By Ronald B. Hellman
My wish list for Queens this holiday season has only one item – new theater venues! Regular readers of this column know that I frequently lament the lack of state-of-the-art locales to house our local community theaters. Mainly confined to churches and other make-do spaces, these companies do their best with minimal budgets and resources in this borough of at least 2.3 million inhabitants, a number larger than most cities.
Recently I saw a show at The Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street near 10th Avenue in Manhattan. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, it consists of three theaters – one with 294 seats, the others with 191 each – plus two studios, a shared lobby with a café and a bookshop, and offices, all spanning 75,000 square feet. It opened in 2012 and was funded through a public-private partnership, with the city of New York allocating $27.5 million.
Then Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized that “cultural institutions are the lifeblood of our city” and proclaimed that the center is “a big, bold transformative project, that will bring more people, more growth, and more vitality” to Manhattan’s West Side. The question is: Why can’t Queens, with its vast and multi-cultural population, have something like this?
Sure, some of us take a bridge or tunnel to the “City,” but many don’t, and even though the Signature Theatre has an exceptionally low ticket price of $30 for most of its shows, a trip to Broadway and Off can be quite a costly and time-consuming adventure. And if you want good seats to a hit show and look to dine at a fine restaurant, deep pockets are a necessity. We need – and deserve – some real and affordable theaters right in our home borough. What do you think?
The play that I saw at Signature was “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. You probably have not seen any of his work in Queens, unless you saw The Outrageous Fortune Company’s production of “Our Lady of 121st Street” in March 2009 at Queens Theatre in the Park. Guirgis is one of our best contemporary playwrights — he recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Between Riverside and Crazy,” and his play with an unprintable title about a Hat was on Broadway.
Another leading playwright of today, not visable to audiences in Queens, is Martin McDonagh, although Outrageous Fortune did his “The Cripple of Inishmaan” in March 2003. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” was an early huge success, he has “Hangmen,” a prize-winner in London, coming to New York next month, and his latest film, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is playing now, and destined to receive several Academy Award nominations.
The point is that our local community theaters tend to avoid the wealth of contemporary plays that are presented across the East River. These well-reviewed plays are almost always limited to a short run due to economic conditions, but could have new life in our borough. But the locals tend to rely on works from yesteryear on the theory that only familiar titles will attract an audience, even though most groups have a tough time filling their seats.
I’m sure that new modern venues will generate publicity along with the freedom and courage to produce new and challenging material that will bring in a wider audience, especially a younger and diverse one that theater desperately needs to survive.
Again, what do you think?
Contact Ron Hellman at rbhof