Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Closing  Theatres

Our  company recently  closed a theatre  same in Manhattan.  Within  the  same  year  we  are  also informed  that  a public space  we  also  used  to  perform in - an urban  space  which we   converted  to a  theatre  during  the  summer  in  the  evenings - would no longer  be  available  to  our  company
to  present  productions   to  the  public.

It  was a disappointing  year   but  the  disappointments  were not  unexpected. Our  company  was  warned in  both cases  that  the  end  was  nigh, as  one  would  warn a renter in your  apartment  that  you are  going  to sell and  they needed  to  find  somewhere  else to live. Just  how  it  goes.

Of  course  the  problem for  the  company  is  that  we  had  invested  specifically in this  area - these communities. Arguably  the  presence  of  the  theatre activity in  both   areas was positive  for  both areas.  Common American  story: the  theatre  was  present  during  the  less  than  boom  times and  now  that were  were  moving  into  boom  times  the  theatre  was  a  casualty  of   higher  rents  and  development. The  theatre  had not  been able  to keep pace.

So the  theatre  is  kicked  to  the  side  while  higher  financial  return activity  moves  in.

So why are  we  not  reaching  out  to  theatre  organizations  we  are  displacing  and  seeing  what  we  can  do  to  find  a  new  home for  them? Why  are  theatre  expected  to  grow  roots in a  community,  connect  with a  community and  then not engender  the  community support  when  they  decide  to  move  along?

How  should  art  support  itself? By  dollars  the  audience  brings  in at  the  box  office,  by  dollars  every  citizen  is contributing  in  taxes,  by  dollars  that  corporations  contribute  for  tax  write-offs and  exposure  of  their  identities or  from dollars  accrued  from  philanthropic  do-gooders  who  have a  belief  in  the  artists  vision and  mission and  feel  their  wealth  best  represented  in  returning   culture  back to  the  community?

Of  course  the  answer  is  all of  the  above, but  in  the  answer there is also the  question  of  which is a priori for  every  organization.  Thus  we  have  created in our  country a  strain  between  the  production  of  art  and  the  organization  of  art  and  artists, and  we  have a  great strain  in  the  conversation  of  how  much, how  often and  why artists  should  be  paid.

At  the  root  of  all of  these  conversations  is  how  artists  should  be  paid  as  professionals. Who determines  what  or  who is  professional? Is a professional an  employee? Do  professional  artists  carry  their  own  tools?

When we began our  journey at  our  former  space  we  were a  small group of  aspiring  artists  with some - we  believed  at the  time -  clever ideas  and  some  passion  for  discovering   good  theatre  writing  where  we  could  find  it.

We needed  space  to  perform.
We needed  space  to  rehearse.
We needed  some  money  for  props.
We needed some money  for  some  simple  sets.

We  created  theatre  on  very  low  budgets  because we  had  not  begun  sharing  it with  the  world,
cultivating  major  press, and creating   circumstances  where  artists  could  make a  semblance  of a living. We  have  grown up as a  company in a  space in  one  of the most  prosperous  zip codes in  the  United  States (we make  everyone's  Top 100).

So  why is  there no outrage  in such a  community over  closing a  theatre? Why is  there  not  a  gross  roots  campaign with  several prominent  community  leaders  seeking a  new home  for  this  stalwart artistic venture  that  has  made a  go  of  it  for  almost 25 years?

The  story  behind  the  theatre  itself  is  much  sadder  underneath  that  the  cover  would  suggest. The  theatre  was  actually initiated  by an artists  of  some  accomplishment  who thought  is  worthy to  begin a  theatre. His  dreams  were the  dreams  of  most  artists: he  believed  the artists   he  was  most  closely  associated  with  would  do  fine  work at the  theatre,  gain  greater  recognition and   subsequently have a  home  for  their  endeavors. Along  the  way  he realized  that  "teaching art" was  the  accepted  alternative for artists between  engagements  to  make a living  and  he   began a  lucrative  teaching  career  from  the  space and  venue  as  many  before   and  after  have  done.

Additionally he found  the  the  capitalist  recipe  for  continuing  art  in America - fund  it  with  the  overflow from a  more  commercial  business. In this  case it  was a bar/comedy club, able to  generate revenuer  the bar/club activity  to pay market  rental  rates   so  the  theatre   could  do  experimental  work  without  the  pressure  of  paying  the  rent.

In  this  case "experimental" work  was  primarily  defined  as  doing  plays  by  playwrights  who were not  already  famous  with  actors  who are  not  already  famous.

He and  his  wife had a  family and  raised a  son.

The  son  grew  in  wisdom, as  they  say,  matriculated  at  one  of the  finest  liberal arts  colleges  in  the  country and  aged to  transform  his  upbringing  in  this  creative  atmosphere  to a  career  in  technology with a  rising   tech  giant.

The  founder  formed a partnership with another  artist  to manage and continue  the artistic  output  of  the  space. They  began international touring, and  had  recognition  for  some  off-Broadway  production.

The  relationship above  described  endured  for  approximately  fifteen  years. During  which  time  smaller  companies  like  our  own , with  large  dreams ,  came  along  and  began  occupying  the  theatre  spaces  for  rental    costs  that  were  for  the  time   very  reasonable . The  rent   would  remain reasonable  throughout  the  life  of  the  theatre. The artists  felt   some  commitment  to  that.

Finally  the bar/club activity  expanded  and  needed more  room. The managing artist   could  no longer  be  accommodated. He  moved  on and our  company   began  the  management  of the  theatre  venue  where  they  had  left  off.

We  found a  theatre venue  with  no  vision  for  the  future and how  it would  continue  with  the  rising  fortunes  of  the  community. We were  convinced  if  we  were  successful  the  community  would  see  the  vision and   support  the  activity of  the  theatre.

This  vision was , obviously simple and naive, and  so six  years  later  when  we  found  ourselves   making  our   bags  after  considerable  success , while  sad , it  could  not  be  described  as  surprising.  It  was  in  fact  so  unsurprising that  it  barely  merited  mentioning  in  the  news  that  this  theatre  of almost  thirty  years  was  closing   on  the Upper  West  Side.

Here  was  the  tragedy: the  theatre  closed  because the   founder   converted  the   the  theatre  back into  an apartment  for  his   son (the  one  he  raised) , daughter-in-law and , granddaughter  to live  in.  They  could not  find  a larger  three  bedroom apartment   on  the Upper  West  Side  they  deemed  as  affordable and  the   founder/artist/ now  landlord  and  father  had  promised  his  only   son  that  if  he  ever  wanted  the   space  he  could have  it  and  now   the  landlord (previously know in  this  article  as  founder)  of  the  the  theatre  venue, who had  begun  with  that   simple,  yet  clear   dream, who  had  built  such a  fantastic   venue  that  served   the  community in  so many ways  had   - in  his  own  mind - no  other  option  but  to make the  best  financial  use of  the  space for  his  family and  cash in  on  the tremendous  value  the  space  now  had  to   the  three  person  family.

It's a tragic  story  because  his  daughter-in-law worked  for  one  of the most  powerful  Wall Street  companies  in  the  city, in a  high level position and   his  son - raised in  the  artistic  household  and now  progressing  with  the   successful  tech  giant were  part of  the  "struggling" middle  class of  New York - struggling  with  six  figure  incomes  from prominent employers.  It's a story  of a New York  family who  became  very  wealthy  from a  good  investment  an artist  made  when  the  city was on  the   skids   but  as  the  investment  matured  there  was  no longer  value  in  returning  that  investment   to  future  art.

Was  the  family  generous  over  the  years  in having  the  space  remain a  theatre  at  reasonable  rates. Tremendously. But  what  was  done   to see  that  it  would  continue  for   the  long  term? How  did  the  community  that welcome  the   art  reach out  to  the artist   who  continued  there  year  after  year   to  formulate a  plan  that  the  space   could  continue?

Plans were  never  made.

So plans  could  not  succeed.