Like the jazz of the city, Denis Woychuk is a heady combination of syncopation and improvisation; his accomplishments are many and varied. Acknowledged in many major newspapers and magazines for his books, novels, children books and theater musical plays, Denis is a well-recognized writer, play-writer, lyricist, novelist, promoter and former attorney as well as the helm of the Kraine Theater and Kraine Gallery Bar . The back beauty of his philosophy success came from his family roots which prepared him for his time as successful multi-talented artist, field in which he masters and mixes imagination and reality.
Denis Woychuk partakes a love story with the East Village and his own building (4th Street and 2nd Avenue) where are located his art business. His influential and highly intellectual person makes of him one of the most interesting, amusing, inspiring and smartest characters I have met in NY downtown. I’m startled by the light he shines and his kindness. Woychuk is also very comprised with jazz and music. It took me two years to finish this interview. Every time I met with Denis we have so much to talk about…For instance, how he got involved with art and words? He said : “Words were always around. I like to talk but I want to get paid to talk. When I was 22 years old I received my M.F.A. in creative writing at C.U.N.Y. Brooklyn College, I ended the school at 20. So I got my master and I was already teaching. Somebody told me: “look bright boy you have to do something with your life”. The place where I lived in Brooklyn wasn't a good neighborhood to be what I’m now; it was surrounded by an odd population. I knew I didn't fit with that universe…”
“So I put myself in through school at Fordham University School of Law and at that time I was also teaching writing at Pratt Institute. I was trained as attorney but in my soul I’m an artist. Law was practical, a mean to make it to the middle class; but creativity, the arts, was where my heart lived. I have to figure out how to make a living, though I was 10 years professor I didn’t want to do it forever.”
“When I was in my last year of law school I was already working and I realized I like to hang out with the artists like I want do with lawyers, but it is much more fun with artists. It was all about an internal experience and creativity. You see? Creativity is for me a spiritual thing. God wants you to be yourself, you just need to figure out what that means and I knew the way to go was to create a process. So I open an Art Gallery in 1984. It was the kind of foundation for my sense of self… I lost money every year. People said: “you are out of your mind... again!”. I had a girlfriend who told me to give up art and to be a “serious lawyer” and me keep saying “I got the vision, I got the vision” and she said "screw your vision!”, and she gave up on the gallery….Thereafter she wanted to get rid of my partner and she said "quit" thus, we really broke up. In any case the gallery became a theater at night. I tell you what: when you get a space in Manhattan you have to use it as much as you can, because things don't pay for it while it's close. It didn't pay for itself when it opened either but I have that day job and as I said, art is my passion. I was doing it on my own space but when you get older amusement counts for the most. I focused then on writing and I wrote another book. In fact, I wrote two books that became two different musicals”
The books are : “Attorney for the Damned” and “Mimi and Gustav in Pirates!”-- In “Attorney for the Damned”, Denis chronicles his experiences representing the dangerously mentally ill in the city. He examines the New York forensic psychiatric system, the role of the attorney for the patients, the insanity defense, and the American penal way in general. Denis displays various aspects of the flawed forensic psychiatric rule through his own experiences with clients at New York's forensic psychiatric centers, including the ethical dilemmas and inner dreads that confront attorneys. Woychuk draws on his experiences to voice criticisms, ideas, and suggested improvements regarding the insanity defense and the penal system.
In the hilarious and nasty rock musical "Attorney for the Damned," Woychuk (book, lyrics) and Rob McCullough (music), an idealistic lawyer (Allison Johnson) is forced to represent two criminally insane mental patients, one of whom has been found wearing the finger of a missing woman around his neck. This production is told with dark humor, weird science and outsized, grotesque characters.
In “Mimi and Gustav in Pirates”, the fantastic romantic duo of Mimi the hippo and Gustav the mouse ( “The Other Side of the Wall “) return for a perilous adventure on the high seas. Woychuk discharge an unaffected plot full of energy.
I have read Denis books. And here lies a paradox: a man capable to execute for the criminal insane, a work that tore away his innocence, can also write beautiful words for children, what inspires him?!-- He reckons: “At some audition, I realized people were older than me when I wrote those books. I like to perform too; I can work in theater now because I can afford it (as oppose as cinema). When I went to my parents to ask them for a camera my mother said: "here is a pencil. Write! Cameras cost money”. We didn't have money so… you do what you can.”
Woychuk muses: “At that time I got that book, it was a film option and it still in option: it is happening, it’s happening but no is not damn happening! I can afford to write books but films are more difficult. In films you need people. I can afford the theater and do it mostly for fun. Sure I want to hit. I do it without worrying about money. I make lot money not worrying about money. When I try to make money I try a little. I'm fortunate but that doesn't mean I'm smart.”
I laugh because I know Denis is inordinately talented and smart. He continues: “The bar brought me this money. The bar has been my little secret, culture flows in alcohol… Hush, don't tell anybody” said Denis laughing and I laugh (again) too! .
This gentleman makes you float with his sulky voice, anyone can sense on him a big deal of kindness. As a poet and writer I know words aren't really well paid. But Denis is successful; I want to know his secret. He reveals: “Well…the thing is that I don't expect to be well paid as much as I get paid for my first 400 words! --I got $ 5000 which is a lot back in the time…20 years ago. It depends what you mean by success. Everybody wants to be paid for what they want to do. I follow my father rules and that means take care of all my responsibilities, for instances my children bills. I have two children; my daughter is finishing her studies in Chicago. It costs a serious amount of money! But as long as you pay your bills you are free. You have to have a plan when you are an artist. I have realized that now everybody wants to sell their songs. Everybody wants to become a popular damn band. I just said that because I wrote music these days but in terms of being a writer I have some recommendations: first get a day job, something that you don't hate too much or wipe tables or do something to make a living…and you know? Writers have a long life! You aren't a ballerina or a football player, you aren’t done at 25. You can publish your first book in the late 40's. It's not an embarrassment; it takes a long time to be a writer.”
“All young American writers want to hit early, Look they make stars of 20 something, because they look good. You know I can tell you about painters and writers who have too much success in their twenties. My advice is don't plan of making a living from your work and certainly don't plan to make a killing. I know writers that usually come to the bar. I can see frustration. Here in my literary bar we have reading some days. We have almost every night book readings even the night of art book… but that didn't happen now; 20 years ago was once a week and we read poetry twice a week and now I'm doing that on Saturdays and on Fridays as well and I see people there and that blow my mind… I mean they are so good that they made me like I want to quit. My only consolation is that I write better so I can get a best seller, right. I know some writers for the little market, they are brilliant but they are not easily accessible. I don't write poetry but I write a lot lyrics. It's my favorite writing now.”
Denis wants us to know about his feelings regarding poetry: “I don't really understand much poetry. For instance, I don't really get much Ashbery poetry, a lot of stuff is far away from me. I think the poetry reach the highest form of literary words. I like Rimbaud, challenging stuff sometimes and that’s all I can do. I'm an ordinary American type of guy. I can't read that stuff. I do my little thing. People have dreams: I write best sellers, I’m professor part time, I got my gallery. I started to teach myself to play piano and guitar 7 years ago. I wrote about 25 songs of my last show: it’s fun you know, it’s play, you know one calls it play … because it plays.”
Denis Woychuk is an humble man; it might be the reason why I can spend hours and hours talking with him. He must be a praiseworthy attorney, he knows how to handle words, how to talks. Denis grew up in Brooklyn, his parents were Ukrainians. His father was Catholic and his mother was Jewish. His father took him regularly to visit his hang outs in Manhattan. Before the East Village became popular, Lower East Side was a very special place. In those days the neighborhood was sordid and dogged. I believe Denis has a kind of derisory Jewish sense of humor. He assess: “I’m not sure what you mean; I think it's in everybody soul, then I think it's universal but some cultures beat out of here. Some cultures are jealous of success and it's nothing to with being Jewish. When I was 8 years old I wanted to go to Africa and my father beat me. I realized that my father was angry and bitter because he hates blacks. Why blacks? Because he came from Ukraine, not because he was political; because it was another color so it was suspect. And back then the country still paranoid to embrace new cultures. It reminds me a show about this Jewish writer who changes the Jewish story as Hemingway did (Denis makes reference to Isaak Babel). People don't appreciate how much Hemingway changed literature. Some people dilute Hemingway and pretend to change the world as he did. They were times when people couldn’t express the sense of freedom, but in the last century there was a great blooming of Russian ways and it was very interesting. American jazz men were not supported here and because of the regime, we Ukrainians could be more proletarian, more trash, more oppressed than the blacks, what we called Negroes in America.”
“ I’m preparing a show that will be about Jewish gangsters at the time of revolution. I'm working on that. This is the first time I do the kind of job where there are writers involved. I'm dealing with the agent who represents the state. This is a show you do for love because you can't do it for money. You want to get somebody talented and everybody wants to get paid. I think I'm able to create a partnership because this show will get the attention of the intelligentsia (if you pardon me that expression) because it's Babel and because I have a big track of what's going on so far. Look, Jewish had a rough time true, but they have big success in America.”
The Babel piece Denis is referring to is “Benya Krik: Gangster King." Benya is a fictional Russian gangster of Jewish descent and is the main subject of Isaak Babel collection of short stories “The Odessa Tales”. Babel is one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature.
I discovered the Ukraine Theater through Cecil Taylor and ever since I first met Denis I always wanted to know why an attorney would like to purchase a bar? Denis explains: “I did not purchase the bar, I created the bar; the bar was here physically since the prohibition it was a lovely joint during the 20's it was a speak-easy. But the district was slow down. East village was the crack center and pretty rougher back in the 70’s; you know people didn't want to live here. My father did because this is an Ukrainian neighborhood. I stayed with my mother in Brooklyn where I had my friends, my school, and my life. On Sundays my father and I, went to a place called the Ukrainian Labor Home, it was a club for Ukrainian socialists. They had a building at 85 East 4th Street, on the first floor known as the great hall they held their banquets, dances, and parties; and above that, on the second floor, their own private parlors. There were no posters of the great Soviet revolution, no photos of the politburo with Brezhnev presiding, no propaganda whatsoever visible anywhere--all that was hidden away in a double-locked room on the fourth floor because these people had been subject to McCarthy’s feverish persecutions and they didn’t want to advertise their political sympathies.”
“On those Sundays at the great hall there was a dance class for children -I was about five at this time but I never joined them. Instead dance lessons, I preferred the company of my father’s pals in the intimacy of their private club.”
“In the 80’s East Village was filled with artistic activity, and the great hall was essentially unused. The members of the Ukrainian Labor Home were past feasts and big parties. Now they needed money! -- On those days people could not afford any more. People couldn’t afford the rent so they offered me the great hall to use as an art gallery. I was blessed so the Kraine Gallery was born. We did exhibitions by day and soon thereafter theater at night to help with the cash flow; I ran operations from my law office on Park Avenue! The old men kept the bar. They could still drink. It was still their club. The bar had a little kitchen belonging to the old men’s wives; I dined Friday nights with my artist friends on Ukrainian food, served by Ukrainian ladies who made everything by hand. A four course meal with a shot of vodka costed $5. Even artists could afford that! ….That was a good time.”
“In 1987 the stock market crashed and some galleries disappeared, by the early 90’s my gallery was out of business. I was working as an attorney, it was an interesting work, without the killer hours of private practice and it gave me a chance to pursue an old hobby, theater, but with a twist: for the first time, the theater was making money!. Although it had been started as reconsideration to the gallery, it had become the success while the gallery folded. The bar was empty and I, myself knew nothing about the bar business. The advisers said “don’t open a bar on the second floor. You will go bankrupt.” But I’m persistent and have a sense of where I’m going to. I opened the bar in 1993. Then it was about the name choice for my bar…. I wanted to call KGB because all the communist propaganda by the all Ukrainians, the anti-Nazis posters; there were kind of sympathetic about the workers rules when the Union Square became Union (20's / 30's). All Ukrainians come to sit in the bar in the afternoon and could afford to buy drinks.”
“I called the Department of State in Albany and told them I wanted to register a new corporation. “KGB!” the man on the line said. “You can’t call a corporation KGB, not KGB, FBI, CIA, or even GAY. Not in New York State. You have to justify, give a good reason for whatever name you choose.” I knew he was wrong. I said “Okay, but I came out with my idea: I wanted to call it “Kraine Gallery Bar”, after my gallery name. They accepted and so Kraine Gallery Bar, aka KGB Bar, was legally born! I didn’t make too many profits the first year, we had only a tiniest sign, and the revenues were low. But I had undying optimism. I knew that once people found KGB, they would love the room, the sense of history and vibe. Then I got this wonderful idea: I hired Daniel Christian. Dan is someone who really understand the bar business, he’s an intellectual, an educated man and it was then that he became my bar manager.”
I actually know Daniel; there we got another colorful human being. You can talk about everything with Danny. He knows a lot about music and adores jazz, he was an actor too but Danny is my future interview subject.
Denis carries on: “We didn’t even bother to put up a real sign until 2000; I bought all the building in 2001.”
Denis wanted writers who would come to his place and read their work and get paid with a few free drinks. KGB opened to the public without charging a cover. He recollects: “I booked Frank Browning for our very first reading in the summer of 1994. The New York Times heard about it, sent a reporter and photographer and ran an article about the new reading series at KGB.”
Denis Woychuk’s joker is to be a facilitator: “I’m a facilitator. My gift is any facility; I really do almost nothing. I probably work 40 to 90 hours a month the things I have to do. But I have to do other things with the rest of my time at this point of my life because things have to move on. In art is where I found that people work for love and if you give somebody something you tell them "do whatever you want" and they turn that into a project. I have like 30 people who are working for me into the capacities. Because I'm lazy I don't manage anybody. I gave them the theater I founded, I think it’s fun and I told them: “instead me to pay you, you pay yourself; here is the business I'm your tenant if you do the job you can keep it. If you fuck it up I just found somebody else to do the job. I don't know how to run this, so be a partner.” They say “you are going to take this space back and run it”. Dude, the last thing I want to do is to run this place. I'm an ideal guy. I don't really show up in the morning, handle staff and money; I can't bother if I can find people who do it for me: better. And now I'm kind of reluctant producer because I put my own shows together but mostly I pimp the space out. It allows many people to come here and do their bit. I don't have to worry, I produced only the stuff that I have written and this is my toy”.
“I'm like a little king in my castle, I have many guitars. When I want to compose a song I buy a new guitar but I never will be a professional musician. For writing songs you don't need to be a great player. But I admire a lot professional musicians. I know many jazz musicians, I'm a friend of Frank London. I like the way he plays the trumpet. I also know very well Cecil Taylor. I admire Cecil. He comes very often to the theater.”
Woychuk actually welcomes many shows in his theater: “I welcome everything because the theater manager and I pretty much likes everything. When you start things off you have to do all the work. Once you get the things going, it will come. I stood through whatever I could. You have to keep a space in life and because that space you become well known then you become more selective. But that's not me. He's the bee keeper of that. People say to me: "here is my book, what do you think of it". Do you know how many books I received in a week? I mean I read books all the time but I'm not able to read 500 books a year. I used to see all the shows here. Now I see what people recommend me and then I come here to my office, to my work which consist mainly emptying the bar and to choose. What they said? : "Do you have money? Can you produce for us?” You know I'm open. I come to the shows, I strike the bar and then I go home… I go to sleep. My children live with me and I want to see them when I wake up.”
“I've been pimping this place and the house and the man. At this moment the theater is not good with the recession. It's very hard that a theater paid by itself.”
We want to know more about his next show. Denis gets excited:” My next show is intended to have a jazz sound track. Thirties some tracks. It’s the Isaak Babel show. I now like to do more jazz. I like jazz, sometimes I listen to jazz. I like the 40's. I have a rock sensibility too: I can write rock, I can't really play jazz, but it's only in my mind. I pay my children for lessons of piano and they play jams. I'm the stupid dad who doesn't know anything about anything. I just like to play and I like to think is jazz. I have musician's friends, real musicians. You have to have a culture to understand jazz, I know this kind of music and I know is coming from the soul. I talk a lot to Cecil (Taylor)…I mean I’m there and all those names pop up to our conversations but there is no conversation with Cecil. You have to hang with Cecil, only to listen. I said all the time “wow” and he keeps talking… but I really like jazz because of the foundation to create. It's like basketball there is no instructions but it's cool and you can change an influence. I played bass for 30 years but I changed to guitar. I prefer playing guitar because the guitar is full of surprises. So I just take a couple of courses, I call my friends and tell them, let’s make noisy. I don’t like to play with professional musicians because they want to tell me what to do and I told them: "don't tell me what to do; I'm not working for you". If they can show me up, fine. The method of making noisy is cool. After the shows I come later in the night, I take the guitar.”
Denis is a happy man, it’s amazing what he has accomplished so far: “If you do one thing in your life like writing a book and you do it very well, that's good. One good thing in life is good for me. As a writer you have to lose a lot and let it come. I don't write that much anymore I 'm kind in the shows now but I'm writing this book. If I write a show instead of being 500 pages I write 50. Instead of take me years it take me months. You know I was lawyer at a mental hospital and then I wrote that book in 2 or 3 years and it hit. When I was working as a corporate lawyer I was making a lot of money. You know how the system is; there is one judge for 15 lawyers waiting for a decision. And even as a lawyer I have to be detached of that and I don't feel any responsibility. It happens all the time, it's just business but it’s very frustrating…”
“I think that what I write would be OK for cable and TV, on the other hand it's not realistic for me to expect any control at all. And for the cinema I have this lawyer who never get back to me if he can get me a play where I have all the control then I'm in. I think it's better to work in TV because movies they don't last and go very fast. At least on TV you have the opportunity to catch the image of people.”
“My work was to be an attorney but the freedom is what I like. And what happened is that it became a job and not a hobby. Music now is something I need to relax. But when it comes to business I have another heart. I'm a mad guy I'm a paranoid/depressive but I prefer the paranoid side. In my rational moments I like to sit around and play the piano for an hour just to make staff up. It's like fooling around bang-bang. I live to play the piano and my guitars. I used to seat in the piano 40min to one hour a day, just making staff up to remember something you can keep physically on you. It’s a way to explore yourself. I know in the end I feel pain but I know its music. So I write also songs. I'm death as a musician but I'm very involved with the music of my shows. The “Mimi and Gustav” show music is more happy than sad because it's for kids. You have to be careful because they are delicate; you don't want them to cry though there is a couple of scaring moments . I’m very much looking forward to seeing my Isaak Babel show because there is jazz on it. I feel like I keep learning stuff.”
Denis has this Slavic side counterpointing his endless optimism: “I read a review in the New York Times. They analyse how the kids are now and they talk about a new medication. I will describe myself as an ADD person. I was a very smart kid, I was in a smart class I got it there the first time. I spent my entire school in the back of the class like isolated. Because I got bored, they pushed me up and the other class was the same… I get to sit in the back with the gangster's kids and because the ADD I have 7 careers going at the same time. I make like 12 careers as a writer. At a certain point I was a lawyer, a judge, an illustrator, an impresario, there were too much stuff going on. I was curious. It's good to be curious but it cannot be boring.”
“In this society one of the stupid things that I found is how many people work 20 years and are waiting for a pension, what a waste! They got 20 years of experience and they don't have interest on it. They have even not used that experience; they are like zombies, it doesn't supposed to be like that: you pick up a career and you stick at it but also things keep changing. You know in my career I need to lie so I had this case and I trained my voice. I persisted on things and it worked out. The core of my optimism is that you can create yourself but you have to believe you can. That’s how I became an attorney. But the roots of my thing need to be creative. You are who you are and then you figure out what you do with that.”
Family has a direct and lasting impact on a child learning and expansion of social adequacy. Denis’ parents played an essential role in his life: “My father was really important in my life, without him I never thought about to open this place. My mother was very supportive. I think she would have loved me to be a gay. Honestly because I grew up in that terrible neiborghood. I practiced sports: football, baseball, basketball. I want to become a boxer or a dancer. My mother took me to shows; she was very intellectual, whereas my father he was not very well educated. He went under the third degree of education. My mother read books: it was a weird family. My father used to work hard and was fine until he get drunk. I don't know why he did that…you have to do something to make money every day. You can’t wake up and do nothing. My father tried to give me a good education. There was this school for learning how to work in the rails. And I said: “daddy, I'm a lawyer, I just finished law school”, and he said: "yeah, but you can't get a job". He was proud of me because we came from a low class: his father was a shoemaker. I would become a shoemaker, nothing more. So the bar come from my father, the ideas of books came from my mother. I was lucky I was encouraged to create since I was a child.”
In the Kraine Gallery Bar you find something emerging in East Village: writers, poets, actors, musicians, and many other people really interested in literature and art. If you are around the ward go and check out the fluorescence with its enduring theater and reading performances. And if you happen to meet Denis Woychuk you can’t help but notice that he has an incredible charisma that will always lights up your evening, just the way it lights up KGB.
KGB Bar and Lit Journal
85 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 505-3360
Ana Isabel O
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