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Randy Gener
Caricature of Randy Gener by Sam Norkin


New stages open at a startling rate this season

Theatre Row on 42nd Street is not the only theater districts seized by a sudden case of edifice-complex. Other Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway districts, like Union Square and Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, have been bit, too, by the bug that causes not-for-profit theater companies to build new performing spaces.

More than five newly converted theaters are slated to swing doors open by March. That's in addition to more than 15 stage troupes which have christened new homes with plays and musicals since the season officially begun last November.

The theaters, with seats ranging from 75 to 399, led previous lives as banks, fitness clubs, movie houses, porn shops, basements and abandoned ballrooms. Several venues--The Annex at La MaMa E.T.C., Joe's Pub at Joseph Papp Public Theater (cost: $1.7 million) and Laurie Beechman Theatre at Westbank Cafe (cost: $450,000)--enhance the offerings of existing establishments.

Barring unexpected delays, the city will see, within the current season, new alternative theaters cropping up at a rate of 1.42 performing spaces per month. That rate is remarkable. An ordinary season averages between one to two new theaters; troupes usually occupy spaces abandoned by former tenants. As few as five years ago, the space crunch was deemed so severe that when New York University decided to turn the historic Provincetown Playhouse (once a home to Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players) into classrooms, the fate of the theater, which had fallen into neglect and disrepair, was bitterly contested by the theater community.

That growth rate may soar even higher, since there's no shortage of companies looking for spaces.

It also fails to take into account the fallout of groundbreaking plans to alter the face of West 42nd Street's tenement-line Theater Row. Sponsored by Development Corporation, Schubert Organization and Port Authority of New York, the project would, if it took full effect, add three or four 99-seat theaters, plus a 499-seat house jointly owned by the Schuberts and Ben Sprecher, owner of Variety Arts Theatre and Promenade.

Since television, movies, sports and gambling grab a bigger share of entertainment patronage, funding for the not-for-profit theaters derives from city investment by way of challenge funding. Awarded at the expense of general operating support, every dollar invested by the city is matched through earned income and contributions from foundations, individuals, corporations and state agencies.

The bulk of the money went to theaters with budgets in excess of $1 million, like Second Stage and the Public Theatre, because they are more likely to successfully mount expansion projects and meet the match.

After a seven-year search, Second Stage will inhabit the old Manufacturers Hanover Trust in Times Square near Eighth Avenue. The 299-seat theater is scheduled to open on February 22 after $6 million in renovations. Having raised $3.8 million of its $5.5 million capital campaign efforts, Second Stage is keeping its 108-seat McGinn-Cazale Theater on the Upper West Side.

Says Carole Rothman, Second Stage's artistic director: "With our new midtown theater, for the first time we actually have the possibility of earning profits and not losing money. We're dependent on contributed income right now. We'd like to be dependent on earned income and not have to raise money all the time."

For upstart troupes, the frenzy of new performing spaces reflects determined efforts by theater companies to make serious bets on the future after years of struggling to achieve sophisticated levels of production.

"The more potential revenue we can demonstrate, the easier it will be to deal with bankers and fundraisers as we put together the financial package for shows," says Gary Bernstein, Blue Heron's managing director. "A theater center enables us to do our regular work, gives us great flexibility and allows us to offer other small companies that don't have homes an affordable space to rent."

Formerly a shuttered Biofitness health club, Blue Heron's 10,000-square- foot performing arts center at 121 East 24th Street houses two small theaters (135 and 60 seats), rehearsal spaces and an art gallery. For its 11th season, Blue Heron Theatre opens with Audelco Award-winning production of "We Are Your Sisters" from February 26 to 28. This will be followed by Tony Vellela's "Admissions," directed by Austin Pendleton, from February 28 to March 28; "E.E.!" a musical revue of the poetry of e.e. cummings; and a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from April 22 to May 9.

According to Westbank Cafe owner Steve Olsen, the reconfiguration of its basement space into an 80-seat theater takes a head start amid the fast- changing Theater Row. From the city's perspective, Times Square redevelopment reflects the triumph of performing arts as a political tool to close down peepshows and sex shops and implement urban renewal of desolate neighborhoods.

Many observers, however, contend that the flush of enthusiasm for building new theaters may be short-lived. Theater is a notoriously cyclical industry. Some critics seriously question whether there is enough audience to go around. Of New York's theater districts, Greenwich Village and Lower East Side are so congested with theaters that productions there fight to gain greater visibility.

But Barry Grove, president of the League of Off-Broadway Theaters, disagrees: "People aren't building Off-Broadway theaters because they're empty. They're building them because they're full. That's an optimistic sign that theater is successfully attracting new audiences."

The Schuberts' joint plan to own a 499-seat theater in Theater Row is a rare instance of a Broadway organization getting into the Off-Broadway act. With producing costs and ticket prices rising, Broadway backs low-risk offerings, such as revivals of old musicals, and continues to be barren of straight plays and original works.

Off- and Off-Off Broadway, meanwhile, are incubators of Broadway hits like "Rent," "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" and "On the Town." They are also the hot address for new American plays ("Wit," "This Is Our Youth," "Killer Joe") and off-beat performance pieces ("Villa Villa," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Stomp") which cater to younger crowds. Though not expected to fill a Broadway house, these potential hits run indefinitely in midsized theaters--or long enough to earn high returns.

"Side Man," a jazz memory drama starring Christian Slater, took the further step of transferring to Broadway--after its success last spring Off-Broadway.

Only Union Square, where a cluster of midsized houses (Daryl Roth Theatre, Gramercy Theatre) have sprouted, can boast to being in the ascendant. But in a busy season they are already booked and cannot commit to commercial runs.[Gener]

Copyright © 1999 Randy Gener.

Randy Gener is a theater critic for The New York Theatre Wire. A New York-based writer and journalist, he contributes to The Village Voice, The Newark Star Ledger, Stagebill, American Theatre, Dramatists Guild Quarterly and HX Magazine. His e-mail address is RNDYGENER@AOL.COM.

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