Remembering the Ohio Theatre


After nearly three decades of hosting downtown theater’s biggest, brightest, and bravest, the Ohio Theatre—arguably the last major industrial space in Soho used solely for performance—is closing its hulking loading-dock doors and wrapping up its intrusive stage columns. A stopgap lease the theater signed last year with the new landlord runs out on August 31, at which point the (barely) converted factory will be forced to vacate Wooster Street for good. Performances at the theater have won many Obies over the years, so on the occasion of this year’s awards, we asked a number of notables to reminisce about their own productions and the many, many others mounted at the Ohio.

Robert Lyons, director of the Ohio since 1987

The Václav Havel Festival [in 2006] was one of the high points of my time here, because Havel came. I directed Protest, and it was an incredible honor to have him come. He was a huge fan of the space, and he came back two or three times. I bought him a beer at the bar—I was working concessions that night—and he was telling me about a play he was working on and how he was having a hard time getting back into it. And I just thought to myself: “I’ve had this exact conversation hundreds of times, and now I’m having it with Václav Havel.”

Alex Timbers, artistic director of Les Freres Corbusier

It’s the greatest space in New York. We were able to use 65 feet of depth for Dance Dance Revolution [2008], and we could turn it on its side for Boozy [2005], where we had 80 feet of width. Even when something is awful, which does happen from time to time there, it is so incredibly awful because everyone is so ambitious with what they try. The rehearsal space was this incredible converted apartment. You looked out on these Soho rooftops and remembered that Eric Bogosian and the Wooster Group had rehearsed here.

Kip Fagan, director

The first play I did there, Rachel Hoeffel’s unspeakably beautiful Quail for Clubbed Thumb [2006], was set in the fall, but we were performing in the summer, in a mammoth heat wave with near-three-digit temperatures and flesh-melting humidity. We rehearsed in the sixth-floor studio, which felt like rehearsing in a greenhouse. The sweat from my hands liquefied my notes as I wrote them. I fretted enormously about Everett Quinton and Liz Meriwether in winter jackets standing above the set on scaffolding, inches from the stage lights, gushing sweat, worried they would succumb to heat stroke and fall to the slats below. But they never did, and I was super-proud of the play that was my first Ohio venture.

John Collins, artistic director of Elevator Repair Service

The Ohio is the Metropolitan Opera of downtown—it was almost impossible to ignore the space, no matter what you were doing in there. It was a big part of my education as a director. I continued to look for architectural details and architectural problems to inspire what I did and how I did it. I remember aiming a huge mercury-vapor light at the big doors and getting these deep shadows. We came very close to doing Gatz in the Ohio—I think I had even written the check. It always struck me as the perfect place to perform that play.

Karin Coonrod, founding director of Arden Party

It was our joy to reconfigure the Ohio for each piece we made. For The Importance of Being Earnest [1992], we pushed the play inside a small, hot white square, which one Village Voice reviewer called a postmodern cucumber sandwich. The theater was an old hat factory, so when I began Waiting for Godot [1990], the pre-set was an image of the bowler hats.

Maria Striar, producing artistic director of Clubbed Thumb

It’s essentially been our producing home for a decade. . . . The rats are finally quiet now, but for a while there—2002 was a really ratty year. I remember being up on stage that year—in a bikini—and seeing one dart past. You grow to a space, and when a space is not neutral in a wonderful way, like the Ohio, you’re going to grow in a way you wouldn’t in a pristine proscenium or black-box space.

Tony Kushner, playwright

We had done La Fin de la Baleine: An Opera for the Apocalypse [1983] at NYU, where I was a grad student, and the theater company I was working with then rented the Ohio. We had to incorporate the columns into the piece, and we weren’t accustomed to those enormously high ceilings. I remember our having to hang bedsheets all over because we had no money—we sent out a letter to everyone we knew asking for $5 or $10, and I think we ended up with about $1,200.

Peggy Shaw, co-founder of Split Britches

I always felt comfortable in factory spaces: I’m working-class, and I always thought of theater as work. It’s what you do, so a theater is like a factory. I’ve seen hundreds of shows at the Ohio—the first ones that jump into my head are shows by the Rude Mechanicals and Lisa D’Amour. The columns were very useful to me—they were a way of anchoring the space. And those loading-dock doors were terrific. You could hang out there after the show and have a drink—it had a very European feel.

David Greenspan, actor/director

It can be a bit ratty here and there. I remember when there were a lot of buckets in the dressing room to catch all the drips.

Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges

We had this huge carpet on the ground for our first show, Eloise & Ray in 2000, and our set designer wanted to use a lot of sand and dirt on the stage. Our plan was to roll it into the carpet and cart it out at the end, but we’d added waaaayyy too much sand and dirt during the run and the carpet wouldn’t budge. So two of us—including six-months-pregnant me—had to scoop it into buckets and carry them, one by one, out the barn doors and pour them into Dumpsters. Which took like seven dusty, horrible hours, most of which felt like bailing out the Titanic.

Anne Bogart, director

I had aimed to depict every actor-audience relationship in the theater in No Plays No Poetry [1988], and we used every nook and cranny of that space. You can turn it around in any number of ways, and we did. I remember we opened the doors out onto Wooster Street for the last scene, and people could come in off the street.

Josh Fox, artistic director of International WOW Company

We made Reconstruction [the current show in the Ohio] as a celebration, a goodbye, and a conversation about the road forward. But I can’t sugarcoat this: We’re losing the classiest, most important theater in New York City, the central hub for avant-garde theater.

Adam Bock, playwright

You expected something different to happen each time, which was fabulous. It didn’t look like a normal theater, so why would you expect normal theater to come out of it? Plus, it was always so great at the end of the night to walk out onto this empty cobbled street. It really let you keep the play with you for a few minutes longer. . . .