What the Closing of the Ohio Theatre Really Means


From the files of the No Surprise Department comes the news that the Ohio Theatre will close on Aug. 31. Details are found here. There is also a press release below this post, courtesy of publicist David Gibbs.

What the closing of the Ohio means is tragic continuity: the theater community hardly remains united when it comes to advocacy. And too many industry power-brokers, especially commercial producers and theater owners, are limitless in their heartlessness when it comes to spaces. Some come, some go, and that’s the natural way of things, they say.

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But in an intelligently interconnected New York City theater community, commercial and nonprofit Broadway would be partnered up with commercial and nonprofit Off-Broadway so that nonprofit Off-Off-Broadway would be fought for rather than ignored, patronized and mourned. The truth is, the Ohio is a landmark space in terms of the work that was done, but for too many power-brokers sitting at the top of the theatrical food chain, it is probably seen nevertheless as a venue of no vital importance. This, too, is tragic. And it’s not the fault of Robert Lyons, the brilliant and ferociously intrepid operator of the Ohio. It’s the collective fault of the community.

For example, advocacy for Off-Off-Broadway remains spotty at best, perpetually in gathering-steam mode as the ship continues to list. I sit on the board of the League of Independent Theater and I support organization’s work, but the truth is that no single organization possesses the kind of political and social clout and bargaining power that would be needed to stop the closing of a venue like the Ohio.

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Click on the link to the article at the top of this post: the tone makes the owner of the building housing the Ohio seem to be fairly evil. Indeed, when a theater is hurled out of its digs after 29 years, perhaps that’s a fundamental crime against society and culture and therefore is, in fact, evil. My guess is that Zar Properties, the owner in question, will transform the Ohio into a mainstream commercial space, and that they see it as their fiduciary duty to do so.

But let’s get at the truth for a moment: If the economic and cultural case for the preservation of the Ohio has not and cannot be made, isn’t that the fault of the theater community collectively? And where, moreover, has the sustained outrage, the fear campaign, the railing against the threat to the Ohio been? Where were the public demonstrations when the Ohio was first threatened more than a year ago? Where was the letter-writing campaign, the email campaign, the tweeting campaign, the awareness-raising campaign? Where was the holding up of the Ohio as an example of how all downtown spaces are imperiled (and those that are left clearly are)? Where was the harnessed the spirit of downtown theater such that Zar Properties, at the very least, would be made to feel pain and shame by their decision to keep the Ohio perpetually unsure of its fate for so many months — or now has pulled the plug?

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The truth of the closing of the Ohio Theatre is really the ongoing and near-total failure of the Off-Off-Broadway universe to get itself together as a galvanizing, advocating force. Real estate remains the problem, the challenge and the enemy; even with all the good intentions of a great many people, the community is too busy being splintered, distracted and so enamored of gazing at its navels that more and more of its core, foundational spaces are being hallowed out.

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The article linked to at the top of this post explains that Lyons had hoped the proposed tax incentive for landlords who lease space to artists and small/midsize companies would be enough to persuade Zar not to shutter the Ohio. For all the well-earned fanfare the proposal is getting, the endorsements of multiple community boards does not mean such an incentive will be enacted. And even if such an incentive is enacted, it does not mean landlords will be obligated to bite. Here is Lyons, quoted in the article:

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“‘It was the one mechanism I saw that was directly applicable to us,” Lyons said. “We were trying to make the argument that we could stay for two years. At that time if this legislation passed, we could maybe put together a package to keep us here on a long-term basis. They just felt it was too long for them to wait, it was too uncertain. They didn’t think at the end of the day it would be enough of a tax break to offset the difference.”

So the question is: Why does Off-Off-Broadway treat the proposal like manna from heaven? It is not — and with all due respect to the coalition that put the idea together so beautifully, it won’t be — a cure-all. The truth of the closing of the Ohio Theatre is that Off-Off-Broadway lacks enough carrots and lacks enough sticks. And that’s just awful.

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Here is the press release on the Ohio:

The Ohio Theatre, a pillar of New York’s downtown theatre scene for 29 years, will close on August 31, 2010. The new landlord has issued official notice and no further negotiations are scheduled.

Located at 66 Wooster Street, The Ohio Theatre was one of Soho’s pioneering performance spaces and is now one of the last remaining. The not-for-profit theatre company Soho Think Tank runs the space under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Lyons. Lyons says, “It’s where Tony Kushner produced his first play out of college, where Philip Seymour Hoffman made his professional acting debut, where Eve Ensler performed Dicks in the Desert, a decade before writing The Vagina Monologues. The Ohio Theatre has been an incubator and platform for New York’s most exciting and innovative theatre artists for almost 30 years. Its closing emphatically punctuates the end of an era in Soho, and stands as a high profile casualty in the relentless decimation of the lower Manhattan theatre landscape.”

To mark this traumatic event, the Ohio Theatre will be providing a space on their website where artists and audience members will be able to post their thoughts, memories and experiences at the theatre. Robert Lyons goes on to say, “There will also be a place for artists who have performed at the Ohio Theatre to post production photos. We especially encourage those with pre-digital photos to take the time to scan and post them. Literally thousands of theatrical events have taken place at the Ohio over the last 29 years and we would like to have them ALL represented. We also encourage people to make a donation to help us through what promises to be a difficult transition.”

In the meantime, the current season continues, including preparation for Ice Factory 2010, as well as plans for a major dance party some time this summer.

Soho Think Tank’s short-term priority is to find a home for their signature programs: STT Presents and the Obie award-winning Ice Factory Festival. Toward that end, they are currently in discussion with other downtown venues, including HERE Arts Center, Dixon Place, PS122 and The Public about their next season.

As for long-term goals, Soho Think Tank has begun discussions with some of the core theatre companies of the Ohio Theatre community about forming a coalition to secure a new space.

Robert Lyons explains, “For 29 years, the Ohio Theatre has embodied the living history of the neighborhood of Soho, continuing the spirit of community and cutting-edge artistic practice that once defined the area. It’s been a host to a generation of the finest, most exciting and widely recognized companies working in NYC in the last three decades and has cultivated a diverse and growing community of artists who are collectively changing the cultural landscape of New York and beyond.”

…Today, the Ohio Theatre is one of the last non-commercial arts centers remaining in Soho. It continues to foster an environment of generosity, dialogue and inspiration, where artists take risks and try out new ideas, bringing their work to a new level. One of the most beautiful venues in lower Manhattan, it remains a boon to emerging artists and the viability of experimental theatre in New York City. For this, the Ohio Theatre is widely recognized as an indispensable pillar of downtown Manhattan’s cultural life.

“This is a great loss for the city on many levels. It is the loss of a historic institution, the loss of a vibrant ongoing platform for new work. And it is yet another contribution to the loss of Manhattan’s cultural identity,” says Robert Lyons.