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Out of the Box Theatrics and ChaShaMa take over the New Ohio Theatre with a mission of diversity and accessibility
Back in February, when Robert Lyons announced he was shuttering his New Ohio Theatre after 30 years of eclectic Off-Off Broadway productions, NYC's indie theatre community was distraught. It felt like another mighty blow to a once-thriving scene still reeling from the impact of the pandemic shutdown.
But there was some good news: the space would remain a theatre. After a multi-month search, Out of the Box Theatrics (OOTB) has been chosen to program the 74-seat theatre at 154 Christopher Street in the West Village.
"This is kind of a wild story," says Elizabeth Flemming, the producing artistic director of OOTB. "I had applied for the New Ohio space when I first heard about it closing. I was talking to so many other theatre companies doing the same thing, and then I heard that someone else got it. So, I let it go."
That was last spring. Over the summer, Flemming, a legally blind artist, began talking with peers about finding a home for OOTB, the not-for-profit company she founded in 2015 dedicated to showcasing historically underrepresented theatre-makers. A colleague suggested she connect with ChaShaMa, an organization that partners with property owners to transform unused real estate into art spaces.
Flemming submitted a proposal to ChaShaMa, which means "to have vision" in Farsi and pays homage to founder Anita Durst's mentor, late Iranian theatre director Reza Abdoh who staged works in abandoned buildings. Smitten with OOTB's application and the company's production history, which includes The Pink Unicorn with Alice Ripley, Julia Murney in a revival of the musical Baby and an all-Black virtual mounting of The Last Five Years, Durst asked to meet. After chatting, she offered Flemming use of a space ChaShaMa had recently acquired: the former New Ohio Theatre.
Flemming was gobsmacked. She had no idea that ChaShaMa had taken over managing the venue she coveted. "It was kind of this moment where the universe put us all together," Flemming says. OOTB moved in on September 7 and rechristened the space 154, pronounced one-five-four.
Durst sees promise in OOTB's commitment to celebrating diversity and accessibility in theatre-making as well as the company's free community events, such as financial literary workshops and open mic nights. "Liz is a powerhouse," Durst says. "I feel very privileged to move forward with this theatre."
OOTB's one-off events start next month; its mainstage season will be announced soon and include a revival and a new work from its Building the Box series, which develops four plays annually. OOTB is known for mounting shows in nontraditional spaces, such as churches, living rooms and restaurants, and that will continue. "Our site-specific nature is not going to change," Flemming says. "We'll adjust the space based on what we're doing, or if there's something that lends itself better to a found space, we'll still absolutely do that. Part of getting our new space means expanding what we're doing and why we're doing it. We also want to give artists a place to go to enjoy each other and not have to worry about it costing a fortune."
That means inviting other companies to use the venue, too. "I want 154 to be a space where artists can have a residence—it's not just ours, because this space means a lot to people," Flemming says.
Durst echoed that sentiment. By sharing the space, OOTB can "give it to as many people as possible to make their dreams into a reality," Durst says. "I'm excited for us to work together to allow other artists to use the space when Liz isn't, and for us to be able to collaborate with other theatre groups."
How artists go about applying to use the space is still being determined. For now, Flemming says, "People should reach out to me," noting she is particularly interested in creating partnerships with companies that align with OOTB's mission to amplify and uplift marginalized theatre-makers.
Another goal is to update the venue. Durst said a capital grant has been "grandfathered over to ChaShaMa" and that she's in talks with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs about additional funds for equipment.
As changes are made to the building, accessibility remains at the forefront. "I'd really love to have the entire theatre space be accessible," says Flemming. "It's possible right now, but it's a little bit cumbersome." She also has plans for American Sign Language interpretation and audio description services. "I want to make this a home base for artists and patrons with disabilities who feel they cannot come to the theatre because it was not made for them," Flemming explains. "I know cost is a factor. Lord knows I understand, but we have to start making this a part of our day-to-day operations. I say that as a disabled artist."
It's a great deal to accomplish but Flemming feels inspired, especially by her predecessor Robert Lyons and all he achieved with the New Ohio Theatre over the decades. "What Robert did here, his legacy, I want to respect that," Flemming says. "I know this is an opportunity a lot of people wanted, so I don't take it lightly. I feel a responsibility to take care of the space and nurture the people and programming that are going to come into it."
Top image: Out of the Box Theatrics Founding Artistic Director Liz Flemming opens the doors of 154. Photo by Gabrielle Garcia.
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