By RAVEN SNOOK
Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond.
Astoria, Queens has long been celebrated for its affordable rents and authentic Greek cuisine, but New Yorkers should really add "thriving cultural district" to its list of amenities. Within a few blocks, you'll find Kaufman Astoria Studios, a bustling TV and movie complex that's also home to the TDF Costume Collection; the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year; and the 12-year-old Astoria Performing Arts Center, a professional theatre company that mounts musical revivals as well as new plays.
To put the neighborhood's creative success in context, you need to look to its past. And that's just what MoMI is doing with its latest temporary exhibit, Lights, Camera, Astoria!, which chronicles the history of the Astoria Studio complex.
Currently the place where popular TV shows like <i>Nurse Jackie</i> and <i>Sesame Street</i> film their episodes, the studio was originally the east coast home of Paramount Pictures during the days of silent films and early talkies. It then became a center for independent filmmaking in the 1930s and finally the U.S. Army Pictorial Center from World War II through the Cold War. Although it fell into disrepair in the 70s, it was reborn in 1980 as Kaufman Astoria Studios, and today its extended grounds include not only MoMI, but also the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts high school and the offices for the Astoria Performing Arts Center.
"What we're seeing in Astoria today is not a sudden renaissance," explains Carl Goodman, executive director of MoMI, which offers a wide variety of screenings, educational activities, and movie-related exhibitions. "It's part of a process that began more than 30 years ago with the revival of the Astoria Studio complex. This exhibit educates the public for the first time about this landmark, how it brought commercial production back to New York City, and why the museum is located where it is. MoMI was always part of the vision so there would be cultural programming that the public could experience. You can't just pop in at Kaufman Astoria and say hello."
In fact, TDF's Costume Collection---which moved from Manhattan to Astoria in 2011---is the only part of Kaufman Astoria Studios that's open to the public. (For more information on browsing the Collection or making an appointment to fit costumes on actors, just visit the Collection's website) However, it's also tied to the complex's professional life. "When we were introduced to TDF, we were all very excited because we saw the possibilities of housing the costumes in an active TV and film studio," says Kaufman Astoria vice president Tracy Capune. "I know a lot of the TDF Costume Collection's business comes from theatres, but it's a great resource for our clients, too. If they need something, they can just run downstairs. We've also built a couple of display cases in areas around the building for TDF to display some of its more special pieces. It's a great way to decorate."
While the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) may only keep its office at Kaufman Astoria Studios, artistic director Tom Wojtunik says the company is still very much a part of the area's cultural scene. Founded in 2001 by actress and Astoria native Susan Scannell, who's since moved out of state, the company is still looking for a permanent producing home in the community. In the meantime, it's working in nontraditional spaces like the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, which is about a mile away on Crescent Street. "We want audiences to know from the moment they set foot inside that we're professional, not community theatre," Wojtunik explains. "We keep our production values high and use union actors. We also serve the community by running special free programs like Summer Stars, where local kids write and perform a new show, and Senior Stars, which is for Queens residents over the age of 60."
APAC mounts two full-fledged productions every year, musical revivals in the spring and new plays in the fall. It's currently presenting The Cottage by Sandy Rustin [Off Broadway's Rated P For Parenthood], which is playing through November 23. "She wanted to do a show in the style of a Noël Coward farce, but where the women ruled the roost," says Wojtunik. "You cannot believe an American girl from the Midwest wrote this play."
APAC also hosts readings of new work, and some of its alumnae have gone on to successful productions. Joshua Conkel's MilkMilkLemonade, for instance, was an off-Off Bradway darling a few seasons ago, and Robert Askins' Hand to God will be mounted in February by MCC Theatre.
Wojtunik says the decision to showcase new plays is a calculated move. "If we were to do obvious shows, say Oklahoma!, I think no one would take us seriously," he explains. "So I tend to choose shows that haven't been done in a long time, like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro, which we're doing in the spring, or new works. I hope we give these emerging playwrights an experience they're really proud of, and if they go on to make a movie and a million dollars, maybe they'll give us a donation."
Wojtunik laughs and then adds, "Visibility is one of our biggest challenges and something we're constantly working on. The worst is when an Astoria actor walks into one of our auditions and says, 'I never knew you guys were here.'"
That's a problem that all of the arts organizations in Astoria have been combatting for years, but as momentum builds in the area, they may be close to a solution. "For many years after MoMI first opened, people always asked, 'Why are you in Queens?'" remembers Goodman. "But today Queens is hot and here we are! It didn't just happen overnight. We've all been here for decades."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others