Theater archives

Lewis Lapham and White Whale Sighted on Bleecker Street


“If we had known what we were getting ourselves into, we might not have jumped,” says Will Pomerantz, artistic director of the Culture Project, a four-year-old theater company best known for literary adaptations and evenings with writers at the Algonquin Hotel. “Fortunately we didn’t know any better.”

Pomerantz, whose small frame and enthusiastic tone make him seem much younger than his 38 years, is perched in the lobby window of the company’s new home, 45 Bleecker Theater. With half an hour to spare before he has to rush off to a staff meeting, Pomerantz launches into the story of how his small uptown company ended up managing this swanky downtown venue.

“It all happened rather quickly,” he explains, referring to the hectic period, beginning in March of 1999, when the group lost their East 91st Street digs and stumbled upon an old lumberyard they thought would make a great theater. A couple of months later, Pomerantz and crew were ripping out shelves and knocking down walls to create a 295-seat playhouse with 5000 additional square feet of rehearsal and performance space in the basement. Though the theater wasn’t complete, they opened last September with A Tale of Two Cities. “Our largest piece ever,” says Pomerantz. “Five hours of material and 21 actors.”

45 Bleecker alternates between commercial and not-for-profit enterprises. The for-profit shows both pay the bills and give the company time to refuel for their own creative endeavors. Pomerantz and company executive director Allan Buchman chose their first commercial production—the hip-hop Shakespearean romp The Bomb-itty of Errors—to follow on the heels of the Dickens. But they had only six weeks to complete plumbing, electricity, and theater management 101 before opening night in December. “And it just happened,” Pomerantz laughs. “Common wisdom was that it couldn’t in that time frame. Yet it did. It was me and a bunch of people at two in the morning shoving insulation into a wall.”

The Culture Project has a precise vision—to be a 21st-century salon that brings artists and audiences together to share music, literature, spoken word, and art, creating new theatrical forms in the process. What better place for the company’s next venture—Rinde Eckert’s music theater piece And God Created Great Whales, about a composer struggling to complete an opera based on Moby Dick while a degenerative disease eats away at his mind.

And God Created Great Whales suits our space particularly well, because one of our company mandates is to present works adapted from or inspired by specific works of literature. Rinde Eckert is a national treasure, a unique and utterly compelling performer whose work I’ve been following for several years.”

When Pomerantz talks aesthetics, the busy producer exterior melts away, leaving just the excited artist in goatee and suspenders to articulate his passion. “Theater is often not done very well, and that makes me cranky,” he says, ignoring a reminder from Buchman about the pending meeting. “I’m drawn to work where it’s possible to have an emotional component without being sentimental and to be intelligent without being intellectual.”

As an artist, Pomerantz is something of a dynamo. In addition to his work for the Culture Project, he is a director-for-hire, working his magic on such productions as his elegantly precise and unsettling Wild Duck at the Century Center. “I’m drawn to things which seem impossible on the page,” he says, “like Gordon Dahlquist’s Island of Dogs, with decapitations and car crashes and black bile spewing out of people’s mouths, but also things which defy genre. The Wild Duck shifts from comedy to tragedy to farce from moment to moment.

“I find myself in this position of people trying to figure out, ‘Are you uptown or downtown?’ And I really don’t know how to answer them,” Pomerantz continues. “I like the model of the old Hollywood studios. Directors would do musicals, film noir, comedies, and I’m-back-from-the-war-with-my-leg-shot-off dramas, and they did them all quite well.”

Pomerantz is doing a good job mimicking that Hollywood eclecticism. He’s currently directing slam poet Staceyann Chin in her one-woman show Hands Afire and a “jazz-puppet-play” called Maya the Bee, for young audiences, both at 45 Bleecker. He recently directed Stephanie Fleischmann’s The World Speed Carnival for Soho Rep’s “Summer Camp” series, and he’s developing a show with neo-lounge band Dave’s True Story.

“Allan, what am I forgetting?” Pomerantz calls out. The white-haired producer saunters over to remind him that the Jupiter Symphony will be playing through August, and the fall lineup includes George Plimpton and Lewis Lapham reading letters exchanged by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and by Wilson and Nabokov. The Culture Project will also put on a theater-poetry-music festival called “Word!,” the debut event in a second space being completed in the basement.

Pomerantz pipes in to mention a proposed midnight chamber-music series. “I envision this as part of the vocabulary of downtown seduction,” Buchman adds. He wonders if Pomerantz remembered to say that the Culture Project will be partnering with educational organizations to create after-school theater and dance programs. “It’s hard to keep track,” Pomerantz admits. “It’s happened very quickly, and I feel like I’m still catching up with it.”