On Monday night, as Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city, playwright Sheila Callaghan sat in front of her computer. And rehearsed.
Her play Port Out, Starboard Home begins performances at La MaMa next week. She had planned to spend Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday working to restage the last half hour of the play, which she had recently rewritten. But the closing of the subways made typical rehearsal impossible. So the company rehearsed via Skype. “It makes me woozy, but we don’t have a choice,” Callaghan said. “I’m not sure how we’ll accomplish everything before we open.”
The hurricane’s depredations to New York City and its residents have by now been well reported: hundreds of thousands without power; thousands unable to return to their homes or without homes altogether; rampant damage to property and infrastructure; and, most significantly, the loss of at least 30 lives. But as with any disaster, there are myriad less visible effects, among them the blows to the city’s theaters and the producers, artists, and audiences who fill them.
While acknowledging it was still too early to fully assess Sandy’s impact, Ginny Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, explains that “our theaters have suffered losses in the millions of dollars,” including loss of box office revenue and physical damage. “The longer the electricity is out and the subways remain out of service, the more difficult it will be for our theaters to achieve their earned income goals.”
Following the closure of the subways on Sunday evening, most theaters—including all Broadway houses—canceled shows for Monday and Tuesday. In order to reopen, theaters were determining how to transport actors, musicians, crew, and house and box office staff, many of whom live in outer boroughs or neighboring states, to the theaters themselves. “Will the cast make it in?” Hal Brooks, director of Figaro at the Pearl, wondered in an e-mail.
Of course, many theater makers downplayed their worries and inconveniences in light of the storm’s general havoc. Brooks calls Sandy “humbling.” Heidi Grumelot, artistic director of Horse Trade Theater Group, which runs several East Village theaters, notes that “it is hard to prioritize any struggles we might have.” Nevertheless, she acknowledges that “every day we are dark affects us and our artists.”
Maria Striar, artistic director of Clubbed Thumb, had to indefinitely postpone a benefit at which she’d hoped to raise a much needed $15,000. “It was frustrating after putting the work in,” she says. “But we can figure it out. Who cares in this context, really?”
Yet a few theater professionals shyly welcomed the brief vacation, such as Pam MacKinnon, director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway, and her boyfriend, the actor John Procaccino, now starring in An Enemy of the People. “Two days in a row are just so rare,” she says. Figaro‘s Brooks comments that a two-day break during previews “will actually allow the performances to settle in.”
Several theaters have suffered material damage. Galapagos in DUMBO posted a photo to Facebook showing the performance area suffused with five feet of water. An e-mail noted that the Kitchen in Chelsea had sustained “serious damage.” Theater for the New City had minor flooding, according to its Twitter account. Many downtown theaters, such as the Public and the Vineyard, remain without power.
Soho Rep, also without power, sustained flooding in its basement, delaying load-in of a show. “There will be performances we lose,” says artistic director Sarah Benson. “There will be cleanup. But we have insurance.”
Yet some theaters escaped damage, somewhat miraculously. All of Horse Trade’s spaces remained dry, Grumelot reported, including the basement theater Under St. Marks. St. Ann’s Warehouse’s new space, in badly flooded DUMBO, escaped any damage, save a small puddle at the bottom of the entrance ramp. “The building slopes toward the water,” artistic director Susan Feldman says. “We sandbagged those doors, and they held.” Nevertheless, they will still face difficulties opening their first show, Mies Julie, on time.
For theaters on tight budgets or those with less flexible schedules, closing for even a few days can mean hardship. Brian Rogers of the Chocolate Factory, co-producers of Ich, Kürbisgeist, had to cancel several shows. “This will obviously cost us money,” Rogers says.
NYU’s Skirball Center had to cancel the entire run of the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s much anticipated Audience, and Bushwick Starr will likely cancel its extension of Blood Play, with significant financial repercussions. “The production’s tech/gear rentals, artistic salaries, theater overhead, etc., is all out on the line,” says artistic director Sue Kessler. “There’s also an unfortunate cancellation fee that our online ticketing provider docks us every time we refund people’s money. That will add up.”
Even if theaters can reopen, reschedule, refund, and restaff, there are worries about whether audiences will be able to attend this week’s shows, considering the ongoing transportation issues. “My crew and actors are back at it tomorrow,” MacKinnon says. “If only people come.” To that end, several theaters tried to make the best of the situation by attracting audiences with hurricane-friendly discounts advertised via social media.
But should audiences make the trek? On Tuesday night, Louloudes posted on Facebook, “Since MTA is shut down tomorrow and many neighborhoods are flooded, I hope our theaters will cancel tomorrow’s performances.”
Some theater makers did not know the state of their theaters as of Wednesday. Even as she readied herself for more make-do preparations, Callaghan worried about the show’s East Village venue. She said that she did not know “whether or not LaMaMa itself or our rehearsal space on Great Jones incurred any serious damage—we can’t get anyone on the phone.”
Kevin Laibson, one of the founders of Magic Futurebox theater in Sunset Park, a Category A evacuation zone, had not yet been able to reach his theater. Laibson lives in Harlem, and after six taxis and livery cars refused to take him over the bridge to Brooklyn on Tuesday, he gave up.
“I’ve heard some warehouses have caught on fire, and I’m really hoping it’s not our warehouse,” he says. He is determined to make it down. “I’m going to take as many buses as I have to take and as many livery cabs as I have to take,” he says. “At a certain point, I do have to face it.”