THE STATE OF THEATER IN SOHO.
With The Life Of The Ohio On The Line, Does This Signal The Death Of Experimental Theater In SoHo?
When I heard that the Ohio Theater in SoHo was having landlord issues, I thought it would be a good idea to research the theater scene in SoHo and see what was going on. This turned out to be a much harder task than I thought it would be as I encountered many of the theaters’ stubborn and uncooperative administrative staff.
Some never returned calls, others left me standing out in the freezing cold twice (SoHo Playhouse) and others just never bothered to return a questionnaire I emailed them because they were all to busy to meet in person. Others kindly cooperated but provided little information concerning the crux of the piece. Some aren’t even in SoHo anymore, the Wooster Group hasn’t put a show up in SoHo for years and The SoHo Rep is in Tribeca. Thankfully the most cooperative and helpful of all were the folks who inspired the piece, and that’s the great staff at the Ohio Theater—most especially the playwright, and Artistic Director Robert Lyons who graciously gave me his time and sat for an interview in the amazing, cavernous space that is the Ohio on Wooster Street. This was one of the most enlightening interviews I’ve ever done and Mr. Lyons is a smart, funny, realistic thinker in the world of experimental theater. Thankfully, all of the information we really need to know about the state of theater in SoHo was provided by the insightful Mr. Lyons.
SJ: Is this the original home of the Ohio?
RL: This space has been a theater before it was the Ohio. The original space was called the Open Space, and it predates the Ohio. In the very early years this building was connected to the building behind it and you had to come in on Greene Street and walk all the way through both buildings to get here.
SJ: What year was that?
RL: That would have been the early 80’s, and it became the Ohio Theater in ‘84 or ‘85. It was already the Ohio when I got here in 1988.
SJ: Robert, your actual title is…?
RL: I’m the Artistic Director of the SoHo Think Tank, which is the not-for-profit theater company that runs The Ohio Theater.
SJ: Does The SoHo Think Tank have projects other than The Ohio?
RL: No, we’re a producing organization so we produce plays, but I am also a playwright and a director, which is my in to the theater. That’s why I came to New York, and then I ended up here. So, we produce our own work and we also present companies, we have a curated rental program here, we do our summer festival The Ice Factory—which is an OBIE Award winning festival of new work that’s in its 15th year. Those are all of the programs that SoHo Think Tank runs out of The Ohio Theater.
SJ: Information on the programs is available on your website?
RL: Yes, it’s sohothinktank.org.
SJ: The capacity of the theater is…?
RL: We are a 74-seat theater.
SJ: Would that be considered Off Off Broadway?
RL: I think you would call it Off Off Broadway, but we tend not to call it that; we prefer downtown theater, as we’re not really associating ourselves with Broadway.
SJ: What was the original idea behind establishing theater in SoHo? Was it to be closer to the art scene and the avant-garde and escape the commercialism of Broadway?
RL: That’s certainly the reality of it. It started in SoHo and was founded by William Hahn, who bought this building; there was already a theater here—as I said, The Open Space—and they disbanded or dissolved, so he made it the Ohio Theater. He was interested in alternative art. He’s an architect, just a sort of progressive thinking, patron of the arts. He’s the reason we’ve lasted as long as we have. He owned the building and wanted the theater to be here so we had the unusual situation of having a friendly landlord who wasn’t trying to get rid of us—in fact he was very excited and happy about what was happening here.
SJ: Jumping ahead. Mr. Hahn no longer owns the building?
RL: Right, that’s the big change. The building’s been sold to Zar Properties.
SJ: How long has Zar owned the building?
RL: They’ve owned it since December, 2008.
SJ: So, does Zar want to evict you, or can you stay as long as you pay a hefty rent increase?
RL: Well technically we lost possession of the space at the end of January. So that was in terms of the transfer of the ownership of the building. That’s just a true fact. Because we’re a company here essentially through the landlord, we didn’t have a long-term lease; we didn’t have things to protect us.
SJ: Mr. Hahn’s benevolence left you here, but left you unprotected at the same time.
RL: Right, that’s the paradox of the situation.
SJ: And now Zar steps in; are they a big real estate concern?
RL: Yeah, he’s a very reasonable straightforward guy. He’s sympathetic; my first pitch to him was at least let us get to June so we can finish our season. And he was open to that, and so we went into negotiations so that’s what we worked out.
SJ: So you’re not out on the streets just yet?
RL: NO, what we signed is a year long lease but with a mutual out for the end of June. So we’re here definitely through June at which point either he or I can back out or renegotiate or stay until January.
SJ: So after January, 2010 the Ohio Theater needs to find a new home?
RL: Right, unless we continue on here. But for now I’m just trying to buy time in these increments to explore our options, see what options exist.
SJ: If you do relocate would that be the end of the Ohio Theater or just the end of The Ohio Theater in this space?
RL: That’s not clear yet. This is the Ohio Theater so if we move to another space SoHo Think Tank would move to the new space but I don’t think the Ohio Theater would. This is so unique. So I think yes, the end of the Ohio Theater but not The SoHo Think Tank.
SJ: Is the work here always experimental; is the idea to launch new playwrights and artists?
RL: Yeah, we’re pretty much interested in experimental work…primarily new work so it’s a lot of new plays…so we’re definitely interested in new voices for the theater, new ways of thinking about the theater and how to tell a story and what works in a theater; but sometimes like with this play, its not a new play, it’s actually the one experimental play that Tennessee Williams wrote—it’s called Ten Blocks On The Camino Real. Other times there’s an occasional classic, but it’s put up by another company, where they will present an experimental take on it.
SJ: Other theater companies can use this space?
RL: Sometimes we present groups here and sometimes it’s through the curator program we have. A lot of the shows in here are renting the space, that’s one way to do it, but its pretty rigorously curated, and mostly what I’ve done is build up long-term relationships with companies…if you look through the season, the acclaimed theater group Target Margin has been doing shows on and off here for about eight years now. A lot of the regular people that have been here come back year after year after year; it’s a galaxy of companies that come back over and over again, and that is what I’m interested in—a relationship with companies rather than curating project by project. Its really about creating a community that feels like this is a home for them, and they come in when they are ready with a project or they need a space. My position is to keep both those companies coming back but also fuse it with new companies who are starting out or just at the beginning of that process, and mix it up—and then we’re in here producing our own work.
SJ: How many shows get put up a year?
RL: Ten during the regular season and then we have our festival in the summer. The typical run here is four weeks; generally they play either Wednesday or Thursday through Sunday.
SJ: Can an undiscovered playwright get a show put up here?
RL: Someone who has never had a show in New York? On the 6th floor here we had a reading program for people who approach us with scripts; we would look at it and if we were interested we would do a reading, and then sometimes from that reading it might develop into a show at the Ice Factory, and then that might come back and get a full run at the Ohio. So the different programs sort of feed each other. So through several options there are various ways of entering into what’s happening here.
SJ: Has the changing landscape of SoHo had an effect on the types of show that get put up, as opposed to back in the day when there was more a rebel spirit, while now you’re surrounded by the likes of CHANEL and PRADA?
RL: Its funny, but I don’t think that’s true. I think there are broader shifts in what’s happening in theater in downtown Manhattan, there’s a move towards a more professional downtown theater scene, as opposed to a more bohemian, rag-tag. So I think that that evolution had happened in the 20 years since I’ve been here, but I don’t know if that’s specific to us being in SoHo, or if it’s a citywide trend that these small companies are being more sophisticated in terms of how they raise money and market themselves—in a good way. Whether that affects the work or not…most of the work that goes through here is not commercial and does not have ambitions to be commercial. They are not try-outs for Broadway producers. Works presented here are the full expression of an artist who is wrestling with this point in history and this world and what kind of theater do we want to make. So its not a commercial try out to get to 42nd Street. That’s why I don’t like to say we’re Off Off Broadway, really we’re doing our own thing down here and it is complete. Which is not to say if somebody wanted to come in and move a show and run it commercially…everyone would be open to that. But that’s not our express purpose.
SJ: Has the theater felt the pinch from this economic downturn, or because of the kind of theater this is, are you immune?
RL: Well the big shift is in terms of the building; there was a slow but gradual pressure on the building, so when it was sold reluctantly, but under financial pressure…while its not directly related to the economic breakdown, its not unrelated either. So, that’s the big thing, as far as our audiences, like this last run, were not affected by it; our tickets are 18 or 20 dollars, and we’re not dependent on the tourists. The community that comes here to support us are younger people, (although I don’t know what that means anymore as I get older) they are people who go out and do it; you know, if you live in New York, even if times are tough you still go out and see theater, you still go out—that’s part of why you’re here. Because it’s a small house we don’t need a busload of people every night, we just need our regular audience to show up. So, the audience hasn’t changed but the overall financial landscape, the funding, fundraising and things like that are definitely harder. But again it’ll all depend on what’s happening with the company. If we’re moving into another space there’s going to be a considerable drive in that direction; it’s not business as usual.
SJ: So many things are online now; you can buy or watch a movie or an opera on iTunes. How is this digital lifestyle going to affect the theater, how will you adapt?
RL: Well the thing about theater is that it’s live and that’s the importance of it, that’s what makes the experience so special and exciting. It can be watched on a TV or whatever but it’s not the same; you can’t relate to the work, to the actors, the emotion. I mean, we’ll be online and use it as a tool but the theater can’t be duplicated or appreciated in the ways it’s meant to be unless it’s experienced live, in person.
SJ: So basically the theater is webproof!
RL: Let’s hope. At its core, I think it is.
SJ: What direction do you see SoHo Theater heading?
RL: What’s happening is that basically there is very little theater in SoHo. The Here Theater bought their space so they are going to be around for a long time. They are a model of how to do it, they bought their space and they are a counterpoint to everyone who’s losing their spaces. Easier said than done, but possible.
SJ: Experimental theater, there was so much here, so many companies here but now its almost non-existent is that because of real estate?
RL: Well, we know the neighborhood has turned into something different and you know, I’m not one of these people who are like, “Oh, it used to be so much better,” but you know a city is a living organism, what are you going to do…its evolution, it’s like being against aging—if you pit yourself against it, you’re going to lose.
SJ: Do you think that if you don’t stay in this space you’ll stay in SoHo?
RL: No. I think the only way we stay in SoHo is if we stay in here. And frankly I think that’s a long shot.
SJ: So, if there are benevolent landlords reading this, what neighborhood would you be interested in?
RL: I’m interested in ANY benevolent landlord in ANY neighborhood in Manhattan. But everybody knows there are things happening in Brooklyn and The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, and outside of Manhattan. That’s all going to continue, there was Manhattan and nothing else, then there was Brooklyn and now most of the artists are living in Brooklyn. Now they’re in Queens. Not that there’s less artists or less theater happening, it’s just that it’s happening all over the city. It makes it hard in a way because when people have a geographical focus it allows people to get their mind around it and then they know where to go for it. You can be going to Long Island City, or Bushwick or Williamsburg, and then you have people who aren’t sure where to go so they just go someplace they know. Then you have those who don’t ever want to leave Manhattan. But it’s going to be about getting people out of that mind set.
SJ: In years to come are people going to have to just get used to traveling around the entire city to experience the arts?
RL: Yeah, and also it raises the question, who is the audience for this kind of work? Mainly it’s younger people and other artists. That’s part of the dialogue that happens between the work. People follow each other’s work as artists. So if the artists and the community that comes to see their work can no longer afford to live in Manhattan, they are just going to draw people from their own neighborhood, and not necessarily get a Manhattan crowd. It’ll be like it was here, when people had to travel downtown to SoHo to see the work.
SJ: So SoHo will become a state of mind as opposed to a location or destination?
RL: Yes, that’s a good way to put it.
SJ: Robert, to sum it all up, the state of theater in SoHo itself has little future right now, but the concept of experimental theater is safe.
RL: Geographically it’s being dispersed.
SJ: But theater itself is safe, artists, actors writers are still coming to New York?
RL: I think so, I’m a great believer that every generation, there’s another wave of young people who are hitting drive and passion with the lack of financial responsibilities, that we all had 20 years ago. So to think we’re the last generation to be like that or want to do that, you would have to be crazy. There is always another generation of artists of all forms, whether they get their moment defined—like the 60’s, or something—as a golden age or not a golden age, the work is always there. It’s a matter of how it gets framed or acknowledged.
SJ: You believe New York will remain a hub of creativity, a place where artists will want to come to work?
RL: Yes; maybe not Manhattan but certainly New York.
SJ: When people say New York City they are going to really mean the whole city, the boroughs as well.
RL: Yes, that’s the shift and that includes me. I’m in the process of expanding my mind as well. I think of times when I’d be reading in the newspaper and Bloomberg would say something about the city, that it’s not just Manhattan he’s talking about or whoever, but its actually this huge city and when they are making decisions about the city its not just about Manhattan. Like when you drive to the airport you go wow…this is all New York City and now I’m actually learning that. We need to expand our idea about where and what the city is—we are the city!
SJ: We are the city, perfect closing words!!!