When Kyle Renick moved his WPA Theater from Fifth Avenue and 19th Street to West 23rd and Tenth in 1985, he says he “never intended it to be our final home.” Nonetheless, for 14 years he put up with, among other drawbacks, a recalcitrant fuse box, rodents in the dressing rooms, and no handicap access. A few years ago, he thought about buying the building and doing the necessary refurbishing, but when he decided not to, he watched his longtime temporary residence get sold out from under him.
So he’s moving on. For his next season, he explains over a Bendix Diner brunch, he has signed a deal to use the Signature Theater space from now until July. He’ll begin by unveiling Blood on the Dining Room Floor, an opera adapted by Jonathan Sheffer from Gertrude Stein’s 1933 “A Murder Mystery.” The piece, directed by Jeremy Dobrish, opens April 16.
Renick—who beams whenever he utters the word theater—describes Blood as “just a slight expansion of what we have been doing.” Since 1977—when Renick took over the WPA with Howard Ashman, Stephen G. Wells, R. Stuart White, Craig Evans, and Edward T. Gianfrancesco—the theater’s emphasis has been on American plays. He links Sheffer’s new piece to previous WPA shows like Little Shop of Horrors, which he calls a classic book musical; Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, a revue; and Yoko Ono’s New York Rock, a rock concert. What especially satisfies Renick about the Signature space is that it allows Blood the luxury of a 12-piece orchestra, an aggregate his last address could never accommodate.
For the rest of his season, Renick will mount Scott Organ’s dark comedy Consummate Host and another play he’s on the verge of announcing. “The plays that interest me are those where an individual is caught in an extraordinary set of circumstances. In the most extreme kind of behavior I think there’s a brilliant clarity.”
Renick, who has remained with the WPA long after director-librettist-lyricist Ashman was “claimed” by the world and the other founders fell away, recalls that his love for American theater began when he was a kid and discovered the recorded Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He listened to it repeatedly and eventually set out to see if he could introduce equally moving experiences to other theatergoers. When he looks around at his theater’s results—10 Obies, the $4 million-in-the-till Little Shop, Anne Commire’s Put Them All Together, the AIDS comedy Jeffrey, and a generous helping of Charles Busch and Tennessee Williams—he feels he can assess where recent American theater has been and where it’s going.
Renick recalls that the WPA’s first musical, Gorey Stories, went up for $3200; this season is budgeted at $650,000. “I remember when I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve now witnessed the demise of the $500 set. A number of years later, I remember saying, ‘Oh, God, now I’ve seen the demise of the $5000 set. I may actually live long enough to say, ‘Oh, God, I’m about to see the end of the $25,000 set.’ ” (Renick will be ironing out set-design—and other—expenses in new West 25th Street offices as part of a three-person team—the other two being producing director Ellen Mittenthal and production manager Roger Danforth.) “There’s a part of me that believes fervently it’s easier when it’s cheaper,” Renick suggests. “When there’s no money, it’s totally about the process.”
Today’s scripts, he explains, are different because they’ve become more cinematic. For some reason, he laughs, they also increasingly require cars onstage—always a set-design challenge. “We ran the gamut from a rod in the floor with a steering wheel on it and two stools, to a wooden replica that lit up and moved, and the most outrageous one of all, for Out of Gas on Lovers Leap, an actual small Italian sports car.” He also worries about where actors will be coming from now that affordable housing—”underline those two words”—for eager neophytes is all-but-impossible to find. Not that actors getting some momentum stick around. Years ago, Renick reminisces, Peter Riegert turned down a movie role to remain in La Brea Tarpits. “Now if an actor stayed I would keel over in a dead faint.”
WPA at the Signature Theater is only a stopgap measure. In 2001, Renick figures he’ll be elsewhere. He’s looking for a building to buy and convert—possibly with other impresarios—into a performing arts center. “I sound like a complete lunatic,” he says. “Maybe I am a complete lunatic.”