Photo via konoa.com
Before 66 Wooster Street became the Ohio Theatre and various apartments, it had a former life as a textile factory. Theatrical legend has it that before the first performance–in what was then called the Open Space–the cast and crew went down on hands and knees, armed with magnets, pulling decades of dropped pins and needles from the floorboard. Many years later, the Ohio is on pins and needles again. The building that houses the Ohio is being sold, and in a few weeks or months the Ohio Theatre will almost certainly cease to exist.
Robert Lyons, artistic director of Soho Think Tank, a nonprofit group that administers the Ohio and produces the OBIE-award winning Ice Factory Festival, describes the situation: “In one way or another, our days are numbered. It’s just a matter of what that number is. We’re trying to finish the season lined up through June. We could possibly still be here in the summer for Ice Factory ’09. It could all end as soon as the end of January.” While Lyons is currently in talks with the building’s prospective buyer, he dismisses the idea that the Ohio will have any long-term future. “That doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards,” he says. If the new owner allows the current season to finish up, audiences can bid farewell to the Ohio through its remaining scheduled shows, among them Target Margin’s 10 Blocks on the Camino Real, Eisa Davis’s Angela’s Mix Tape (produced by New Georges), and Clubbed Thumb’s annual Summer Works festival.
The building’s current owners–William Hahn and Charles Magistro, who declined to comment for this article–made the decision to sell with some reluctance, according to Lyons. Apparently, maintenance expenses and preservation of the façade required by the city created an untenable financial burden. “They couldn’t sustain this long-term support of the space,” says Lyons. He does, however, credit Hahn and Magistro with their support of the theater over the past 20 years, in which they always kept the space’s rent well below market value.
In those 20 years, as a rental space and a producing theater, the Ohio has hosted local companies and visiting artists such as Rude Mechs, Pig Iron, Salt, ERS, the Foundry, Les Freres Corbusier, Riot Group, and Undermain. The Ohio has been remarkable not only for its talent roster, but also for its physical beauty. David Herskovits, the artistic director of Target Margin, regrets the loss of “the size of it, the height of the ceiling, the expanse of it, amazing and unusual for a small alternative space…. It’s big and grand, but has its own kind of funkiness.” Maria Striar, the cofounder of Clubbed Thumb, remarks, “It’s devastating. It’s been a home for a whole generation of Downtown theater…. It’s right in the heart of Downtown where slowly almost everything that belonged to the arts is being chiseled away.”
Lyons, who says he currently wavers between feelings of “great despondency” and feelings of gratitude for the two decades he’s run the space, also links the Ohio’s shuttering to a more general trend. “It’s not the first cultural institution to succumb to real-estate pressures,” he says. “Soon we’re going to have a city without any cool theater spaces…. [New York needs] to protect our cultural jewels like this.” While institutions such as the Performing Garage, the Drawing Center, and Here Arts Center remain, the Ohio’s closing–and its likely conversion into a retail space–further completes Soho’s transformation from artists’ haven to shopper’s paradise.–Alexis Soloski