The Cherry Lane’s Roots Are Showing
Happy Days are here again . . . at the Cherry Lane Theatre. When Angelina Fiordellisi took over the famed Commerce Street institution in 1996, she dreamed of both nurturing new writers and reviving the stage’s finest moments.
“The theater was a terrible mess. There was flooding and it smelled filthy, but I had this vision,” says Fiordellisi, a former actress who’s been learning how to run a theater on the fly.
Now that vision is taking shape. Her nonprofit organization, the Cherry Lane Alternative, mentors emerging playwrights like Christopher Shinn, producing 12-performance workshops of their plays. And on September 17, Samuel Beckett‘s classic Happy Days will take her theater full circle, beginning previews on the same date it made its American debut there in 1961. It is, Fiordellisi hopes, the first of many Cherry Lane revivals.
Built as a farm silo in 1817, the building at 38 Commerce Street also served as a tobacco warehouse and box factory before Edna St. Vincent Millay and other members of the Provincetown Players founded the Cherry Lane there in 1924. In its early decades the theater hosted works by Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey, and Gertrude Stein, among others. But beginning with Beckett’s Endgame in 1957, the theater really hit its stride, staging many of the most cutting-edge and influential plays by young writers like Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and LeRoi Jones.
“The theater did interesting work,” says Albee, who was involved in producing works at the Cherry Lane and helped mentor writers like Shepard and Jones. “It was a nice space to work in.” Albee agrees that many of those older works need revisiting. “Happy Days should be available all the time in New York,” he says.
Fiordellisi is a little more cautious, planning a six-week, noncommercial Off-Broadway run with a potential two-week extension. “I’m not sure what the market will bear for Beckett,” she says, adding that practically speaking she’d be better off seeking commercial rentals. (If Happy Days is a hit, she can “transfer” to an Off-Broadway commercial Equity contract, keeping it on her own stage.)
The grand ambition is a three-play schedule that Fiordellisi hopes to have in place by the 2003-04 season: a revival from the theater’s past in the fall, a full Off-Broadway production of one Alternative play in the spring, and an original, commissioned holiday musical that can become an annual ritual. “I want something that can stuff the coffers but also be a community event,” Fiordellisi says, envisioning the audience arriving a half-hour early to go caroling down the street. “I’m looking for a show that will elicit memories of childhood but have a really downtown feel.” —Stuart Miller
2002 FringeNYC Warms Up
On September 30, 2001, John Clancy, the artistic director and co-founder of both the Present Company and the New York International Fringe Festival, stepped down. The World Trade Center attack had occurred three weeks before, making Lower Manhattan a ghost town, all of New York paranoid, and the rest of the country nervous about the prospect of a visit to the Big Apple. One might be forgiven for predicting that this year’s Fringe Festival would tank big time.
Counterintuitively, the reverse seems to be happening. The number of applications rose 70 percent this year to a total of 585—closer to 800 if you include all the “late filers.” Two hundred separate productions will be presented, some from as far away as Russia, Malaysia, and Japan.
Why this irrational confidence at a time of economic instability and unpredictable threats to security—on top of the resignation of the festival’s most visible leader? One reason has to be faith in the Fringe itself. When it closed last year (two weeks before September 11) the festival and the Present Company were in great shape. No fewer than eight of last year’s productions received their own, separate New York Times reviews. One of the 1999 shows (Urinetown) was just about to go to Broadway (it has since gone on to win three Tony Awards; it was nominated for 10). Ticket sales for the 2001 festival were nearly double those for the inaugural year of 1997 (38,000 versus 20,000). And best of all, says producing artistic director Elena K. Holy, “when I talk to people, I no longer have to explain what the Fringe Festival is. It’s become a tradition.”
While Fringe artists are there in abundance, securing venues has traditionally been difficult. Last year, performance sites were not announced until virtually the eve of the festival, and one of them was a jury-rigged hotbox nailed together in the Present Company’s backyard. But even this difficulty seems to be a thing of the past with the addition of several high-profile venues to the 2002 festival, theaters such as the Culture Project and P.S.122.
It’s too early to tell if ticket sales will fall in line with the otherwise rosy outlook, but in her opening remarks at the June 3 Fringe “Town Meeting,” Holy was characteristically optimistic: “It’s going to be an extraordinary festival, for an extraordinary town, for an extraordinary time.” —Trav S.D.