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New Perspectives on Changing Theatre Spaces

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By now, most of the New York theatre community is aware that 750 Eighth Ave. (the home of McHale's Restaurant) will be torn down. The building also houses five theatres, including the New Perspectives Theatre Company, which I founded 15 years ago. At first we believed we could all band together and negotiate an extension of our time in the space. But when it became clear that the end of 2005 would indeed be the end, an interesting phenomenon occurred: Within a matter of weeks, most of the theatre tenants went from an "If we stick together we can fight this" mentality to a palpable feeling of relief. No one would have voluntarily given up their space, but once the decision was out of our hands, it became clear that it was time to go.

The fact is that we had increasingly become landlords in order to support our spaces, resulting in a constant drain on creative energy. Most Off-Off-Broadway companies—even those of NPT's size and longevity—have no paid full-time staff. The passion and drive of a few key people (with the founder usually at the forefront) is what keeps things going, and when they burn out, it's over. Whether a company is emerging or established, most of its financial resources are used to support space (either a residence or temporary quarters to house productions) and whatever stipends can be eked out to pay artists. In the last five years, more than 50% of NPT's budget was devoted to occupancy expenses (and our rent was reasonable).

The neighborhood has also become increasingly inhospitable. Tourists clog Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 50th streets, two tour bus companies began operating right outside our door, and local merchants who had been real sources of support have been displaced. Conditions in the building too had deteriorated. The elevator was constantly breaking down, leaks went unrepaired for years, and it was clear that the owners had no interest in maintaining services.

Many have assumed that I would be angry at the developers who will be erecting yet another luxury condominium on the site, or saddened by our eviction. It is a great space—one of the best black-box theatres in New York—and it would be nice to think that someone was creating theatre here. But for me and NPT, this is actually a blessing in disguise. The old saying holds true: "When a door closes, a window opens elsewhere." There is a new sense of freedom to venture through that window, to find a "new perspective" on the continued production of our kind of theatre in New York City while keeping the work affordable to audiences and finding better ways to support the artists who create it. And a space is not the defining factor in this effort.

I have many thoughts about the factors that do make a difference, though, after 22 years of producing in this city. I am known to pontificate at any given moment about the problems of Off-Off-Broadway: the lack of support—or the wrong focus of existing support—and even the difficulties with theatre artists themselves. Some of the answers have been hovering just outside the reach of my consciousness for the last few years, but before I could grasp hold of them, another bill needed to be paid, or someone lost their keys, or the elevator broke down again. I am hopeful that releasing responsibility for this space will make room for clarity, a new sense of purpose, and a return to the energy and passion that drove me to do all this in the first place.

Great theatre can be created anywhere. And although it is nice to have a home, unless the other problems are tackled, a physical address is not the solution. The kind of space we need isn't found in a building, but in the psyche of our society.

Melody Brooks is the founder and artistic director of the award-winning New Perspectives Theatre Company, which has been operating out of the Pelican Studio Theatre since 1990. She is also an adjunct assistant professor in the department of communication studies, performance studies & theatre at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

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