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August 12, 2004

East Side, West Side, All Around the Town New Off, Off-Off Broadway Theatres Revitalize Manhattan’s Neighborhoods

Ten years ago, with New York lagging behind the rest of the country in crawling out of recession, there were great stretches of the city that seemed all-but-barren with regard to quality Off- and Off-Off-Broadway venues. The Upper East Side, for example, sported just a few theatre groups, and fewer venues overall. Parts of the once-busy West Village were quiet; ditto Murray Hill, Gramercy Park, and almost all of Midtown East.

But what a difference a decade makes. Despite—or maybe because of—the rise in New York real estate values, whole neighborhoods have come alive again, and with that, an explosion in the number of new and rebuilt theatrical venues. These are no rat-infested black boxes. These are top-flight performance venues on the true cutting edge, both in terms of artistic programming and in terms of general outlook.

Primary Stages, a prominent Off Broadway theatre company dedicated to producing new works, recently moved from a 99-seat Westside theatre to a swankier east-side address; the brand-new 59E59, owned by Elysabeth Kleinhans. In 2004, Kleinhans did something unheard of in modern-day Gotham: Instead of carving a theatre out of, say, an exquisite brownstone, she built an entire performance complex from scratch.

Kleinhans is a new name in theatrical circles. Through a foundation she created in her own name, this daughter of a New York real estate tycoon is dedicating her life to theatrical pursuits and philanthropy.

During the Depression, her mother, Sarah Korein, was smart - she bought mortgage notes for defaulted properties at $.10 on the dollar, figuring the land would someday be worth more than the purchase price. She was right: with the land under Lever House and One Penn Plaza, among others, in her portfolio, her prescience paid off over time.

By the time Korein died, many of her properties had been sold, but at least one—the Hotel Delmonico, on Park Avenue and East 59th Street—was left. Having developed an interest in producing and directing, and forming her own theatre group, Animated Theatreworks, to spearhead projects, Kleinhans sold the hotel in 2002 to Donald Trump, pocketing millions through the sale. She then created the Elysabeth Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation and built, only a few land parcels away, 59E59 Street, a state-of-the-art, three-theatre venue.

While 59E59’s anchor tenant is Primary Stages, which books 34 weeks a year to mount much of its season, Kleinhans is actively filling the rest of venue, with a special focus on the undiscovered performer. “We’re really putting out the word that the new, different, and genuinely imaginative is something we’re interested in,” Kleinhans says. “There are shows that can’t afford to go to Edinburgh, you know, but shows which nevertheless should be seen. 59E59 wants to be the place where you can see that kind of theatre.”

True, Kleinhans doesn’t just spend her foundation’s principal to mount shows, but instead “serves as a presenter, giving artists what anyone would call a very good deal. And why do we do this? To bring edgy new work that would usually be seen downtown, uptown; because we want to give a home to companies and shows that would like to be uptown but can’t afford to be anywhere reasonable.”

By creating three distinct theatres, Kleinhans says, the whole gamut of contemporary theatre can be accommodated. There is Theatre A, for example, with 199 seats and fixed seating; and Theatre B and C, with 99 and 50 seats, respectively, and total flexibility. All the theatres have brand-new technical equipment and the kind of sightlines actors hope for.

In the West Village, the Ground Floor Theatre is an example of aesthetic ingenuity. Owned and operated by Fat Chance Productions, a not-for-profit stage and film company, the 50-seat venue is located, as its name might imply, on the ground floor. What makes it fascinating is that it’s the ground floor of a beautiful brownstone owned by the group’s artistic director, Robin Whitehouse. It’s managed on a day-to-day basis by the company’s executive director, Ben Hodges.

Hodges is not only an actor, writer, and director in his own right, but associate editor of Theatre World, the annual history of the American stage; he also serves as executive producer of the annual Theatre World awards.

“The nice thing about the Ground Floor Theatre,” Hodges says, “is its flexibility, even with only 50 seats or so. We’re perfect for showcases, rehearsals, and we are fortunate to have one or two regular, long-term renters, such as the improv. classes we have right now, who make this theatre their home.”

The Ground Floor Theatre has effectively pioneered the West Village’s theatrical rebirth, agreeing to serve as a host venue for the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival and repeating the arrangement for 2004. Ground Floor, with its full amenities including an intimate backyard, works wonders as a space for fundraisers and also as a community gathering spot.

To be sure, Ground Floor Theatre and 59E59 are only two of the new theatres coming on line or already open. Midtown West, for example, has been positively transformed, from the new, five-venue Theatre Row to the new Playwrights Horizons to the Shubert Organization’s for-profit Little Shubert, all on West 42nd Street.

But perhaps nothing took the industry more by surprise than the news that Dodger Stage Holding, the Broadway producing behemoth, would convert a languishing Cineplex Odeon into five Off-Broadway theatres on West 50th Street. Christened Dodger Stages and slated, as of this writing, to open with Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique” and “Bare: A Pop Opera,” the complex is one of the most ambitious theatrical building projects that New York City has seen in years.

Based entirely underground, Dodger Stages encompasses more than 55,000 square feet and includes two 499-seat spaces, two 360-seat spaces and a 199-seat space, all under Equity agreements. It is expected that Dodger Stage Holding will use the complex as a launching pad for Broadway but also, more broadly, to showcase productions not quite right for the Main Stream but deserving of a high-profile New York berth.

Yet even this is the tip of Midtown West iceberg. There’s Revelation Theater, a 155-seat Off-Broadway house on West 39th Street and the Zipper Theatre on West 37th Street. On West 36th Street, three groups—Abingdon Theatre company, The Barrow Group, and The Workshop (formerly The 42nd Street Workshop)—are inhabiting a former ConEd substation while a fourth space, the 38-seat Where Eagles Dare Theatre, exists down the block. And, finally, there’s the massive warren of rehearsal and office spaces at 520 Eighth Avenue, a project led by the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York.

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