Queens has plenty of performances but not enough playhouses

By Ron Hellman

According to the latest census, Queens has about 2.3 million inhabitants, making it the second largest of New York City’s five boroughs and by itself bigger than most cities in the nation. Yet its theater facilities remain meager, almost to the point of non-existent.

Regular readers of this column, now in its seventh year, may be saying “here he goes again,” but hear me out. I remain an optimist — bordering on fantasyland my family might say — but maybe in this local political season, one or more of our worthies seeking office as borough president, City Council member or whatever would realize what a quality-of-life issue and money-maker the arts, and theater in particular, are, and yes, even a vote-getter.

Admittedly, we have theater in schools, churches and synagogues, and a few enterprises like the new Chain Theatre in Long Island City making the best of a former factory building, or long-lived companies like the Thalia Spanish Theatre doing wonders in a former supermarket, but where are the state-of-the-art venues that are designed just for theater? (We do have one, Queens Theatre in the Park, which seems to be going through some kind of transition, so it’s hard to know what it’s up to these days — although now that Taryn Sacramone, lured from the Astoria Performing Arts Center, is taking over as the new managing director, a renaissance may be at hand.)

What we need, in addition to support from our political types, is to welcome a philanthropist or two who will come up with some substantial bucks. Manhattan has a number of those – take the Jerome L. Greene Foundation for example. Jerry Greene was a New York lawyer and real estate investor who did very well, so much so that his foundation gave his alma mater, Columbia University, its largest gift ever to the tune of $200 million. (That’s my school too, but I’ve donated somewhat less.)

In 2009 the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space opened at the corner of Charlton and Varick streets, a splendid multimedia performance venue. Last month I was there to see an interview by a Village Voice drama critic of three relatively new female playwrights: Annie Baker, Melissa James Gibson and Amy Herzog. If you’re a theater maven, you know of these women; if not, you’re sure to see some of their work soon.

The Greene Space is terrific and it’s available for rental. But it’s in Manhattan. We need venues like that here in Queens.

What Manhattan also has in the summer are a couple of annual Off-Off-Broadway theater events. One going on right now is the Midtown International Theatre Festival with full length plays, musicals and short subjects. In August the New York International Fringe Festival returns for its 17th year with more than 1,200 performances. Since Queens claims to have the most diverse population anywhere, maybe we should have a theater festival of our own.

Queens does have new theater companies popping up from time to time. One of the more recent is The First String Players performing in a Forest Hills church (what else). Catch their latest production “Play On!” over two weekends Aug. 10-18, and you’ll enjoy seeing several of our local leading acting luminaries.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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