Alumni News

The Chocolate Factory: Meditations on Place and Creativity After College

The Chocolate Factory Theater, founded by Executive Director Sheila Lewandowski ’97 and Artistic Director Brian Rogers ’95, has been a staple of the Queens arts scene since its first season in 2005.

Madeline Best performs at The Chocolate Factory Theater

“Originally, we were a few artists who needed work, and we wanted to have a space for our own work,” Rogers said.

However, the undertaking soon gained community interest from other New York City-based artists.

“We decided to open the doors to those people, and it gradually became a thing,” Rogers said.

Artistic collaboration has since become integral to The Chocolate Factory’s work. While the theater still produces its founders’ own projects, Rogers also curates The Chocolate Factory’s robust Visiting Artist series, which commissions, develops, and presents works from artists from New York and beyond.

From early beginnings in an old confectionary (from which The Chocolate Factory gained its name) to its recently purchased permanent home–a former machine shop in Long Island City–Rogers emphasized the long process it took to grow the company.

“When we first founded the organization, it had a very small budget, so Sheila and I had day jobs and worked as volunteers,” Rogers said. “After a certain point, we were both able to pay ourselves a little, and then Madeline was the third person added to the team.”

Rumination on Rooms

Director of Production Madeline Best ’08 began working with The Chocolate Factory during Field Work Term in 2005. This February, she and Rogers returned to Bennington College alongside collaborators Mike Rugnetta ’06 and Jon Harper to develop The Chocolate Factory’s newest piece, which Best described as “an abstract ghost story.”

This project, which has been in development for three years, integrates video, projection, and sound to explore spectators’ experiences in specific spaces. Video images of doors, exit signs, and other minutiae are linked together into a meditation on the room itself.

“This will be our third time working on a set up for this piece,” Best said of the Bennington College residency. “In every place we’ve worked on this, it becomes about that room, with video from previous rooms incorporated in sneaky ways. What we’re building is a structure that can take its generative material into its final performance space.”

On March 1 at 7:00 pm in Martha Hill Dance Theater, The Chocolate Factory will host an informal discussion on their research. The Bennington community is invited to take part in this cross-curricular exploration.

“Brian and Madeline think and talk a fair amount about how work gradually develops. They have a particular process for how they arrive at their results,” Rugnetta said.

Art Inches Forward

This gradual creative process, while “painfully slow and semi-verbal,” Best joked, is nevertheless common for post-collegiate projects.

Though Bennington students enjoy resources and ample time for artistic development and exploration, “the creative process changes after school, when you have to feed yourself, find resources, and support a family,” Best said. “What you now think you’re going to do after school might change, and you need to leave room for that.”

“What you do is also not who you are,” Rugnetta said. “When you’re at Bennington, because you focus so hard on your work, you develop that sense. But when you go out into the world, you’ve gotta put calories in your mouth!”               

Since college, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that most of what I do to be an artist is not art. Brian Rogers ’95

“There’s a lot of support structure. I’m a curator, but mostly what I do is raise money, fix problems, organize, and manage,” Rogers said.

The Chocolate Factory’s advice for students who pursue careers in the arts after college?

“Learn how to invoice as a freelancer,” Best said, reflecting on her own experience as a lighting designer.

“And save your receipts!” Rugnetta said.


By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer