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The words "boom economy" may sound sweet if you're, say, a politician or stockbroker. They may even sound like music if you're a landlord. If you happen to be the head of an Off-Off-Broadway theater company, however, they probably strike your heart with terror. Certainly, a healthy economy means that foundations loosen their purse strings and audiences are freer with the price of a ticket. But what good is that if you can't afford to rent a stage or, just as critically, office space?
"It has been extremely tough on the small companies," declares Claire Higgins of Chain Lightning Theatre. "What's happened has helped Broadway and Off-Broadway more than Off-Off-Broadway, which has taken a hit."
Until recently, Chain Lightning had its offices in the location of choice for many a small theater company: the bedroom of the artistic director. This was also the case for White Bird Productions and Chekhov Theatre Ensemble. Some, like Target Margin Theater, were a little more fortunate, working out of a cramped space at Second Avenue and 28th Street, free of charge. Others were less lucky: "We carried our offices on our backs," says Deborah Houston, co-artistic director of Kings County Shakespeare Company.
Now, all five troupesand 14 othersare operating out of the same building at 138 South Oxford Street, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, five brief blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They pay an average of $350 a month for roomy, air-conditioned offices freshly painted in hues of cream and pale yellow, and have access to three rehearsal rooms and communal fax and xerox facilities. The stately 1929 building is the former site of the Visiting Nurses Association of Brooklyn. It's newly the property of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, which acts very much like a nursing association to its often struggling 350 theater members.
"Office space is the issue here," explains Mark Rossier, A.R.T./NY's development and marketing director. "It really halts the growth of companies at some point. If you don't have an office, you can't hire staff. Most colleges will not give you interns if your office is in your house." The nonprofit had been angling for a property in 42nd Street's Theatre Row, and had even gathered $5 million for its purchase. But after three years of back and forth on the deal, it gave up and began returning the money.
"Most people took it back," recalls Rossier. But the LuEsther T. Mertz Advised Fund said, "Look, hold onto the million, because maybe something will come up." Something did: the South Oxford site, discovered by Jed Marcus, a real estate developer on the A.R.T./NY board. The LuEsther money, plus extra cash from the Chase Manhattan Foundation and the Booth Ferris Foundation, secured the bargain selling price of $1.25 million.
A.R.T./NY companies that had expressed a willingness to relocate to Brooklyn were invited to an open house. "People came out here sort of as a favor to us," says Rossier. "But as soon as they saw the building, they said, 'Where do we sign?'" Among the 19 companies at 138 South Oxford (as the building is formally called) are Todo con Nada, Collision Theory, Stageplays Theatre Company, Coffee Clutch Productions, Elders Share the Arts, and Encompass Music Theatre.
Without exception, the troupes have expressed acute relief at finding a home in Fort Greene. "There are a hundred nonprofits in New York City," says Houston, "and they are all cutting into the financial pie. It makes it more expensive to produce here than anywhere in the U.S. We all desperately need reliable rehearsal and storage space."
Kathryn Dickinson, artistic director of White Bird Productions, is simply glad to draw a line between her professional and domestic lives. "It was hard to define what role you were playing," says the mother of two. "I often went to work in my bathrobe. When I was trying to get out press releases, I was also confronted with dirty dishes and laundry."
There to greet the companies at that initial open house was Harvey Lichtenstein, who, as the longtime head of BAM, has personified theater in Brooklyn for decades. "BAM's a great theater presence, but it's been pretty isolated," admitted Lichtenstein. In an effort to change that and alter BAM's image as an elite island of culture separate from the surrounding community, Lichtenstein, as the chairman of the BAM Local Development Corporation, is striving to establish a Downtown cultural district that would encompass BAM, the Harvey Theatre on Fulton Street, choreographer Mark Morris's new four-story headquarters on Lafayette (due to be completed at the end of the year), and dozens of shops and restaurants. 138 South Oxford fits in perfectly with these plans.
"The real estate market being what it is, and the problems groups are having in Manhattan, are in certain quarters really creating a panic about sustaining what they have," says Lichtenstein. Result: Manhattan's loss is Brooklyn's gain. And, as Lichtenstein sees it, the 19 companies may soon travel to the neighborhood to do more than rehearse and shuffle papers. "They tell us they need a small theater, 250 to 300 seats, to work in. We hope that's one of the things on our drawing board." If so, the next wave of theater to reach Brooklyn may not come across the Atlantic, but over the East River.
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