A zipper factory. A lumberyard. An orphanage. A yoga studio. Schools, speakeasies, banks, and churches. Nearly every building now housing an Off-Off-Broadway theater was once something else, but few spaces can claim as varied a history as 189 Chrystie Street. That address will soon boast the Box, a theater-cum-nightclub developed by stage directors Simon Hammerstein, Richard Kimmel, and Randy Weiner. At present, the Box stands as an unassuming two stories of yellow brick, from which sounds of sawing, hammering, and NPR’s All Things Considered emerge. But in previous decades, it hosted a sign company, a truck garage, a tenement, a slaughterhouse, and—most creepily—an African American burial ground circa 1850. “There was a rumor some bones had been found,” Kimmel recalls excitedly. “We had a visit from a city archaeologist.” Happily, the site holds no human remains, but excavations of the basement have unearthed milk bottles, mosaic tiling, cast-iron columns, medicine vials, snuffboxes, and Prohibition-era liquor bottles.
Hammerstein, who based his design concept on the Birdcage Theater, a famous Wild West saloon and opera house in Tombstone, Arizona, wanted a space similarly “rich in ghosts.” He seems to have found one. But what New York theater isn’t haunted to some degree? Very few companies or producers can afford to construct a theater from the ground up or completely gut an existing structure—simply leasing a place drains most budgets. So playhouses usually betray hints of their past lives.
The Collapsable Hole in Williamsburg—an agreeably raw theater shared by the companies Radiohole and Collapsable Giraffe—features a sloping floor with a drain in its middle, a relic of its days as an auto body shop. When the founders of Performance Space 122 took over a derelict public school in the early ’80s, it inherited not only the institutional architecture, but also books, desks, and tiny chairs. “We opened up a dumbwaiter once,” remembers former artistic director Mark Russell, “and it was just completely filled from top to bottom with old schoolbooks. Mabou Mines tossed around a lot of them in Dead End Kids.” Kristin Marting, the artistic director of HERE Arts Center (formerly a mattress showroom), remembers working at the Ohio Theatre (formerly a pen factory) in the late ’80s. “There were still pens left from the 1960s,” she says. “We were constantly pulling pens out of the floor.” Brian Rogers, who converted a former chocolate factory in Long Island City, didn’t find any moldering bonbons during his renovation, but he did unearth “old papers from all of the businesses that had been there, old rotting yellow invoices.”
Industrial flooring, commercial detritus, and columns in the playing area might not sound like allurements, but if you ask many Off-Off-Broadway theatermakers, the less a venue resembles a traditional theater, the more it appeals. Rogers enthuses of the Chocolate Factory, “I love that it doesn’t feel even remotely like a theater. It’s really great to see artists approach the space and figure out how they’re going to adapt it.” Michael Gardner, who transformed a Williamsburg yoga studio to make the Brick Theater, also celebrates the flexibility of his space. “It’s so malleable,” he says. “We can redefine it however we want. We don’t have to conform to any architecture. It’s just one big room.”
The West End Theatre, under the dome of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on 86th Street, offers pew seating.
Amy Huggans of the Collapsable Hole puts it more bluntly: “We all hate theater. We’re a bunch of theatermakers who hate theater. So as much as we can get away from those theatrical tropes of what the space should be, the happier we are.” Even the structural columns that mar so many sightlines can prove a boon. Allan Buchman, artistic director of the Culture Project (a former lumberyard), excavated the column bases, and that architectural detail now ornaments the downstairs playing space, influencing the plays presented there. “Everybody has a different idea as to how they can be used,” he says.
Of course, some aspects of traditional theater—a fixed lighting grid, restrooms—wouldn’t hurt. At the Atlantic Theater, a deconsecrated church on West 20th Street, audiences share the bathrooms with the actors. Mark VanDerBeets, artistic director of the Charlie Pineapple Theater in Brooklyn (formerly a warehouse), longs for a proper electrical system. “We have to run out lights through all these different power circuits,” he says, “because there’s not enough power running to any one location. If you were to add even a 40-watt lamp to anything, you would blow up the circuit.” Lear deBessonet, a writer-director who recently staged a play in a disused bank next to the New York Stock Exchange, adored the architecture of her space, but felt its technical limitations. “I didn’t wish we were in a black box theater [instead],” she says, “but the cabling and the wiring, that’s always an issue.” John Clancy, who ran the Lower East Side Theatorium (once a garage and an illegal nightclub), recalls, “There hadn’t been a need to put heat or air-conditioning into an auto garage. So it was incredibly hot during the summer and so, so cold during the winter.” He remembers handing out blankets to audience members. During a recent cold spell, producers at the similarly heatless Charlie Pineapple provided spectators with hot chocolate.
Sometimes the frustrations of working in these repurposed spaces overwhelm the pleasures. Hourglass Group artistic director Elyse Singer, who staged numerous plays at the NADA theaters, which once ringed Ludlow Street, now prefers a more traditional space. She reasons, “I want to do cutting-edge work, I want to do exciting work, but I have to treat my actors like the professionals that they are. I want an environment where they’re not going to have to step on broken glass or walk up to the sixth floor where there’s no heat.” Boo Froebel, an associate producer at the Lincoln Center Festival who programmed performance evenings at Clemente Soto Vélez (a former school), Dixon Place (then the living room of an apartment on the Bowery), and Galapagos (once a mayonnaise factory), admits, “Sometimes as a producer you wish you could offer your artists a little more comfort. Everyone was very good-humored about dressing in a small alley, albeit a covered one, but after a few years that good humor does wear thin.” However, Froebel still enjoys unusual spaces as an audience member and raves about the Issue Project Room, housed in an oil silo in Gowanus, and Chez Bushwick, a monthly performance evening held in a Brooklyn loft.
The gentlemen opening the Box have the advantage of some $2 million in investment capital, to say nothing of their reserves of brashness, and they may create that most unlikely of playhouses—a retrofitted space with more than its share of luxuries. “I hate going to the theater,” Hammerstein complains, “to a smelly room without air-conditioning and we’re all cramped up and I’m going to get a cold because someone’s breathing in my face. We all love the theater. But we’re frustrated.” Kimmel and Weiner nod in agreement. They all love the history of their space and its architectural details, but they prefer their vision of comfort and elegance. “We want it to be that rare thing,” Weiner explains, “[a place] no one has ever been to before. It’s not merely resurfaced. It’s purpose-built for us.”