New York is expensive for business owners (ok, and everybody else), and this can ring especially true for those who run performance spaces. Indeed, commercial successes like Hamilton could lure the ignorant into the sense that it’s very feasible to make live theater work with a long and lucrative life. But that runs contrary to the climate that the smaller spaces and companies exist in, even when they’re the ones creating and initially developing the work that goes on to find success.
While East Village indie theater staples like The Kraine and Under St Marks are fortunately still thriving, other spots that seemed to be strongholds have faltered. Take Soho Rep’s Walker Street space, home to acclaimed and cutting-edge productions like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon and the recent Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. The theater unexpectedly shuttered at the end of September due to an unexpected discovery that the building’s use did not actually comply with what it was authorized for, leaving several shows without a home.
Other spaces have not had such a long life, like Long Island City’s Chain Theater, with a physical existence of only three years. Clinton Hill space JACK even has a long list of closed venues that’s two years out of date, so the list is surely longer now. And that doesn’t even take into account the countless multidisciplinary DIY spaces that have closed their doors in the past few years.
Spaces of this sort can get neglected in light of widespread commercial success: The Broadway production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (which just began previews) is currently embroiled in a conflict because the program lumps Hell’s Kitchen nonprofit space Ars Nova in with other financial backers rather than indicating the production began there. The language refers a sort of disregard for the small theater that gave birth to the show in the first place.
In the midst of all this, several people are working to find a solution, to nurture and preserve performance spaces for the ever-growing number of independent theater artists to focus on creating work without the fear of going broke or losing their resources.
The new advocacy organization IndieSpace, founded by Randi Berry and Paul Leibowitz, applies real estate know-how to the independent theater community. IndieSpace seeks to identify “permanent solutions for indie artists,” finding performance spaces that have little risk of vanishing or becoming unaffordable, which will then be available as heavily subsidized or free performance and rehearsal spaces for artists in need.
“The permanency we’re talking about is through direct ownership of either a building or a condominium within a larger development,” explains Leibowitz. “One of the problems has been long-term leases, leases that theater companies believe are there in perpetuity and will never go away. The real estate market has advanced so rapidly that venues that would have been thought to never be at risk because they’re in a long-term lease in an area that has not seen a lot of growth but has actually flipped, you have a fancy market that has eliminated those venues.”
Longstanding spaces as well as new spaces are suffering, he adds. “We’re in a unique point of time in New York now where you’re seeing how quickly that movement is, where you have an established community that is kicked out right after they move in. These are not decades-old theaters. They didn’t even have the chance to get a foothold yet.”
Berry and Leibowitz come from a real estate background, but they aren’t entering into this as outsiders. Berry is in the indie theater community herself, and previously worked on “temporary rehearsal space collaborations” between building owners and theater companies before Leibowitz approached her about doing such a thing on a larger scale.
“As a native New Yorker I saw what was going on and thought a lot of these closures were tragic, and I spoke to Randi about how we could really resolve this on a permanent basis and not just stop-gap measures, which seem to be effective but not longstanding,” Leibowitz says. Berry adds that they’d like to focus on areas like the East Village and Lower East Side, where theater is already plentiful, as well as the outer boroughs. “Our goal would be to make or create space in the neighborhoods [artists are] already in, so they’re able to stay and not be pushed out.”
Many artistic groups don’t have a deep understanding of the highly complex beast that is owning and operating a space in New York, and they would like to equip these groups with that knowledge. “We come with real estate experience, we’re offering advice and consulting to theater companies free of charge that are making decisions to start to look for space, so if they’re going to be leasing space and it’s not going to be in one of our permanent spaces, they’re not getting themselves into situations that would force such an abrupt closure,” Berry adds.
IndieSpace has only recently launched, and they’re currently seeking board members and investors, as well as to connect with likeminded members of the real estate community to form collaborative relationships, such as mixed-use developments, to further make their objective possible. They are currently looking for their first property, and hope to locate and purchase it in 2017.
While IndieSpace’s goal is more widespread and long-term, another brand new initiative called Porterspace seeks to provide free space to theater artists on a smaller and more immediate scale, by way of an artist’s studio on Grattan Street in Bushwick.
Porterspace is helmed by Lawrence Schober, a theater artist who primarily works as a designer and technician. He’d recently been producing several shows, some of which were happening simultaneously. Frustrated with the notion of how much rehearsal space would cost for multiple shows, he began hunting for a solution that was more financially efficient.
“I was looking for artist studios in this area, and stumbled upon this, which is used full-time by this gentlemen who’s a painter. And he was super into the idea of, if he had to share the studio with somebody else, it being used for a purpose other than painting. So he could paint and hang stuff [in one part of the studio] and we could rehearse [in another].”
Around the time he found what would become Porterspace, one of the shows he was working on “fell apart,” leaving him with a space he was paying to rehearse in, and nothing to fill it with.
“I’ve always been interested in supporting emerging writers and directors, because I’m such a designer and technician. I’m also a stagehand, during the day,” he explains. “That’s a part of my brain I don’t really have, so I like to facilitate it. So I thought I’d try to curate, in a sense, who deserved the support and give them as much time as possible, give them infrastructural support.”
In a city of expensive (and vanishing) performance spaces, Porterspace will also be offering its studio space free of charge to artists, predominantly to encourage development of workshops and readings. The space is currently providing development space to a diverse group of artists: playwright Peyton Berry is workshopping a play about blackness in America and its relationship to social media, collaboratively formed with a cast of other black actors. Artist Sara Rademacher will be developing an “improvised clown piece about the Republican National Convention in Cleveland,” and other projects include a piece by Garrett Kim exploring toxic masculinity from the perspective of a queer man of color and a solo show following a girl who leaves a college that fails to prosecute a sexual assault.
“I am not here to support straight white male playwrights talk around the kitchen table,” Schober says when I point out the fair amount of inclusivity in what he has curated. “I don’t like how white, male, straight, or moneyed this game is right now. And any active steps anyone can take to move against that is super helpful.”
Schober is currently footing the bill for Porterspace, which is currently feasible because he’s lived with his parents for several years and recently cut down on patronizing bars. He admits that’s not necessarily sustainable in the long run, but could provide at least six months of free space for artists, perhaps more if he were able to find additional partners or renters to subsidize costs.
“I would be satisfied with this endeavor if we were able to provide emerging writers and directors with enough space and time to develop new work that would be able to be produced by an actual theater company that could give a financed workshop production,” Schober said.
“It’s going to be difficult, what we’re trying to do,” adds IndieSpace’s Randi Berry. “But there are pieces of this that are easier than everybody realizes, and it’s not until we get over the hump of thinking it’s not possible that anything can happen. I mean, there’s an owner somewhere in the city that has unutilized basement space they have no idea what to do with. They don’t realize that basement space is quiet, dark, and cool. It’s the perfect spot for a theater. There’s so many opportunities to make it easier for artists to stay. This is one of the ways.”