Queens deserves another dedicated theater space

By Ron Hellman

Does Queens have the theater it deserves? Considering that our borough is more than one-third the area of New York City with a population, if the last census really counted everyone, of about 2.25 million, are we a major player? Not that we don’t have a lot of theater companies — Roger Gonzalez on his new-and improved site LocalTheatreNY.com lists almost 30 — but how do we stack up against the competition?

The main competition in this case is Manhattan and Brooklyn. (I don’t count The Bronx since it’s the only part of New York City on the mainland, or Staten Island because, well, it’s Staten Island.) Manhattan, of course, is the country’s theater center, with Broadway bringing in the tourists, Off Broadway attracting a more discerning audience, and lots of other venues for the adventurous. The point being that there is a tremendous variety of stage activity taking place there, most in real honest-to-goodness theaters.

This summer Manhattan was home to The New York International Fringe Festival, founded in 1997, with shows on more than 20 stages in several downtown neighborhoods, and The Midtown International Theatre Festival, featuring more than 30 plays, musicals and special events. As I mentioned in a prior column, Lincoln Center has the brand new Claire Tow, a 112-seat theater for work by emerging playwrights, directors and designers, hoping to attract a younger and more diverse audience at a ticket price of only $20. Also for the budget-conscious, the established Signature Theatre, now at Pershing Square on West 42nd Street, charges just $25 a ticket.

In an area designated as the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently opened its Richard B. Fisher Building, home to, among other facilities, a 250-seat theater and a rehearsal studio. And next year Theatre For A New Audience plans the Brooklyn opening of a new space with configurations from 99 to 299 seats.

Meanwhile, Queens lags far behind. In the entire borough there is just one venue, Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, that is dedicated to theater. Sure we have theater companies in churches and synagogues, and tucked away in buildings and restaurants, but no real theaters. The colleges and schools have their performing spaces but they’re seldom open to outsiders. Nassau and Suffolk have many theater groups, too, some in theater-only spaces, including the expansive Broadhollow Theatre in nearby Elmont.

The theater scene consists of professionals and non-professionals, the biggest difference being money — the pros have it, the nons don’t. Another difference are the actors: the pros are members of the Actors’ Equity Association and are generally more experienced, the nons are amatuers who do it for love and make their living elsewhere. However, it will come as no surprise to you theatergoers, many of our local actors are quite talented and more than worthy, even if they’re not getting paid.

Perhaps the leading group in Queens is the Astoria Performing Arts Center, recipient of the 2012 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award from the Innovative Theatre Foundation for its consistently outstanding work. But APAC makes do with a gym space — although you would never know it — at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. Another local gem is the bilingual Thalia Spanish Theatre, going into its 35th season – they’re in a former Greenpoint supermarket.

So to upgrade our theater in Queens, to give it more exposure and to make it more visible and attractive, we need some real theater spaces. Lots of hands are out for the shrinking dollar, but it’s been proven that theater and the arts are good for business and employment. One untapped area is Fort Totten with many buildings there going to waste. Perhaps some local politician or community leader will take an interest.

Contact Ron Hellman at rbh24@columbia.edu.

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