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Why Theatre Row's Makeover Is More Than Façade Deep

Date: Aug 23, 2019


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How the overhauled multi-theatre complex plans to help nonprofit companies while attracting new audiences


Earlier this summer after months of work, the six-stage Theatre Row complex on West 42nd Street raised the curtain on its renovation. But while the glass storefront, modernized interior and refurbished lounge are all pretty snazzy, the upgrades you can't see are even more exciting. The organization that runs the venue, Building for the Arts, has plans to make Theatre Row a hub for New York's nonprofit theatre scene.

"A lot of nonprofit companies thought they weren't welcome here, and we want to be their home," says Stephanie Rolland, Theatre Row's new director of theatre operations. "We're definitely taking more time to think about Theatre Row as an entity. We're being more intentional about what shows are being put on our stages."

The complex originally opened in 2002, replacing a dilapidated row of theatres. Initially it hosted lots of commercial rentals of varying quality. However, over the past decade Theatre Row has welcomed a diverse roster of nonprofits as companies-in-residence, but that arrangement wasn't well publicized -- until now.

"When I was hired as a consultant about a year ago, I didn't even realize there were companies that had an ongoing relationship with the space," admits Sarah Hughes, who became Theatre Row's director of artistic programming in June. "We want audiences to know that this is where they can find the Mint Theater Company, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, Keen Company" and others.


Beyond offering venerable troupes a consistent place to perform at an affordable rate, Theatre Row wanted to become an incubator for new work. That led to the creation of its Kitchen Sink Residency, an initiative that will give five up-and-coming companies two years of assistance that culminates in a full-fledged production.

"The idea is to give them sustained support while they're working on something, and to bring in new artists and audiences who maybe haven't thought Theatre Row was for them," explains Hughes, who invited more than 80 troupes to apply. The recipients will be announced in October, and they'll all receive free rehearsal space, a work-in-progress showing, marketing and box office help, and even a modest stipend leading up to the final run.

"We're excited to operate from a space of abundance, which is a privilege," says Rolland. "We have the resources nonprofits can use; we also have the connections to help these companies move to the next level. I speak in metaphors a lot, so I like to say that they're fully formed spaceships and we're offering a rocket booster so they can get to the moon, which is opening night."

In conceiving of the Kitchen Sink Residency, Hughes says they looked to other multi-theatre venues like The Flea, which has Anchor Partners, and Abrons Arts Center, which has impressively eclectic programming. "They have performance art, dance, music, plays and experimental work," says Hughes. "We're thinking about our space like that. We also want diversity of form and content and artistic practice."

The hope is that expanding the offerings will expand Theatre Row's audiences. "We want to shift the perception of this amazing venue to feel like something that is for a wider range of people," says Hughes. "A wish of mine is that someone could come to Theatre Row and say, 'I'm just going to hang out and see everything that's here.' They could see an emerging Kitchen Sink company, a dance-theatre piece by Chase Brock, take their kid to a show by New York City Children's Theater, see a revival by the Mint, and they'd get a sense of the incredible breadth of theatre in this city." Indeed, the current Theatre Row lineup includes a modern-day riff on Uncle Vanya called Life Sucks.; the third annual Broadway Bound Theatre Festival; Ma-Yi Theater Company's world-premiere musical Felix Starro about a Filipino faith healer; the divorce comedy The Exes and former Kids in the Hall funnyman Kevin McDonald's autobiographical solo show.


In addition to attracting new artists and audiences, Rolland and Hughes hope that disparate companies working alongside each other will spur cross-fertilization. "With the renovation, we're trying to create a place that people can spend time in," says Hughes about the sleek second floor lounge, which is used as a communal space for artists when performances aren't taking place. "We're hoping that creates some creative friction," adds Rolland. "Who knows? An amazing new idea could be sparked at Theatre Row."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for two Theatre Row shows: Life Sucks and Broadway Bound Theatre Festival: Last Thought Standing. Go here to browse our current offers.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Theatre Row's director of artistic programming Sarah Hughes, director of theatre operations Stephanie Rolland, composer Rob Berman and choreographer Chase Brock. Photos by Jeremy Daniel.