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A Soho Theater Company Is Displaced, and Others With It
This is part of a series on people and organizations that make it possible for artists' work to be made and presented.
It was 9:30 at night when Robert Lyons ducked out of rehearsal at the Ohio Theatre, on Wooster Street in New York's Soho, to get some coffee. He's a big guy, 6 feet 4 inches tall, so walking unaccompanied to the deli should not have been a problem. But it was the late 1980s, and Soho then wasn't what Soho has become; for one thing, there were still delis to go to. There was no Barneys Co-Op on the next block, no Trump hotel-condominium sales office just up the cobblestoned street. There wasn't the pervasive sense of safety.
So when he returned a few minutes later with his coffee and saw four guys with broomsticks walking by, his impulse was to close the door to the Ohio and stand in front of it, as if he were protecting the theater. "And they just circled around me, and they wanted my money," Lyons recalled yesterday, sitting at a café table in the theater's lobby as the rain came down outside. "They all kind of hit me at the same time, and then somebody down the street yelled, and then they all ran, so they didn't even get my wallet. But my chin split open, and so blood was pouring down." At 50, he still has the scar.
What he won't have for much longer is the theater, a funky, 99-seat, converted industrial space that has been a home to downtown artists for 30 years, presenting and producing theater and, occasionally, dance. Founded and long supported by an architect landlord who wanted a theater on his property, the Ohio in 2008 got a new landlord who envisions a different, more lucrative, use for the space. The theater will close Aug. 31, and Soho Think Tank, the company that has run the Ohio since 1995, will have to find another stage in the city -- for itself and for the many artists whose work it presents in its regular season and in its Obie Award-winning Ice Factory summer festival of new work.
"It's not like just one company is displaced," said Lyons, a playwright and director who is Soho Think Tank's artistic director. "It's not just the Ohio Theatre, but it's actually a home for dozens of companies and, like, literally hundreds of artists who think of it as being a home and a place for them to be."
The relentlessly changing metropolis is a story as old as New York, and the basic narrative of the Ohio Theatre drama -- about how gentrification makes it difficult for artists to remain in once-seedy neighborhoods that they helped to make safer and more attractive -- plays out in cities across the country. Still, it's worth pausing to consider, in the theater's final six months, what will be lost with its passing.
"If it's a gallery and you're showing work ... you can move that work to another gallery and the work still exists. But you can't really move the work that happened here to another place, 'cause it's gone," Lyons said. The performances "only existed in this room, so the room kind of carries all the memories and all the ghosts with it."
In the early 1980s, the Ohio Theatre was a sprawling complex. Stretching east from Wooster Street to Greene Street, on the other side of the block, it encompassed "one large theater, two smaller ones and other open space for other purposes," as The New York Times explained back when the Ohio was among "the newer efforts" on the scene.
In 1983, Tony Kushner rented a space there for $650 to do a play called "La Fin de la Baleine"; in the typewritten contract, which he signed with a felt-tip pen, the young playwright's name is consistently misspelled. Joan Acocella's review of Mark Morris' new work, "Socrates," in the current issue of The New Yorker, refers to a section of the dance the choreographer made in the early '80s -- a piece he performed at the Ohio, Lyons said. Eve Ensler and Philip Seymour Hoffman worked there early in their careers, too.
More recently, Obie winners Clubbed Thumb, New Georges and Target Margin Theater have been among the better-known companies to stage numerous productions in the space, which is simultaneously cavernous and intimate, with its pillars and its creaky, hundred-year-old sprung floor. Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company, too, has found it a reliable Manhattan venue.
"It's a hub for an entire community," Lyons said. "All those companies still exist, all those artists, but now they're kind of dispersed into the New York theater landscape to kind of find out where they're going to regroup."
The end of the Ohio Theatre, he argued, means a loss to the city's cultural identity, even if the kind of work that once would have been described as having a downtown aesthetic now finds fertile ground in Brooklyn and other boroughs. "Some historical roots are also geographical," Lyons reasoned. "There are actually roots already down here."
But there's not much of a Soho performance scene left. "Soho Rep is in Tribeca. Culture Project was over on Mercer for a while; they're gone," he said. "Way back in the day, The Kitchen was right here, on the corner of Wooster and Broome. It was like right across the street. But, I mean, that's been gone a long time. Performing Garage is still here, the Wooster Group, but they don't really perform there anymore, so it's really more their office space more than a performance space."
The critical mass that used to exist in the area drew more audience for everyone, he said. The absence of neighboring artistic institutions has meant a diminution of that energy, coinciding with the loss of places like hardware stores and delis, part of what Lyons called the "support system in the neighborhood" that artists need when they're in rehearsal and teching shows.
"Things get displaced in layers," he said. "The things that support normal, day-to-day life kind of recede, and then that's what makes it feel like it's not a neighborhood anymore."
There also used to be businesses catering to arts audiences. "There were more places for people to eat that weren't expensive," Lyons said, remembering the Prince Street Bar, where people migrated after every show at the Ohio. "It was like an extension of the theater. There is not a place like that now ... because everything's too expensive for our audience."
So maybe it was only a matter of time before the theater was too expensive for the company that ran it. Until the new landlord came, the Ohio had a rehearsal space on the sixth floor, where it also conducted a monthly reading series. For 18 years, until the building was sold, Lyons lived upstairs from the theater. Now he commutes in from Jackson Heights, Queens.
Soho Think Tank has a $350,000 annual operating budget and a permanent staff of three; luxury may live next door, but that's not this company's milieu. The hard times downtown theaters experienced after the Sept. 11 attacks? "We didn't have that much to lose," Lyons said, "so we didn't lose as much as other people lost."
If the Public Theater's $35 million construction project is any indication, however, institutions that once embraced a certain scruffiness may now find it necessary to court audiences with gleaming spaces. "It's no longer sexy to have raunchy bathrooms," the Public's executive director, Andrew D. Hamingson, told Bloomberg News this week. (For the record, the Ohio Theatre's exposed-brick bathrooms aren't raunchy, just small.)
Outside Soho, a few blocks west of the Ohio, is HERE Arts Center, which might play a role in Soho Think Tank's near future. "There seems to be a little bit of a growing move toward really seeing if we can find another space," Lyons said. "But that's not gonna happen by September first." So his displaced company might take up temporary residence at a theater that already has its own programming, presenting next year's Ice Factory festival and a much-abbreviated regular season there‚ possibly under the banner "Ohio Interrupted." In addition to HERE, Soho Think Tank is talking with Dixon Place on the Lower East Side and P.S. 122 in the East Village. Part of the puzzle, Lyons said, is trying to figure out how his company can function "like an autonomous region within a nation-state."
Beyond that stopgap measure, it may find a new way of operating, organizationally and aesthetically. Soho Think Tank is talking, too, with Clubbed Thumb, New Georges, Target Margin and International Wow Company about the possibility of all of them sharing a space -- a prospect that would entail renegotiating their relationships, as Lyons' company would no longer be hosting the others in its home but creating a new home with them.
"I'm sitting at a table with people we've worked [with] for 10 years, so there's a lot of trust, there's a lot of history at the table. It's not like an arranged marriage," he said. "It feels like it has an organic, historic reality to it, and then we're trying to figure out what to do with that. But there's already something in the room that connects everybody.
"It's mutual respect," he continued. "We know we can work together. We know we want to be associated with each other. That's the resource we have collectively that we don't have individually."
Uniting would strengthen their chance of success, he said, but the city would have to get behind any such plan in order for it to work, and that's a tough pitch to make at a time when slashing, not spending, is the municipal M.O.
For now, while the Ohio Theatre still exists, Lyons is determined to take full advantage of the present, in part by being grateful for the past. Reminiscing can make that easy: Standing outside, having his picture taken in the doorway where he'd been mugged so many years before, Lyons remembered shaking Václav Havel's hand in that same spot, when the playwright (and, by then, ex-president of the Czech Republic) came to see one of his own plays there.
A more deliberate celebration of history will be the theater's 6/30 Project, a reunion of sorts. In a series of evenings over the next six months, it will feature artists who have worked at the Ohio. The goal is to represent each of the 30 years from 1981 to 2010. There will also be, on April 26, a town hall-style meeting: a sort of brainstorming session with the community that Lyons hopes won't be overtaken by venting about the theater's misfortune.
And there'll be this summer's Ice Factory festival. Of all the work Soho Think Tank does, Lyons considers the festival the most important. The plays in this year's Ice Factory will be the final works performed at the Ohio Theatre. One of them, he said, will be his new play, "Madame Franca," and its slot in the festival may ensure that he gets to say goodbye in a way that no one else can.
"It'll probably be the last show in the Ice Factory, so it'll be the last show to happen in this space," Lyons said. "I saved that for myself."
Center: The poster for Tony Kushner and Ann Sullivan's February 1983 production of "La Fin de la Baleine (The End Of The Whale: An Opera For The Apocalypse)," leaning against a windowsill in the Ohio Theatre's administrative office.
Bottom: The contract for a seven-and-a-half-day rental to Kushner, whose name is misspelled "Kusner." Minimalist spelling may have been a theme for the venue, which at the time was still calling itself the Ohio Theatr, with no "e" at the end.