Theater

This Fall, Rent-Challenged Downtown Theaters Are Battling to Stay in Place

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There’s nothing more New York than bemoaning the end of an era: the institution as it once was, the neighborhood before it became gentrified. But this fall, a host of Off-Off and experimental theaters have new leases on life — and, in some cases, literally new leases. From fresh buildings for the Flea and the Tank, to incoming artistic directors at Abrons and P.S.122, theaters are reaffirming their commitment to their communities. “We are at this precipice,” says Meghan Finn, who joined Rosalind Grush as co–artistic director of the Tank this year. “All these companies are opening new spaces. For this to work, people need to go to the theater.”

And there are quite a few new theaters to go to. The Chocolate Factory recently announced the acquisition of a permanent building space near its current Long Island City home, and New York Theatre Workshop is opening its renovated Fourth Street Theatre for the “Next Door at NYTW” series, dedicated to self-producing artists and companies. Likewise inaugurating new digs is the Flea Theater, which in August christened a snazzy complex at 20 Thomas Street, just blocks from its old Tribeca spot.

For the Flea’s artistic director, Niegel Smith, the building — which holds three theaters, including a combined indoor-outdoor space — offers expanded artistic possibilities, plus a secure home for the theater’s resident acting company, the Bats. “We’re a theater that is in service of our artists, the Bats in particular,” he tells the Voice. “We were looking at the real possibility of not having a home to make work in because rents were soaring.” Staying in the neighborhood was important: “It’s at the nexus of Chinatown, Lower Manhattan, and Tribeca. You’ve got city workers, you’ve got tourists and families — it’s an exciting place to be because of that mix of folks.” Smith aims to reflect this breadth in his programming, and adds with pride that the composition of the Bats mirrors the demographic diversity of New York City as a whole.

Also now back at home in Tribeca is Soho Rep.: After legal occupancy issues forced a rushed exit last fall, the theater is happily returning to its Walker Street home, having committed to renovating elements (including the sprinkler system) that had previously been in violation of city mandates. “The year ‘out of house’ really reminded us about all the things we love about the space — from the total artistic autonomy it allows to the palpable legacy of all the shows we have staged there,” Sarah Benson, Soho Rep.’s artistic director, tells the Voice by email. “So many of the small businesses that used to share our stretch of Walker Street with us — from fabric to hardware stores — have closed just within the last year. So when I think about the fact that Soho Rep. has been there for over twenty-five years — and we know we’ll be there for at least another five — it’s both exciting and makes us want to dig deeper into why we’re still downtown and what that means.”

The Tank is also committing to its neighborhood long-term — in this case, the West 30s. Earlier in 2017, the nonprofit signed a ten-year lease on a space housing two theaters. There’s recharged artistic leadership, too: Finn, formerly of multimedia arts space 3LD, joins Grush to steer the organization as it expands its already thorough programming, which casts a wide net, from puppetry to stand-up and beyond. “We see a lot of theaters scaling back, and that means fewer opportunities for fewer people. We want to be giving as many people opportunities as we can,” says Grush. Geographic accessibility was essential: “We looked at spaces in Bushwick and Red Hook, and then we thought about our artists who are in the Bronx and Queens.” Finn adds: “We are one of the last places in Manhattan where a young emerging artist can afford to put their work up.”

For both P.S.122 and Abrons Arts Center, 2017 has brought new artistic leadership. As it gears up to unveil its renovated East Village building in 2018, P.S.122 also looks toward locally oriented programming under artistic director Jenny Schlenzka, formerly of MoMA P.S.1. “The first season under my artistic leadership will focus on the history of our immediate neighborhood, the East Village, and on the history of our organization,” Schlenzka tells the Voice by email. “P.S.122 has been out of our building for almost six years, and we are returning into a fundamentally changed area.”

Further east, Craig Peterson, formerly director of programs at Gibney Dance, curated his inaugural season as artistic director of Abrons this year, mingling artistic ambitions with political ones. “How do you marry the needs of artists and of the community and have a relevant, poignant conversation about states of affairs?” he muses. His 2017–18 season accomplishes this both obliquely and directly, with a theatrical adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, a tale about fascism, and a 24-hour “performance filibuster” addressing gun control, in which artist George Emilio Sanchez will call out members of Congress who have received support from the NRA.

Peterson aims to create interdisciplinary conversations through simultaneous residencies. With each wave of gentrification, he notes, artistic communities “keep getting scattered like seeds in a field.” Bringing artists from different fields together in the building, he says, is not about “creating a co-office space. It’s more like a collision center.” Since the performing arts institution is situated within Henry Street Settlement, a larger community nonprofit, it has enough stability to experiment. “I want to hold onto that gritty downtown New York thing,” says Peterson. “We have the ability to do it because we own our building, and we’re not going to get gentrified out. I want that message to resonate through to people: This place isn’t going anywhere.”

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