By Shay Gines
From the Off-Off-Broadway section of Theatre World v67 2010-2011 Season
The 2010-2011 season was one of transition for the Off-Off-Broadway (OOB) community. A number of prominent OOB pioneers passed on, the community witnessed some of their most beloved and long-established performance venues shuttered, and many companies and artists found themselves at a crossroads; choosing to either relocate to more economically and artistically enticing cities or remain in the Big Apple and face an environment that is pushing independent theatre artists further and further from the heart of the Theatre District.
With the passing of Ellen Stewart, Lanford Wilson and Doric Wilson (no relation), OOB lost some of the most renowned artists who helped build the vibrant and kinetic Off-Off-Broadway community.
Ellen Stewart, the infamously outspoken and opinionated Founder and Artistic Director of La MaMa, passed away on January 13, 2011. Her memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was filled with friends, family and many of the artists whose lives Ellen had touched. “There is a full house here today," said La MaMa Board President, Frank Carucci, "which would have made Ellen very happy.” During her 49 years as Artistic Director, La MaMa grew from a tiny basement cabaret to a two-building arts complex on East 4th Street; from a modest company presenting the work of friends and relatives to an iconic, groundbreaking institution that is known around the world. Stewart was a cornerstone of the OOB community and became known as OOB’s “Mama.” Her passing was acutely felt.
In March of 2011, OOB lost Lanford Wilson. One of the most prolific playwrights to come from the OOB community, Wilson began his career at the Caffé Cino. He also worked at La MaMa and many other independent theatre houses. It is at the Cino that Wilson met and began work with his life-long collaborator, director Marshall Mason. Together they forged a 40-year partnership that resulted in some of the most heartfelt and celebrated plays of their generation. In 1969, Wilson, along with many other playwrights and directors from the OOB scene, founded the Circle Repertory Company. While he had many successes, including receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, he remained an adamant supporter of independent artists, saying, “We all share a common experience, a common identity.”
Only two months later, in May 2011, gay rights activist and playwright Doric Wilson passed away. Wilson is believed to be the first resident playwright of the Caffé Cino. According to playwright Robert Patrick, Wilson’s work helped "establish the Cino as a venue for new plays, and materially contributed to the then-emerging concept of Off-Off-Broadway." Many of Wilson’s plays documented the underground Village scene of the 50’s and 60’s, including the Stonewall riots that ignited the “Gay Liberation” movement in New York City in 1969. Wilson later went on to found TOSOS (The Other Side Of Silence), the OOB company dedicated to illuminating the gay and lesbian experience. It is not surprising that Wilson’s plays about the origins of the gay rights movement found their legs in OOB. Shared characteristics like the fact that both sectors work outside mainstream America and have struggled for legitimacy made OOB the perfect conduit for these plays that sought to challenge the status quo.
Each of these extraordinary artists and leaders imprinted their unique characteristics on to the DNA of the OOB community. They infused it with their own enthusiastic integrity and tenacious “Do It Yourself” spirit that are hallmarks of the community today. Their influence, guidance and support will be dearly missed. And while no one will ever take the place of Ellen Stewart or Doric Wilson, the younger generation of OOB artists is already grooming outspoken advocates and community leaders to address current challenges and discover new artistic avenues.
One of the most immediate challenges facing the OOB community is a lack of performance space. Over the last decade, OOB has lost more than 25% of their performance venues across the city. These spaces have either been demolished to make way for new developments (housing or commercial developments) or repurposed into non-performance venues. This distressing trend sets OOB companies and artists on a chronic cycle of displacement that successively pushes them further and further from the heart of the Theatre District, and often out of reach of audiences.
It has long been believed that this is a natural part of urban renewal. Artists find cheap space in depressed areas of town, create a theatre, and invest in the space. Audiences come to performances, generating evening foot traffic, which decreases crime and vandalism in that area. The audience members also spend money in the neighborhood, which increases the income of the local businesses, who in turn invest more in their stores and the neighborhood, which helps bring in more customers and audience members. More businesses open shops, property values increase, rents go up and soon the artists can no longer afford to keep their space in a neighborhood that they helped revitalize. It is a pattern that is too familiar to the OOB community. It’s the classic gentrification story, but it has a detrimental effect on long-term sustainability of culture development in New York City.
On August 31, 2010, the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street ended its 29 year run and closed its doors forever. In 2008, the owners of the building, who had always been supporters of the theatre, found themselves no longer able to keep up with the financial demands of the maintenance and preservation of the building and decided to sell. The new owners had no desire to rent to an independent theatre on a shoestring budget. And with that, one of the most fertile and beloved Off-Off-Broadway venues was gone. The Ohio was home to many theatre companies and some of the most influential OOB artists of our time and it will be sadly missed.
Center Stage’s issues began in 2008 when rent for their space dramatically increased. It was particularly difficult timing for the 15 year old company, which was feeling the adverse effects of the recession. Sponsors, corporate funding and donations started to dry up and fewer OOB companies were able to pay sublet rental deposits up front. Budget cuts and layoffs did not make up the financial gap and after a hard-fought year of just trying to retain the space long enough to honor their remaining sublet agreements, Center Stage closed up shop in the spring of 2011.
Founded in 1955, Theater Ten Ten, was New York City's longest continuously operated Off-Off Broadway theater. For 55 years this company presented shows in the theatre of the Park Avenue Christian Church. However, in the winter of 2010, the church ministry began reevaluating its mission and use of its facility. As part of that effort, Theater Ten Ten was dissolved in the summer of 2010 and the venue is no longer available for use by the theatre community.
These are only a few examples of some of OOB’s most established and much-loved spaces that are now boutiques and offices. While these losses are hard to bear, the OOB community is persevering. The company who ran Center Stage, Developing Artists Theater Company, is currently seeking new space. Theater Ten Ten reemerged as Theater 2020 with performances at various locations in Brooklyn. And in the fall of 2011, Soho Think Tank, manager of the Ohio Theatre, took over the old Wings Theatre space in the Archive Building, and the New Ohio Theatre was born.
While these individual companies continue to seek opportunities, the community as a whole has recognized sustainable real estate as a persistent problem and is looking for innovative ways to address it. The OOB community is working hand-in-hand with Community Boards throughout the city to support a proposal that would offer tax relief to landlords who rent space at below market value to not-for-profit performing arts organizations. The idea has promise and has garnered support from all 12 of Manhattan’s Community Boards and several elected officials. Further work is yet to be done, and support from the outer boroughs is still required. However, if passed, this tax abatement could have long term benefits for OOB with respect to its ability to retain facilities and provide a more stable environment for artists.
Not only does OOB endeavor to create a more favorable rental environment, it is also seeks opportunities to purchase facilities outright. OOB companies like Horse Trade Theater Group are looking to purchase spaces that can then become permanent fixtures of the community and not dependent on sympathetic landlords. Horse Trade manages several spaces in the East Village, including Under St. Marks. Horse Trade’s non-exclusive rental agreements provide very inexpensive performance space to many OOB productions. So when the owners of 94 St. Marks Place announced that they were putting the building on the market, the community rushed to endorse the purchase of the small black box theatre in the basement. The demonstration of support “from the community helped us garner a great deal of press, and hardened our landlord’s resolve to not just sell at whatever price he could get,” said Managing Director Erez Ziv. While Horse Trade can not afford to purchase the entire building, the outpouring of support helped them to broker a deal with the owner. The owner extended Horse Trade’s lease until 2019 and agreed to consider turning the building into a condominium which would allow Horse Trade the opportunity to purchase the theatre space only. These discussions are still preliminary and anything can happen in the next 7 years, but this was a decisive step in acquiring a permanent space.
The loss of performance space is not the only challenge facing artists in New York City. In an article for Crain’s Business; entitled “Artists fleeing the city,” journalist Miriam Kreinin Souccar reported that “artists have long struggled in New York, moving into rough areas, gentrifying them and then getting forced out. But as the city has gotten increasingly expensive, there are few such neighborhoods left to move to, forcing a growing number of artists to abandon the city.”
OOB artists are no strangers to hard times. While it is not easy being the proverbial “starving artist,” they understand the struggles of pursuing an artistic dream while trying to make ends meet. Living and working in one of the most culturally rich and artistically fertile cities in the world is worth the effort. However, over the last few years that struggle has become increasingly arduous. Housing costs continue to rise, day jobs are harder to come by, costs of living have increased, and the city is offering fewer incentives for artists. Meanwhile, other cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia are actively luring artists with competitive arts-friendly initiatives.
Part of the allure of New York City is the artistic community. 40,000 artists strong, OOB is one of the largest arts communities in the world. These artists pay taxes, support local businesses, are civically active and perhaps most importantly contribute to the identity of the city. Can city officials and corporate entities stop the flight of artists before the creative talent pool is depleted? Are current cultural development initiatives enough to keep artists in the city? It is difficult to imagine the Big Apple without an independent theatre scene pushing the boundaries of American Theatre. However, it would not be such a bad alternative to see those same artists taking their DIY, OOB brand of theatre and spreading it across the nation. Perhaps that is the next big transition for this community.
This year the OOB community was met with change and loss. However, OOB is constantly growing, evolving and adapting. Transition is a part of the communal identity and there is no doubt that the result of that transition will be worth purchasing a ticket to see.
Resources for this section: OffOffOnline, NYTheatre.com, Innovative Theatre Foundation, TheatreMania