision to cancel it,’” said the video artist Brian Rogers, who had been in communication with Mr. Gantner for over a year. Mr. Rogers, who is also director of the Chocolate Factory Theater in Queens, said Ms. Schlenzka paid him a kill fee and tried to find a new home for his work, a search that didn’t pan out.
While she found alternate homes for most of the other shows, Ms. Schlenzka said the process caused her “sleepless nights.”
Her decision to cancel Coil after this year was also pragmatic, she said, allowing her to develop more year-round and daytime programming.
As artists get to know the revamped Performance Space, they may find themselves missing its old quirks, but also noticing new ones. Ms. Kravas said that while preparing for “visions of beauty” in the large theater last week, she spotted a storage room above the stage.
“I look up there, and I’m like, ‘I wonder what Adrienne Truscott would do with that,’” she said, referring to the adventurous performer and comedian. “It’s almost like I can visualize the future performances that are going to create a new space.”