From Clown School to Community Curator


Words:
Chelsea Sonksen

Photography:
Grey & Elle

Five years ago, Amy Virginia Buchanan, avant-garde performance artist and trained clown, met Patrick Janelle, a Bon Appétit graphic designer, at their favorite barista’s birthday party. “It was at a backyard in Brooklyn,” Amy told us, “As soon as I got there, Katie, the barista, ran up to me and was like, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t met Patrick. You’re going to love him.’”

The second Katie introduced them, Patrick said, “You’re a performer? I want to put on a play in my backyard. Can you help?”

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Amy’s performance partner, whom she moved to New York to make theater with, had ended their creative relationship soon before, and Amy had been searching for her next project.

She told Patrick producing a play was too hard, but she could create a cabaret. And just like that, the two strangers began planning an event together. They spent the rest of the party sketching out the idea in a notebook. Two weeks later, they hosted Camp Cabaret, a performance of musicians, storytellers, puppeteers, clowns, and dancers in Patrick’s backyard on Spring Street.

When guests arrived to that first event, they entered through the front door, diverted down a staircase, travelled through the basement of the bakery next door, and popped out in the performance space in Patrick’s backyard. “It was a mystical Bridge to Terabithia moment – stepping into something that felt like Narnia,” Amy said. This was the magical start to Amy and Patrick’s friendship and Spring Street Social Society, arguably the most intriguing membership club in New York City.

Amy and Patrick continued hosting cabarets for nine months. The events were low-budget affairs that Amy describes as “super goofy and so precious.” More than anything, the pair saw these events as an art project. But then, about a year later, Patrick convinced Amy to host their first dinner, and that shifted everything. In 2014, Spring Street Social Society was featured in a New York Times piece called, “The IRL Social Clubs.” It was clear that Amy and Patrick’s art project had matured, taking on a new shape as a sustainable business.

Amy and Patrick have been business and creative partners for five years now, and it is clear that they are each other’s person. They are best friends, and Amy describes their working relationship as seamless.

Today Spring Street has 350 members, and they host about 18 events every year, both in New York and Los Angeles. In the past year Amy and Patrick have hosted a pool party in the Hollywood Hills complete with a synchronized swimmer performance, a dinner on board a nineteenth century English cargo ship, and a parlor party in an abandoned NYC ballroom. There is an element of mystery and secrecy surrounding every Spring Street party, and the duo takes care to carefully construct each guest’s experience.

The application process to become a member of this coveted club is competitive and playful in equal measure. During the most recent round, they received 250 applications and accepted only 85 new members. Each applicant was invited to write a series of essays answering questions like: What are you passionate about aside from your occupation? But they were cautioned not to make themselves sound too great because Spring Street wouldn’t accept people who sounded “full of it.”

Amy’s favorite application to date was from an American Express employee, who wrote that he liked reading memoirs by female comedians and was always on the lookout for a good fish taco. “When we read the applications, our number one thought is, Do I want to sit next to this person for a two-hour dinner?” Vetting new additions to their community is an arduous process, but Amy and Patrick curate Spring Street carefully, and this care shows in the vibrancy and diversity of the guest list at each of their events.

This past year Amy and Patrick experimented with a new venture: brick and mortar retail. They opened their first concept store called “stay” at Platform in Culver City, Los Angeles. Within the space they sell goods like Bend furniture, Coco Carpets, and Putnam and Putnam candles. They also host pop-up shops, panel discussions, and parties within the space. “We had FUN making it. It was really fun. And stressful and hard. So many beautiful fights,” Amy smiled.

With everything happening at Spring Street, it’s hard to imagine that Amy has time for anything else, but the truth is, she hasn’t stopped performing. She writes and acts in long-form performance art pieces, most notably her achingly honest, one-woman show about having a sibling with Down Syndrome. Amy hasn’t changed the contents of this play since she lost her brother, Michael, but the emotional undertones resonate differently than they did before. Now, there is an additional, unspoken element: intense, unconditional love and loss, which Amy performs bravely with vulnerability and rawness, deeply affecting every person in the audience.

Amy’s Instagram Stories have become another outlet for her performance art as well. She has adopted a unique style of posting, often pairing music with a written narrative and a video of her smiling – or, on days when she misses Michael most intensely, crying into the camera. She doesn’t police the type of moments she shares, allowing her audience to witness her morning jogs around New York, visits with her parents, and snuggles with her cat Whenny.

Amy never tries to appear ‘cool.’ And that is, perhaps, the coolest thing about her. She is warm and inviting, a present and generous friend, who also happens to be a brilliant artist and businesswoman shaping the city’s social scene.

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Has building your company changed you in any way?

It’s changed me in every way. My company is so much a part of my identity, and I dedicate every day of the week to its development. When I first moved to the city, it was my intention to be an actor, but when Spring Street produced its first play, in which I was performing, in the midst of getting into my wig and putting on make-up, I could hear our guests entering, and all I wanted was to be outside, orchestrating the whole thing.

I never pictured myself an administrator, which is funny because I’ve always been the one in charge. Whether in high school, undergrad, my jobs in New York, I always ended up managing something or directing groups of people. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to do both at the same time that I realized I preferred one over the other.

No one in clown school teaches you about business. I’ve had to learn as I go. Admittedly, I’m still learning, as there’s always something new to pick up, but it’s wonderful. I think it keeps me sharp. And my tastes and interests are so wide and varied now. I used to care mainly about theatre and performance art, but having worked on Spring Street for the past five years, I’ve developed a sense of taste and style that is much more advanced. Having a bit of knowledge about visual art, theatre, music, and variety performance is great, but adding in mixology, fine dining, design, styling, and florals, makes for a much more robust existence. Ultimately, it makes me a better artist within my own specialty…

Who is another woman you admire?

[Food stylist] Maggie Ruggiero is my forever bosslady hero. She’s known me since the moment I moved to New York. She volunteered at the bookstore where I managed a little cafe in the back. She’s given me hard advice, believed in me when I refused to believe in myself, and made me feel protected at a time when I was very raw. Her experience is vast, and her life has gone down so many paths, but the whole time she has been true to herself, which is something that I am trying to do as well. She is generous with her time and resources but also takes very good care of herself. Her art is her business is her passion, and she decides when she works and what gig she takes, and that is a future that I dream of. I am lucky that I have the best person in the world showing me how.

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What is the most challenging aspect of being a boss?

Not being seen as one.

What three books have influenced you most profoundly?

To Kill a Mockingbird, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and the Harry Potter series.

Where do you see yourself, and Spring Street, in ten years? Do you think that far ahead?

Do I think that far ahead? Ha! Absolutely not.

What is one thing about you that most people don’t know?

I’m shy. I want to meet people, but every time I say, “Hi, I'm Amy,” to a stranger, it takes an intense amount of emotional labor. But one of the things I think will be important in the years to come is that we talk to each other, that we look strangers in the eye and say hello. That we meet people we didn't expect to meet and have conversations that weren't specifically curated to be comfortable.

I seem very outgoing, and always have. My forced extroversion is a defense mechanism that guards my very delicate heart. Interestingly enough, though, the more I’ve allowed myself to slip into the comfort of my actual introverted self, the more calm I have felt about meeting people. I don’t always have to be fun. I don’t have to be the life of the party. I can just relax into being me, and that helps.

www.ssssociety.com
@springstreetsocialsociety
@amyvirginia