The Space Race

This week in New York theatre was a big week for Shakespeareans as the acclaimed Theatre for a New Audience broke ground on their long-anticipated space in Brooklyn. The new theatre, scheduled to be operational by the Spring of 2013 when Julie Taymor will direct their pilot show, will feature 27,500 square feet, a 299 seat house, fully adjustable seating, trap doors, a 35-foot fly space (absolutely novel for an off-Broadway house), and be the first large house in New York specifically built for classical theatre since Lincoln Center built the Vivian Beaumont in 1965.

It is more than interesting to me that New York has remained the American capital of Theatre for this reason in particular: the one thing that Theatre absolutely requires (and is

Theatre for a New Audience's concept sketch for the new theatre; inside

at a premium in New York) is space. Theatre requires space in vast quantities and not just for performance. Rehearsal, planning, pre-production, storage, building; every single step of the theatrical process is large and booming and cannot be accomplished without this most basic of necessities.

Having owned and operated a small theatre company in New York, I can tell you from personal experience that the city itself, which should be a veritable playground for thespians, is theatrically prohibitive. Space is difficult to come by and thereby expensive. Renting space in New York is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming company, and let’s not even get started with what it would take to purchase a space. Perhaps the worst part is that minimalists like me are doomed to the realm of unprofessionalism (though the city has seen an upswing of alternative performance spaces this season). There are only so many of your friends whom you can convince that rehearsing in your living room is a good idea. By the time you’ve entered the realm of classical theatre; of swordplay and dancing; you’ve outgrown any such capacity. Perhaps meetings and readings are coffee table fare, but the cost of a latte (even a Starbucks latte) will only take you so far into the rehearsal process.

Theatre for a New Audience's new theatre - architectural rendering; external

Creativity is pivotal to the would-be New York producer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve choreographed fights on rooftops for lack of a better play area. Perhaps the most inspiring space I’ve worked in was a kindergarten playroom within the 92nd street Y at which several afternoon of hacking at “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abrgd]” yielded an interpretive dance of the apocrypha featuring a giant wooden cross made of legos and a punching nun pursued by a toy Godzilla lashed to a remote-control car (…we may or may not have acquired any number of these items from the playroom directly…).

There is something to be said, however, for consistency in a rehearsal space. Semi-permanent resources within the rehearsal space can be a lifeline in even a simple production. Rehearsal boxes (square boxes of varying sizes painted black and found in just about every professional rehearsal space) can become anything at the drop of a hat. Often directors get so attached to these boxes that they become integrated in the final production. Beyond this, the chest of random costume/prop items inevitably required at some point in the rehearsal process can become prohibitive for Stage Managers to drag into/out of rehearsal spaces (especially when dealing with public transportation). The rehearsal space is where you eat, breathe, bleed, cry, and (sometimes) sleep. It’s important to be comfortable there. A coffee maker in the rehearsal room can brighten the day of any SM (and generally appease cranky directors).

Then there’s the performance space. With rental costs in New York being so very high, generally the small theatre company looks to rent a space for the least amount of non-lucrative days as possible. What this often means is a rushed tech in one day and (at best) one full dress run before the show goes up, then load-out on closing night between curtain and the cast party.

Believe me, it sucks.

So why hasn’t the base of theatre operations moved somewhere a little more spacious? Somewhere where elbowroom is a-plenty and the cost of land is low? Somewhere a mere train ride away from the hustle, bustle, and main audience of any given production? Regional summer-stock is a time-honored tradition amongst the flocks of New York actors who suddenly find themselves employed to travel for three months out of the year… but why haven’t most of these theatre companies expanded to offer year-round employment opportunities for ramen-eating artists?

I really have no idea. It seems to me that the quality of theatre (or at least its flashiness) could be greatly improved by such a move as it would mean much less money devoted to the bare-bones necessities which could instead be diverted to other productions costs. I think the sensible businessman would whine about the reduced potential audience of a show staged on a commuter rail rather than a subway line, but accessibility historically hasn’t stopped regional theatre. Are we just holding out for a big Broadway dream and wavering on progress because of tradition? Is the theatre community stifled by some idea of what it should be rather than what it could be?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally stoked about this new space. I hope to perform/direct there someday. And, Spiderman aside, I’m wickedly jealous of Taymor’s opportunity…. It just seems to me that the money spent on this facility could be better spent on a facility somewhere a little less expensive.