Community Forum Brings Many Together to Discuss Future of Independent Theater 

Robin Rothstein 

On the evening of April 26, the Community Forum on the Ohio Theater convened before a nearly-packed house at the Ohio Theatre in Soho. Co-sponsored by the Innovative Theater Foundation (ITF) and the League of Independent Theater (LIT), the forum was organized in response to the imminent closing of this venerable downtown institution. The Ohio Theater is being forced by its landlord to vacate its Wooster Street space on August 31, 2010, to make room for a designer label store in an area already over-saturated with high-end retail.

The priority of the forum was to pay homage to the Ohio’s legacy and to begin discussing relocation ideas for the theater. Robert Lyons, the Ohio’s Artistic Director, hosted, and in his opening remarks gave an overview of the Ohio’s history and how since 1981 the Ohio has been a home for “cutting edge artistic practice.”

The Ohio’s future first became uncertain when the building was taken over by a new landlord in 2008. The rent doubled, and then in January of this year the landlord told Lyons that his lease would not be renewed. Sadly, Lower Manhattan’s cultural identity has already been eroding for years. In addition to Lyons losing his theater space, the loss of the Ohio Theater is also significant in the larger context, as the many companies that produce there will now need to find another home.

Josh Fox, Artistic Director of International Wow, who is about to do his ninth production at the Ohio, declared that the performing arts sector is in a “cultural foreclosure crisis.” Another speaker, John Clancy, Executive Director of LIT, has done half of his artistic work at the Ohio, and New Georges Artistic Director Susan Bernfield, whose company has had nine productions at the Ohio, waxed fondly about the rawness of the Ohio and how the theater’s space and unique soul provided a vital aesthetic and character to her company’s work.

In addition to serving as an opportunity to honor the Ohio’s legacy and discuss its future, the forum also served as a follow-up to the “Public Forum on The State of Small To Mid-Sized Theaters” that took place at The Players Club in February 2009. The Ohio forum reunited several speakers from that event, including Virginia Louloudes, Executive Director of A.R.T./N.Y. A very good friend to the non-profit arts sector, Louloudes admitted she almost didn’t accept the invitation to speak at the Ohio because, as she said, “a friend tells the truth, and a good friend tells you what you don’t want to hear,” like Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed executive budget cuts to the Department of Cultural Affairs. Louloudes, however, did also offer some hope. Performing arts companies that used to get no funding at all, for example, now have more of a chance to get some money due to a peer panel process initiated by Bloomberg. Louloudes also reminded artists that sustainability was the key and that the city was more likely to help a performing arts group with funding if the company has a long-term lease.

Another encouraging sign at the forum was the presence of representatives of local elected officials, and the participation of several members of Manhattan’s community boards. David Gruber, the Arts and Institutions Chair of CB2, spoke about a tax abatement proposal he co-authored that could ultimately benefit core performing arts groups looking to renew long-term leases, and David Pincus, CB4’s Theater Task Force Chair, emphasized the huge effort currently underway to get citywide community board support for that proposal. Additionally, Julie Menin, Chairperson of CB1, spoke of her current efforts to secure $150 million for the construction of a new performing arts center at Ground Zero. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation allocated the money to Con Edison, and the utility has yet to use it.

Menin’s idea prompted some passionate discussion during the open forum portion of the evening. Kristin Marting, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of HERE Arts Center, expressed concern that the complex would leave the small to midsize performing arts sector out in the cold. Menin assured the crowd, though, that the performing arts center would also contain space dedicated to smaller companies.

The loss of the Ohio Theater space is definitely a tragedy, but on the positive side, the diverse group of artists, arts advocates, community board members, and local government representatives that the forum brought together was the kind of collective strength that the performing arts sector desperately needs right now. At one point in the evening Paul Bargetto, Managing Director of Public Affairs at LIT, remarked that he specifically came to New York because of the small cultural scene. With the loss of the Ohio Theater space, that scene is, unfortunately, soon about to get smaller, but hopefully the communal spirit manifested at the Ohio forum was a sign that this distressing trend will soon be reversed, and that Lyons and the Ohio Theater won’t be homeless for long.

Watch the Community Forum on the Ohio Theatre.


Theatre's Exit Line: So Long Soho by Alexis Soloki, New York Times, August 4, 2010
Soho Theatre is Reborn in the West Village by Rachel Lee Harris, New York Times, February 20, 2011


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