Theater for the New Condos
When you’re the director of a struggling downtown theater, you’ll do almost anything to save your space. For Crystal Field, artistic director of Theater for the New City, the answer was a Faustian bargain: the construction of 16 floors of luxury housing above the East 10th Street theater, apartments most likely to be filled with people who have little interest in Marxist street puppetry.
“When grants dried up,” Field explains, “we could no longer pay the mortgage. The city cut us a deal, but we still went into default on our mortgage [in 1995]. We were supposed to get a $40,000 grant from Ruth Messinger to renovate a part of the space used by the Department of Sanitation, but at the last minute it fell through. The contractor sued us and was awarded $250,000. We didn’t have it. The city said, if you allow us to sell the air rights, which they already owned, we’ll pay your debt, forgive your penalties, and restructure your mortgage. If we hadn’t done it, we’d be gone.” Field says she tried courting a patron in the hope the area would be spared the disruption it’s now undergoing, amid controversy about air-rights transfers and non-union workers (see Tom Robbins‘s Voice story, July 17). Block association leader Sarah Wilkins says residents are “hurt and angry.” “Local residents weren’t even invited to the table,” she says. “It’s hugely ironic that people should feel betrayed by a community-based theater.”
TNC’s apartment tower would also seem to fly in the face of Field’s own agitprop. The press release for her new street theater production, The Patients Are Running the Asylum, describes the President and Mayor becoming homeless and being forced to look for rent-stabilized apartments. Good luck: The TNC tower contains “full-service luxury condominiums.” —James Hannaham
Grotowski in the Catskills
Just when you thought idealism was dead, someone starts an experimental theater festival in the Catskills. The 2nd Annual Catskill Festival of New Theatre (which ran through August 5) was produced by North American Cultural Laboratory, best known locally for their production of Arca Nova at Washington Square Church last season. Heirs of the Grotowski method, NaCl this year hosted like-minded groups from the U.S., Canada, and as far away as Naples. The theater works were presented in an old church in Highland Lake, New York, a community theater before NaCl took possession two years ago.
The religious setting befits the high seriousness with which the group regards their work and role in the community. In return for a paint job, a neighbor offered spare rooms for out-of-towners; a local grocery store donates food. The eight visiting companies (some of which stay at the theater’s house, a former hotel next to the church) pull their weight by helping with chores. Cofounders Brad Krumholz and Tannis Kowalchuk collaborated with local high school students to produce the kick-off event, a stilt-walking pageant called The Revolution. This year, there was an unusual number of solo pieces for a festival nominally concerned with the ensemble. In The Garden, Toronto’s Laura Astwood portrayed her recently deceased friend in a touching piece adapted from the friend’s intimate letters. L.A.’s Lisa Black presented Murderer’s Bay, an atmospheric play about Maori in New Zealand at the turn of the last century. NaCl mounted their own Passion According to G.H., an adaptation of Clarice Lispector‘s novel. Why’d they drop the word “Experimental” from the festival title this year? “I realize we’re not as experimental as all that,” says Krumholz. “It’s more like posting a preconceived thesis and testing its merits. Also, the word turns some people off. The lady at the general store suggested we replace ‘experimental’ with ‘new,’ and it stuck. So I guess she’s one of our collaborators, too.” —Trav S.D.
Ira Weitzman hasn’t been on the weekly payroll at Playwrights Horizons or Lincoln Center for several years. Wiley Hausam left the Public a number of months ago. Clifford Lee Johnson III has moved on to be director of artistic development at the MTC. They’re all champions of the musical. But just because their situations have altered, it’s a mistake to think the genre has fallen into neglect at the not-for-profits.
Quite the opposite these days, when The Producers demonstrates the revenue successful tuners can yield. “There’s a real renaissance going on,” Weitzman comments, now operating as a consultant and working diligently as perhaps the community’s most prescient talent scout. “Those theaters’ changes of personnel don’t necessarily indicate fewer musicals.” Others concur. Lynn Meadow, MTC’s artistic director, recently finished a three-musical season (A Class Act, Time and Again, newyorkers), though she indicates there’ll be fewer musicals in the coming season. MTC executive producer Barry Grove, however, reports that workshops will pop up—like the one for Fanny Hackabout Jones. Grove estimates that almost a quarter of MTC’s annual $12 million budget goes to musicals. John Dias, associate producer at the Public, reports that musicals receive close to a third of his budget. The Public’s next push is Radiant Baby, a show by Debra Barsha and Stuart Ross about Keith Haring.
Some sour notes are being sounded, though. The Vineyard’s Douglas Aibel says it can cost $400,000 to support a musical’s six-week run, which has “cut back the number of productions we can do.” And Hausam, who’s made it his goal to plug experimental pieces, sees less of “the serious work nonprofits tried to do at the end of the ’90s. I knew a year ago that that moment was over.” —David Finkle
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2001